The Crashavian Mother

by Susannah B. Mintz

Richard Crashaw's graphic depictions of the body seem to consternate scholars far less than they once did, in part because an artistic focus on wounds, blood, and milk can be read as influenced by the various religious and intellectual movements of Crashaw's time. But historical and/or iconographic explanations have frequently had the effect of glossing over the more troubling aspects of the poet's relationship to women. This paper will argue that two of Crashaw's most familiar epigrams, "Luke 2. Quoerit Jesum Suum Maria" and the much-maligned "Luke 11. Blessed be the paps which Thou hast sucked," reveal a more complicated relation to the maternal body than re-evaluations of Crashaw's aesthetic have suggested. The question remains a difficult one, particularly in view of recent studies whose explicit concern to address the roles of Mary and St. Teresa in Crashaw's oeuvre have presented a more uniformly "feminist" Crashaw than was formerly acknowledged, but which also seem to minimize the psychological conflictedness about maternal figures clearly exhibited in certain poems.

In drawing on the paradigms of Melanie Klein's object-relations theory - specifically her concept of the child's ambivalent relatedness with a radically split mother figure - my aim is neither to reprise the all-too-familiar epithets of infantile grostesquerie that have haunted psychoanalytic Crashavian scholarship in the past, nor to reassert Crashaw as misogynistic. Rather, Klein's vision of consciousness as animated by complex "phantasies"(1) about the mother offers a compelling model for unpacking Crashaw's poetic relation to the figure (and body) of Mary and to the question of gender. Klein posited an ongoing exchange of psychical "positions" in which the infant's overwhelming anxiety about the mother's body and phantasized destruction of it would be replaced by guilt and an effort to "repair" that body. Her belief that the dialectic between those positions can be discovered in especially vivid ways in the artistic work of adults seems well suited to account for the fluctuations of Crashaw's depictions of women - at times highly idealized, at others more prone to anxiety and even deliberately damaging. A depiction of the intense satisfaction of nursing, for instance, will be poised against fantasies of attack on the same life-giving body, while what seems at first to represent plentiful nourishment in a poem will, as if at the turn of a corner, divulge a more primordial worry about deprivation and loss.

Several critics have taken up the charge, popularized by Mario Praz, that Crashaw's poetry is marked by "feminine tenderness" and lacks a certain "manly" or "heroic note"(2) (i.e., it is neither historicized and political nor [hetero]sexualized).(3) "Manliness," in Praz's formulation, becomes equated with rhetorical restraint, imagistic simplicity, and "logic," "femininity" with a kind of unseemly excess, emotional vulnerability, and irrationality. Against this older interpretative vein, recent scholars have argued not only that Crashaw's poetry consistently valorizes women as either loci of or thresholds to spiritual power, but also, more provocatively, that a kind of spiritual androgyny results from Crashaw's poetic transgressions of traditional gender categories.(4)

Such accounts do much to correct prevalent (over)reactions to the elaborate emotional register of Crashaw's verse, and they are compelling in their attempt to ground the prominence Crashaw grants to women in a potentially empowering Mariolatry. But they also seem problematic. To the extent that ecstatic union is held to be the desired end of a journey forwarded by the poems' descriptions of female saints or mother-son scenarios, the wilder psychological elements of Crashaw's depictions of mothers and femaleness tend to be domesticated, and the thematics of gender too easily contained and simplified within the parameters of Catholicism. That Crashaw made women the primary subjects of his religious verse obviously requires critical attention, but surely it is not enough to claim repetition as valorization. And though Crashaw's attachment to a range of spiritual "mothers" may suggest his hope to redress the early losses of mother and stepmother and fulfill a need for religious "asylum,"(5) it does not in any consistent manner prove that his poetic relation to gender was unambivalent.

A far knottier quandary, I would argue, is the way in which readings of Crashaw resistant to Praz's static gender hierarchization and interested in exploring the poet's unconventional view of gender often end up sustaining those very categories. In his discussion of "The Weeper," for instance, Paul A. Parrish defines Crashaw's "feminine emphasis" as "'feeling over action, sensation over thought,' and a recognition of the worth and power of 'nutritiveness, compassion, mercy.'"(6) Maureen Sabine, similarly, attempts to recuperate the meaning of "feminine" by demonstrating Mary's function in bringing about human spiritual development and mystical union. But by linking Crashaw's "feminine sympathies"(7) with "[m]eekness, softness, sweetness, and innocence," and by citing "domestic qualities" as the sympathetic link between Mary and Jesus, Sabine belies her argument that Crashaw subverts conventionally gendered notions of identity.(8) Such encoding of the "feminine" as emotional, nurturing, and meek both persists in relegating women to the realm of passivity and denies strong feeling to other contemporary male poets.(9) Moreover, this "feminizing" gesture pacifies the overtly male, often fiercely aggressive tone which Crashaw at times exhibits. My interest, then, is to explore through Kleinian theory the layered dialectics of desire and greed, resentment and envy, reparation and gratitude, that take place between mothers and sons in "Quoerit Jesum" and "Blessed be the paps," in order to revise the notion that Crashaw's relation to women is unambiguously affirming.

