Friday, December 10, 2010


I have ended the teaching term with a session on Donne’s Anniversaries, a trial of endurance alleviated for the students only by a dole of sherry and mince pie. Preparing the session led me to look for works of the same kind, and so I found my way to the mournful (sorry!) The honour of vertue. Or the monument erected by the sorowfull husband, and the epitaphes annexed by learned and worthy men, to the immortall memory of that worthy gentle-woman Mrs Elizabeth Crashawe (1620).

The situation here was all too typical: a godly young wife, dying in giving birth to her first child. But it wasn’t, in the main, the anniversaries of Donne that I was reminded of, but his verse epistle ‘To Mr Tilman, after he had taken orders’, with its candid address to the social status of the clergyman in a society which, while officially giving the church the greatest respect, evidently never forgot birth and social rank when it came to the individual cleric.

For Mistress Crashaw was a ‘gentlewoman’, as the memorial pamphlet says in its title. The little publication, its type carefully set out in places like the carving of a memorial inscription, can be thought of as a substitute for the canopied tomb her status would have secured, had she not married down, to a clergyman, a widower of twice her years.

The pamphlet repeated mentions this signal act of virtue. The funeral sermon of Doctor James Ussher (no less) is paraphrased, and it enumerated her virtues:

“2. Being yong, faire, comely, brought up as a Gentlewoman, in musicke, dancing, and like to be of great estate, and therefore much sought after by yong gallants, and rich heires, and good jointures offered, yet she chose a divine, twise her own age. 3 Her extraordinary love and almost strange affection to her husband, expressed in such excellent and well tempered passages of kindnesse, as is too rare to find in one of her age, person, and parts…”

…. “6. her husbands discretion being questioned by some, for such a choice; and it being the common conceit, that by this marriage they had lost a good Preacher: contrariwise her comeliness in attire, and excellencie of behaviour graced him everywhere; and her zeale in religion, her kindnesse to him, her care of his health, and her honorable estimation of his profession, encouraged him to do more than he ever he did…”

Or, among the elegies, my near namesake ‘R. Boothe of Cantab’ (wrong University, though) similarly cannot quite get over the choice she made:

“Religion was her soules delight,

Good workes her Recreations were

To’th’poor as free as aire and light,

That shedd their comforts everywhere.

Young, faire, wise, comely, yet refus’d

Both youth and braveries golden Rayes

And dubble her owne age she chus’d,

With a Divine to spend her dayes…”

Altogether, the tributes paid to Elizabeth Crashaw give an impression of the godly rallying round. William Crashaw the husband had been, rather hearteningly, chosen by the ‘Rara avis in terris’ (‘CW of the Inner Temple’, writing in Latin and English, actually uses the Juvenalian phrase). God had taken her away, and maybe there’s a slight insecurity behind their effusions – the very best go first, they affirm, anxious not to suggest that those whose marriages flout the social rank God had seen fit to place them in are also susceptible to an early departure.

But in the end the longest elegy in the book did look like the work of a writer who had read the Anniversaries. The italicized first couplet in the quotation below is repeated a later points, as though Donne’s ‘She, she is dead, when thou knowest this’ couplets were being imitated. The poem is impersonal, unsigned, but it might conceivably be by her husband: its extra length makes it prominent, and the writer appears really worried about his grief. Here are some extracts, with a few comments:

‘An elegie, or mournefull meditation upon the uncertainty, and vanity of this life, occasioned upon the untimely and deplorable death of that thrice worthy Gentlewoman Mistress Elizabeth Crashawe: of whom the world was not worthy.’

O Earth, Earth Earth, O all mortality,

Know God is just, and thou mere vanity:

Fooles talke of fortune, lotts, misgiving, chance,

Fooles talke of dreames, and of the fayryes dance:

Trippings of horses, bleeding at the nose,

Itching of elbowes, and rat eaten hose

Tingling of eares, and crosseing of a Hare,

Sparkling of fire, and changing of the ayre…

~ an unexpected opening. The author is talking about all the things we foolishly attend to instead of hearing the truth. I suppose having your hose eaten by rats was as good a token of misfortune as any, but I’d never heard of it before.

He turns on astrologers:

Fooles cast their figures, and believe that true,

And only that which their lewd schem doth shew…

Andhe moralises about our propensity for false worship:

Nothing in earth so deepe, in heaven so high,

But serves for some kinde of Idolatry…

The central consolatory part of the elegy depends on the bare comforts of a cliché:

Oh learne the best go first, the worse remaine

Here rests that Rare One, whose life and death do show

The truth of this to all, that troth will know

Her yeares so few, her virtues were so many…

Her time was short, the longer is her rest,

God takes them soonest whom he loveth best:

For he that’s borne too day, and dyes to morrow

Looseth some dayes of joy, but yeares of sorrow…

A more interesting passage follows, in which the writer expresses his feeling that more of the good are dyin - ‘good Prince Henry’ initiated this unfortunate trend in 1612:

Aske and observe: observe with admiration,

Since good Prince Henry great hope of our nation:

Chang’d this dull kingdom for a shining crown

How many which then stood, are now falne downe

Observe not that alone but this as most,

What they have beene, which since this land hath lost.

What they were like to prove, what need may be,

Of such, in some points which this land may see…

~ the language falters, the writer hardly seems able to say outright what he really means, but the gist of it is clear enough: God is punishing the nation by taking away those the nation needs. There’s some political point at the back of this, one suspects. He continues - and in the following lines his own consolations, as offered earlier in the elegy, are now rejected

Happy those soules (per’anter some may say)

Whose happy lott was first to flie away:

I say not so, I wish it were not so,

Sorrow and griefe may utter too much woe…

Again, he seems disconcerted to be out on a limb like this, and apologetically offers his theory as to what is going on. The hand of God is in these deaths, and that means the worst, God’s anger (he hopes he is wrong):

But sure I am, Gods scourges there are shaken

Whence in short time so many good are taken

And yet it may be I doe err in this,

I thinke I may and pray my feares may misse…

William Crashaw’s little volume in tribute to his beloved young wife, who so cruelly lost her life in delivering one, ends with words assigned to her from the here-beyond, and a return of the usual consolation. It’s in three distiches:

‘HER Answere to them all.’

It is not I that dye, I doe but leave an Inne,

Where harbored was with me, against my will, much sinne:

It is not I that dye, I doe but now begin,

Into aeternal life by death to enter in.

Why mourne you then for me deere Husband, friends and kin

Lament you when I lose, why weepe you, when I win.

Even so, all was not well with this little community of the godly. James Ussher, soon to be made a bishop by the King, had preached at the funeral taking a text from the first book of Samuel, chapter 4 (his text was verse 20, but the context would have been important and understood):

17And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.

18And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

19And his daughter in law, Phinehas' wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her.

20And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it.

21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…

The text chosen was perhaps gloomy enough to have been offensive in anyone else but a revered scholar-cleric, though the godly present in such large numbers at the funeral (“At which Sermon and Funerall was present one of the greatest Assemblies that was ever seene in mans memorie at the burial of any private person. This Text, His Sermon, and that Spectacle, made many a heavy heart, and such a Churchfull of weeping eyes as have beene seldome seen”) would have known their Bibles well enough to understand beyond the text its general context, the lament that ‘the glory is departed’.

I am fairly sure that one could now guess the name of the posthumous child: it would surely have been ‘Ichabod Crashaw’.

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