In "The Ebb and Flow," Taylor likens his heart to a tinder box. What is the goal of this comparison?

When he likens his heart to a tinder box in "The Ebb and Flow," the speaker in Edward Taylor’s poem is beginning to tell God about his changing ability to accept His spirit. The speaker tells the Lord that at first the sparks of faith would catch fire but then often go out. In subsequent stanzas, they compare the Lord’s force to bellows that keep that fire burning.

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Edward Taylor’s poem uses a conceit, or extended metaphor , in which the speaker compares their heart to a container. The poet also uses the literary device of apostrophe, or direct address, to their “Lord.” In three stanzas, the speaker compares their wavering faith—the ebb and flow of the...

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Edward Taylor’s poem uses a conceit, or extended metaphor, in which the speaker compares their heart to a container. The poet also uses the literary device of apostrophe, or direct address, to their “Lord.” In three stanzas, the speaker compares their wavering faith—the ebb and flow of the title—to a fire that is lit within that container. Initially, the comparison is made between the heart and a tinder box, a small container holding the materials for starting a fire. The first stanza emphasizes that the speaker’s faith was initially inconsistent, as they were beset by doubts. In the second and third stanzas, the speaker continues to explore such doubts and then concludes with an affirmation of their faith, which—with the Lord fanning the flames—can burn brightly and steadily.

The speaker conveys their belief that doubt is a part of faith. They have learned that the sparks of heavenly fire sometimes catch, while other times the flame goes out. The second stanza changes the container to a “censer,” or incense holder. Despite the fullness of that fire, it may go out. Within the ashes, however, the fire remains hidden, awaiting the Lord’s bellows to make the fire of faith glow.

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In order to fully understand this metaphor, it is important to know what a tinder box is. A tinder box is a box that contains tinder, which are small fibers or thin slivers of wood that catch fire quickly, as well as a flint and steel. In short, one would use the contents of a tinder box to start a fire rapidly and easily. Thus, when the speaker says that when God first touched them their heart was like God's "tinder box," easily set alight, so to speak, they seem to suggest that the piety they felt as a youth was bright and warm but, ultimately, neither very consistent nor of long duration. This is in contrast with the "censer trim" with which they now compare their heart.

A censer is a container in which one might burn incense during a religious ceremony, perhaps. Incense undergoes a slow burn to release its scent, unlike the quick and fiery burn of tinder. In other words, then, the effect that God has on the speaker now is more subtle but of longer duration than the immediate flame of religious fervor and passion that they would experience as a younger person. This makes their faith, then, appear to be more constant if less showy than it was when they were a youth with a "tinder box" heart. These comparisons show how the speaker's piety and faith have matured throughout their life.

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