An early object-relations analyst and pivotal figure in the revision of classic Freudian theory, Klein believed that from the very first moments of mental life (which Klein, in opposition to Freud, held to emerge only days after birth), the baby's attachment to its mother is charged with a fluctuating cycle of greed and envy, anxiety and guilt. The breast, as the earliest cathected part-object, is related to by the baby as "not only the source of nourishment but of life itself";(10) the pleasure of being held at the breast to nurse repairs the loss of the mother initiated by birth. Newborn relatedness to this sustaining breast, however, is deeply ambivalent. When, inevitably, the infant's desire for uncomplicated oneness with its mother is frustrated, its own innate aggressiveness leads it to perceive that refusal as persecutory hostility; the earliest "danger-situation" for an infant thus involves a phantasized destruction of the mother's body. In Klein's words:

[E]ven a happy feeding situation cannot altogether replace the prenatal unity with the mother. Also, the infant's longing for an inexhaustible and always present breast - which would not only satisfy him but prevent destructive impulses and persecutory anxiety - cannot ever be fully satisfied. These unavoidable grievances, together with happy experiences, reinforce the innate conflict between love and hatred, at bottom between life and death instincts, and result in the feeling that a good and bad breast exists.(11)

By "splitting" the breast in two, Klein theorized, the baby protects itself from the uncomfortable awareness that the same object it knows as nurturing and soothing is also capable of withholding what is so intensely desired.

But the "bad" breast functions as more than a malevolent doppelganger that enables the "good" breast of nursing: it is also a necessary repository for the infant's destructive "phantasies," brought about by its own greed for the satisfying contents of the breast. Greed, according to Klein, "aims primarily at completely scooping out, sucking dry and devouring the breast."(12) Klein's concept of what she terms "envy" is inextricable from greed, for it is constituted by the infant's sense that the feeding breast is omnipotent; the baby envies the breast its ability to give and then to withhold its limitless stores. Envy not only "aims at robbing" the breast, "but also at putting badness, primarily bad excrements and bad parts of the self, into the mother - first of all into her breast - in order to spoil and destroy her."(13) Envy "spoils the primal good object," Klein writes, "and gives added impetus to sadistic attacks on the bad breast."(14)

Far from a pathology of early mental life, splitting allows the infant to establish a vital relation to the good object, which, in turn, forms the basis of a stable ego. Inability to introject the breast as a good object because of excessive envy, conversely, interferes in the growth of gratitude, generosity, creativity, and satisfying relationships to primary objects in later development. And because devouring, destructive attacks on the object so often come about from absence of that object, real-life traumatic loss of the mother could create an overwhelming swirl of guilt, anger, and grief - a suspicion that one's own greed had annihilated the breast, overlying the rage of having been, finally, literally abandoned.

"Luke 11. Blessed be the paps," named second only to "The Weeper" as "the other favorite whipping post among Crashaw's works,"(15) has provoked vociferous critical judgments: the poem is an "extreme of the grotesque and repulsive,"(16) "a little gem of encrusted grotesquerie," Crashaw's most "revolting" poem.(17) The "macabre effect produced by that little epigram on Luke 11," writes one editor, "isn't open to much question."(18) But if such assessments go too far in their disparagement of the epigram's graphic anatomization of both female and male bodies, and if they ignore (as many have complained) the various scriptural and devotional contexts for that imagery, they seem also to stop short of fully addressing the poem's gendered tensions. I am particularly concerned to examine its vigorous, retaliatory attack against the maternal body. If we read "Luke 11" as an especially compressed instance of anxiety and fantasy about mothers and sons, then the epigram becomes less an anomaly in Crashaw's body of work than an intriguing threshold onto his poetic figurations of women.

The poem is in direct dialogue with Luke 11:27-8, which reads: "And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it." Crashaw responds thusly:

Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teates, Thy hunger feels not what he eates: Hee'l have his Teat e're long (a bloody one) The Mother then must suck the Son.(19)

Immediately, the poem unsettles our understanding of the dialectic between poem and source text - how are we to read Crashaw's reading of Luke 117 How much of that "macabre effect" was Crashaw aware of? The word "suppose" mimics Donne's abrupt manner of opening, but it also has a discordant edge, seeming to answer almost angrily - or with dismissive, patronizing self-assurance - to the biblical woman's speech, an utterance which Crashaw's poem, even more explicitly than Jesus' reply in the biblical text, works to signify as disruptive. The speaker of the epigram at once invites but also challenges the woman of Luke, proposing a given as well as conjecturing, and quickly initiates a taunting, daring, even sarcastic tone into the poem. "Suppose" then presses the emphasis of the line onto the subsequent possessive: "Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teates" - which of course he wasn't. With its first line, then, Crashaw's poetic recreation of the scriptural moment replies to the woman of Luke by admonishing her interruption of the Word.(20)

"Tabled" works to proliferate meanings even further. On the surface, the verb reformulates what the woman in Luke described by "sucked"; "tabled" suggests "nourished," or "fed," or even "positioned" in order to suckle. And yet a child who is "tabled" seems less cuddled into its mother's arms than seated upright; rather than nursing, this infant "eates," as if at a kind of gruesome table setting. There is a greedy eagerness to the word - the infant who is also already grown devouring the whole of its mother's breast with lips, mouth, hands, but also teeth, not only sucking (or not even) but chewing. Already we seem close to what Robert Martin Adams describes as "a nasty twist to the spiritual-carnal relation," Crashaw verging on "a direct statement that the Incarnation was a revolting joke on Jesus and Mary."(21) But the cannibalistic implications of the first line serve also to reveal a defense against anxiety about the mother's body, signified here by its most complex part-object, the breast: via Crashaw's two verb choices ("Tabled" and "eates"), the infant Christ gains a kind of mastery over an object whose frightening power stems precisely from its blissful provision of nurturance and food.

