Edward Taylor c. 1642-1729
American poet, sermon writer, and diarist.
Virtually unknown as a poet in his own time, Taylor was rediscovered in the twentieth century and is today considered one of the most important poets of colonial America. His verse is primarily contained in two books: Gods Determinations Touching His Elect (1682) and Preparatory Meditations (1682-1726).
There is little reliable information available on Taylor's life before he arrived in America. He was born into a fairly prosperous farm family around 1642, possibly in Sketchley, Leicestershire, England. Taylor's mother died in 1657 and his father a year later. The boy apparently attended a school run by a nonconformist teacher, but little else is known of his education; there is no evidence to support the frequently repeated contention that he attended Cambridge University. Taylor worked as a schoolteacher during the reign of Oliver Cromwell when dissenters enjoyed religious freedom; however, after the Restoration he refused to sign the 1662 Act of Uniformity and was denied further employment. In 1668, unable to worship according to the dictates of his conscience, Taylor left England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Following seventy days at sea, he landed in Boston and shortly thereafter entered Harvard College, where for the next three years he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, logic, and rhetoric. After receiving his degree in 1671, Taylor accepted a position at a church in the small farming community of Westfield, Massachusetts, one hundred miles from Boston. In 1674 he married Elizabeth Fitch, the daughter of a minister, and the couple had eight children, with only three surviving infancy. The struggling frontier community of Westfield endured many physical hardships and a hostile relationship with the local Indians, particularly during the years 1675-76, the time of King Philip's War. When peace returned, Taylor assumed his church duties in earnest; he was ordained in 1679 and began preaching to his congregation. Since colonial America had few formally trained physicians, the role was often filled by ministers and other public officials, particularly in outlying areas. Thus, in addition to his farming and ministerial duties, Taylor also served as the only physician to the Westfield community. In 1689 Taylor's wife Elizabeth died; three years later he married Ruth Wyllys, of Hartford, with whom he had six more children. In failing health in his last years, Taylor continued to write elegies and religious verse until the very end. He died on June 24, 1729, and is buried in Westfield, Massachusetts.
Taylor's earliest poetry, written while he was still in England, reflects his Puritan beliefs as well as his animosity towards the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. The poem “The Lay-Mans Lamentation” more specifically took up the cause of dissenting ministers persecuted by the Restoration's Act of Uniformity. During this period Taylor also composed a letter for his brother Joseph in acrostic verse, a form that fascinated him throughout his career. While at Harvard, Taylor wrote a number of elegies and in his first year at Westfield he produced a double acrostic elegy to Charles Chauncy. Once his church in Westfield was established, Taylor began writing Gods Determinations, aimed at convincing all individuals in the small community to become full-fledged members of the church. The work was not published during Taylor's lifetime. From 1682 to 1726 he composed Preparatory Meditations, consisting of more than two hundred individual poems. The work is considered his masterpiece. In the early part of the eighteenth century Taylor composed a lengthy verse detailing the suffering of Christian martyrs throughout church history. The work was untitled and remained unpublished until 1962, when it appeared under the title A Transcript of Edward Taylor's Metrical History of Christianity. Two collections of Taylor's poetic works were also published in the twentieth century: The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor (1939) and The Poems of Edward Taylor (1960).
In addition to his verse, a large number of Taylor's sermons survive and have been published in two collections: Treatise Concerning the Lord's Supper (1693-94) and Christographia (1701-03). Taylor's diary, covering the hardships of his voyage from England to America, his college years at Harvard, and the early years of the Wakefield settlement, was not published until 1964.
For nearly two hundred years after his death, Taylor was known to historians only as a preacher at a remote outpost in western Massachusetts. The location of his parish on what was then the frontier contributed to his obscurity until the 1930s, when his work was discovered and published by Thomas H. Johnson. According to critic Karl Keller, Taylor was “the first frontier poet of early America” and his work is of historical value primarily because it sheds light on the aesthetics associated with early Puritanism. Taylor's work embodies the classic Puritan dilemma—that the devout individual's desire to glorify God is severely hampered by awareness of his unworthiness to perform such a task. Jerome D. DeNuccio believes that for Taylor, this translates to a linguistic problem, which he tries to solve in “Preparatory Meditation 1.22.” In this poem, according to DeNuccio, Taylor employed the rhetorical strategy of ascending from a sense of human limitation to a glimpse of possible salvation, resulting in a meditation that seems to manage “the anxieties and self-doubts generated by the paradox of man's obligation to praise an unpraisable God.” Another problem for devout Puritans of Taylor's time was reconciling the growing body of scientific information with religious teachings. Catherine Rainwater reports that Taylor displayed an interest in new developments in science and medicine while at Harvard and exhibited a progressive attitude toward change. “Apparently, the new scientific data posed no significant threat to Taylor, as it did to many others, for Taylor was always able, eventually, to accommodate the new information to Puritan theology.” This view is contrary to Jeff Jeske's findings regarding Taylor's use of nature imagery. While the Puritan community in general was gradually accepting a more empirical attitude toward nature, Taylor appeared to be heading in the opposite direction. According to Jeske, “where Puritanism becomes more accepting of the natural world and more liberal in its use of nature imagery, Taylor becomes seemingly more detached and distrustful: witness his increasing preference for ‘nature’ images drawn directly from Scripture.”
Critics have also disagreed on the intended audience for Gods Determinations, with J. Daniel Patterson arguing that the minister was not addressing only the “half-way” members of the congregation, but rather all members of the religious community. If the work were not aimed at two different readerships, contends Patterson, much of the text would appear redundant—an unlikely scenario given the care and control Taylor exhibits in his writing. Thomas M. Davis believes that Taylor's improving skill as a poet is demonstrated by differences between the first poems of Gods Determinations and the work's final verses. Davis contends the text was composed over approximately three years, from 1679 to 1681-82, and considers the work as a whole uneven: “The generally high quality of the verse and techniques is often undercut by quite pedestrian lines that are flat and dull and by a shaky development of individual sections of the poem.” The final verses, though, are “highly successful and sophisticated,” Davis maintains, suggesting that the poet had finally “found his stride” towards the end of the composition period. Some critics have noted similarities between Taylor's verse and drama. William J. Scheick suggests that “Taylor's use of dramatic monologue appropriates a Renaissance dramatic convention despite expressed Puritan antipathy for the theater.” Lincoln Konkle goes even further in claiming that Gods Determinations could be considered a verse drama, rather than lyric poetry, since the majority of its 2,132 lines consists of dialogue, monologue, or the narrator's exposition of events. Most scholars, however, have disagreed with attempts to reclassify the work, suggesting that it could not be performed as a play for a number of reasons, among them the importance of the individual poems' titles.
Taylor's language is often considered simple and his imagery plain and very much grounded in the real world. Some scholars, though, believe that his use of language is quite elegant and complex. Raymond E. Craig maintains that “the intertextual and intratextual play within his poetry results from a sophisticated understanding of language that he brings to the making of new poems.” Several critics have also commented on Taylor's wit, suggesting that his sense of humor refutes the common perception about the Puritans' melancholy dispositions. Carol M. Bensick reports that Gods Determinations “goes beyond merely showing that Puritanism didn't approve, let alone mandate, gloom. It shows us … that gloom is actually a Puritan dysfunction.” John Gatta, too, notes that Taylor's poetry, compared to the work of many of his New England contemporaries, “emerges as unusual if not unique in the manner and extent to which it exploits comic principles.”