Richard Crashaw was a 17th-century English devotional poet, but very different from his contemporaries John Donne and George Herbert in the way that he describes his spiritual experiences. He does not challenge his readers with intellectual ideas like Donne, or nurture them in more homely piety like Herbert, but rather seeks to stir their emotional responses through the rich sensuousness of his descriptions. For example, the awe with which he expresses Christ's sacrifice is inspired not so much by its doctrinal significance as the way to salvation, but by the rapture and wonder he feels at the worth and beauty of Jesus' blood (see the short poem "Upon the Body of our Blessed Lord, Naked and Bloody"). His poetry has much in common with the Italian poet Marino and with the Continental tradition of the religious mystics, and like them he expresses spiritual transcendence through intensely physical imagery.
Crashaw was born in London in 1612, the only son of a learned Puritan divine with strong anti-Catholic views. After his father's death, he studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, later being elected to a fellowship at Peterhouse College in 1635. Both colleges were known for their High Church sympathies. In spite of his highly ascetic personal life, this was a time of great content for Crashaw, who divided his time among his academic work, preaching at Little St. Mary's Church, pastimes of poetry, music, and drawing, and his visits to the Anglican community at Little Gidding that had been established by George Herbert's friend Nicholas Ferrar. However, his happiness was short-lived, and before Cromwell's parliamentary forces smashed the statues in Peterhouse College and Little St. Mary's Church in 1643, he fled to Leyden and then Paris. By this time, he had converted to Catholicism, although he named his 1646 collection of poetry Steps to the Temple in honor of the Anglican George Herbert. He continued on to Rome where he remained virtually destitute for a year before being given a minor post. In 1649, he was eventually appointed subcanon in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Loreto, but died the same year. Crashaw has been described as the chief exponent in English of the Baroque style. Underlying this style is the belief that the senses, emotions, and imagination can all combine in God's worship, and that an elaborate, decorative, overflowing style, and passionate, exotic imagery can best stimulate this response. In this view, religious art should appeal to the physical senses, while including symbolism that carries deeper spiritual meaning.
Crashaw's most important poems include meditations on incidents in the life of Jesus and many show his fascination with saintly women ("The Weeper," "On the Glorious Assumption of our Blessed Lady," "Sancta Maria Dolorosa," "A Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable St. Teresa" and "The Flaming Heart"). Among his poetic techniques are a paradoxical fusion of binary opposites such as the sensuous and the spiritual, the secular and the divine, tears and ecstasy; a frequent appeal to the senses, particularly those of touch, taste and sound; the use of extravagant metaphors without any hint of irony, as when he compares Magdalene's eyes to "two walking baths, . . . portable and compendious oceans," and her tears to the cream above the Milky Way; and the use of erotic imagery to convey spiritual longing and spiritual experience. This last characteristic is seen in the sexual suggestiveness at the end of the "Letter to the Countess of Denbigh" and the description of St. Teresa pierced by the dart of the Angel of Love. The startlingly sensuous terms in which Crashaw depicts the spiritual world recall the sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini, and the earlier writing on divine love of such women mystics as Julian of Norwich.