But still a different sort of pleasure is conveyed by the first line. While "Tabled" acts as a reminder that Christ is himself "eaten" again and again at every Mass, on every Communion table and in every Eucharist tablet, it also recalls an older set of tablets, those of Mosaic law. In one sense, heavenly commandment is itself that which "tables" the infant Christ's ecstatic nursing; the passage from Luke makes this explicit, where "word of God" directly supersedes the legitimacy of "womb" and "paps" as objects of reverence. At the same time, the Mosaic connotation of "tabled" implies that a certain wisdom, the law of the tablets, can be fed through a mother's breast to her infant without paternal law having to intervene into the bond between the two. (One thinks of Juliet's nurse, who makes the same implication to her young charge: that Juliet's is instinctual wisdom of a female rather than male realm, that could be sucked directly from her own teat.)(22) Thus even as the poem seems to indulge in a fantasy of attack on the nourishing maternal body, it affirms in the physical act of nursing a spiritual nourishment - one that the frame of the poem would seem to reserve for Christ, and one that the eventual reversal of roles in the poem identifies as Christ's.

If the contradiction of derision and desire with which the speaker looks upon the nursing couple would seem to fold in on itself irresolvably, it only too readily accords with Klein's conception of early infantile consciousness, where "loving an object and devouring it are very closely connected."(23) The second line of "Luke 11" ("Thy hunger feels not what he eates") closes off any lingering, if subterranean, enjoyment of the bond of nursing and advances toward more aggressive insinuations, thereby acutely demonstrating the polarity of the Kleinian infant's phantasies. "Hunger," in an overtly specific way, pertains not to the infant (as if to disclaim his state of dependency), but rather to the woman in Luke made hypothetical mother; manipulated by the poet into this position of need, she is then denied gratification of that hunger. Far from experiencing any physical pleasure of her own from the act of nursing (as Sabine claims generally for the Virgin Mary in Crashaw's work(24)), the mother is made to "feel not," her body evacuated of sensation even while it is somehow reduced to nothing but sensation: she is all hunger, there is no longer any breast to feel (it is "thy hunger" that "feels not" [italics mine]). What is this hunger that is not satisfied by feeding? The blood of redemption Christ's wound/"teat" gives forth? The spiritual nourishment made physical through the Eucharist? Both, as Thomas Healy has plainly stated, Mary (or any other human woman) "cannot supply."(25) The infant's act of eating comes to seem all-important, while "what he eates" (italics mine), what the mother gives over in the form of milk, is rendered insignificant by the scenario of salvation which is to follow. Leah Sinanoglou Marcus has spoken to just this point, suggesting that in Crashaw's poetry "greed is a sign, not of cruelty, but of thirst for divine grace and spiritual health." But the corollary to this in Marcus's reading of Crashaw - that the breast "connotes not just nourishment, but absolute peace and protection" - seems contradicted by the relationship between poem and scripture, whereby the breast as a specifically female attribute is supplanted by the metaphorical male "Teat."(26) So he eats while she feels not; and there is something cruel in the sweeping dismissal of her hunger and its contents, as if to assert some possession of her body.

In the second couplet of "Luke 11," suggestions of retaliation become ever more palpable, and analogy becomes hierarchy via Crashaw's familiar rapid-fire transformations. Through a not-uncommon metaphorically layered exchange, the woman's breasts become the Son's Crucifixion chest wound cum "teat," her milk his blood.(27) While the slippage of bodies and fluids, as well as the hint of greedy desire for more teats, more sucking, may not be unique to Crashaw (as Marcus points out, these lines "merely elaborate a commonplace of baroque religious language. Mary will suck the breast of Christ's wound, a source of sacramental nourishment for all humanity"),(28) theological precedent inadequately accounts for Crashaw's morbid assurance - "Hee'l have his Teat e're long" - which seems even more strenuously than the first line to abrogate both the woman's teats in the poem and the blessing of Mary's paps in Luke, by replacing them with the Son's bloody one, as well as to consign Mary's body and its parts to illiterate, maternal terms by replacing them with the Word made flesh. Two sorts of possession are boasted here. The assertion that "Hee'l have his Teat" envies the all-powerful mother, whose vital breast and milk threaten to be frustratingly withheld; "his teat" reprises as it corrects "thy Teates" along with "the paps which thou hast sucked." But "Hee'l have his Teat" also manifests a fantasy of recompense, as if to say that the Son will at last experience the suckling that ended in or even before the first line; "e're long" raises the retaliatory stakes by establishing a sense of immediacy and inevitability.

Several readers of Crashaw have suggested that his use of rich physical description mimics a widespread medieval method of stimulating the individual's affective response to worship.(29) Also increasingly common in the Middle Ages was the biblical figuration of Christ as suckling maternal body, his bloody side giving forth spiritual "milk,"(30) with explicit renderings in St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Siena, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich. Caroline Walker Bynum explains that "[n]ot only was Christ enfleshed with flesh from a woman; his own flesh did womanly things: it bled, it bled food, and it gave birth."(31) Maureen Sabine argues that the imagery of "Blessed be the paps" would have been unremarkable to readers "familiar with Scripture, for it was customary to praise the nourishing breast of God as the epitome of caritas and to describe man, by comparison, as a child craving love."(32) On the surface of its association between the sword-pierced side of Christ and life-giving milk, then, and in its conflation of male and female bodies, Christ's "teat" would recall a familiar devotional trope.

