Edward Taylor (1642?-1729)
Contributing Editor: Karen E. Rowe
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students may recoil from Taylor's overly didactic, seemingly aestheticallyrough or unpolished poetry, in part because he seems too preoccupied withissues of sin and salvation, which they find alien. The fundamental needis to familiarize students with basic Puritan concepts, biblical sourcesand allusions, and the meditative tradition. This background allows studentsand teachers to move beyond the easy post-Romantic definition of the poetryas "lyric" which locks the class into a quick survey of onlythe occasional poems. Taylor may also seem both too easy ("doesn'the tell it all?") and too complicated, because of arcane word choices,the curious compounding of images, and the plethora of biblical images.
The organization of selections in The Heath Anthology permitsone for the first time to trace Taylor's chronological development as apoet and also emphasizes a more personalized Taylor. By clustering theMeditations and engaging students in playing with the multiple meaningof curious words, the poetry comes alive as an intricate orchestrationof recurrent themes and interconnected images. The point is to captureTaylor's imaginative flexibility as much as his tortured angst, while atthe same time seeing all of his poetry as part of an overriding concernwith personal preparation for heaven and with how Taylor as poet can bestserve God--and in what language.
Students respond initially to the personal anguish and graphic degradationsto which Taylor submits himself, yet they are also quick to recognize thepattern of self-abasement followed by Christ's intervention and re-elevationof humankind. Through class discussion, they revise their thinking aboutboth the seeming lack of sophistication in Taylor's poetry and the dismissalof Puritan poets.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major, but different, themes and historical issues emerge from eachselection. Metrical paraphrases of Psalms were acceptable "hymns"for Protestants, as reflected in the Massachusetts BayPsalm Book, although Taylor models his poems on the earlier Sternhold-HopkinsPsalter. Important themes include Taylor's adoption of David as his modelfor the poet; the concept of poetry as an act/offering of ritual praise;distinctions between the godly (righteous) and ungodly; God's power asCreator and Lawgiver; the righteous man as the Lord's servant; Christ asa Rock and Redeemer; and God's voice as that which speaks truly and whichman's voice merely echoes. As Thomas Davis suggests, by "providinga means of fashioning his own experience in the framework of biblical andhistorical precedent, the paraphrases invited the poet to make poetry acentral concern in his life," and with the emergence of an "authenticnote of his own voice" point directly to the Preparatory Meditations.
Probably completed in 1680, Gods Determinations usefully introducesstudents to Taylor's major dilemmas as preacher and individual saint--howto ascertain and sustain the belief in one's place among God's Electand what standards of admission to uphold for Church membership. In itshistorical context, Gods Determinations reflects Taylor's localneed to found a frontier Church for the true Elect (1679). His battleswere against both the wilderness and Indians without and Satan within.This mini-sequence from among the total thirty-five poems allows one totalk about the difficult progress from conversion to justification andsanctification in two ways. A narrative reading opens with the magnificentevocation of God's creation, then the "Souls Groan" for salvationand "Christs Reply" as a lover or mother to a lost child, counselingthe soul to "Repent thy Sin," and accept Christ's purifying grace,followed by Satan's renewed attempts at casting doubt, and the final triumphantentry into "Church Fellowship rightly attended," whether on earthor in heaven. Hence, the poem becomes a narrative of a spiritual journey.Taylor's position is as narrator and as voice of the saint.
One can also read the poems as a "debate," emphasizing variousoppositions, between God and fallen man, the unworthy Elect soul and grace-givingChrist, the doubting soul and Satan the tempter, between Christ and Satan,hence between lowly earthly things and God's grandeur, being outside thecovenant community of Elect saints and being within (the coach), betweendoubt and assurance, sin and salvation. The poems also anticipate laterallegorical renderings of Christ's marital relationships with the Churchand individual soul in terms of the Dove and the Bride, set off againstimages of Satan as a mongrel cur and his deceptive seductions, hence abattle between loving faith/grace and distorting reason.
The Occasional Poems, which include eight numbered poems, were probablybegun in the early 1680s, just as Taylor had completed Gods Determinationsand was initiating the second version of the Psalm paraphrases and theearly Preparatory Meditations. Because these poems are the most"lyrical," they are more accessible to modern students. But whatmotivates Taylor is a desire to meditate upon natural "occurants"in order to extract allegorical or spiritual meanings.
