Commentary on Hymn to St Teresa

The long poem Hymn to St Teresa, probably Crashaw's best, consists of an introduction and four sections:

  • Introduction (ll. 1-14): the traditional idea of a martyr
  • Section 1 (ll.15-64): Teresa as would-be child martyr
  • Section 2 (ll.65-104): Teresa's mystical experience of the flaming arrows
  • Section 3 (ll.105-127): Teresa's death
  • Section 4 (ll.128-181): Teresa's entry into heaven


There are two main points here.

Firstly, the direct address to ‘Love'. Love is given divine personification here, yet without being quite identified with either Christ or the Holy Spirit. One of the marks of mystical theology is a certain loosening of the tight boundaries of theological definition. For those not used to the traditions of mysticism, for instance, Crashaw's Protestant contemporaries, this could have caused a problem.

S Nicetas the Goth, martyrSecondly, Crashaw uses the rhetorical device of telling us what he says he is not going to tell us. He says he is not interested in the traditional idea of a martyr, which he then proceeds to spell out. It is a very male picture ‘old soldiers, great and tall', and probably the image you have when the word is mentioned. By contrast, Crashaw is going to tell us of would-be female and child martyrs, where love and softness predominate, rather than bravery and toughness.

Section one

Crashaw's point is clearly made:

'Tis LOVE, not YEARES or LIMBS that can
Make the Martyr, or the man.

The link of love and martyrdom is central to the poem. The infant Teresa's love is as intense as a mature person's. The only difference is that it is intuitive and undifferentiated: ‘though she cannot tell you why'. It is a strange, even disturbing thought for us perhaps, but echoes the biblical passage of Christ with the children (Matthew 19:13-15).

The linking of love and death is similarly intuitive. Crashaw puts Teresa's choices very simply, so that we can see the childlike logic:

teach them (the Moors) how to live
In him (Christ) or ...
For him she'l teach them how to DY.

In a sense, all martyrdom comes down to this simple choice, this either/or.

Investigating Hymn to St Teresa
  • Look at ll. 15-64 of Hymn to St Teresa
    • Why are ‘her mother's kisses' insufficient for the young Teresa?

Section two

It is not Teresa's time. ‘Thy fair Spouse' calls her back. Christ's relationship with humanity is described in the Bible, using the metaphor of marriage. Both nuns and mystics have often applied this image to themselves. Christ has ‘a milder MARTYRDOM' for Teresa, in that it does not involve death directly. Instead she will become

Love's victime; and must dy
A death more mysticall and high.

The use of ‘dart' rather than ‘arrow' may contain a reference to Cupid, the god of love. Crashaw has used this term before, in St Mary Magdalene, l.103, where again the Cupid image is very strong.

The dart is

thrice dip't in that rich flame
Which writes thy spouse's radiant Name.

It is the fire of passion that is suggested; Christ as the ardent, burning lover, where the dart symbolises the force of the passion. Agony and ecstasy become one in a very romantic passage. Crashaw is, though we may not realise it, only echoing the words of St Teresa herself as she describes these mystical experiences.

Investigating Hymn to St Teresa
  • Look at ll. 65-104 of Hymn to St Teresa
    • List words that suggest flames and burning
    • Why is there this emphasis?

Section three

The poet is writing this in the present tense as if he were addressing St Teresa directly. Thus, as he comes to think of her final death, that is put into the future. The tenses produce a certain sort of engagement and intensity not possible with past tenses. At last, he says, the mystical ‘deaths' will finally merge into a real death, where

Thy selfe shall feel thine own full joyes

The language is of ecstatic experience. The passage into death suddenly shifts to a pagan language of ‘The MOON of maiden starrs' awaiting her and making room for her to become, it would seem, a celestial body, as in various Greek myths. It sounds more like the Romantic poet, John Keats's youthful poem Endymion, which is about the moon goddess's love for a mortal.

Section four

This is really a very remarkable passage. English poetry does not abound with descriptions of heaven, even among Christian poets. This bravura piece of writing shows how fully engaged Crashaw's imagination is. He does not falter as he describes Teresa's reception by ‘the KING thy spouse' who then becomes ‘the LAMB thy Lord'. The language of the Book of Revelation is echoed here (Revelation 21:9). She is also welcomed by the angels and by her good deeds which have gone before her. Her former tears and sufferings all transformed into jewels, as are the books she has written. All the souls she has helped find salvation, or who have become members of her order, shall be there as jewels on ‘thy rich zone' (belt). She will become the bride of Christ, a term usually reserved for the Church as a whole (Revelation 21:2). She clearly, for Crashaw, is the number one example for all ‘who in death would live', who ‘must learn in life to dy like thee'.

Investigating Hymn to St Teresa

‘ who in death would live …
Must learn in life to dy like thee'
  • How should the reader imitate St Teresa?
  • List all the things from Teresa's past life which will now be part of her triumphant entry in heaven
  • How does Crashaw convey the sense of final triumph for Teresa?
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