But the notion that the surprising juxtaposition of elements in "Luke 11" has its source in medieval devotional writing and iconography seems to go only so far in elucidating the profound genderedness of the epigram's ambivalence. More pertinent may be Leo Steinberg's claim, in his book The Sexuality of Christ, that Renaissance artists testified to the mystery of God's act of "humanation" through explicit representations of the genitalia of Christ.(33) Again and again in painting and sculpture, Steinberg demonstrates, Christ's penis is prominently displayed, exposed through sheer veils, and looked at, touched, even manipulated by the Virgin, Joseph, St. Anne, a range of saints and angels, and Christ himself; depictions of the infant Christ with Mary's breast in hand or mouth further bespeak his pledge of and for humanity. Steinberg goes on to describe paintings of the Crucifixion in which blood flows from Christ's side-wound directly toward the circumcision-wound, as if in defiance of gravity. This "blood hyphen," in Steinberg's words, represents the continuity of Christ's "human" life from Nativity to the Passion.(34) Steinberg's work suggests that the transition from Crucifixion wound to penis, from the bloody teat in line three to the strange image of fellatio that provides unsettling closure to the epigram, is made possible by theology (Steinberg himself mentions Crashaw as a poet who "throw[s] the trajectory of Christ's Passion from Circumcision to Crucifixion, from the knifed member to the speared heart").(35)

I would put forward pace Steinberg that Crashaw's vision in "Luke 11" is trained more steadily on Christ as "very man, very God"(36) than on Christ as spiritually nourishing mother or on the promise given to Mary of a future sustenance. To deny that the Son's bloody teat sucked by the mother, in Crashaw's version of this scene, is not just transliterated spear wound or metaphor for spiritual nourishment but also a highly phallic image is to censor something psychologically complex in the poem - and, as Richard Rambuss has strongly argued, to erase the "fully human and indicatively male" nature of Crashaw's figuration of Christ.(37) I find it difficult, if not impossible, to read the final image of "sucking" innocently, or to conclude that the mother's hunger will be gratified therein. If the infant will get his own before long, line four's "Mother" - whose body cannot be tolerated because her breasts can grant or withdraw the bliss of oneness - will receive her due at the hands of the "Son." There is more a sense of tables being angrily turned here than spiritual metaphors benignly exchanged; the colon at the end of line two acts like a fulcrum between the two couplets, causing a reconsideration of the woman's hunger in light of the eventual "feeding" the end of the poem promises. What I find striking is not so much the incestuous implication (which has its antecedents in both theology and a fairly benign convention - even a cliche - of psychoanalytic thought), but rather the tone of compulsion and force, what Klein might describe as the "sadism" of the early infantile danger situation(38): "must" commands the mother to suck; it defines an imperative and conveys desperation. What's more, the contracted syntax of this final line elides mention of the Son's teat, as if to underscore that it is not his breast the mother sucks, nor the spiritual "milk" of his blood, but the Son himself, in all his adult wholeness.

The effect created by bloody, eaten teats and oedipal configurations, if shivery, also measures the force that ambivalence about indebtedness to the mother might exert on poetic consciousness. And yet "Luke 11" is, I believe, but a heightened version of the complex mother-son dynamics that can be seen elsewhere in Crashaw's work. A differently valenced but similarly entangled portrayal of this relationship troubles another epigram, "Luke 2. Quoerit Jesum Suum Maria [Mary seeks her own Jesus]." Here, Crashaw takes on the voice of the Virgin, lamenting the loss of her Son during his foray to the Temple at Jerusalem when he was twelve years old.(39) As many critics have noted, Mary's mourning of Jesus comes to sound overtly sexualized; she is as much a woman pining the loss of her lover as she is a mother wrenched from her child. At the same time, though, one senses that Crashaw makes deliberate use of his role as poet to create and sustain her grief in its specifically maternal context. I would also suggest that the theological background usually raised in explanation of "Quoerit Jesum," that Mary must relinquish her attachment to the child Jesus in order to be reunited with the divine Christ, glosses over the counterpulls of the poem, where the promise of reunion is never actually fulfilled, and where the mother is therefore held in a protracted state of sorrow.

The poem opens on a note of poignant confusion, as if Mary suffers the shock of abrupt, unexpected abandonment, as if she were unprepared for the inevitable end of infancy and mothering and loss of her son to his adult, masculine occupations. By speaking through the mother's, rather than the son's voice, Crashaw can imaginatively reject his own mother(s), while simultaneously both protecting himself from the guilt of that act and enjoying a form of contact with a supreme form of maternity in Mary. At the same time, in Mary's repeated pleas for Jesus to return, the poet safeguards himself against the anxiety of the actual maternal loss he has already suffered:

And is he gone, whom these armes held but now? Their hope, their vow? Did ever greife, and joy in one poore heart Soe soone change part? Hee's gone. the fair'st flower, that e're bosome drest, My soules sweet rest. My wombes chast pride is gone, my heav'en-borne boy; And where is joy? Hee's gone. and his lov'd steppes to wait upon, My joy is gone. My joyes, and hee are gone; my greife, and I Alone must ly. Hee's gone.

(lines 1-13)

Significant in these first lines are the interchangeability of "joy" and "greife," coupled with the downward-spiraling of despair. The poet treats Mary's emotional state as wholly a function of the Son. His influence (i.e., absence or presence) governs the degree of her happiness and pain, which are therefore unstable and unpredictable, in a disturbing flux: "Did ever greife, and joy . . . / Soe soone change part?" (lines 3-4). There is both an uncomfortable openendedness to the piling-up of questions (where has he gone? what's to become of me, of our relatedness?), and an oppressing inwardness, as Mary's language seems to stall on those words that signal the boundary between mother-infant bondedness and the son's renunciation of that bond in favor of the "business" of the Father: "is he gone," "Hee's gone," "My joy is gone," "My joyes, and hee are gone" (lines 1, 5, 10, 11). The anguished refrain sounds nearly like a defense against the poet's own sense of who is "gone," but also serves to indicate that the transformation of bliss into bereavement (and back again?) is both delicate and absolute, wholly dependent on the motions of a child. In this way the poem (and the theology) reverses the locus of power in the parent-child dyad, situating authority in the son whose exit across the threshold of maternal space produces a fragmenting trauma similar to that experienced by an infant at the disappearance of its mother.

