Monday, April 02, 2012

Lorraine & John Roberts, Crashavian Criticism

Lorraine M. Roberts and John R. Roberts, Crashavian Criticism, in New Perspectives on the Life and Art of Richard Crashaw, Ed. John R. Roberts, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1990.

The modest reputation that Crashaw achieved in the seventeenth century suffered a decline in the eighteenth, along with that of most of the other metaphysical poets. The most famous critic of the age, Dr. Johnson, made no direct comments on Crashaw’s poetry; but he did quote Crashaw 103 times in his dictionary, whereas he quoted Herbert only 78 times and Vaughan not at all. (4)

…a letter by Alexander Pope to Henry Cromwell, written in 1710, containing what some call the first sustained criticism of Crashaw’s poetry—a mixture of praise, condemnation, and misjudgment. Assuming that Crashaw wrote as a gentleman poet, “more to keep out of idleness, than to establish a reputation,”… Pope… advised Cromwell to read Crashaw, “to skim off the froth” and find the poet’s “own, natural, middle-way.” He called “Musicks Duell” “very remarkable” and said that, having read Crashaw “twice or thrice,” … Although Pope expressed dislike for Crashaw’s versification, he voiced even greater dissatisfaction with the architectonics of Crashaw’s poetry: “all that regards Design, Form, Fable (which is the Soul of Poetry), all that concerns exactness, or consent parts, (which is the Body) will probably be wanting.” Appended to the Cromwell letter was a list of what Pope considered Crashaw’s best pieces—the paraphrase of Psalm 23, “In praise of Lessius,” “An Epitaph Upon Mr. Ashton,” “Wishes. To his (supposed) Mistresse,” and “Dies Irae Dies Illa.” The omission of what today would be considered Crashaw’s most successful poems—including a number of the religious ones—might seem strange, until we remember Pope’s disdain for religious enthusiasm and his own uncomfortable position as a Roman Catholic in Protestant England. In comparison with other metaphysical poets, Pope ranked Crashaw as “a worse sort of Cowley” yet judged that “Herbert is lower than Crashaw, Sir John Beaumont higher, and Donne, a good deal so.” (4-5)

Coleridge’s daughter, Sara, informed a friend that both her father and Wordsworth had admired Crashaw’s poetry, but, for the most part, as poets they were alone on their side of the Atlantic in their appraisal. In America, however, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and A. Bronson Alcott all responded favorably to Crashaw’s verse. (9)

Two Victorians who sought to exercise informed critical judgment rather than simply to express appreciation or depreciation of Crashaw’s poetry were Edmund Gosse and Canon H. C. Beeching. Gosse placed Crashaw in a continental context, pointed out what he considered to be the poet’s mannerist tendencies, and attempted to show Crashaw’s superiority to Spee and Gongora. He condemned “The Weeper,” however, deploring “Two walking baths; two weeping motions; / Portable and compendious oceans” (II. 113-14) as the worst lines in English poetry, a view endorsed by a number of later critics of the poem. (13)

Twentieth-century criticism … Two new fallacious ideas that became prevalent and never completely died—that Crashaw was “one of the least English of our great poets” and that he was a “poet of pure emotion” with no profundity of thought—were introduced by A. Clutton-Brock in The Cambridge Modern History of 1906. (16)

Eliot agreed wholeheartedly with Mario Praz that Crashaw, even more than Marino or Gongora, was “the representative of the baroque spirit in literature,” a critical notion expressed repeatedly by later critics, some of whom began to draw explicit parallels between Crashaw’s poetry and baroque sculpture, architecture, and painting. / Mario Praz’s work in 1925 not only used the term baroque for Crashaw’s poetry but also highlighted the central importance of Counter-Reformation influences, especially Jesuit influences… (18)

Also, the old cliché that Crashaw’s poetry lacks structure, that the ideas are “strung together like the beads of a rosary” or by only the most imprecise emotional associations, was effectively challenged by a number of critics during the past two decades. (26)

But far more damaging, perhaps, are the critical introductions in textbooks and anthologies offered to thousands of students who are reading Crashaw for the first time, some of whom will later become teachers and critics themselves. A prime example is the cliché-ridden compendium of Crashavian criticism found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in which the student is informed that Crashaw’s poetry is “deliberately artificial and deliberately lacking formal structure,” that “extravagant metaphors [are held] loosely together” and are combined “with almost grotesque effects,” and that the Nativity ode and “The Flaming Heart” culminate in “a swirling, grandiose phantasmagoria of sensual and spiritual ecstasy.” (27)

Even the recent, highly respected work of Barbara Kiefer Lewalski on so-called Protestant poetics serves, in a number of ways, to relegate Crashaw to the fringe, for Lewalski concludes that he was isolated from other English Christian writers of his time and suggests that his poetry was inspired, not by the Bible, but by medieval Catholic and continental sources, which presumably are nonbiblical in their inspiration. [Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1979). (28)


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