To the Countesse of Denbigh


The full title of the poem is To the Noblest and Best of Ladyes, the Countesse of Denbigh, Persuading her to Resolution in Religion. Crashaw met the Countess in Paris while both of them were in exile during the Civil War. Unlike Crashaw, however, the Countess had not fully committed herself to Roman Catholicism. Crashaw's poem is trying to finally persuade her to take the final step.

About irresolution

We might think that Crashaw would use theological arguments to persuade her finally, but not so. The poem is a series of persuasive images, none of which has any theological content at all. The poem might be given to anyone who has a tough decision to make about almost anything, including accepting a marriage proposal. It is basically about irresolution in general. It doesn't refer to the Catholic church once, and only to God indirectly as ‘Allmighty Love'.

At the gate of bliss

The opening (ll.1-6) uses the image of a door needing to be opened. The Countess needs to enter the ‘gate of blisse', being presumably the Catholic Church.

Do not delay

The first main section (ll.6-28) consists of three linked images or conceits. The first is birth and delivery. She is in labour ‘of your selfe', in the sense that only her will can deliver her soul. This leads to the image of consent, as in a marriage proposal. Sometimes a delay can be just too long. The habit of delay can become ‘fatall bands', causing paralysis of the will.

A number of paradoxes

Crashaw plays throughout with a number of paradoxes, many quite conventional in religious language. The idea of keeping one's heart ‘free' (i.e. free to choose) actually binds it, is one such paradox. He talks of ‘these strange warres' – not the Civil War in this case, though that is the context, but psychological and spiritual battles. People are not always aware of the forces that cause them us to delay, thinking themselves still free to choose. The third image of the section is that of ice binding the free waters ‘In a sad self-captivity', which is one of a number of brilliant little lines in the poem.

Martial language

The second section is an appeal to ‘Allmighty Love' to end ‘this long warr'. Various warfare terms are used: ‘dart', ‘Trophee of thy powre', ‘conquering', ‘rebell'. But this is woven into other images: ‘And of a meteor make a star' – another brilliant little line – and keys to cabinets. ‘The self-shutt cabinet of an unsearcht soul' takes a good deal of unpacking.

The third and final section returns to the Countess, addressed as ‘fair flower'. The paradoxes of Cupid-like love are used, with the dart and arrow being seen as causing healing wounds. Other warfare language abounds: ‘armes', ‘love's seege', ‘cowardise' -with the paradox of courage being needed to submit. The final enemy is death: the final appeal is to decide soon, before he comes.

Investigating To the Countesse of Denbigh
  • Read through Crashaw's To the Countess of Denbigh
    • Pick out the paradoxes in the final section
      • Can you work them out?
    • How does Crashaw mix up his imagery?
      • Does the mixture work?
    • Can you unpack ‘The self-shutt cabinet of an unsearcht soul'?
  • Does Crashaw's avoidance of specifically Catholic themes help us appreciate the poem more?
    • Or does its vagueness prove a weakness?
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