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ART. IV. Steps to the Temple, The Delights of the Muses, and
Carmen Deo Nostro, by Richard Crashaw, sometime Fellow of Pembroke Hall, and late Fellow of St. Peter's Colledge in Cambridge; the 2nd Edition, 1670.
Richard Crashaw was a popular preacher of the time of Charles I. and was ejected from the university of Cambridge, where he was a fellow of Peterhouse, by the parliamentary army, in 1644. After his ejection he betook himself to France, where, soon after his arrival, he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. He was recommended into Italy by the queen of Charles I. and became a canon of Loretto, in which situation he died about the year 1650. He was the friend of Cowley and Herbert, In the pulpit he was admired for his energy and enthusiasm.He is represented as being master of the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish languages; and was skilled in poetry, music, drawing, painting, and engraving, which last he considered, says the editor of this posthumous edition of his poems, as “ subservient recreations for vacant hours, not the grand business of his soul.” Crashaw belongs to that class of poets which has been absurdly enough entitled the metaphysical school-a phrase, however, by which its inventor probably meant nothing more than that these writers drew rather upon the stores of their intellect for poetical supplies, than obeyed the dictates of passion and feeling. The distinctive character of this class of poetry is the exuberance of its ingenuity, exerted on every possible subject in every possible form. A poem, with Crashaw's contemporaries, is a hunt or chase in which every bush is beaten, and every corner ransacked, for images, metaphors, and similes,—where nothing that is true is unpoetical, where nothing is worthless which is far-fetched,—and where the greatest triumph is to give a value to what is familiar, low,or common, by the situation into which it is introduced. The highest beauty with them is the beauty of ingenuity, the exquisiteness of workmanship,—and the more recondite, unobvious, or intrinsically worthless the matter might be which was so inwrought, the greater the praise of the poetical mechanic. The taste of the times was, a passion for dwelling on the points of agreement or difference in all objects presented to the mind; and this demand produced men who sought likenesses and unlikenesses in all things “ in heaven above, in the earth below, and in the water under the earth.” A book of poems, printed from about the year 1630 to 1670, with a few exceptions, would admit of a general title something like this: "an ingenious work, in which all things are compared with each other, and their similarities and distinctions curiously pointed out to the intelligent reader, by way of a poem, addressed by a lover to his supposed mistress ;” and the motto should be, materiem superabat opus. Extensive learning, a lively fancy, and a facility of versification, were the stock qualities of a poet of those times : then let him procure or feign a mistress with all possible perfections of mind and body, and no other qualifications were wanting to be admitted of their crew-he was then qualified at all points, for breaking a lance in the lists of poetry. The greater part of Crashaw's poems, it must be confessed, largely partake of the vice of the age ; they are, it is true, full of conceits, but yet not cold conceits; and in this consists the superiority of this poet, to a great number of those who lived with or soon after him. He was animated by passion, and, had he not lived when he did, must have taken a high rank among the genuinely inspired writers of his country. He is never tame, never dull; and, in despite of the perverted taste which he had, in common with Cowley and others, there are many of his poems which contain passages of natural tenderness, and of great beauty of sentiment and imagery. His versification is nearly always melodious, and his expressions have frequently a delicate and luxurious fullness about them, which makes us lament the strained and unnatural images upon which they are lavished. The greater part of his poems are on religious subjects, which he treats with a warmth of devotion much more congenial with the church of his adoption, than the chaste and sober language of the reformed church. For this choice, much praise is given to the poet by the writer of the singular preface, prefixed to our edition of his poems, which is composed in a strain of great enthusiasm for his subject.
"Here's Herbert's second, but equal, who hath retrieved poetry of late,' and returned it up to its primitive use; let it bound back to heaven gates, whence it came. Think ye St. Augustine would have steyned his graver learning with a book of poetry, had he fancied their dearest end to be the vanity of love-sonnets and epithalamiums? No, no, he thought with this our poet, that every foot in a high-born verse might help to measure the soul into that better world : divine poetry, I dare hold it, in position against Suarez on the subject, to be the language of the angels; it is the quintessence of phantasie and discourse centered in heaven; 'tis the very outgoings of the soul; 'tis what alone our author is able to tell you, and that in his own verse.”
“Oh! when the general arraignment of poets shall be, to give an account of their higher souls; with what a triumphant brow shall our divine poet sit above, and look down upon poor Homer, Virgil, Horace, Claudian, &c. who had amongst them the ill luck to talk out a great part of their gallant genius upon bees, dung, frogs, and gnats, &c. :
and not as himself here, upon scriptures, divine graces, martyrs, and angels.”
He appears to have been a man of a warm and enthusiastic temperament, which he carried into every thing, and most especially into his religion. No lover ever depicted the charms of his fair enslaver with greater warmth and animation, than fill the verses addressed to St. Theresa, “ founder of the discalced Carmelites, both men and women; a woman, who for angelical height of speculation, for masculine courage of performance, more than a woman, who, yet a child, out-ran maturity, and durst plot a martyrdom.”
In the very spirit of mystical devotion, he thus speaks of the only “ dart” which should have power to “rase her breasts' chaste cabinet.”
“ So rare,
In some verses on “ the assumption of the blessed virgin," he feigns “ the immortal dove thus sighing to his silver mate," the mother of Jesus Christ.
“Come away, my love,
Cast off delay.
Come away, come away.”
male friend,” he thus speaks of the “ sacred store, hidden sweets, and holy joys,” which the soul feels, when the noble bridegroom comes, “who is alone the spouse of virgins, and the virgin's son.”
“ Amorous languishments, luminous trances,
Sights which are not seen with eyes :
Whose pure and subtle lightning flies
Yet doth not stay
A thousand unknown rites
Of joys, and rarified delights.
And many a mystick thing,
Which the divine embraces
For which it is no shame, That dull mortality must not know a name.” Besides the religious poetry, among which is a large collection of sacred epigrams, completely worthless, are numerous translations and paraphrases ; together with a number of original poems, chiefly on occasional subjects, from which we hope to extract some passages, well worthy of perusal. The first division of his poems is entitled Steps to the Temple, so called, says the before-mentioned author of the preface, from his passing the greater part of his time in St. Mary's church, Cambridge.-" There he lodged under Tertullian's roof of angels ; there he made his nest, more gladly than David's swallow near the house of God; where, like a primitive saint, he offered more prayers in the night, than others usually offer in the day ;" there he penned these poems,“ Steps for happy souls to climb Heav'n by.” The first step we meet with is a poem, called the Weeper, which, had we room to quote, would very completely illustrate the few remarks we have above made on the conceits of this writer, and of the taste of his age. Take the first verse only.
“ Hail, sister springs, Parents of silver-forded rills !
Ever bubbling things :
here he made him he lodged under in St. Mar
Thawing crystal ! snowy hills !
Nevertheless, there are some tender images and expressions to be found even here; and we quote the following verses, as possessing great beauty in their kind.
“ The dew no more will weep,
The dew no more will sleep,
Not the soft gold which
Makes sorrow half so rich,
When sorrow would be seen
(For she is a queen)
Not in the evening's eyes
For the sun that dies,
Some verses, called the Tear, then occur, wherein the author asks, “What bright soft thing is this,” and conjectures it to be a “moist spark,” a “wat'ry diamond,” a “star about to drop,” or any thing else to which it bears any the least fanciful resemblance: when he is satisfied that it is in truth a tear, he says:
“ Such a pearl as this is
The rose-bud's sweet lip kisses ;