Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Mario Praz, The Flaming Heart: Richard Crashaw and the Baroque

Mario Praz, The Flaming Heart: Richard Crashaw and the Baroque, in The Flaming Heart; Essays on Crashaw, Machiavelli, and Other Studies of the Relaitons between Italian and English Literature and Chaucer to T. S. Eliot, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1958.

The greatest popularity was achieved by those saints in whom the erotic element joined with the element of surprise—a metamorphosis of theatrical proportions: hence the cult of that Venus in sackcloth, Saint Mary Magdalen, who pointed out the way to Heaven to repentant sinners: the transition from profane to sacred love took place in her with that dazzling contrast in which the century recognized the essence of wit. /
But Mary Magdalen was only the supreme star in a constellation of female saints which dominated the summer sky of Baroque religion: under that sky were born not only most poets in the Catholic countries, but also a few Northern ones, Vondel in Holland, and Richard Crashaw in England. (204-5)

…that argutezza (wit) which in the aesthetic field produced that typical seventeenth-century mental process, the concetto (conceit). Seventeenth-century men saw instances of argutezza in every aspect of the universe. All the phenomena of the surrounding world, all the categories of learning, supplied them with suggestions for this mental idiosyncrasy of theirs: they discovered mysterious witticisms in the aspects of the earth and the sky, heroical devices and symbols in all the creatures; animals and plants possessed a witty language for them; and full of with was the language of God; (206)

…thunderbolts as ‘formidable Witticisms [Arguzie] and Symbolical Ciphers of Nature, both dumb and at the same time vocal; having the Bolt for their boy and the Thunder for their motto’, saw dreams, quibbles, prodigies, oracles, monsters as so many forms of wit, or rather everything was to him a prodigy, an oracle, a monster, a quibble, and his world seems to us a dream-world, in which, thanks to a bizarre convention, everything appears to be endowed with a fictitious and absurd value. [E. Tesauro, Il Cannocchiale Aristotelico, Venice, 1655, p. 61, translated by Praz] (206)

Tesauro’s Cannocchiale Aristotelico enables us to get to the roots of the seventeenth-century frame of mind: a frame of mind which, in its striving after wit, mixed together all aspects of the universe into one monstrous category, and knew no limits in that respect. /
As everything was subservient to wit, no criterion was left to distinguish a work of art from a work of mere skill, or, worse, form the capricious product of a disordered brain; indeed mad people ‘better than sane ones (believe it or not) are well conditioned to invent exhilarating metaphors and witty symbols; Madness itself being nothing else than a Metaphor which takes on thing for another’. [Tesauro p. 97] (206-7)

…the taste of the period was so engrossed with this craze for concetti, that a seventeenth-century man would naturally resort to wit in those critical circumstances of life which usually elicit simple, elementary expressions even from the most sophisticated of men: Donne, on the day when all hopes of happiness seemed to forsake him, found nothing better than a witticism: ‘John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone’; and Laud, imprisoned and threatened with death, saw an ironical confirmation of the accusations of his enemies in an anagram of his name: ‘William Laude—Well am a Divil’. (207)

Tesauro’s passage on the concetti predicabili helps us to understand the use of wit in religious subjects: … the word of God appears nowadays insipid and jejune unless it is seasoned with such sweets [209] … This is what we call WIT: an ingenious, unexpected, and popular Argument. … try to examine one of these products: you will find that its foundation is a Metaphor, a Quibble, a Laconism, or another of those Rhetorical Devices we have examined elsewhere. Therefore the PREACHABLE CONCEIT is nothing else than a Symbolical Witticism, lightly hinted at by the Divine Mind: elegantly revealed by the mind of man: and reconfirmed through the authority of some Sacred Author. The applause is equally divided between God for having found it, the Saint for having observed it, and the Preacher for having shown it to the world as a rare merchandise, and opportunely suited it to his purpose’. … Whatever is here said about the preachable conceits can be extended to the whole class of compositions to which Richard Crashaw’s first book of verse, the Epigrammata Sacra (1634), belongs. (209-10)

Certain subjects were for Crashaw inexhaustible sources of witticism: he handled and rehandled them both in Latin and English, he took every opportunity to bring them in like ready-made purple patches. Whenever water or teas came into question, Crashaw’s wit revealed itself capable of astonishing hydraulic inventions: he makes the waters play like Versailles waterworks, and thinks to give us a quintessence of the Castalian spring in the iridescent sparkle of conceits. (214)