At the same time, the poem invests parts of the mother's body with fantasies about loving connection, only to perform on that very body a punishment that perhaps originates in the poet's own awareness of maternal deprivation. Thus "one poore heart" (line 3) is wounded by sudden and life-threatening grief at the departure of the Son, where it once felt the overwhelming joy of having "held" (line 1), just as the infant, according to object-relations theory, would feel annihilating grief and anxiety at the sudden absence of its mother. The mother's "wombe," which formerly could claim a "chast pride" (line 7), now implicitly gives over its one all-encompassing issue to God, so that the Son becomes "heav'en-borne" (line 7); and the "I" now "[a]lone mustly," with only "greife" as comforting Other, infant, lover (lines 11-2). It is as if Crashaw is himself both missing and discarded son, telling with the authenticity of identification the story of Mary's sadness, but also denying, within the frame of the poem, the sought-after refastening of mother and son.(40) It is as if he speaks and listens at once.

One wonders what's at stake in the poem's simultaneous attempt to speak, as if empathetically, for Mary, and its rejection of her through her own erasure of herself ("Make hast, and come, or e're my griefe, and I/ Make hast, and dy" [lines 17-8]). There is at least a gesture toward the reparative efforts Klein describes as the defining characteristic of the "depressive" position. Where the infant had formerly been attached to and destructive of its mother primarily through part-objects (as a poem like "Luke 11" seems to exemplify), in the depressive position the baby introjects its mother with a decreased "split" between the "good" and "bad" aspects, and thus begins to negotiate its relation to her as a whole person. As a function of the guilt experienced over its own aggression toward the bad breast, as well as of the worry that that destructiveness will annihilate the good breast, the baby begins to make restorative moves toward the mother, both in phantasy and in fact, through smiles and play. In the adult, depressive reparation can take shape in the sublimations of artwork.(41) That Crashaw gives such powerful voice to the mother's grief - indeed, that in his poetry Crashaw might have been drawn to the set of scenes made significant by a theological emphasis on Mary and Christ - seems in part to exhibit a need to mend the body anatomized in such poems as "Blessed be the paps," and specifically to acknowledge a loneliness that might be imagined to afflict the mother if her child turned angrily from a breast its conflictual phantasies would not enable it to accept.(42)

At the same time, however, the male poet writing this mother's voice keeps firm hold on its emotion, allowing the mother her pleasurable memories of attachment to her child, only to reinforce in the end the pain of aloneness. In this way, "Quoerit Jesum" expresses the poet's perspective of loss. There is plain longing in Mary's simple utterance "Oh come then" (line 15). The line signals a shift in the direction of her speech, from a third-person description of "he" to this sudden direct appeal to him: "Oh come then . . . /Oh come, sweet boy. / Make hast, and come" (lines 15-7). She quickly quiets herself ("Peace, heart! the heavens are angry" [line 19]), but returns as soon to talking directly to her son. These fluctuating addresses perform locally what is writ large over the poem - that Mary can no longer claim an unbounded relatedness with Jesus. Indeed, as she osciliates in her speech between a presumption of familiarity with him and an apparent awareness of being held off from talking to him that way, she sounds uncertain about how intimate she is with him - or will be allowed to remain. Thus the mother is made to doubt what she had been utterly sure of: that she was once all to him.

She must then struggle to bring herself back from the verge of a nearly self-willed nihilism; and as if to mimic her son's repudiation of her, she momentarily denies herself as his mother ("I was mistaken. some faire sphaere, or other / Was thy blest mother" [lines 20-1]). This erasure of their connection, however, leads in turn to a highly cathected memory of an intimacy that is for Mary, at its most compelling level, a physical union, bordering on the erotic:

Oft have these armes thy cradle envied, Beguil'd thy bed. Oft to thy easy eares hath this shrill tongue Trembled, and sung. Oft have I wrapt thy slumbers in soft aires, And stroak't thy cares.

Oft have my hungry kisses made thine eyes Too early rise. Oft have I spoild my kisses daintiest diet, To spare thy quiet.

Oft have these armes (alas!) show'd to these eyes Their now lost joyes.

(lines 27-44)

At just the moment of reassuring herself about her bodily connection to Jesus, the fact of having contained him in her womb, Mary slips into a sensual remembrance of their relationship. This would seem to bear out the common claim that the relationship between Mary and Christ is bound up in Crashaw with a desire for a spiritual union characterized by unimpeded reciprocity.(43) But the picture Mary gives of this relation in "Quoerit Jesum" is one of fervent, almost cloying attentions, as if the poet is reveling in a fantasy he must also make just subtly overbearing or unpleasurable, in order to resist the temptation of a need he simultaneously indulges. (Otherwise it would be too much, he might implode from the sadness of lack of her?) Then too, similarly destabilizing to the view of the "feminine" as transport to ecstatic connectedness is the fact that the mother is here imagined with near-claustrophobic undifferentiation, encompassing the Son, present at his side all the time, not seeming to allow (or at least desirous of a lack of) his autonomy from her. The son's absence from her in the poem becomes a way of defying her and her own needs, a way for the poet to profess that he doesn't need her.

