In 1981 or 1982 when I was on a fellowship at Duke University, I did a tutorial with Professor George Walton Williams, who was a friend of a friend.  The tutorial involved three main things.  First, I audited an undergraduate course on the Metaphysical poets which Mr. Williams was teaching that semester.  Secondly, I read the Ninety-six Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes both for general purposes and for a particular purpose to which I will return in a moment.  Thirdly, I met after the class with Mr. Williams in his tower office, usually after the undergraduate class, to discuss the class, the sermons, and related matters.

For the undergraduate class we read the poems of three of the 17th century’s priest-poets:  John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw.  Crashaw, who became Roman Catholic, was the least interesting of the three as a poet, with his fondness for obvious rhymes (womb/tomb, blood/flood, light/bright) and his often gushing, baroque style.  But Mr. Williams had edited the standard edition of The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw (Doubleday, 1970; the Norton Library, 1974), and that was enough to make Crashaw rather than, say, Thomas Traherne or Henry Vaughan, our third object of study after Donne and Herbert.  Mr. Williams proposed that Donne, despite his huge self-regard, was the greatest poet of the three.  A comparison of Crashaw and Herbert suggested what I later read asserted by A.N. Wilson:  that the poems of Herbert decisively demonstrate the superiority of Anglican to Roman spirituality.

In any case, the undergraduates were very bright, and many of them had odd areas of deep knowledge.  The drinking habits and psychological state of Zelda Fitzgerald, as I recall, were an area of such knowledge for one student.  But there were huge and often startling lacunae in the students’ education.  Mr. Williams said that 20 years earlier one could have assumed that students knew what a Good Samaritan or a Prodigal Son was.  Not in 1982.  I recall one morning, when the reading assignment had included Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, that none of the students could define ‘valediction’.  It wasn’t that the students were modest about showing their knowledge, because each in turn was asked pointblank to take a stab at a definition.  Not even offering ‘valedictorian’ as a point of contact helped.  Intelligence was not the problem.  Prior education was.  Also, of course, failure to look up the meaning of a word in the title of an assigned poem.

In any case, Crashaw was the point of contact between our class reading and my private reading of Andrewes.  Richard Crashaw as a very young man of around 20 was given the rather important commission to write in 1632 a poem to accompany the portrait of Lancelot Andrewes in the frontispiece of the second issue of the second folio edition of the Ninety-six Sermons.  Here is Crashaw’s poem in Mr. Williams’s edition:

Upon Bishop Andrewes his Picture before his Sermons

See heer a Shadow from that setting SUNNE,

Whose glorious course through this Horizon runn

Left the dimm face of our dull Hemisphære,

All one great Eye, all drown’d in one great TEARE.

Whose rare industrious Soule, led his free thought,

Through Leaning’s Universe, and (vainly) sought

Roome for her spacious Self; untill at length

She found the way home:  with an holy strength

Snatch’t herself hence to Heav’n; fill’d a bright place

’Midst those immortall Fires, and on the face

Of her Great MAKER, fixt a flaming eye,

Where still she reads true, pure Divinitie.

          And now that grave Aspect hath deign’d to shrink

Into this lesse Appearance.  If you think

’Tis but a dead face Art doth heer bequeath,

Look on the following leaves, and see him breath.

Mr. Williams suspected, and in his introduction to this poem rather boldly wrote, that ‘echoes’ of Andrewes’s sermons ‘are to be found throughout Crashaw’s poems’.[1]  Mr. Williams noted one echo in his introduction to Crashaw’s poem, ‘The Weeper’.  Crashaw writes in ‘The Weeper’ that Christ was in the person of Mary Magdalene ‘follow’d by two faithfull fountains; / Two walking baths.’  In a sermon Andrewes wrote that ‘Mary Magdalene wept enough to have made a bath’.[2]  One of my tasks in reading the sermons was to find more such echoes.  After extensive reading I did find a number of shared metaphors and figures, but most were Renaissance commonplaces which did not so much demonstrate influence by Andrewes on Crashaw as demonstrate common influences on them both.  I thought I was onto something more definite when I found the figure of the sun in sackcloth in both writers (‘Hymn in the Glorious Epiphanie’, line 157).  Alas, in that case also there was a common mutual influence, and that the most commonplace of all for Christians, namely the Bible (Revelation 6:12).

While one goal in reading Andrewes was not achieved, there were permanent benefits from the task.  The Orthodox scholar, Nicholas Lossky, in his book on Andrewes argues that Andrewes synthesized the Fathers of the Church better than any other theologian in his generation.  That is a remarkable assertion, especially coming from an Orthodox theologian.  Andrewes’s sermons, as T.S. Eliot observed in his famous essay, ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’, are not quotable in the same way as Donne’s.  Andrewes does not have so many catchy phrases and sparkling and detachable sentences as Donne.  In Andrewes an argument builds slowly and methodically through the ‘crushing’ of the text, and in the end a body of typically Anglican divinity is developed:  learned, moderate, restrained but deeply felt, informed by a profound prayer life,[3] and rooted in the Fathers.  No one can really understand Anglican theology from the inside without spending some time with Richard Hooker’s Laws and with Lancelot Andrewes’s Sermons:  an unsuccessful hunt proposed to me by George Williams for parallels between Andrewes and a second-rate poet brought me half of that acquaintance.  I was fortunate and am left in Mr. Williams’s debt.

[1] The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw.  New York:  The Norton Library, 1974.  Edited with introduction and notes by George Walton Williams.  Page 490.

[2] Ibid.  Page 133,

[3] Andrewes had a reputation as not only the most learned but also the holiest man in England.  He typically spent four or five hours a day in prayer, and that in an era when bishops were very busy public officials.

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