Sunday, December 22, 2019

'Eternity Shut In a Span'

From a lovely Christmas poem by Richard Crashaw (c. 1613-1649), “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord,” a sort of truncated oratorio without music, that transcends any single season:

“Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.”

“Span” originally had a specific meaning, according to the OED: “The distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger . . . when the hand is fully extended.” A very human unit of measure. The height of horses was measured in “hands,” each the equivalent of about four inches. Crashaw’s phrasing, “Eternity shut in a span,” recalls Blake:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”

Crashaw’s span is not an inanimate object but an infant, much contained in a small package. In “The Pulley,” Crashaw’s older contemporary, George Herbert gives “span” a different human context:  

“When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
'Let us,' said he, ‘pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.’”

On Christmas night in 1928, Yvor Winters writes in a letter to Allen Tate: “I am hypnotized by the cadences in Crashaw: cadences like the definitions of Aquinas.”

[The final quote is from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000.]

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

The composer J.A.C. Redford has set Crashaw's poem “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord,” to music in his Christmas Cantata, "Welcome All Wonders: A Christmas Celebration"