Taylor's fondness for extended metaphors is apparent in "Upon aSpider Catching a Fly" and his famous "Huswifery." The latterleads to discussion of Taylor's frequent use of spinning and weaving terms,frequently in relationship to poetic language or the need for the "Weddengarment" of righteousness that robes mankind for the Lord's Supperand union with Christ. "Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children"reveals Taylor at his most personal and usefully links with other poemsfrom Edward Taylor's Minor Poetry, which trace his domestic relationshipwith Elizabeth Fitch from his courtship (1674) to her death (1689).
"A Valediction to all the World preparatory for Death" permitscomparisons among different versions, showing Taylor's substantial revisionof late poems even during a time of severe illness. Although only two ofthe total eight canticles are included in The Heath Anthology, theynevertheless display Taylor in the process of shedding worldliness, particularlyall things that appeal to the senses and sensualities of the flesh. His"farewell" to the world, the flesh, and the devil is renunciatoryand poignant, a meditation on "vanity of vanities, all is vanity"(Ecclesiastes 12:6-8) that evokes the very fondness for created naturethat he appears to abjure.
"A Fig for thee Oh! Death" expresses Taylor's defiance ofdeath, and it is a memento mori meditation that should be placedside by side with his later Canticles poems, in which he envisions thebeauties of heaven. His anticipation of the final judgment and reunionof body and soul gives rise to an ecstatic affirmation of faith in thedivine promise of eternal life.
As a complete sequence, the poems selected here, together with thosefrom the Preparatory Meditations, trace Taylor's preoccupationsover a lifetime:
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Taylor's verse experiments range from the common meter of the Psalmparaphrases to the varied stanza and metrical forms in Gods Determinationsand the Occasional Poems, and finally to the heroic couplets of "AValediction to all the World preparatory for Death" and "A Figfor thee Oh! Death." Variety also appears in Taylor's choice of forms,including the Psalm paraphrases, a debate or narrative sequence of lyricsin Gods Determinations, elegies, love poems, a valediction and reflectionon worldly vanities, and memento mori -- all of which were commonplaceamong his English predecessors, such as John Donne, George Herbert, andHenry Vaughan. For a more in-depth study of form, students might be urgedto read and compare Taylor's elegies on public figures with those on personallosses, such as "Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children" and "AFunerall Poem upon . . . Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor," all in EdwardTaylor's Minor Poetry.
Taylor's form and style seem too predictable, because of the unchangingsix-line, iambic pentameter, ababcc stanza of the Preparatory Meditations.Discussion should relate his use of a disciplined, even caged and controlled,verse form to his concept of poetry as ritualistic praise, as a rationalframework within which to explore (and contain) irrational impulses ofthe rebellious soul, as a stimulus to imaginative imagistic variations,and as a habitual exercise of spiritual preparation. These poems are meditativeself-examinations, illustrating the Puritan requirement to prepare theheart and soul before entering the Church or partaking of (and administering)the Lord's Supper. They also mediate between Taylor's composition and deliveryof his Sacrament sermon.
Taylor's imagistic variations in the Preparatory Meditationspermit one to teach him in different combinations and ways. Structurally,the poems reflect differing manipualtions of image patterns, such as thefocus on a single metaphor ("Prologue," 1.6, 1.8, 2.50); figuralimages and interpretations (1.8, 2.1, 2.26, 2.50, 2.60B); allegorical panoramasof salvation history (1.8, 2.50); associational tumblings of images (2.26,2.43, 2.60B, 2.115); magnifications and diminutions ("Prologue,"2.43); and allegorical love poems that anatomize the Bridegroom's and Spouse'sbeauties (2.115).
Thematically, poems cluster around recurrent ideas, such as Christ'snature and life (1.8, 2.43, 2.60B, 2.115); man's nature and estate (1.6,1.8, 2.1, 2.26, 2.50); Old Testament types (persons, events, ceremonies)that foreshadow New Testament fulfullments in Christ (2.1, 2.26, 2.50);the Lord's Supper as sacramental feast (1.8, 2.60B); the marriage of Christto his Bride, signifying the Church and individual soul (2.115); and thenecessity of poetic praise ("Prologue," 2.43). As a study ofPuritan preparationism and aesthetics, the meditations also reveal Taylor'syearnings to celebrate the Lord's Supper with a cleansed soul, robed forthe feast in the wedding garment of righteousness for the feast (2.26,2.60B, 2.115), and to create poetry as a medium for spiritual purging andpreparation ("Prologue," 2.43).
