Were one to conduct a survey of modern-day Americans, taken at random, it is likely that not one in a hundred would have heard of the poet, Richard Crashaw. Were one to cross the Atlantic and conduct a similar experiment with modern-day Englishmen, it is likely that the result would be the same. This neglect and ignorance of one of England’s greatest poets says more about the barbarism of the age in which we live than it does about the merits of the neglected poet.
Richard Crashaw (1613-49) was born four hundred years ago and became one of the greatest poets of his age, or indeed of any age. He is one of what might be called the magnificent seven of seventeenth-century poets, the other six being Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Dryden. Some might insist that Andrew Marvell belongs in this illustrious group but he is, me judice, not quite of the same caliber, occupying a preeminent place in the second tier, lower in the literary pecking order but nonetheless worthy of all due and decorous deference and respect.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) is, of course, the preeminent poet of his age as he is perhaps, with the possible and arguable exception of Homer or Dante, the preeminent poet of all ages. Ben Jonson (1573-1637), a contemporary of Shakespeare, is, like Shakespeare, best known as a dramatist whose lyric genius shines forth most brilliantly in his plays, most notably in the “Hymn to Diana” from Cynthia’s Revels and in the incomparable “Song to Celia” from Volpone, the latter of which begins with the immortal lines, “Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine.” Jonson was imprisoned for three months in 1597 for co-writing a satirical play attacking Queen Elizabeth’s government. It is indicative of Shakespeare’s own antagonism towards the Elizabethan regime that be befriended Jonson at around this time and was instrumental in getting Jonson’s comedy Every Man in His Humour accepted by the Chamberlain’s Men. Shortly afterward, in September 1598, Jonson was again imprisoned, this time for killing an adversary in a duel. During this second period in jail, possibly under Shakespeare’s influence, he was received into the Catholic Church, remaining a Catholic for twelve years and being fined for his recusancy in 1604 and 1605, before returning to the Anglican communion in 1610.
John Donne (1573-1631) was born in the same year as Jonson, his life reflecting in microcosm the great confusion in religious affairs which followed in the wake of the Reformation. Baptized as a Catholic and connected through his mother with St. Thomas More, he switched his allegiance to the Anglican church when still a young man. Thereafter he commenced the writing of religious polemic against the Catholic Church. Yet he seems to have paid a high psychological price for his apostasy, evident in the dark satire and disturbed skepticism of “The Progress of the Soul” (1601), a work that exhibited a mind and heart in turmoil. It was not until his ordination into the Anglican ministry in 1614 that he acquired a sense of theological settlement and stability, though not without the occasional attacks of doubt.
George Herbert (1593-1633) was the son of Lady Magdalen Herbert, to whom Donne addressed his Holy Sonnets. Like Donne, Herbert took Anglican orders. In both his life and works he represents the early flowering of Anglo-Catholicism which was being championed in his day by William Laud. He died in the same year that Laud, later to be beheaded for endeavouring “to overthrow the Protestant religion,” became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Although most of the “magnificent seven” were Catholic in either sympathy or practice, John Milton (1608-74) took up the Protestant cause with revolutionary zeal. Following the victory of Cromwell’s Puritan army in the Civil War, he supported and defended the execution of King Charles I. He was in the middle of writing Paradise Lost, indubitably his masterpiece, at the time of the Restoration of the monarchy, which he strongly opposed. Milton became so heterodox, denying the Trinity and the true divinity of Christ, that it is arguable that he cannot justifiably be called a Protestant or even a Christian of any sort in the true sense of the word.
Richard Crashaw, the son of a Puritan clergyman, converted to Catholicism during the Civil War and was forced into exile. Living in abject poverty in Paris and then in Rome, he was eventually appointed, in April 1649, to the post of subcanon of the Cathedral of Loreto in Italy, dying only four months later. A devotee of St. Teresa of Avila, he is a poet of the stature of the great St. John of the Cross, that other great poet and follower of St. Teresa who also suffered greatly for the Faith.
The final member of the “magnificent seven” is John Dryden (1631-1700), whose greatest work, The Hind and the Panther, published in 1687, two years after his conversion to Catholicism, is a monumental apologia for the Catholic faith and an equally monumental rebuttal of the claims of Anglicanism. Like Crashaw, Dryden is a true literary giant whose neglect by the modern world is scandalous. He deserves, like Crashaw, to become much better known. Perhaps in healthier and happy times, the magnificent seven will rise from the ashes like a phoenix of faith, resurrected and born again within the hearts of new generations of civilized readers.