The stud Crashaw made of contemporary Latin poets is witnessed also by a poem on Mary Magdalen’s tears, on which he worked at different times. We had better speak of this poem at once, in order to show how those juvenile exercises (begun form school days), the epigrams, informed the subsequent development of Crashaw’s poetry from their character. /
The Weeper is indeed little more than a rosary of epigrams or madrigals clumsily liked together, without progression: stanzas might be arranged in a different order… (218)

We may imagine a process of this kind: Crashaw developed the image of the sky-climbing tear into that of a river of tears; this latter would easily suggest the Milky Way, which is like a river of milk; as Mary Magdalen’s tears are more precious than this milky river, they are the cream of that milk. (221)

Nor was it only from the Latin epigrammatic and elegiac poets that Crashaw gathered gems for his necklace of conceits. The image of the Angels who ‘with crystall violls come/and draw’ from Magdalen’s eyes ‘their master’s Water: their own Wine’ (st. vi, 1646; xii, 1648 and 1652) was probably suggested by Donne, Twicknam Garden, 19-20: ‘Hither with christall vials, lovers come,/and take my teares, which are loves vyals’) replaces in the 1648 and 1652 editions the prosaic ‘their bottles’ of the 1646 edition (st. vi). The twenty-seventh stanza of the 1648, 1652 versions (a rehandling of the fourth stanza of The Teare): …echoes lines of Marino’s Il Sudore del Sangue: … And the conceit of the third stanza of The Teare: ‘Each Drop leaving a place so deare,/Weeps for it selfe, is its own Teare’, had already occurred in Sidney’s Arcadia (Lib. II, ch. Xi) apropos of the water which ‘seemed to weepe, that it should parte from such bodies’ as those of the princesses Pamela and Philoclea. (225)

The Weeper, with its reminiscences, its retouches and arabesques, is an excellent example of the manner in which Crashaw followed the practice of workers in mosaic, aiming not so much at a general effect, as at a cluster of epigrams or independent pictures. We shall see how, in apparently more homogenous compositions also, the conceits, the image, continually tends to stand by itself, to detach itself for the context. What is lacking is a central point round which the poem should gravitate in a harmonious coordination of its parts. Now this is a trait which brings Crashaw’s art not so much near to Shelley’s, to which it has been compared, as to Swinburne’s: we shall see how this is not the only point of contact between the two poets. (226)

For a seventeenth-century writer, according to Baltasar Graci[a]n’s words, to perceive a witticism was an eagle’s task, to produce it, an angel’s, ‘an occuption of cherubs and an elevation of men which causes us to rise to a very exalted hierarchy’. The point was to say the most marvelous things possible on Mary Magdalen’s tears, and Crashaw has collected in upwards of thirty stanzas a great part of what in such a subject seemed poetical to his contemporaries, for whom wit and poetry were synonymous. (226)

The irreverence with which Macdonald reproached Crashaw would have appeared incomprehensible to the poet’s contemporaries, who in this respect were of the opinion of Pierfrancesco Minozzi (Sfogamenti dingegno, Venice 1641). Miozzi, while he did not approve of conceits and hyperboles in profane stories, praises and recommends them for sacred histories and the lives of saints, since ‘Saints deserve any kind of artificial amplification, and whatever you may ay of them is true, and they are by themselves superior to any human adulation. Therefore in the lives of saints even jests have the power to persuade and move, being taken seriously and not for fun. Sometimes a jest is more likely to touch because it pleases, than a simple statement having no blandishment in it.’ [This passage is quoted by Croce in ‘I Trattatisti italiani del “Cencettismo” e Baltasar Gracian’, Memoria letta all’Accademia Pontaniana di Napoli nella tornata del 18 giugno 1899. Atti, vol. xxix, momoria n. 7, p. 18. Reprinted in Problemi d’Estetica.] (229)

Nothing helps us more to understand the character of Crashaw’s inspiration than a comparison of his translations with their originals. The most conspicuous of them both for length and importance is that of the Sospetto d’Erode, i.e., of the first Canto of Marino’s Strage degli Innocenti. An authoritative manuscript copy discovered by Professor Martin has next to the title the date ‘November 25, 1637’, probably recording the completion of the task. This was certainly not the first of Marino’s works which Crashaw knew: (231)

A great number of Marino’s lyric poems had already been Englished by Drummond of Hawthornden. (232)

