Academic journal article Cithara

Richard Crashaw and George Herbert's the Temple: Mystery, Liturgy, Error *

Academic journal article Cithara

Richard Crashaw and George Herbert's the Temple: Mystery, Liturgy, Error *

Article excerpt

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Luke 24:31

In the prefatory epistle of Steps to the Temple (1646,1648), most likely written by Richard Crashaw's Peterhouse colleague Joseph Beaumont,Crashaw is described as George "Herbert's second, but equal" (5).1 Even more, he is said to have furthered Herbert's retrieval of poetry from its primitive use and divine origins (ibid.). This somewhat exalted view of Crashaw is justified on the grounds that Steps to the Temple revives the Neo-Pythagorean metrical theory expressed in Augustine's De Musica, a tradition of Neoplatonic poetics that at least one critic has identified as central to Herbert's verse.2 According to Beaumont's preface, Augustine's theory of poetry maintains that "every foot in a high-borne verse, might help to measure the soul into that better world" (5). Implied here is the Neo-Pythagorean idea that the musical resonance of poetic meter imitates the divine harmony of creation, tuning readers into a higher spiritual pitch. On this score, the music as well as the meaning of Crashaw's poetry has the sanctifying power to bring readers into greater consonance with the Logos much as Herbert prays for in "The Temper": "Stretch or contract me thy poore debter: / This is but tuning of my breast, / To make the musick better" (11. 22-24).3

The preface's connection between Crashaw's apparent investment in Neoplatonic poetics and Herbert's The Temple is not uncalculated. By situating Crashaw in relation to Herbert and Augustine's early treatise De Musica, the preface participates in a broader attempt among Laudians and then later Restoration conformists to emphasize those aspects of The Temple most amenable to high church spirituality. From Barnabas Oley's and Izaak Walton's partisan biographies, to Henry Vaughan's and Thomas Traherne's poetry, to confessionally specific practices of bindingHerbert's The Temple, Laudians and Restoration Anglicans made Herbert over into their image for reasons that were at once religious, political, and aesthetic.4 Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, such efforts contrasted attempts by dissenters to do much the same thing for competing ends. While Herbert's seventeenth-century readers may have disagreed about his legacy, they generally concurred on its significance.

The burden of what follows is to demonstrate that in advancing the conformist side of this project, the preface did not impose an agenda on Steps to the Temple, so much as it drew out the spiritual and aesthetic implications of Crashaw's own response to Herbert. Though never polemical, and while often irreducible to categories such as puritan and Laudian, many of which have been significantly complicated in recent years, Crashaw's creative reworkings of Herbert are nevertheless rarely innocent of poetic and spiritual consequence.5 At bottom, they reveal how Crashaw's religious poetry aspires towards the status of liturgy in a relatively specific and quite paradoxical sense. In sum, they show how his poetry is animated by the structures and rhythms of a liturgical process in which scriptural revelation is rooted in and verified by the Eucharistic-event, which in turn is rooted in and verified by scriptural revelation. At work in this hermeneutic is a kenotic view of revelation in which God withdraws in order to appear, in which he disappears in order to arrive (Philippians, 2:5-ll).6 To understand how Crashaw's poems aspire to the status of liturgy is to understand how they are designed to move readers deeper into this Eucharistic-hermeneutic, with its kenotic view that in God "poverty coincides with overabundance" (Marion 2001, 111).7

Once we see how this fecund circle works, it should become clear why it is unhelpful to ask if Crashaw is primarily a scriptural or a liturgical poet. In his high church understanding of the Prayer Book tradition, the living Word only becomes fully accessible to the community within the hermeneutic circle generated by the mutually reinforcing relations between liturgy and scripture. …

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