Powerful or Disgusting? The Purpose of Crashaw’s Eucharistic Imagery
Some critics suggest that Richard Crashaw is tasteless and composes disgusting imagery in his poems, just for the sake of being baroque. However, his Eucharistic imagery takes a symbolic ritual, the figurative consumption of Christ’s body, and presents an image of the literal act of consuming flesh. Kimberly Johnson, of Brigham Young University, explains:
Rather than whatever carnal implications may follow from the presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist, what seems to exercise Crashaw most strenuously is the bald physical imperceptibility of Christ’s body in the consecrated elements. […] The reader of Crashaw’s Eucharistic poems must confront language whose irreducible physicality works to veil the spiritual principle it represents, a poetic strategy that replicates the challenge of discerning Christ’s body through the representational veils of bread and wine. (34-5)
The imagery may be disturbing, but one may argue that the graphic imagery lends a deeper appreciation for, or understanding of, the significance of Communion. Moreover, the poems function within the biblical contexts to which they refer. Crashaw’s graphic language was chosen specifically to remove the reader from their comfort zone and lead them to question a tradition that they may taken for granted.
In his poem “Blessed be the paps which Thou hast sucked,” Crashaw references Luke 11:27 in the King James Bible, in which a woman shouts to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.” However, in the next verse, Jesus replies, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” On the surface, the poem does not seem to hold any contextual relation to this brief exchange to which it refers. It reads: “Suppose he had been tabled at thy teats, / Thy hunger feels not what he eats: / He’ll have his teat e’re long (a bloody one) / The Mother then must suck the Son.” The poem appears to be addressed to the woman in Luke 11:27 with the beginning line: “Suppose he had been tabled at thy teats.” Crashaw is proposing that the woman put herself in the position of Christ’s mother; but she is not satisfied by feeding him; her only hope for salvation is to take part in the Eucharist, and to feed from him. Crashaw is suggesting that her only sustenance can come from the death of Christ, his bloody teat being the wound from the spear piercing his side after his death; his spilled blood is the only source of [eternal] life, as mother’s milk is for infants. Moreover, the poem does function in the biblical context from which the title was taken, in the sense that those who “hear the word of God, and keep it” are blessed. The act of taking communion is the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice that is written in the Word of God, and consuming it is a way of internalizing it in one’s life.
It is worth noting that Crashaw intentionally used graphic imagery, because, according to Johnson, his earlier Latin epigram used the verb bibere, meaning to drink, as opposed to his English translation of suck (35). Johnson notes that the literal translation from Crashaw’s early Latin epigram uses the same terminology as in the Roman liturgy (Take, and drink): “And what if Jesus should indeed drink from your breast? / what does it do to your thirst because he drinks? / And soon he will lay bare his breast—alas, not milky!—/ from her son, then the mother will drink” (35). His intentional mistranslation leads to the conclusion that his aim was to question the traditional Eucharistic theology. The word suck implies the actual act of nursing, but it is also scripturally accurate. While it confounds the Eucharistic tradition, the term sucked is the translation in the King James Bible, to which Crashaw was referring. While many Crashaw readers may be disturbed by this imagery, Crashaw’s intent was not to disturb them, but to question Eucharistic theology. Ryan Netzley, of Pennsylvania State University, expands on this point.
Perhaps most significantly and strikingly, Crashaw’s poeticized devotion amounts to more than a simple reflection of Catholic, Reformed, or Anglican prejudices. If it appears odd, or even tasteless, this seems less the result of some factional myopia or some idiosyncratic perversity, a disturbed infatuation with orifices or excretions, than it does the terribly limiting theoretical frames, whether fetishizing freedom, context, or the spectacularly mystical, that universally fail to understand how a viable eucharistic theology, a theology irreducible to a set of propositions requiring assent or belief, would impact not only all devotion, but also all conceptions of the physiological encounter with and response to the divine. (267)
So Crashaw is not aiming to be perverse or overtly spectacular, but rather being very honest in his understanding of the implications of the Eucharist. Eucharistic theology teaches that the body of Christ transubstantiates into the bread and wine of communion, so, to Crashaw, it would make sense to analogize it to breastfeeding: perpetuating life through one’s own body. Moreover, Crashaw struggled with the notion of transubstantiation. As Netzley explains:
Crashaw’s lyrics demand and enact an attention to the physical properties of the elements, as well as the physiological mechanisms by which they are encountered, that translates the doctrine of transubstantiation into the realm of individual devotional conversion, a translation that ultimately requires a radical reconceptualization, if not outright rejection of the substantial ‘self’ and perhaps ‘substance’ in general. (263)
So his imagery was not meant to disgust readers, but rather to challenge them to examine the meaning of communion and transubstantiation. It leads them to question a ritual they may not fully understand, and to find the value behind it.
Perhaps Crashaw changed the English translation of his Latin epigram in such a graphic way in order to prompt the reader to reflect. According to Etymonline.com and Webster’s New World Dictionary, the root of the word eucharist is from the Greek eukharistia, meaning “thanksgiving, gratitude.” Crashaw may have been suggesting that his readers should realize the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice and truly appreciate it instead of just going through the motions of taking communion. Johnson argues:
Crashaw’s ideal reader must learn to read through the carnal details in order to access the epigram’s divine argument. […] Perhaps the documented failure of most of Crashaw’s readers to spiritualize the physical is a consequence not of their ritual unpreparedness but rather of the poem’s insistence on language that refuses to give way to the spiritual. […] This poetic strategy, whereby the sacramental is interrupted by terms whose physicality defies symbolic assimilation, manifests itself whenever Crashaw turns his poetic attention to the Eucharist. (38-9)
The graphic nature of his language halts the reading in a way that causes more contemplation than the original Latin epigram. The familiar language in the Latin epigram makes readers too comfortable with a subject that Crashaw apparently takes very seriously. He chose to break free from the comfortable in order to encourage a deeper spiritual understanding in an unusual way.
So, while Crashaw may be a Baroque poet, his intent was not merely to shock his readers. His intent was to help his readers find a deeper appreciation and understanding of the tradition of the Eucharist. His shocking imagery causes readers to pause to properly digest his meaning. His imagery may repulse some readers, but upon closer examination, they are less repulsive and have more of an agenda than upon the first reading.
Crashaw, Richard. “Blessed be the paps which Thou hast sucked.” Norton Anthology of English
Literature. 8th ed. Vol.B. Norton. New York, NY. 2006. Print. 1645.
Etymonline.com. Web. 12-11-11.
Holy Bible. King James version. Luke 11:27-28. Print.
Johnson, Kimberly. “Richard Crashaw’s Indigestible Poetics.” Modern Philology. 2009. 107.1.
32-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12-11-11.
Netzley, Ryan. “Oral Devotion: Eucharistic Theology and Richard Crashaw’s Religious Lyrics.”
Texas Studies in Literature & Language. 2002. 44.3. 247-273. Academic Search Premier.