The translation of the Sospetto d’Erode must have been a kind of apprenticeship for Crashaw: while transferring the contents of each ottava into the more capacious English stanza, Crashaw made a very deft use of the margins by embroidering clever variations on the expressions of the Neapolitan poet, which were frequently too obvious and direct. Crashaw was not a man to miss any opportunity of concentrating into one single point an many witticisms as he could manage… (232)

If Crashaw had limited himself to cometing with the original in wit, one might have deprecated the result. It happens, however, that the English poet succeeds in imparting poetic life to certain trite metaphors and purple patches of Marino, thus relieving the flabbiness of the Italian poem, a late scion of the decayed epic tradition. A neutral expression like ‘in mezzo al co del Mondo’ (st. 5) acquires new freshness in ‘the worlds profound Heart pants’; a weak personification like (st. 40): /
V’ha la Vendetta in su la soglia, e ‘n mano
Spada brandisce insanguinata ignuda /
Breaks into vivid colour in: /
There has the purple Vengeance a proud seat,
Whose ever-brandisht Sword is sheath’d in blood. (233)

… very frequently Crashaw succeeds in creating a fresh and powerful poetical image for which Marino’s verse hardly offers as much as a hint. (235)

What I have been saying does not presume to exhaust the remarks which can be made apropos of this admirable version of the Sospetto d’Erode, parts of which Milton must have remembered while describing the appearance of his Lucifer. [M. Praz, The Romantic Agony, ch. ii, “The Metamorphoses of Satan’, p. 53 ff.] (238)

A study of Crashaw’s versions shows how incapable he is of a concise style, of rendering sever and manly feelings in a few strokes; how, 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. His happiest moments come when he can abandon himself to fantastic visions which do not obey any other law but the natural one which postulates a relaxation after a period of intense stress. (245)

Lines 54-104 and 112-126 of Musicks Duell may be said to create in verse an effect similar to that of many a famous baroque building, and to illustrate the fundamental baroque tendency to avoid a closed composition, to develop single parts irrespective of the ensemble, to emphasize the picturesque and spectacular to the detriment of design and balance. Crashaw lets himself be waylaid by all the attractive images which ogle him at every turning, ventures into dangerous ascents which lead nowhere, gets lost in intricate mazes and conceits, and thus achieves a dazzling effect which may remind us of the impressionist technique. (247)

This quality of ‘dazzling intricacy and affluence in refinement’ is, oddly enough, a characteristic of Swinburne, the poet who thus characterized Crashaw. The inspiration of both is of Dionysian character, lets itself be overwhelmed by a world of images without ever succeeding in controlling it; and, incapable of fixing a limit, might continue endlessly in its giddy ascent, were it not that the very impulsion slackens by a natural law. (247)

A passage of the Hymn of the Nativity (in the 1646 edition of Steps to the Temple) which has puzzled the interpreters, supplies a good illustration of the Dionysian ‘impressionism’ of our poet. The Virgin lulls the Divine Child to sleep: /

Shee sings thy Teares asleepe, and dips
Her Kisses in thy weeping Eye,
Shee spreads the red leaves of thy Lips,
That in their Buds yet blushing lye.
Shee ‘gainst those Mother-Diamonds tryes
The points of her young Eagles Eyes. /

Similes and conceits form in these few lines a monstrous cluster: the viewpoint shifts with such speed that what we see is a throbbing and dazzling chaos instead of a definite pattern. A sudden darting of animal and vegetable beings, a succession of quick mysterious acts, is all we perceive in that dim process in which tears are likened to infants lulled to sleep, kisses are seen diving into tears as into a pool, lips are like blushing buds, the eyes of the Virgin are like diamonds (mother-diamonds in their relation to the Son’s eyes), and, it is understood, they shine like the sun, and as the sight of the sun is tolerated only by eagles, the eyes of the Child are like a young eagle’s, and she tries their points, i.e., their glances, against those unscratchable diamonds. (248-9)

…in Musicks Duell he strives to produce in the reader’s mind a state which only pure sounds seems capable of provoking. This virtuosity of his is no mere playing, because his fancy imparts an exceptional incandescence to the verbal medium. In these bold attempts at surpassing the limits and possibilities of his own art, Crashaw, better than any of the poets who were his contemporaries, achieves a result which may be said to have been the common aspiration of baroque art: that inextricable complexity of presentation, that one universal art in which all the arts should blend and become an indistinguishable whole. Bulla and Musicks Duell are masterpieces of an age which had a painter’s view of architecture, and tried to obtain plastic and musical effects from poetry, that age that created as the supreme fruit of its experiments the opera… (251)

