Academic Writing

Comparing the Religious Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw

The poets of the mid-seventeenth century make up a representative sample of the diverse collection of thoughts of the English populace at the time, particularly reflecting the religious anxieties of this contentious time in history. John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw are particularly emblematic of these concerns. Donne and Herbert’s religious poems are more similar than they are distinctly different, and though Crashaw too exhibits some similarities to these poets, his experiences and his writings distinguish him from them. Both Donne and Herbert were followers of the Anglican tradition; in fact, both were ordained preachers in the church. However, Donne was a convert from Catholicism while Herbert was raised Anglican. Conversely to Donne, Crashaw was the son of a devoted Puritan but converted to Catholicism. All three poets are deeply influenced by their faith and their history with their religious institutions, but just as their biographies differ, so too do their religious poems. Crashaw’s poems stand apart from the religious poems of Donne and Herbert in their more lenient structure and a difference in content reflective of his Catholic beliefs as compared to the Anglican Donne and Herbert.

Crashaw’s poems differ most significantly from those of Donne and Herbert in their structure and composition. Donne and Herbert are both very strict structuralists, following complex rhyme schemes and meters. While Donne’s religious poetry is less structurally complex than some of his other poems, he still soundly adheres to the form of the Italian sonnet throughout his collection of Holy Sonnets. For his part, Herbert’s poems are prime evidence of his application of structural techniques, especially in shaped poems such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings.” Indeed Herbert’s focus on such “architecture” continues in the separation into parts of his collection, The Temple, wherein he delineates “The Church-Porch,” The Church, and “Church Militant,” reflecting his concern on the internal make-up of one’s religious being. Contrarily, though Crashaw generally remains consistent in his rhymes, his lines of poetry are irregular in their meter, varying widely both between and within stanzas. In “The Flaming Heart,” the lines have anywhere from seven to eleven syllables, with no predictable pattern. This effect is occasionally jarring, especially when Crashaw breaks from a steady stream of tetrameter into a longer line of verse. For example, when Crashaw writes, “But had thy pale-faced purple took / Fire from the burning cheeks of that bright book,” the change in meter serves to emphasize the descriptive image of the fire (ln. 27-28). Furthermore, the inconsistency of Crashaw’s rhythm reads as someone overcome by religious fervor such that structure becomes less important than the communication of his beliefs. Crashaw also distinguishes his poems from those of Donne and Herbert in the type of poetry written. All three poets make use of the structure of the three-part meditation—Donne in “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,” Herbert most saliently in “The Collar,” and Crashaw in “The Flaming Heart”—but in different styles. Donne and Herbert’s religious poems mostly take the forms of shorter lyrics and sonnets, whereas Crashaw’s poems are much longer, often including emblem poems, such as in “To the Countess of Denbigh.” It is not only in structure that the poems of Crashaw, Donne, and Herbert differ.

Due to the differences in religious backgrounds of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw, the subjects and content of their religious poetry necessarily differs distinctly. While all poets use figurative language as typical of the time, Donne and Herbert tend to use more and larger metaphors and conceits as a way of discussing their religious subjects. Herbert’s “Redemption” places God in the position of a landlord and the speaker as tenant, writing, “A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’old,” indicating his discontent with the Old Testament and desire to replace it with the New Testament (ln. 4). In fact, Herbert writes an entire sonnet defining prayer in a series of metaphors without ever using a main verb. This dedication to figurative language also appears in Donne’s religious poetry, especially in his “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness,” in which he compares himself to a flat map. Though Crashaw also makes use of metaphors within the text of his poems, they tend instead to center very much around the direct subject on which he is writing, such as in “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God.” Moreover, the subjects themselves that these poets examine vary evidently between Crashaw, Donne and Herbert in accordance with their respective religious traditions.

The entirety of England at this time was struggling to make sense of religious loyalty post-Reformation, and this anxiety in attempting to define the minutiae of the still-evolving Anglicanism is clear throughout Donne and Herbert’s poetry. Donne’s poems in particular are often characterized by their intense focus on Donne’s own mortality and concern for salvation. Especially present in Holy Sonnet 7 (as numbered in the ninth edition of the Norton anthology), Donne ruminates on his soul’s fate after death, writing, “Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good / As if thou hadst sealed by pardon with thy blood.” (ln. 13-14). Concerns such as these also manifest in Herbert’s poems, especially in “The Collar,” in which the speaker raves about the material pleasures denied him because of his religious devotion. Donne and Herbert’s focus on resolving religious conflicts in their poetry as well as their preoccupation with the individual connection with God is indicative of their Protestant faith, particularly so for Donne as a convert from Catholicism. In this way Crashaw especially distinguishes his poems from those of his Protestant contemporaries and overall seems less anxious about the state of his religion. Similar to his direct treatment of the subjects in his poems, Crashaw also approaches Catholic pillars such as sainthood and the importance of the Virgin Mary in the birth of Christ very directly. In fact, despite his conflicted history with religion, Crashaw is able to write definitively to the Countess of Denbigh to persuade her to also convert to Catholicism, saying, “Disband dull fears; give faith the day. / To save your life, kill your delay” (ln. 57-58). Crashaw’s “To the Countess of Denbigh” also contrasts acutely with Donne’s “Satire 3,” which encourages a broad recommendation to discover one’s own “proper” religion instead of advocating for one in particular.

More than just the content of his poems, the poetic voice Crashaw employs differentiates him from Donne and Herbert. Crashaw often represents the feminine side of the gender binary in the personas he takes on whereas Donne and Herbert are often more masculine in their poems. Crashaw’s tendency towards feminine speakers coheres with the Catholic sanctification of the Virgin Mary, a pillar unique from the Protestant tradition of Donne and Herbert. This adoration of Mary is evident in Crashaw’s “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God,” as the speaker describes, “both maid and mother” in Mary’s bosom, the baby Christ’s resting place (ln. 89). Furthermore, even Crashaw’s less strict structuring of his poems fits with the typical conceptions of the female sex as weak and more subject to vacillation in comparison to the male tropes of strength and firmness, as represented by Donne and Herbert’s definitively constructed poems. Differences between these poets can also be seen in their actualization of religious perfection. Donne and Herbert traditionally characterize the religious ideal in Christ, and aspire to become Christ-like as a marker of their devotion. Such aspirations are evident in Herbert’s poem, “Man,” as he writes, “What house more stately hath there been, / Or can be, than is man?” referencing the idea that man was created in the image of God (ln. 4-5). Contrastingly, Crashaw idealizes the devoted woman, particularly in the image of St. Teresa in “The Flaming Heart,” explaining to her that “By all of Him we have in thee” (ln. 105).

The poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw has both literary merit and importance as representative of some of the thoughts and feelings of an era of radical change. Thus, noticing how Catholic Crashaw and Anglican Donne and Herbert translate their experiences and beliefs into their work is essential to the deeper comprehension of these poems. The poems of these three writers vary widely in both structure and content, which, when considered together, holds larger implications for the study of religious poetry. It is evident that these poets’ choices are influenced by their experiences with religion and faith. Donne and Herbert’s poems are full of the anxiety that comes with the definition of new religious traditions following the Protestant Reformation, whereas Crashaw is more grounded and trends towards a more feminine speaker, reflecting the high position of the Virgin Mary within Catholicism. The leniency of Crashaw’s poetic structure as well as the evidently different tones and subjects within his poetry clearly distinguishes his poems from those of Donne and Herbert.

EnglishSarah Burk