Journal of Early Modern Studies

Volume 10, Issue 2, Fall 2021

Fabrice Schultz
Pages 65-90

Alchemy and the Transformation of Matter in Richard Crashaw’s Poetry (1612-1649)

This paper studies the English poems of Richard Crashaw (1612-1649) from a historicist and formalist perspective. It specifically considers Crashaw’s poetry in its religious but also intellectual and early scien­tific context to investigate the frequently overlooked influence of science on his poetry. Metaphors drawn from alchemy and particularly from the trans­formation of matter to achieve its purification and spiritualisation enrich the poet’s expression of mystical devotion to underline that access to the spiritual as well as mystical union with Christ are deeply rooted in the devotee’s body. Representations of the earth as a chemical laboratory focus on materiality and corporality to emphasise the constant movement animating matter. A form of spiritual alchemy underscores Crashaw’s Christocentrism and references to the metamorphoses of matter consistently aim to express mystical union. A meta-poetic analysis eventually highlights a significant analogy between reading and alchemical processes in order to demonstrate the anagogical aim of Crashaw’s verse and the way his poems work on his reader’s heart to lift his soul. References to liquefaction, distillation or sublimation echo the published works of mystics but alchemical conceits based on symbolically evocative topoï and polysemic vocabulary reinforce the importance of the corporal in the expe­rience of mystical union.