Crashaw’s idea of poetry partakes more of the spirit of baroque art than Marino’s superficial definition:
E’ del poet ail fin la meraviglia,
Chi non sa far stupir vada alla striglia,
Which accounts only for the crude and showy side of secentismo: verbal artifices, alliterations, word-play, and witticisms are included in that definition, but nothing is said about that marvelous energy of soaring imagination which produced so many masterpieces in the visual arts. In fact an Italian poet, hampered by tradition (to be an Italian poet meant being a ‘Tuscan’ poet), being himself a refiner of the far-fetched compliments of the Petrarchan school, rather than a revolutionary, could be baroque only half-heartedly. The yoke of tradition weighed less heavily on the painters, and if a new spirit was hardly apparent in those who were incapable of ridding themselves of old conventions, there were many, chiefly in the South, who, felling the ties of academic tradition but weakly, let themselves go in orgies of colour. If baroque art in Italy, then, did not assert itself vigorously so far as poetry was concerned, and, though shining here and there with outstanding beauty, failed to reach supreme expression in painting, and achieved perfection only in architecture, outside Italy, instead, in countries where the Renaissance had come only at a second remove, and minds were not saturated with the classical tradition, baroque art was to enjoy its main triumphs. (252)

It would be unfair to call Crashaw a Marinist just because he was trained to turn surprising concetti in Marino’s school: Crashaw’s poetry, in its more peculiar aspects, is the literary counterpart, though a minor, though a minor one, to Rubens’s apotheoses, Murillo’s languors and El Greco’s ecstasies. (253)

Marino’s distich conveying his narrow idea of poetry is a poor match for the lines in which Crashaw speaks of poetical inspiration (in To the Morning, Satisfaction for Sleep); … Such an inspiration can be defined, to use other words of the poet, ‘a sweet inebriated extasy’: (253)

…his faith belongs to the kind which finds an outlet in expressions now torn and eager with longing, now instinct with melting sweetness. It is a faith completely diverse from that of the Protestants; completely steeped in contemplation and an exulting amazement before the divine wonders, it ignores the tone of homily and the pedestrian sermon. (254)

One of Crashaw’s English critics, Eric Shepherd, has properly drawn attention to the exclamatory, ecstatic tone of the titles of Crashaw’s later poems, and has tried to explain this ‘hymning quality’ by the fact that the poet was a convert, astonished by the glory and magnitude of his discovery: however, the state of ‘sweet inebriated extasy’ is previous to the conversion, is inborn, and may be discerned even in his secular poem, Wishes to his (supposed) Mistresse. (254)

Ecstasy is here more described than lived through; but already in the Hymn to Saint Teresa, mere enumeration, though sumptuous, gives way to a magnificent presentation of the beatific vision: [260] … There is still something detached and of a descriptive nature in this composition: the poet does not yet possess the adequate lyric heat for the mystical experience. Very likely Crashaw never reached that state of ardent rapture which fired Jacopone de Todi with divine madness, but he came nevertheless very close to it. Through his intense yearning he touched the fringe of bliss in that brief lyrical flight, with its close series of invocations which the poet (inverted the mulier formosa process of composition criticized by Horace) tried to combine with an exercise of that Marinesque wit with which at an earlier date he had protracted through no less than eighty-five lines a conceit on Saint Teresa and the darting Seraphim. (261)

In the whole course of seventeenth-century literature there is no higher expression of that spiritualization of sense which is condensed here in a portentous, dizzy soaring of red-hot images. We may find a counterpart in El Greco’s paintings, where, among shreds of ghost-like clouds, convulsed phantoms of saints lift tearful faces lit by a light that never was seen in this world. The voluptuous raptures of Lanfranco’s and Bernini’s ecstatic saints, Saint Margaret surprised by the Celestial Spouse, Saint Teresa pierced by the angelic archer, the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in the throes of expiring, the paradisial languour of so many saints, martyrs and blessed women whose effigies people Italian and Spanish churches and art galleries, these images whose character leaves us in [262] suspense as to whether it should be termed holy or profane, become suddenly clear, as if we were given a commentary on them in the light of these few lines of a great ‘minor’ English poet, which transcend them and seem to contain in nuce the quintessence of the whole seventeenth century. (262-3)


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