Synopsis of Hymn to St Teresa

The full title of the poem is A Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable Saint Teresa. The poem appeared in the posthumous volume Carmen Deo Nostro (Hymn to our God), but from the following poem in that volume, An Apology for the Foregoing Hymn, it appears to have been written in England before he went into exile, since its subtitle is As Having Been Writ When the Author was yet Among the Protestants. A second poem to St Teresa follows that, called The Flaming Heart.


St Teresa by Peter Paul Rubens, available through Creative CommonsTaking the three poems together, we can see just how fascinated Crashaw was by the figure of St Teresa. She was a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, who became a nun and then founded her own order of ‘Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites', a mixed order of men and women. One of its most famous members was another Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross.

An apology

In An Apology, Crashaw has to apologise for Teresa's being Spanish, since that nation was still regarded with great suspicion by the English in the mid-seventeenth century because of fears that it would try to regain the English throne it for Catholicism. To be seen reading a Spanish author at that time would have seemed quite subversive. Crashaw's defence is that once you are a follower of Christ, nationality ceases to mean that much.

Two incidents in St Teresa's life

Crashaw focuses on two incidents in St Teresa's life. When she was a child, she ran away from home with her brother because she wanted to convert the Moors (North African Muslims who had previously conquered Spain, though by Teresa's time, they had been driven out). If she was captured and put to death, St Teresa with a flaming arror in her heartshe regarded that as all part of the ‘bargain'. Fortunately, her uncle intervened.

Secondly, when she was a nun, she received a series of out-of-body experiences when she saw herself being shot by a flaming arrow in the heart by an angel. She felt agonising pain, but believed the wounds were from God and that they infused in her a passionate religious love that energised her for her later work.

Martyrdom and love

For Crashaw these two extraordinary events are linked by the idea of martyrdom. As a child, Teresa was willing to become a martyr; her second experience was a sort of ‘living death', which she willingly underwent because of her faith. Because the second experience produced the overwhelming sense of love, Crashaw links martyrdom and love together. It must be remembered that the seventeenth century produced its own long list of martyrs, both Catholic and Protestant. Crashaw, himself, whilst not a martyr, did die in exile as a result of his faith, and presumably at the time of writing the poem, was counting such a cost.

Investigating Hymn to St Teresa
  • What is your idea of a martyr? Are there martyrs today?
  • Or are they for you just ancient historical figures?
  • What might Crashaw, an unmarried scholar, brought up in a Puritan household, have found so riveting in the life of St Teresa?
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