Chronologically, the Meditations open with the first series'dichotomy between mankind (a "Crumb," yet imprinted with thedivine "Image, and Inscription") and the perfect Christ of theIncarnation ("Heavens Sugar Cake"). In keeping with a reorientationin Taylor's preaching, the second series begins anew with the Old Testamenttypology (2.1, 2.26). He then shifts to a focus on the Christologic ofthe New Testament (2.43, 2.50) in poems that correspond with the Christographiasermons, then to Meditations on the Lord's Supper (2.60B, 2.102-111), andfinally to the Canticles (2.115), Taylor's most sensual love poems, whichanticipate the heavenly union beyond death (as also in the "Valediction").
Finally, the poems can be organized to reflect the context and progressof mankind's existence, beginning with the magnificence of the creationin the "Preface" to Gods Determinations and the providentialschema mapped out in Meditation 2.50. Man's fallen nature (2.1, 2.26) yetdivine aspirations (1.6) necessitate Christ's intervention and redemptivegrace, brought about through His incarnation (1.8, 2.1), shedding of blood(2.60B) on the cross, and His eternal Godhead(2.43). Mankind's spiritualpilgrimage, like Taylor's, concludes with the anticipation of the espousalbetween Elect souls and Christ (2.115), and of the heavenly feast, whichthe Lord's Supper commemorates and foreshadows (1.8, 2.60B, "Valediction").
Taylor never published his poetry, although he carefully transcribedmany poems in the manuscript "Poetical Works." A considerationof audience must, therefore, take account of the fact that the elegiesand perhaps Gods Determinations were written in a more public mode,but that the majority of his Occasional Poems, the Preparatory Meditations,and the later "Valediction" and "A Fig for thee Oh! Death"are intensely personal, written it would seem for an audience of God orChrist alone, or as meditative self-examinations of Taylor's soul. As readers,we eavesdrop on Taylor, but we are not easily invited into the poems, exceptinsofar as we identify with the Elect soul in its struggles or with Tayloras a representative pilgrim in his journey toward salvation.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Fruitful comparisons can be drawn both intratextually and extratextually.For the Preparatory Meditations, corresponding sermons are extantfrom Upon the Types of the Old Testament (Meditations 2.1, 2.26,2.60B) and from the Christographia (Meditations 2.43, 2.50). EdwardTaylor's Treatise Concerning the Lord's Supper, notably Sermon 4,yields excellent excerpts on the need to prepare for the Lord's Supperand the wearing of the "wedden garment" for the feast. BecauseTaylor habitually clusters poems on the same biblical text, providing students,for example, with all three Meditations (1.8-10) on John 6:51, 55, "Iam the Living Bread," and "My Blood is Drink indeed," contextualizesa reading of Meditation 1.8 and of the Lord's Supper. Similarly, a shorttypological series, such as 2.58-61, permits a study of Taylor's fascinationwith the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and with the various types that foreshadowman's spiritual journey to salvation under the New Testament, as well asa more specific contextualizing of Meditation 2.60B on the "Rock ofHoreb." Meditations 2.102-111 combine a theological defense with afestal celebration of the Lord's Supper, and the Canticles series thatopens with Meditation 2.115 yields many examples of Taylor's interpretationof sensual imagery.
Comparisons with George Herbert's The Temple, particularly poemson the types, with John Donne's sonnets on the Ascension, death, and Christas Spouse, and of Meditations 2.24 and 2.50 with contemporary Christmaspoems on the Incarnation by Herbert, Southwell, and Milton enable studentsto identify different poetic styles and to place Taylor in a broader seventeenth-centurymeditative tradition.
