Picturing Our Lady: Richard Crashaw’s “The Tear”
Although only a privileged few have seen Our Lady on this side of eternity, artists through the centuries have created various representations to convey this or that aspect of she who is our Blessed Mother. One thinks of the beautiful and even miraculous paintings around the world or of the many musical compositions of the Ave Maria or Magnificat. The poets have also used the art of musical speech to praise Our Lady. From St. Ephrem’s hymns on the Theotokos to the Marian poetry of St. Thérèse of the Little Flower, the saints have given the Church verses of doctrine and devotion. In world literature, the summit is Dante’s Divine Comedy, a thoroughly Marian poem by the “most eloquent singer of the Christian idea.” Even the non-Catholic William Wordsworth, writing in a more modern time, calls the Blessed Mother “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” It is nevertheless true that literature in English, although often Christian in imagery and spirit, suffers from the effects of the Protestant Revolution. The father of English poetry, Chaucer, who died in 1400, was, of course, a Catholic and wrote several poems in praise of Mary. But by the time modern English—different from Chaucer’s Middle English—was fully evolved in the 17th-century, England was largely Protestant with an increasing movement away from Catholic beliefs and traditions.
A not-so-subtle anti-Catholicism over the centuries helps us to account for both the lack of English Catholic poets and the relative obscurity of many of those who were. A good example is Richard Crashaw, a convert and mystical Catholic poet, whose work deserves more recognition than it enjoys today.
The Life of Crashaw
Richard Crashaw was born around 1613, some 60 years after Henry VIII’s lust and Thomas Cranmer’s heresy began England’s separation from 1,000 years of Catholicism. In addition to the martyrdoms under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth—most famously St. Edmund Campion’s—that were cast by the government as political events, it was after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that anti-Catholicism became equated with English patriotism. The real question—and a central issue during the subsequent Civil War of 1642-1651—became how near or far from the Old Faith the Anglican ritual and practices would end up, with various forces wanting to push the English church toward the Calvinistic Puritans. Crashaw’s father William was a fiercely anti-Catholic Anglican theologian and cleric whose views inclined to the Puritan side. After his father’s death, young Richard attended the Charterhouse School in London where he started writing some verse and then went on to Cambridge, the alma mater of many famous English poets. While at Cambridge, Crashaw was increasingly attracted to High Church Anglicanism, which emphasizes the connections with England’s Catholic heritage. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, for example, called for “beauty in holiness” and “more reverence and decorum in church ceremonial and service, in the decoration of churches, and in the elaboration of the ritual.” In 1638, Crashaw was awarded a Master of Arts and ordained in the Church of England. He was also friends with Nicholas Ferrar, whose semi-monastic High Church community at Little Gidding was later made famous by T. S. Eliot. Having been cited for “excessive Mariolatry” in 1641, Crashaw was expelled from his church by Puritans during the Civil War and fled into exile in 1644. Already deeply attracted to the Catholic imagery and practice of the Counter-Reformation era and influenced by the spirituality of St. Teresa of Ávila, Crashaw converted. After facing poverty and ill-health, Crashaw, now a Catholic priest, eventually received a position with an Italian Cardinal, but died a short time later, in 1649. Already known for a book of epigrams on sacred subjects, such as the Wedding at Cana, and his Steps to the Temple, a volume of hymns to Our Lord was published after his death.
The Metaphysical School
As a poet, Crashaw is best known as a member of the so-called “Metaphysical” school: poets who employ striking metaphors and images to convey complex and interesting comparisons between things. He is also associated with the Baroque movement in poetry. Better known in music, architecture, sculpture, and painting, this style is characterized by an abundance of detail and ornamentation, by energy and movement, by contrasts and surprise. The great themes in Crashaw are a confidence in the love God has for man and a celebration of the purity and virtue of the Blessed Mother or other saints in an impassioned, almost ecstatic voice. He is thus one of those poetic painters of Our Lady who produces images of her so that we may know and love her better.
One such example is his meditation on a tear of the Blessed Mother. Whether it comes from some painting or only his imagination is unknown, but it is already unusual to focus from the beginning of the poem on a single tear. Further, the discussion is centered on the tear itself, not on the cause of Our Lady’s weeping. All the poet gives is that the tear is a great “expense,” like a rich diamond.
The first stanza is remarkable for the various contrasts the poet employs to introduce the tear—beginning with a question as if it is not clear what exactly the poet perceives. The tear is “bright” like a “spark” of fire or a hard, glittering diamond, but it is also water that appears to be “soft.” Hence, amid this mixture of elements, the poet gives a wonderful oxymoron in line three: “A moist spark it is.” Next, the poet extends the concept by calling the tear a star, likening Mary’s eye to one of the celestial spheres that make up the universe. The tear is like a meteorite, perhaps, coming down to earth, when the sun, now personified, takes up the “jewel,” this diamond or star, to adorn “his sister.” The sun is the Son, Christ, who wishes to adorn His sister—the Christian Soul—with this symbol of Mary’s compassion and beauty. The soul is decorated with the graces acquired through Our Lady’s mediation as a diamond shines in the ear of a beautiful maiden. Despite this joyful sentiment, it remains true that the Blessed Mother is weeping; the beauty of the tear cannot fully overcome the sense of sorrow. So, after affirming the tear is the truest tear that can be shed, the tear itself starts weeping because it leaves “a place so dear,” the heavenly sphere of Mary’s eye.
The next two stanzas are in the spirit of the Canticle of Canticles: the tear, now “a pearl,” is compared to dew on a rose in the springtime. We might think of May, Mary’s month. Here again, is the action of Christ, a sort of holy violence to create something higher. The dewdrop is on the “lip” or edge of the rosebud until the sunlight causes the rosebud to shed, or “sweat,” the dew. These “ungentle flames” also act on the dewdrop itself, which “blushes on the manly sun.”
Then the conclusion, recalling the wedding at Cana: “This wat’ry blossom of thy eyne, / Ripe, will make the richer wine.” From the tear of Mary comes joy, the joy of the eternal nuptial feast in Paradise. The poem concludes by affirming that this “fair drop” will not fall in the dust and be lost; rather, the poet places it on a pillow and has it carried to Heaven where the music of the heavenly spheres wakes it and makes it a new star, another voice in the celestial chorus. Higher than all the stars and, we might add, with the moon under her feet, is the Blessed Mother herself, and so the poet affirms that the tear would have rather stayed in the heaven of Mary’s eye than to have become one of the stars of physical heaven.
Such rich verse as this meditation on a tear is part of our Catholic heritage in the English-speaking world. These artistic gems, some better known than others, are many opportunities to work to “restore all things in Christ.” If Dostoevsky was right and “beauty will save the world,” then it is precisely to these makers of beauty that we must turn, both passing on the cultural tradition and inspiring new manifestations of the same eternal theme.