(Poets and Poetry in America)

At the time when English poetry, following the lead of John Dryden, was moving into a century of neoclassicism, Edward Taylor was writing verse in the Metaphysical mode of Donne, characterized by complex syntax, striking conceits, and intimate direct address: Most of Taylor’s poems are addressed to God. In addition to his Metaphysical style, of primary interest to today’s readers of Taylor’s poetry are his propensity to employ the meditative technique, his practice of coordinating private poetic meditation with public sermon, his perhaps unexpected but nevertheless felicitous use of classical allusions, and his attention to the function of the fancy or the imagination in the poetic process.


“Huswifery,” perhaps Taylor’s most famous poem, also displays one of his most eloquent conceits. As did most Puritans of his time, Taylor often found evidence of God’s providence in the quotidian. In “Huswifery,” he discovers God’s purpose for the poet’s public ministry in his wife’s spinning wheel, perdurable symbol of America’s pioneer struggle. The poem begins with this arresting plea, “Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete.” The poet then develops this conceit in a logical fashion, first according to ingenious analogies drawn between the various components of the spinning wheel and second by focusing on the machine’s product, clothing. That which holds the fibers of wool to be spun, the distaff, becomes “Thy holy word”; the flyers that twist the fibers into thread (or yarn) represent the poet’s religious emotions; and the spool that collects the thread embodies his soul. Extending the spinning wheel conceit a bit further, the poet next asserts that the loom on which the threads are woven into cloth serves, like a minister of God’s message, as the instrument for delivering his message to those in need (his congregation). The clothes prepared in this fashion should then become the minister’s apparel, displaying God’s “shine” and revealing that he is “clothed in holy robes for glory.”

“Meditation 39”

Another poem that employs conceits with equal success is Taylor’s “Meditation 39” (first series). This longer poem develops two conceits: sin as poison, and Jesus of Nazareth as “the sinner’s advocate” or defense attorney before God. The inspiration for this meditation is I John 2:1 “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Taylor opens the poem with the exclamation: “My sin! My sin, My God, these cursed dregs,/ Green, yellow, blue streaked poison.” These “Bubs [pustules] hatched in nature’s nest on serpents’ eggs” act in his soul like poisons in his stomach and “set his soul acramp.” He alone cannot conquer then, “cannot them destroy.” Alone and unassisted without God’s help, these “Black imps . . . snap, bite, drag to bring/ And pitch me headlong hell’s dread whirlpool in.” By delaying the preposition “in” until the end of the line, Taylor startles his readers, thereby focusing attention on his wretched predicament as sinner. To be sure, Taylor’s intention, since he wrote these poems as private meditations with God, in preparation for the administration of the Eucharist, was not to appeal to an audience schooled in the Metaphysical style. Such recognition does not, however, lessen the certainty that his intention is most definitely to appeal to an even more critical audience, his God, whose attention he does indeed want to capture and hold.

At this most critical point in his acknowledgment of his fallen state, the poet catches a glimpse of “a twinkling ray of hope,” Christ as advocate; for him, then, “a door is ope.” With this introduction of an advocate, Taylor begins to build his legal conceit. The sight of the advocate first engenders a promise of release from his pain. Temporary joy is replaced by a renewed sense of guilt, however, as he realizes that all his advocate has to work with is “the state/ The case is in.” That is, if the case his advocate pleads before God, the final judge, is short of merit, then judgment may still go against him. As Taylor puts it, if the case is bad: “it’s bad in plaint.” He continues by observing, “My papers do contain no pleas that do/ Secure me from, but knock me down to, woe.” Again the poet wrenches the syntax, but again for the same reason. Despite the “ray of hope,” he fears that the gravity of his “Black imps” may yet doom him to hellfire. As before, his purpose is to focus on his apparently hopeless condition. His reason then begins to instruct him. Even though the biblical text causes him to recall his past sins while also promising him a defense attorney before God, he concludes, without benefit of understanding, “I have no plea mine advocate to give.” He is forced to cry out, “What now?” His reason teaches him that his advocate is unique; as God’s only Son, he has sacrificed his human body to provide the believing and worthy sinner the gift of redemption. These “dear bought arguments” are “good pleas” indeed. Following this grasp of his reason that informs him that the “ray of hope” is constant and true, the poet asks “What shall I do, my Lord?” How can he act or conduct his life so “that I/ May have Thee plead my case?” He exercises his will and decides to “fee” or pay his lawyer “With faith, repentence, and obediently” give the efforts of his ministry to fighting against the commission of “satanic sins” among his parishioners. This unique agreement between lawyer and client obliges the lawyer “My sin [to] make Thine,” while at the same time it emboldens the client, the poet, “Thy pleas [to] make mine hereby.”

