Richard Crashaw, from the 1646 edition of Steps to the Temple.
This brief epigram, by seventeenth-century English poet Richard Crashaw, has exercised readers for nearly four centuries now. It arises from a biblical story, related in the Gospel of Luke, in which a woman shouts from a crowd of people as Jesus is walking past with the most extraordinary compliment: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked,” she says in the language of Crashaw’s contemporary King James translation. The woman’s general sense is easy enough to discern: she voices her respect for the mother that reared and nurtured this good man out of childhood. But the profound and insurmountable corporeality of the compliment offers an opportunity for this poem to focus on devotion as a bodily phenomenon. As Crashaw riffs on the implications of divine embodiment in these four lines, the audacity of the conceit that he develops is met and amplified by the structure of this short poem. The turn that accompanies the change in rhyme at the poem’s midpoint signals disjunction between the recognition of the corporeal valences of spirituality and the discomfort that inevitably attends any effort to define divinity within the parameters of human understanding.
The proposition set up in the first two lines invites the poem’s reader to meditate on the incarnational mystery at the heart of the Christian mythos: that Jesus had a body, and consequently had bodily needs like hunger. If Jesus nursed from you, so the set-up goes, you would not be the weaker for having nursed him. You would not be diminished by the sharing of your substance with that dependent body. That first rhyme keeps our attention squarely on the natural bodily process of lactation, and secures the connection of eating for nourishment and the physical structures that make maternal nourishment possible—the imagined “Teat” is not invoked scandalously or scurrilously but rather for the way it allows one to “eat.” The first couplet of the poem, with its focus on mother and child, offers us a kind of mealtime crèche, a Madonna col Bambino as sweet and charitable as any altarpiece painting.
And then we pivot into line three.
The last two lines of this poem pile transgression upon transgression, each new shock a product of the uneasy proximity between a spiritual principle and its literalization. From a theological perspective, these lines don’t argue anything that would raise any eyebrows: the notion that Jesus should grow a “Teat” and take on the role of nurturer is built into conventional formulations of the Eucharist, that central sacrament of Christian worship in which the worshipper partakes of bread and wine and through that partaking engages in some way (what way, exactly, varies from creed to creed) with the body and blood of Christ. It is a commonplace that Christ is a nourishing mother figure, dispensing spiritual nutriment to all who partake of his body sacramentally, never diminished for having nourished those he feeds.¹ But as these lines render that theological principle, the body, whose incarnational valences were so important in establishing the notion of nourishment in the first two lines, begins to intrude disorientingly into the metaphor for universal nourishment. “Hee’l have his Teat” emphasizes the dissonance between that principle of nourishment and the decidedly male body of Jesus, which doesn’t allow for easy associations with lactation. The parenthetical gesture toward naturalizing Jesus’s “Teat” by arguing that it’s not the kind of teat whose mammary function finds no structural cognate in the male body actually just makes things worse: it’s a different kind of teat, “a bloody one”—a phrase that follows hard on the heels of the word “long.” The accumulating associations become disorienting at best, and rebarbative at worst; William Empson can be forgiven for writing of these lines, most of a century ago, that “a wide variety of sexual perversions can be included in the notion of sucking a long bloody teat which is also a deep wound.”² In other words, despite our understanding that this couplet describes a conventional spiritual principle, the body just keeps getting in the way. The sense of indelicacy produced by this overlap of erotic and sacramental, bodily and spiritual, is compounded, in the typography of the poem’s contemporary publication. In its original printed form, the elongated initial “s” transforms “suck” into a verb whose raw physicality occludes any possibility of reading this act as any kind of disembodied, spiritualized mingling with Christ.
At issue here is the fraught relationship between the spiritual and the physical. And it is entirely appropriate that Crashaw’s poem should register this tension, for the ritual at the heart of his epigram serves precisely to modulate between these two states of affairs. That is, the Eucharist is ultimately about repeating the mystery of the Incarnation by locating an apprehensible figure for a perceptually absent divinity here in the material world: incarnated divinity isn’t available to our senses, as the tradition holds it was in the body of Jesus, but the substitutional elements of bread and wine are, and we can touch them and taste them and incorporate them into our bodies and feel a kind of nourishment that signifies nourishment of a different kind, a soul kind. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper argues that the immaterial sphere needs the stuff of the world so that we can comprehend it: the spirit needs the body. The danger, of course, is that the body will intrude itself so strenuously that the spiritual gets blocked entirely.
Crashaw’s short poem dramatizes this tension both in content and in form. The discrete rhymes cordon off the bodily transgressivities of the final couplet from the more innocuous incarnationalism of the first couplet. The turn at the poem’s midpoint demarcates the boundary between acceptability and excess, between a functional symbiosis of body and spirit and the rapacity of the body unsublimated, the crèche and the brothel.
¹ See Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
²Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: New Directions, 1947) 221.
Kimberly Johnson is the author of three poetry collections, Leviathan with a Hook, A Metaphorical God, and the forthcoming Uncommon Prayer, and of a translation of Virgil’s Georgics: A Poem of the Land. Her scholarly monograph exploring the way that Reformation theology provokes poetic developments in the seventeenth century will be released next year. With her husband, the poet Jay Hopler, she has edited an anthology for Yale University Press that surveys the long tradition of devotional poetry, also to be published next year. Recipient of grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the Utah Arts Council, Johnson has recent work in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, and other journals.