Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber, 1634
Steps to the Temple, 1646, 1648
Carmen Deo Nostro, 1652
Poems: English, Latin, and Greek, 1927, 1957
Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw, 1970
Richard Crashaw (KRASH-aw), who is among the best of England’s Roman Catholic poets, began his life as the son of an anti-Catholic Anglican clergyman with Puritan leanings. He was born in London in 1612 or 1613, while his father was preacher to the Temple, and he was enrolled in the Charterhouse School there about 1629, three years after the death of his father. It has been suggested that Robert Brooke, the headmaster of Charterhouse, gave young Crashaw his first training in writing poetry. In 1631, Crashaw entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University, where he contributed poems and drawings to several occasional volumes.
Crashaw remained in Cambridge until after the outbreak of the civil war, taking his degree in 1634. Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber was published that same year. In 1635, Crashaw became a fellow of Peterhouse College, the stronghold of the High Church party of Archbishop Laud, one of the most influential ministers of Charles I. While there he met poet Abraham Cowley, who became a lifelong friend.
Crashaw’s poetry reveals a joy in beauty and sensuous, concrete imagery that helps explain his preference for the ceremonies of High Church Anglicanism and finally the Roman Catholic Church. During the late 1630’s, he formed close friendships with members of Nicholas Ferrar’s Anglo-Catholic community at Little Gidding. By 1939, Crashaw had been ordained in the Anglican Church; that year he assumed the curacy of nearby Little St. Mary’s.
Crashaw’s first volume of English poetry, Steps to the Temple, appeared in 1646. Its title reflects his admiration for the religious lyrics of George Herbert, published in The Temple. The same volume also contained The Delights of the Muses, featuring classical and occasional poetry. Crashaw, ever revising his poetry, reissued the collection in 1648.
As a Laudian Anglican and a strong royalist, Crashaw was forced to flee Cambridge in 1643, before Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary Commissioners came to Peterhouse to destroy the church ornaments they considered idolatrous and to root out royalist sympathizers. Crashaw may have gone first to Little Gidding, but he was soon on the Continent, in Leiden. He went on to Paris in 1644 to the exiled English queen, Henrietta Maria, who had taken refuge at the court of her nephew, Louis XIV, and to whom Crashaw may have been introduced by Cowley. At court, Crashaw met his patron, the countess of Denbigh, recipient of Crashaw’s famous letter of spiritual advice. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1644 or 1645.
Crashaw went to Rome in 1645 or shortly thereafter, but in spite of a letter from Henrietta Maria to the pope in his behalf, his reception there was cool. He was finally given a post in the household of Cardinal Palotto in 1646 or 1647. English travelers reported that Crashaw was soon disillusioned with the corruption of the cardinal’s retinue and had made enemies of many of his servants. In 1649, Crashaw was transferred, possibly for his own safety, to Loreto. He died there months later, ostensibly of fever but with rumors of poisoning.
Carmen Deo Nostro, containing revisions of poems in Steps to the Temple and a number of new works, was published posthumously in 1652. Crashaw’s works have often been reprinted since his death, and he remains a well-established minor poet, one of the few English writers with the “baroque sensibility,” the love for rich colors, sensuous imagery, and intense emotion that inspired the sculptors, painters, and poets of seventeenth century France and Italy.