The Dear Bargain

The Dear Bargain
By Richard Crashaw (1612?–1650?)

I have decided to run a few of these great poems of religious faith by you people who might read on this blog; adding also a few things of my own which might go towards interpreting the poems and maybe also make the re-reading of the poems more enjoyable and lucid for you, especially having people new to poetry in mind?

This first poem is a little known one; a favourite of mine from my long-gone student days where I first encountered it and was won over wholeheartedly by its ‘rough magic’.

Have a read through of it, and then see whether you agree with me about its power and grace; and then, after having borne with me and my peregrinations around its themes and ideas, read it again and see whether you enjoy it more?./Peter

The Dear Bargain

LORD! what is man? why should he cost you
So dear? what had his ruin lost you?
Lord! what is man, that Thou hast overbought
So much a thing of nought?
Love is too kind, I see, and can 5
Make but a simple merchant man;
’Twas for such sorry merchandise,
Bold painters have put out his eyes.
Alas! sweet Lord, what wer’t to Thee,
If there were no such worms as we? 10
Heaven ne’er the less still heav’n would be
Should mankind dwell
In the deep hell,
What have his woes to do with Thee?
Let him go weep 15
O’er his own wounds,
Seraphims will not sleep,
Nor spheres let fall their faithful rounds:
Still would the youthful spirits sing,
And still the spacious palace ring: 20
Still would those beauteous ministers of light
Burn all as bright,
And bow their flaming heads before Thee,
Still thrones and dominations would adore Thee,
Still would those wakeful sons of fire 25
Keep warm Thy praise
Both nights and days,
And teach Thy loved name to their noble lyre.
Let froward dust then do its kind,
And give itself as sport to the proud wind; 30
Why should a piece of peevish clay plead shares
In the eternity of Thy old cares?
Why should’st Thou bow Thy awful breast to see
What mine own madnesses have done with me?
Should not the king still keep his throne, 35
Because some desperate fool’s undone?
Or will the world’s illustrious eyes
Weep for every worm that dies?
Will the gallant sun
E’er the less glorious run? 40
Will he hang down his golden head,
Or e’er the sooner seek his western bed,
Because some foolish fly
Grows wanton, and will die?
If I was lost in misery, 45
What was it to Thy heav’n and Thee?
What was it to the precious blood,
If my foul heart call’d for a flood?
What if my faithless soul and I
Would needs fall in 50
With guilt and sin?
What did the Lamb that He should die?
What did the Lamb that He should need,
When the wolf sins, Himself to bleed?
If my base lust 55
Bargain’d with death and well-beseeming dust,
Why should the white
Lamb’s bosom write
The purple name
Of my sin’s shame? 60
Why should His unstain’d breast make good
My blushes with His own heart-blood?

O my Saviour, make me see,
How dearly Thou hast paid for me,
That lost again my life may prove, 65
As then in death, so now in love.

Peter’s Notes on: The Dear Bargain:

The first thing I noticed I remember, after reading this poem for the first time, was the ways the pulsing and strong rhythms had got to me. It’s a rhetorical masterpiece and the rhythms which carry it along are geared up to reinforce the rhetorical tour de force within the use of language by the poet. Like a good rock song has an enticing melody reinforced by an infectious driving rhythm; a guitar and percussion lifting you out of yourself with animation and joy; that’s how this thing grabs me. First a little history.

Richard Crashaw was the son of Puritan parents and was born and raised in the years immediately before the English Civil War (of 1642 – 1648). He went to University at Oxford and so was very privileged to become educated. Oxford was always on the King’s side before and during The Civil War (against The Parliamentarians) and so Oxford was Established High Church Anglican (whilst the Parliamentarians were the Puritan Non-conformists).

Richard Crashaw was won over to High Church Anglicanism at Oxford; and later, when The Parliamentarians has defeated the Royalists (during the late 1640’s) he moved further over to become a Roman Catholic.

In those days to be a Catholic was dangerous and not conducive to a career or progression in life within the UK. A number of Catholic priests were caught and executed for preaching in the UK at this time. Crashaw then, we can take it, was a man of principle, willing to put his heart and spiritual persuasion ‘on the line’ at a time of a very antagonistic environment.

Late in his relatively short life of 37 years, he published a (final) series of poems in English titled ‘Steps to the Temple’, which represents his mature religious outlook and final settlement of mind.

This poem ‘The Dear Bargain’ is from that final collection.

Before I write about the poem itself it’s worth pointing out, I think, that Richard Crashaw was not hostile to others of other denominations. One of the very major poets of his times was George Herbert, a priest of the Established English Church; and Richard Crashaw’s final collection of poems was in large part a conscious homage dedicated to George Herbert and so it echoes the title of George Herbert’s great sequence of poems which he called ‘The Temple’. (George Herbert will follow in this my series, I hope)

Now that’s the potted history done with; we get on with some talk about the poem.

Richard Crashaw uses a lot of very physical descriptions in his poems. Some people find these a bit unsavoury; the more Puritan readers generally do; and a lot of secular people do too. He talks a lot about items like blood and milk, in a theological context of human suffering and motherly relationships for instance.

You might remember Jesus saying to his followers that they must ‘eat my body and drink my blood’ if they are sincerely to follow him? – and that ‘many left him when they heard these words’, because they ‘could not accept them’. We can assume this implies the followers who left him were a little disturbed and offended at these ideas? Even appalled?

