Richard Crashaw

The English poet Richard Crashaw (C. 1612-1649) was Roman Catholic in sensibility and ultimately inallegiance. His poetry is the single major body of work in English that can be called baroque.

Richard Crashaw was born in London. His father, a stern Puritan who hated the Church of Rome as much as he did worldly pleasures—his son was to share the latter of his prejudices but not the former—was preacher at the Temple Church. Crashaw was educated at the Charterhouse, where he received a rigorous classical education under the tutelage of a royalist master. He had already indicated his poetic talent and religious sensibility in poems in Latin and Greek before he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1631.

At the university Crashaw found himself in the matrix of an extraordinary number of the period's best poets: John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Sir John Suckling, Abraham Cowley, and John Milton, to name some of the most important. His own college was High Church in ritual and spiritual allegiance. In 1634 Crashaw received a bachelor of arts degree, and in 1635 he was elected a fellow of Peterhouse, which was strongly influenced by the conservative, High Church archbishop William Laud. In fact, the religious atmosphere of this college was scarcely distinguishable from Roman Catholicism. During the years that followed, Crashaw participated often in the life of the religious establishment at Little Gidding, a village near Cambridge. By 1639 he was an ordained preacher.

The civil war, however, changed his life. Cromwell seized Cambridge in 1643 and efficiently rooted out all traces of "popery." Crashaw did not wait to be ejected from his fellowship by the Puritans but left at the beginning of the occupation and spent the rest of his life in exile at Little Gidding and Oxford and on the Continent. The civil war deprived him of a successful career as preacher and probably of continued participation in the Anglican Church. His years of exile were dogged by poverty, ill health, and neglect by his patrons. Crashaw became a Roman Catholic in 1645. He died in 1649 in Loreto, Italy, where he was in the service of Cardinal Pallota.

Crashaw's major poetry appeared in Steps to the Temple in 1646 (enlarged in 1648). Though the title suggests the dominance of George Herbert, the major influences in fact are the spirit and esthetic techniques of the Continental Counter Reformation, which produced the arts known as baroque. The major poetic influence was the Italian Giambattista Marino, some of whose work Crashaw translated. Crashaw's baroque poetry, exemplified in "The Weeper," thrives on paradox, imagery flamboyant to the point of grotesquerie, stock religious symbols, and concern with martyrdom and mysticism.


Further Reading on Richard Crashaw

The standard work on Crashaw, equally useful for historical and literary backgrounds, biography, and critical interpretation, is Austin Warren, Richard Crashaw: A Study in Baroque Sensibility (1939).

Additional Biography Sources

New perspectives on the life and art of Richard Crashaw, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

Willey, Basil, Richard Crashaw (1612/13-1649): a memorial lecture delivered at Peterhouse, Cambridge, on 11 July 1949, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.