The repetition of "oft" works to hold Mary in a particular relation to her Son. The quasi-anaphora declares habit, frequency, continuity, Mary comforting herself by way of the thrumming emphasis. But the effect is also of exaggerated insistence. Not just a doting mother, she is a cautious, tentative woman, slightly afraid of the power of the other (as she had been, earlier in the poem, the thrown-over lover, pleading to be rejoined). She seems in one phrase to tiptoe toward the infant Jesus, envying the very cradle in which he sleeps, longing for closeness but shy and unsure; in the next the cunning seductress who "beguil[es]" him from that bed and covers his face with "hungry kisses"; and still again the timid caretaker whose "shrill tongue" is coaxed toward song by a confidence only his "easy eares" enable. There is a sense that Mary's emotions and memory are being stage-managed, that Crashaw instills in her a doubt about what she knows to be true (that she was his "blest mother," [line 22] that "this wombe of mine / Was once call'd thine" [lines 25-6, my italics]) and lingers over her grief in a way particularly suited to playing out his own anxieties about maternal loss and fear about engulfment/abandonment, finally depriving her of a union figured as ecstatic in its physical gratification.

That the sensuality of this catalogue may echo biblical language and spiritual metaphor does not, in my view, dismiss the poem's undercurrent of anger toward the maternal. Crashaw's unique evocation of the motherson relation registers an important conflict: the intense pleasure of having been (or the wish to have been) housed in the "lodge" of the womb, to have experienced the diverse sensuality of touch, at the same time gives rise to and is undermined by the anxiety situation of envy and fear of the satiating mother.(44) The union so tenderly and multiply described in "Quoerit Jesum" is, significantly, a prior one; it can only be raised up in memory and re-lived. The poem lingers with Mary in that (nearly masturbatory?) enumeration of all the forms of adoring care; she (and Crashaw?) seems lulled into the present tense, as if the poet has been that successful in bringing the past alive, enacting, and not just recording, the desired closeness. But at the close of the list we are brought back to a realization not of profound connectedness but of "lost joyes" (line 44); in the end it is only loss that resurges, in that final plangent cry - "What hinders[?]" (line 49) - that sounds the depths of a grief to which Crashaw offers (in this poem, at least) no assuagement. So it is the absence of the longed-for other - and not the promise of a future dissolution into oneness - that becomes luminous with the steady accretion of unanswered questions and pleas.

The disorienting impact of that absence on Mary calls forth repeated expression of a need for motionlessness, a desire to have her relation to her Son rooted and secure. Juxtaposed against an uncomfortable restlessness throughout ("love-tost," "leapt," "seeke," "part," "lost," etc. [lines 3944]) is a lexicon that shapes the "architecture"(45) of being safely contained within a deep connectedness ("home" [line 14], "sphaere" [line 19], "lodge" [line 25], "cradle" [line 27], "bed" [line 28], "casements" [line 33], "abode" [line 47], "bosome" [line 48], etc.). But in the final six lines of the poem, Mary, as if recognizing that that space of merger is a thing of memory whose future existence is now only something she can wish for, tries to bring her Son back to her through words that convey an end to motion:

Dawne then to me, thou morne of mine owne day, And lett heaven stay. Oh, would'st thou heere still fixe thy faire abode, My bosome God: What hinders, but my bosome still might be Thy heaven to thee?

(lines 45-50)

"Stay," "fixe," "still" manifest a desire for an end to the parting and separation, a desire to have him secure with her in a soothing at-one-ment. The embodiment of joy, he is now heaven (no longer just "heav'en-borne" [line 7]); to be with him on earth (as he is also "soe faire earth" [line 24]), is to be in heaven. But Mary wants more than to be contained within what would be the not unexpectedly dazzling "morne" of Christ; rather, she longs for him to be in her arms, her bosom, her own sphere, and to be as she was once - as she so longs still to be - heaven to him. Her use of "heaven" seems touchingly metaphorical, colloquial - not at all discursively theological. Here, then, we seem to see the kind of gender-reversal described by Paul Parrish, where the language associated with "masculine" realms is given to the "feminine" and so rearranged, transvalued.(46) Notice, though, the rhetorical effect of "lett heaven stay" (italics mine): maternal authority given over to his precedence. And more profound, I believe, is the blank undecidedness at the end of the poem - the fact that no one answers the last, worried, confused questions, that there is no explanation of "What hinders" him from returning to the bosom-heaven of her breast. The wish for the female body to be equal to, and as sought-after as, the male "heaven" from which, in a complex way, he originates, and toward which his current absence is propelling him ("What hinders, but my bosome still might be / Thy heaven to thee?" [lines 49-50]), also stalls in the closing breath of the poem, where instead of consolation or empowerment, there is only the doubtful grammar of "would'st thou" and "what hinders[?]"(47)

Certainly, it can be argued that Crashaw's doctrinal principles would have held out the promise of an all-encompassing ecstasy, and that there are other poems where images of mothers, nursing, and physical exchange achieve the effect of an unhampered bliss (as in the second "Nativity Hymn," where Tityrus exclaims, "See see, how soon his new-bloom'd CHEEK/Twixt's mother's brests is gone to bed./Sweet choise, said we!" [lines 67-9]). But against such moments, "Quoerit Jesum" articulates the fantasy of a son who leaves and a mother left longing, left grieving indefinitely that loss; and "Blessed be the paps" depicts a distinctly "unfeminine" scenario of male/female antagonism. In this sense, Crashaw perhaps unwittingly deconstructs the very myth of motherhood his religion would seem to encourage him to uphold. It is also true that the cycle of incorporation/reparation, devouring/survival, is precisely what the Eucharist tablet represents and enacts each time it is taken.(48) But if critics have been right to describe Crashaw's unique focus on female spiritual figures, and to include the biographical fact that Crashaw was twice motherless as a factor influencing his poetic concentration on women, we might also consider what Klein would have interpreted from the same information - that idealization defends against "persecutory anxiety," and that "the ideal breast is the counterpart of the devouring breast."(49) If repeated early loss can produce ambivalent, even powerfully angry feelings toward women, then poems which heavily idealize "mothers" might function as gestures of repairing the very bodies the infant/poet has himself disfigured elsewhere.