One might also compare AnneBradstreet 's "The Prologue" and "Author to her Book"with Taylor's meditations on poetic craft in "Were but my Muse anHuswife Good," the"Prologue" to the Preparatory Meditations,and Meditation 2.43. Bradstreet's "Vanity of all Worldly Things,"and "The Flesh and the Spirit" complement Taylor's "Valediction,"and her poems "In Reference to Her Children 23 June 1659" and"Before the Birth of One of her Children" work in tandem withTaylor's "Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children," as do Bradstreet'sseveral elegies on various grandchildren ("In Memory of my Dear GrandchildElizabeth Bradstreet" and "On my Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet").Selections from the prose meditations of Bradstreet also provide an intriguingcounterpoint to Taylor's poetic meditations.
Presentational and Strategic Approaches
It proves particularly helpful to provide students with background informationabout key Puritan concepts, some of which are detailed in the headnotefor the Edward Taylor selections. Many of these should also be discussedin relationship to other Puritan texts. But one can also prepare handoutson typology by listing Taylor's sermons and poems on the types (see Saintand Singer ); a diagram of Israel's tabernacle and temple andits furnishings,together with a synopsis of the role of the High Priest and of the significantceremonies; excerpts from a good Bible dictionary on major biblical figuresor events; or predistributed excerpts from key biblical passages relatedto a poem's imagery. Visual arts only approximate the verbal, but Vaughan'semblem of the stony heart from Silex Scintillans for "The Ebb& Flow" or Renaissance paintings of death's heads ("A Fig"),worldly vanities and the heavenly Paradise ("Valediction"), Christ,and the Lord's Supper instructively guide the textual analysis. A diagramlabeling parts of the spinning wheel and spinning process illustrate Taylor'slove of using weaving, looms, and webs as metaphors for poetry and forthe construction of the self in "Huswifery." Comparing metaphysicalwith typological conceits stimulates discussion about poetic technique(e.g., Meditations 2.50 on Old Testament types and New Testament fulfillments,and 2.60B on Christ as the Rock of Horeb). Finally, reading poems aloudin class captures the surprisingly personal voice and intensity of manypoems.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Specific questions can be generated easily for most poems, but ithelps students (not only with Taylor but also with the study of other Puritanliterature) to ask them to research key terms, using Donald Stanford'sglossary, a well-annotated Bible with a concordance, such as the New ScofieldReference edition, Johnson's The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor,or the Milton Encyclopedia. Terms might include Elect/election,covenant, baptism, Lord's Supper, preparation, law, grace, typology, providentialhistory, apostasy, marriage, the Dove, the Rock, first fruits, offerings/sacrifices,Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Passover, the Exodus, Christ'sincarnation, the crucifixion and resurrection, the Bride and Bridegroom,New Jerusalem, and the Second Coming. One can assign students to look upthe Bible verses mentioned in the footnotes or to read selections fromGenesis, Exodus, Psalms, Canticles, the Gospel, Hebrews, and Revelation.Because of Taylor's playfulness with different meanings of a single image,students might be asked to look up in the Oxford English Dictionarythe complete history of "fillet," "squitchen," "screw"and "pins," "knot," "kenning," "huswifery""cocks," or "escutcheon" (one word each, perhaps).They might research the construction of the spinning wheel, thumbscrewsand rack, tenon and mortise carpentry, the tabernacle and temple, a mint,and an alembic. Such preparation frequently alerts students to Taylor'smultiple strands of imagery, his tricky punning, even humorous use of language,and the variety of areas from which he draws images and metaphors (architecture,horticulture, heraldry, carpentry, clothing, bookbinding, warfare, alchemy,music, classical mythology, history, printing, domestic chores).
2. Obvious paper assignments involve interpretive readings of poemsnot otherwise studied in class. Advanced students can be encouraged tocompare Genesis as the principal creation story with Taylor's renderingin Psalm 19, the "Preface" to Gods Determinations, Meditation2.50, and his "Valediction to all the World preparatory for Death."Analysis of different strands of imagery that cut across several poemsallows students to see Taylor's recurrent methods and themes, as with thewater, blood, and wine associated with Christ and the Lord's Supper. Similarassignments might be made around the concepts of the feast, marriage, thegarden, reciprocal relationships (master and servant, Bridegroom/Belovedand the Bride/Spouse, God and the Elect), or around broad areas of imagery,such as purification by fire, water, and blood ("Christ's Reply,""The Ebb and Flow," 2.1, 2.26, 2.60B) and writting/ imprinting("Prologue," 1.6, 2.43, 2.50, "Valediction").
