Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1606

Lord, let thy Glorious Body send suchrayesInto my Soule, as ravish shall myheart,That Thoughts how thy Bright Gloryout shall blazeUpon my body, may such Rayes theedart.My Tunes shall dance then on theseRayes, and CaperUnto thy Praise: when Glory lights my...

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Lord, let thy Glorious Body send suchrayesInto my Soule, as ravish shall myheart,That Thoughts how thy Bright Gloryout shall blazeUpon my body, may such Rayes theedart.My Tunes shall dance then on theseRayes, and CaperUnto thy Praise: when Glory lightsmy Taper.—Meditation Seventy-Six, SecondSeries.

Edward Taylor, an orthodox Puritan minister, was New England Puritanism’s sweetest singer before the Lord, but for more than two hundred years after his death his poems were unknown since he did not allow their publication and directed that his heirs should not publish them. The 400-page manuscript containing his poetical works was presented to Yale University in 1883 by Henry Wyllys Taylor. Thomas H. Johnson, a specialist in American literature, discovered the poems and received permission from the university to publish them. THE POETICAL WORKS OF EDWARD TAYLOR, published in 1939, contains what Mr. Johnson regards as the best of Taylor’s poems.

The POETICAL WORKS contains a long verse sequence titled “God’s Determinations Touching His Elect,” a group of five occasional poems, and selected poems from two long series of “Sacramental Meditations.” “God’s Determinations” is largely in dialogue form; and the speakers—Mercy, Justice, Christ, Satan, the Soul, and a Saint—are reminiscent of characters in early English morality plays. The several poems in the sequence are written in a variety of stanzaic patterns; and the style (as in all of Taylor’s poems) is that of the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert. The lines abound in homely comparisons and metaphors drawn from New England life and in extravagant conceits which are a distinguishing mark of all metaphysical poetry.

This long work, which embodies a contest between Christ and Satan for mankind, is typically Puritan in thought in that it attempts to justify the Calvinistic doctrine of the Covenant. According to this doctrine, God made a covenant with Adam that he and his descendants would possess eternal happiness if they did not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By disobeying, Adam and Eve lost their immunity to suffering and death. But through a new Covenant of Grace, God gave men another chance to save themselves from condemnation. If they would believe in Christ, who had willingly died for them, certain elect souls would be saved. They would not really earn this salvation through any good works they might do, but they would receive it out of God’s abounding grace. No one knew how many of these elect there were, but each believer in Christ might hope that he was included.

Though Calvinism, greatly modified, is still present in the doctrines of many of the Protestant churches of today, most modern readers find tedious the long discussions of grace, faith, redemption, and damnation which course through the poetry and prose of the New England Puritans. For this reason, much of “God’s Determinations” is of less interest than Taylor’s other poems, in which the poet’s lyricism and fanciful turns of thought are not subdued or distracted by theological argument.

There is nothing to distinguish many of Taylor’s lines in “God’s Determinations” from the writing of perhaps a dozen of his poetizing Puritan contemporaries in America and England. Mercy’s reply to Justice, for example, concerning the respective fates of the Devil’s disciples and of the true believers is no more than rhymed Calvinism:

I will not onely from his Sin him free,But fill him with Inherent grace also.Though none are Sav’d that wicked-nesse imbrace,Yet none are Damn’d that have In-herent Grace.

If Taylor were capable of nothing better than this, he would never have been hailed as America’s best poet before the appearance of William Cullen Bryant in the nineteenth century.

But Taylor possessed more than the inherent grace of Calvin’s theology; he was also gifted with the inherent grace (in a different sense) of the true poet. In the “Prologue” to “God’s Determinations,” he humbly seeks aid from the great God whom he would praise. He asks:

Lord, Can a Crumb of Earth the Earthoutweigh:Outmatch all mountains, nay theChrystall Sky?Imbosom in’t designs that shall DisplayAnd trace into the Boundless Deity?

Even if this “Crumb of Earth” had an angel’s quill dipped in liquid gold, he says, “It would but blot and blur: yea, jag and jar,” unless God made both “Pen and Scribener.” He then admits that he himself is

this Crumb of Dust which isdesign’dTo make my Pen unto thy Praisealone,And my dull Phancy I would gladlygrindeUnto an Edge on Zions PretiousStone:And write in Liquid Gold upon thyNameMy Letters till thy glory forth dothflame.