The agreement is struck, then; “Thou wilt me save; I will thee celebrate.” Taylor intends, however, not merely to celebrate his advocate through his works “’gainst satanic sins,” but he desires intensely that “my rough feet shall Thy smooth praises sing.” This intense desire to please God in return for God’s love freely given, the eros-agape motif, pervades Taylor’s meditative poetry. The ababcc rhyme scheme, which Taylor adopts for all his meditations, serves a purpose beyond that ordinarily expected; the final words of each line are “I,” “advocate” (the noun), “hereby,” “celebrate,” “within,” and “Sing.” With slight rearrangement, these words make this fitting statement: I hereby celebrate [my] advocate within song. Thus, Taylor accomplishes his end both directly and implicitly. In doing so, he well fulfills John Calvin’s dictum in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) that “We recommend the voice and singing as a support of speech [in the worship service], where accompanying love [that is] pure of spirit.”

The process that governs this poem’s construction is that of the meditation, an intellectual exercise codified by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) and passed on to Taylor probably through the widely circulated and immensely popular (among Puritans) The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650), written by one of the seventeenth century’s foremost Puritan authorities on meditation, Richard Baxter. While this mental process or guide to philosophical contemplation was implicitly understood from pre-Christian days, Saint Ignatius’s The Spiritual Exercises did much to make commonplace this process, which uses the mental faculties of memory, understanding, and will. As the poem itself illustrates, the memory of the one engaged in meditation is jogged or aroused, usually by some biblical text; the understanding or reason of the meditator then grapples with the significance of this memory recalled in conjunction with the biblical text; and, finally, the meditator’s grasp of the significance of text and memory lead him to pledge to serve God with the new understanding he has acquired. The biblical text, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” causes the poet to remember his own poisonous sins, and to recall his redeemer, but also to fear that his sins may weigh too heavily against him in the balance of God’s justice. His understanding then reassures him that Christ, having bought his sins in his human sacrifice, is a formidable advocate in his behalf and that the strength of his belief will give his advocate all the “surety” he will need. The knowledge of God’s gift of his only Son so overwhelms the poet or meditator that he pledges to serve him in both deeds and poetry.

“Meditation 8”

Taylor adopts this basic mode of construction in many of his meditations, as a brief examination of “Meditation 8” (first series) affirms. This poem derives its inspiration from another biblical text, John 6:51, part of which is “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” This text moves the poet to conjure up a vision in which he is looking up toward heaven, trying to discover how man can ever have“pecked the fruit forbad” and consequently have “lost . . . the golden days” and fallen into “celestial famine sore.” What is man to do now? How can he regain paradise? His reason informs him that, alone and without God’s help, this earth “cannot yield thee/ here the smallest crumb” of that living bread. According to the poem, the only way out of this barren mortality is by way of “The purest wheat in heaven, His dear—dear Son.” The fallen sinner must “eat thy fill of this, thy God’s white loaf.” If a person exercises his will and chooses to eat this “soul bread,” then “thou shalt never die.” Once again Scripture provokes memory, which in turn stimulates the understanding, which finally brings about a resolve of the will.

“Meditation 56” and “Sermon 14”

One can easily see how this meditative process accords well with preparation and resolve to administer God’s word with as much intensity and expression as a sincere and gifted pastor can muster. Investigation among those sermons with which scholars are able to align specific meditative poems proves rewarding indeed. All the fourteen sermons of the Christographia, for example, correspond exactly to the “Meditations” (second series), 42 through 56. The examination of but one such pair, sermon and poem, serves the present purpose. Both “Meditation 56” and the fourteenth sermon of the Christographia collection are based on the same biblical text, John 15:24: “Had I not done amongst them the works, that none other man hath done, they had not had Sin.” This final sermon of the series marks the culmination of Taylor’s analysis of the “blessed Theanthropie,” his explanation for the person of God’s divine Son. In this concluding homily, the minister attempts to establish that no works of men or of nature (since God is the author of both) surpass the works of God or his Son; God, therefore, commands the devotion of his believers.

The sermon opens with the observation that the white blossom of the clove tree, when “turned to be green, . . . yields the pleasentest [sic] Smell in the World.” The minister uses this clove blossom imagery as a structural device by means of which, when he returns to it at the sermon’s conclusion, he unifies his text, for the flower that exudes the most pleasant odor predicts the closing corollary that the works of Christ are “the Sweetest Roses, and brightest flowers of his own Excellency.” This flower imagery does not, however, play a significant structural role in the poem. The poet delays this sensuous appeal to smell until the thirteenth line. Preceding the poem’s “White-green’d blossoms” are evocations of other senses, including the sight of his “Damask Web of Velvet Verse” that the poet offers in humility to God, and the taste of “Fruits so sweete that grow/ On the trees of righteousness.” This explication of the senses follows rather closely Loyola’s recommendation given in some of his Spiritual Exercises; Taylor, therefore, here conforms,...

(The entire section is 4983 words.)