3. Creative writing assignments also immerse students in the complexitiesof Taylor's artistry, while challenging them to write poetry that captureshis fundamental theological concepts and the Puritan vision of mankind'shistory and life in relationship to Christ. Students can be asked to composea paraphrase (or a musical hymn) of a Psalm; to choose a biblical verse(perhaps one of Taylor's own), a dominant image, or Old Testament typein order to create a preparatory meditation imitative of Taylor's metricalform and imagistic techniques; to write a lyric on a natural "occurant"or domestic event' to imagine a valediction or memento mori poemreflecting the vanity of this world and the joys of the heavenly paradise;to use Canticles as a model for a love poem either written to ElizabethFitch, Taylor's wife, or as a celebration of the anticipated nuptials betweenTaylor and Christ as Bride and Bridegroom; or to generate a debate (inallegorical form perhaps) between Christ and Satan over man's soul. Studentsmay also choose to create two poems on the same subject that reflect thedifferent style and poetic forms preferred by Anne Bradstreet and EdwardTaylor.
Teaching Issues and Interpretation
Placing Taylor in the context of other Puritan literature becomes illuminatingin two ways because it responds to the question of what is poetry supposedto be and do. First, Taylor's work shows how the Puritan emphasis on spiritualexamination of the individual soul can take the form of meditative andautobiographical poetry. Poetry for Taylor is both an immediate preparationfor his ministerial administering of the Lord's Supper and a lifelongpreparation for eternal life. Students often stumble with Taylor's poetrybecause they do not understand how intensely Taylor renounces this worldin favor of a spiritual life within and a heavenly life yet to come. Butthey can identify with the human psychology of doubt, fear, loss, and aneed for some form of consoling grace, comfort, or higher being to givemeaning to the innately corrupt heart.
Second, because Taylor is the most prolific poet of America's firsttwo hundred years (the anomaly of a "poet in the wilderness"),his meditations open up the question of a supposed Puritan disdain forpoetry. Taylor's own puzzling over the proper uses of poetic language appearsin "Were but my Muse an Huswife Good," the "Prologue"to the Preparatory Meditations, Meditation 2.43, and "A Valedictionto all the World." By setting Taylor in a seventeenth-century traditionof paraphrases of Psalms, Job, and Canticles and, thus, the sanctionedacceptance of Biblical poetry, and of a respect for Sola Scripturaas the model of language to be imitated, students can begin to appreciatethe roots of an American tradition of poetry. The association of Taylorwith David and Solomon as biblical models of poets becomes a useful endpoint for discussion because it points to Taylor's hope for his role inheaven, validates poetry as a medium of spiritual expression acceptableto God, sets the standards for "a transcendent style," and definespoetry as a ritual (meditative) offering of praise and worship.
Selections from the Preparatory Meditations and Gods Determinationshave been published by permission of Donald E. Stanford, ed. The Poemsof Edward Taylor (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960) and the "PsalmParaphrases," "Occasional Poems," "A Valediction .. .," and "A Fig for thee Oh! Death" by permission of ThomasM. and Virginia L. Davis, eds. Edward Taylor's Minor Poetry (Boston:Twayne, 1981).
Aside from sources already mentioned in the headnote's bibliographyand the footnotes, the introductions to Taylor's published works by DonaldStanford, Norman Grabo, Thomas and Virginia Davis, and Charles Mignon alwaysprove helpful. The most succinct biographical sketch is Donald Stanford's"Edward Taylor" in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.Michael Schuldiner has edited the most recent collection of essays in TheTayloring Shop: Essays in Honor of Thomas M. and Virginia L. Davis(1997). Key chapters on Taylor are found in Sacvan Bercovitch's Typologyand Early American Literature, Albert Gelpi's The Tenth Muse,Barbara Lewalski's Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century ReligiousLyric, Mason Lowance's The Language of Canaan, Earl Miner'sLiterary Uses of Typology, Peter White's Puritan Poets and Poetics,Ivy Schweitzer's The Work of Self-Representation, and Jeffrey Hammond'sSinful Self, Saintly Self.