Commentary on St Mary Magdalene

Theme with variations

This is a long poem – 31 stanzas in all – but can be broken down into sections, according to the various images. It is rather like a theme with variations in Baroque music. The theme is the central conceit of the continuous weeping; the variations are the images and conceits derived from various aspects of tears and weeping. There is no logical sequence to the arrangement of the variations, though Crashaw does try to use link passages or motifs.

The opening line places the poem: the poet is addressing the features, not the person. We never really get a psychological picture of this repentant women. Instead, we get very physical descriptions of the features of weeping: tears, eyes, cheeks and hair especially. Each feature is seen in a different number of ways, interweaving and building up a strange richness of texture



  • in stanza 1 we have ‘Thy fair eyes' as springs and ‘snowy hills'
  • stanzas 2-3 have the tears as stars
  • then, through the link idea of the Milky Way in stanza 4, the tears then become milk in stanza 5
  • the first mention of the cause of the tears, repentance, is made in stanza 6
  • linking with the image of tears as pearls to be worn by a mythologised Sorrow (stanza 7).

A series of nature images follows in stanzas 8-11:

  • tears as dewdrops
  • as drops of medicinal balm
  • as grapes

The grape image links to wine, and the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is mentioned (John 2:8-10) in stanza 12

  • By association, the River Tagus is mentioned in stanza 13, that being a wine-growing area in Portugal

The nature images continue in terms of April showers and eyes as ‘nests of milky doves' (stanzas 14-16).


The poet then turns to the emotions (or passions) behind the repentance, using the alliteration of floods and fires for tears and passion. Love is the basic passion (stanzas 17-18). It is love for Christ, and the next group of stanzas picture Mary as his follower (stanzas 19-22). Stanza 22 refers to the gospel accounts in terms of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46).

Tears personified

In the last but one line of stanza 22, Crashaw mentions ‘Times', and the theme of tears and time occupy the next group of stanzas (23-26). Other sorts of tears are mentioned (stanza 27) before the tears themselves are apostrophised with a series of questions (stanzas 28-29). The final two stanzas are the tears' reply to the poet (stanzas 30-31). The final line brings us back to the gospel account: ‘We goe to meet/ A worthy object, our Lord's feet'.

Investigating St Mary Magdalene
  • Take two or three of the sections of St Mary Magdalene outlined above
    • Make a detailed analysis of them
      • Look at the imagery
      • How does Crashaw make the transition into and out of each image?
  • From the poem, what do you think really interested Crashaw in the story of the weeping woman?
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