I believe Richard Crashaw was in tune with this aspect of Jesus’ expectations of us, it is built into the Eucharistic rite; and as a Catholic of course Richard Crashaw would subscribe to belief in a Transubstantiation of the Host at the Altar. Regardless however, it seems to me without doubt that any Resurrection promised to us by Jesus in the Gospels, and after the model of his own; should we experience one, will be a physical and a visceral and a hard empirical and factual Resurrection.

It’s hard to deny that this was the Gospel experience of Jesus’s disciple on and after the first Easter Sunday. (See, for instance, Doubting Thomas and his awed adoration; the fish on Galilee shore Jesus cooks for Peter and co.; and the fish Jesus himself eats to show his continued physicality)

So in this way, Richard Crashaw, who would have known the Bible very, very, well, was adhering to an acknowledged Gospel tradition, notwithstanding differences held in particular denominations or sects.

Likewise, ‘the milk of a mother’ is a very Old Testament theme; the Old Testament being in its use of images and descriptions perhaps considerably more ‘bodily’ and visceral than the New? Throughout The Psalms, The Prophets, and The Pentateuch this bodily visceral physicality is emphatically borne out. Richard Crashaw was bigtime ‘into’ actual Biblical imagery.

So that’s the ‘difficult to stomach’ bit dealt with and made a bit clearer I hope?

The physicality and physiological nature of Richard Crayshaw’s images and descriptions are normally connected to religious, even theological, ideas, and he works hard to highlight these ideas, and how they impact as real consequences of belief and of living out The Way (in as far as we can do so). His are the theological implications, if you like, that we need to take notice of if we are serious about our religion, and how these pan out in real life, are not as they are perhaps often managed ‘under the carpet’ by us in our practice?

Thus our status as men and women before God; which in this poem and in his later work generally, were it without an elaborate, baroque, colourful, use of images, could be taken to have been written by a Calvinist:

‘If my base lust 55
Bargain’d with death and well-beseeming dust,
Why should the white
Lamb’s bosom write
The purple name
Of my sin’s shame? 60
Why should His unstain’d breast make good
My blushes with His own heart-blood?’

We are ‘dust’ we practice ‘lust’ we are ‘shamed’ by our ‘sins’; of which our deaths are the wages. This is a heavy indictment of the Human Race, very solemn, very abased and contrite. Richard Crashaw, like Job before him, was wholly humbled and mortified by the idea of the presence of God before him.

The implication here is that indeed we can do little good before God; that we are wholly at God’s loving mercy; and that our Salvations are great and unearned Gracious favours of God towards us. Throughout this poem this is the attitude of Richard Crashaw about the general relationship between man and God.

The use of questions to us from the poet; who piles up question after question at us, is his speciality. None of the questions are ostensibly answered – except by us by our understanding that, yes, this is me, these are my faults listed, and my dependency laid bare. The continuous ‘Why shoulds…?’ he uses, spoken almost in a child’s impetuosity; these big up to the hilt the utter preposterousness of our presumption to expect anything good as a result of our behaviour per se.

The ‘Why shoulds…?’ repeat rhythmically, like the rest of the excerpt does here. Richard Crashaw’s questions are answered, but are answered implicitly by the couplings of their images in their contexts. The ‘white bosom ‘of the Lamb, Christ, answers to the ‘purple name of our sins’ shame; Jesus’s ‘unstained breast’ answers to our ‘blushes’ of shame. There’s absolutely no question what the answers are here. The questions are as we say rhetorical ones.

The long lines of verse are punctuated with shorter and pithy couplets of lines which, like a song’s middle eight, thump a refrain that drums their sense into our ears and hearts. The longer lines sort of tee us up for the short couplets; setting us up for a haymaker as it were. And Richard Crashaw is not afraid of using rhyme. He uses rhyme as emphasis, like a punch line in a tall story, or a halter on a horse used to pull us up most abruptly.

Look at the stresses on the words and syllables in the lines of the extract. There’s a hammer blow given us at every occurrence of the word ‘Should’; and other blows hit us with the words ‘lust’ and ‘dust’ spoken or read. ‘Good’ rhymes with ‘Should’ in the next to last line, and for Richard Crashaw both words would have rhymed with the word ‘Blood’ in the last line, and together these rhyming words take on a powerful emphasis of their own which echoes the thump of the ‘Should’ just given to us.

I think I’ve said enough about how the poem works for now, for you to get the drift of things, and to see how very complex and effective Richard Crashaw’s use of English is here in the poem ‘The Dear Bargain’.

Why not try reading it again? This time aloud? When the poem was written people, even when reading in private for their own amusement only, spoke the lines they read out, unlike our modern silent way. If you feel awkward reading it again and aloud to yourself, then get you wife or husband or child to be your audience. Remember, hit the rhythm, the rhyme, the stresses, the emphases, use the short/long lines in teeing things up, make plain the power of the images and descriptions used, and remember the theology behind them, its Biblical nature. But most importantly, keep the meaning and the feelings that this poem raises in your heart, and so enliven this your rendition, so as to convince your audience of the integral authenticity of this marvelous poem and of the sincerity and genius of its creator – Richard Crashaw.