1 I am following psychoanalytic writers in using Klein's spelling of "phantasy" to distinguish deep-seated unconscious mental images from more conscious day-dreaming "fantasy."

2 Mario Praz, The Flaming Heart: Essays on Crashaw, Machiavelli, and Other Studies in the Relations between Italian and English Literature from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 258. Elsewhere, Praz writes that Crashaw is "incapable" of "a concise style, or rendering severe and manly feelings in a few strokes . . . on the contrary, he makes capital out of whatever lends itself to florid divagations and to description of tender and delicate emotions. Grace is not denied to him, but Strength is beyond his reach" Cp. 245, my italics).

3 See Leah Sinanoglou Marcus, who posits that "most of [Crashaw's] lyrics are completely cut from history, from all passage of time, from human society, from learning - dead to the world, in short" (Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth-Century Literature [Pittsburgh: Univ: of Pittsburgh Press, 1978], p. 140).

4 Including Maureen Sabine, "Crashaw and the Feminine Animus: Patterns of Self-Sacrifice in Two of His Devotional poems," JDJ 4, 1 (1985): 69-94; Paul A. Parrish, "The Feminizing of Power: Crashaw's Life and Art," in "The Muses Common-Weale": Poetry and Politics in the Seventeenth-Century, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1988), pp. 148-62; Graham Hammill, "Stepping to the Temple," SAQ 88, 4 (Fall 1989): 933-59; Janel Mueller, "Women among the Metaphysicals: A Case, Mostly, of Being Donne For," MP 87, 2 (November 1989): 14258; and Paul A. Parrish, "'O Sweet Contest': Gender and Value in 'The Weeper,'" pp. 127-39; Eugene R. Cunnar, "Crashaw's 'Sancta Maria Dolorum': Controversy and Coherence," pp. 99-126; and Stella P. Revard, "Crashaw and the Diva: The Tradition of the Neo-Latin Hymn to the Goddess," pp. 80-98, all in New Perspectives on the Life and Art of Richard Crashaw, ed. John R. Roberts (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1990).

5 The word is Sabine's, p. 71.

6 Parrish, quoting Marilyn French (whom he - disingenuously? - calls "contemporary") from French's Shakespeare's Division of Experience (p. 24), in "Gender and Value," p. 131.

7 Sabine, p. 71.

8 Sabine, p. 83.

9 What of Herbert's prodigious "grief" in the poem of that name? or Donne, wishing to "powre forth / [his] teares" before the face of his mistress? George Herbert, "Grief" (line 3), The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C. A. Patrides (London: David Campbell, 1974); John Donne, "A Valediction of weeping" (lines 1-2), The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides [London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1985]).

10 Melanie Klein, "A Study of Envy and Gratitude," in The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell (New York: The Free Press, 1986), pp. 211-29, 211.

11 Klein, "Envy and Gratitude," p. 212.

12 Klein, "Envy and Gratitude," p. 213.

13 Ibid.

14 Klein, "Envy and Gratitude," p. 214.

15 Lorraine M. Roberts and John R. Roberts, "Crashavian Criticism: A Brief Interpretive History," in New Perspectives, pp. 1-29, 19.

16 Elisha K. Kane, "Meretricious Verse in Other Literatures," in Gongorism and the Golden Age: A Study of Exuberance and Unrestraint in the Arts (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1928), quoted in New Perspectives, p. 19.

17 Robert Martin Adams, "Taste and Bad Taste in Metaphysical Poetry: Richard Crashaw and Dylan Thomas," in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. William R. Keast (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 264-79, 271.

18 The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th edn., vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), p. 1342.

19 All references to Crashaw's poetry are to the George Walton Williams edition, The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1972). Line numbers will be parenthetical and in the text.

20 In his Lacanian discussion of this poem, Graham Hammill reads the first line as being spoken to the audience: "Suppose, Crashaw asks of his reader, that you had to satisfy Christ's desires. An impossible task, for Christ's desire is not to be assuaged by the mother's 'Teates' but by the father's knife - 'This knife may be the speares Proeludium' ('Our Lord in His Circumcision,' line 18)," pp. 944-5.

21 Adams, p. 271.

22 "[W]ere not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck'd wisdom from thy teat" (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d edn. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997] I.iii. 67-8). I owe this reference to Edward Snow.

23 Klein, "A Contribution to the the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States," in Selected, pp. 116-45, 121.

24 See "Feminine Animus": "Mary's view of Christ as her Son first and foremost shaped the perspective of [Crashaw's] devotional poetry and made him sensitive as contemplative poet to the satisfaction which Mary experienced being a woman through the act of feeding her Child" (p. 73).

25 Thomas F. Healy, Richard Crashaw (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), p. 140.

26 Marcus, p. 146.

27 For a cogent discussion of the exchange of wounds and Crashaw's conception of Mary as priestly redemptrix, see Cunnar.