He prays that God will not laugh to scorn his attempts and that He will overlook any failings as “being Slips slipt from thy Crumb of Dust.” If God will but guide his pen he may then write,

To Prove thou art, and that thou artthe best,And shew thy Properties to shinemost bright.And then thy Works will shine asflowers on Stems,Or as in Jewellary Shops, dojems.

One of the most charming passages in “God’s Determinations” is found in the opening stanzas of Christ’s lengthy reply to a soul who “groans for succour” in his struggles against the fierce assaults of Satan, characterized as a cur who “bayghs and barks . . . veh’mently.” As Christ begins to speak, He is not God’s Son clothed in majesty or dignity but simply a loving father comforting a frightened child:

Peace, Peace, my Hony, do not Cry,My Little Darling, wipe thine eye,Oh, Cheer, Cheer up, come see.Is anything too deare, my Dove,Is anything too good, my Love,To get or give for thee?

The cur barks, Christ explains, only because this soul belongs to Him, and “His barking is to make thee Cling/Close underneath thy Saviours wing.” To make it clear that fright is needless, Christ uses a simile from New England rural or village life:

As Spot barks back the sheep again,Before they to the Pound are ta’ne,So he, and hence ’way goes.

Continuing with other endearing names (“Fear not, my Pritty Heart. . . . Why did my sweeten start?”), Christ even employs New England dialect:

And if he run an inch too fur,I’le Check his Chain, and rate the Cur.My chick, keep close to me.

Suddenly, in the next line, Christ’s language is transformed, and it is as though John Donne or George Herbert had taken over the pen to finish Taylor’s stanza for him:

The Poles shall sooner kiss and greet,And Parallels shall sooner meet,Than thou shall harmed bee.

Of Taylor’s occasional poems included in the POETICAL WORKS, the best known (through many reprintings in anthologies) is “Huswifery,” a poem of three six-line stanzas of the type which Taylor uses in his “Sacramental Meditations.” Also, as in the “Meditations,” the whole poem develops a single “conceit” or extended metaphor. The poet prays to his Lord, “Make me . . . thy Spin[n]ing Wheele compleat,” and the process of becoming a Christian is described in terms of the making of clothing which he will wear. When, with Distaff (“Thy Holy Worde”), Swift Flyers (“mine Affections”), Spool (“my Soule”), and Reel (“My Conversation”), the yarn has been spun, the poet prays again:

Make me thy Loome then, knit thereinthis Twine:And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord,winde quills:Then weave the Web thyselfe. Theyarn is fine.Thine Ordinances make my FullingMills.Then dy the same in Heavenly Col-ours Choice,All pinkt with Varnish’t Flowers ofParadise.

When the poet’s Understanding, Will, Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory, Words, and Actions have been dressed in this God-made cloth,

Then mine apparell shall display be-fore yeeThat I am Cloathd in Holy robes forglory.

Taylor’s “Sacramental Meditations” were written over a period of forty-four years, 1682 to 1725. His purpose in writing them is suggested in his complete manuscript title: “Preparatory Meditations before my Approach to the Lords Supper. Chiefly upon the Doctrin[e] preached upon the Day of administration.” Each meditation is in Taylor’s favorite six-line stanza, rhyming ababcc; and each is numbered, with a Biblical text to provide the theme. In view of the sensuousness in the language and imagery of so much of Taylor’s poetry—despite his Puritan religious orthodoxy—it is significant that of ninety-seven texts which he chose from the Old Testament, seventy-six are from the SONG OF SOLOMON (Taylor uses the alternate name Canticles), which is filled with the passion and imagery of Oriental love poetry. The orthodox interpretation of the book as an allegory describing Christ’s love for the Church permitted Taylor to return repeatedly to it without a twinge of his Puritan conscience, but the modern reader may wonder whether it was not Taylor’s own natural ardor which drew him so often to Canticles for his texts. Yet, reading the “Meditations,” one never questions the sincerity of his love for Christ in such lines as these:

Oh! that my Heart, thy Golden Harpmight beeWell tun’d by Glorious Grace, thate’ry stingScrew’d to the highest pitch, mightunto theeAll Praises wrapt in sweetest Musickbring.I praise thee, Lord, and better praisethee would,If what I had, my heart might everhold.

Though the “Sacramental Meditations” are often awkward and uneven in development and sometimes repetitious in phrasing or imagery, they form altogether a remarkable group of poems, filled with light and warmth and beauty and proclaiming the poet’s love for the Christ whom he served devotedly for so many years.

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