28 Marcus, p. 146.

29 Healy also draws attention to John Cosin's 1676 History of Popish Transubstantiation as one example of the Laudian bent toward "extravagant physical depictions . . . as representing spiritual conditions" to appeal to the "intellect" as well as the emotion (p. 139), and suggests that in "Laudian circles" in the 1630s and '40s "there was extensive discussion about the interpretation of physically explicit images in earlier writers" (p. 142). Cosin states that it "was the ancient Fathers care, as it is ours still, to instruct the people not to look barely on the outward Elements, but in them to eye with their minds the Body and Bloud of Christ, and with their hearts lift up to feed on that heavenly meat" (as quoted in Healy, p. 139).

30 For biblical examples of the association of milk and Word, physical nursing and spiritual nourishment, cf. Psalm 34:8: "O taste and see that the Lord is good"; 1 Peter 2:23: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby"; and Isaiah 66:10-1: "Rejoice ye with Jerusalem . . . That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolation; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory."

31 Caroline Walker Bynum, "The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: A Reply to Leo Steinberg" (RenQ 39, 3 [Autumn 1986]: 399-439,423). Bynum suggests that to a female mystic like Julian of Norwich, for example, "[t]he physiological role of the mother, whose uterine lining provides the stuff of the foetus (according to medieval medical theory) and whose blood becomes breast milk, clearly underlies Julian's sense that, if gender is to be used of God at all, Christ is mother more than father when it is a matter of talking of the Incarnation" (p. 418). St. Bernard instructs followers to "suck not the wounds but rather the breasts of the Crucified. He shall be as a mother to you, and you as a son to him" (quoted in Healy, p. 21).

32 Sabine, p. 89.

33 Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2d edn., rev. and expanded (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996).

34 Steinberg, p. 58.

35 Steinberg, p. 59.

36 Steinberg, p. 10.

37 See Rambuss's discussion of homoerotics in Crashaw's poetry, which includes a trenchant interrogation of Caroline Walker Bynum, particularly her "Reply to Leo Steinberg." Rambuss contends that the "going tendency to encode unproblematically every figuration" of Christ's body as "somehow feminized" (pp. 263-4) dangerously misrepresents the same-sex erotics of devotional poetry by men. Despite her professed concern to unfold the theological and cultural meanings of the body, Rambuss shows us, Bynum's work consistently forecloses the potentially erotic significance of Christ's and worshippers' bodies in both art and literature. Rambuss posits that "the canonical religious poetry of the seventeenth century" is "devoutly fixated on the incarnation of its deity as fully human and indicatively male" (Richard Rambuss, "Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric," in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg [Durham NC and London: Duke Univ. Press, 1994], pp. 253-79, 273).

38 Cf. "Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse," where Klein explains that "when the objects are introjected, the attack launched upon them with all the weapons of sadism rouses the subject's dread of an analogous attack upon himself from the external and the internalized objects" (Selected, pp. 84-94, 87). See also "The Importance of Symbol Formation in the Development of the Ego," in Selected, pp. 95-111.

39 See Luke 2:41-50: "And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it . . . And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions . . . and his mother said unto him, Son why hast thou thus dealt with us? . . . And he said unto them . . . wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"

40 See Sabine, p. 90: "Few poets of this time, engrossed as they were in the eloquent 'I' of male self-importance, could have identified so completely with Mary in her life crisis as a mother or sensed her terror of losing her richest years as a woman." I would argue that Crashaw identifies more with the sense of loss than specifically with Mary's "loss" of fertility; disturbing as well is the idea that a woman's "richest" years are her childbearing ones.

41 Cf. Klein, "Contribution." See also Marion Milner's psychoanalytic deconstruction of her own "painter's block," in On Not Being Able to Paint, where she suggests that art provides a way to restore externally what has been injured internally (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1957).

42 Klein writes, for example, that "the infant may have a grievance that the milk comes too quickly or too slowly; or that he was not given the breast when he most craved for it, and therefore when it is offered, he does not want it any more. He turns away from it and sucks his fingers instead" ("Envy and Gratitude," p. 214).

43 See, for example, Sabine, "Feminine Animus," where she argues that Mary's "passionate longing is, for Crashaw, the perfectly innocent expression of the need for a more mature, more consummate relationship with Christ which the physical bond between mother and child foreshadows" (p. 87).

44 See Klein, "Infantile Anxiety Situations," p. 87.

45 As Crashaw describes the union of Mary and God in the second version of the "Hymn in the Holy Nativity" (line 47).

46 In "The Feminizing of Power," Parrish writes that "the world of masculine, public conduct, though dispraised and rejected, inevitably yields the language through which the usually secondary feminine virtues can be elevated to primacy" (p. 161).

47 Cf. Sabine: "Mary reluctantly accepts that her physical motherhood to Jesus is ended, but is consoled by the thought, close to the heart of Crashaw, that she will be given wider powers as a spiritual Mother to all men" (p. 90). In "Quoerit Jesum" at least, I find no such moment of consolation.

48 For a cogent discussion of Jesus as maternal imago, cf. Brooke Hopkins, "Jesus and Object-Use: A Winnicottian Account of the Resurrection Myth," in Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott, ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 249-60.

49 Klein, "Envy and Gratitude," p. 217.

Susannah B. Mintz is assistant professor of English at St. John's University. She has published and presented articles on Herbert, Donne, Milton, Crashaw, Katherine Philips, and the Old English Genesis B, and is at work on a book on Milton entitled "Of Eve's Party: Radical Revision in Paradise Lost."


Publication Information: Article Title: The Crashavian Mother. Contributors: Susannah B. Mintz - author. Journal Title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 39. Issue: 1. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 111. COPYRIGHT 1999 Rice University