Taylor's birth year and place are still unknown, but the most convincing evidence indicates that he was born in 1642 in the hamlet of Sketchley, Leicestershire, England. His mother, Margaret, died in 1657, his father, William, a yeoman farmer, in 1658. The civil war was raging in Leicestershire during his infancy, but by 1650 the future poet was enjoying the peace and stability of a prosperous midland farm. His poetry is replete with imagery drawn from the farm and from the countryside of both Old and New England. The Leicestershire dialect occasionally appears in his colloquial verses, as do words drawn from the weaver's trade (in which he may have been employed at nearby Hinckley).
Educated by a nonconformist schoolmaster, Taylor taught school for a short time at Bagworth. His firm religious convictions as a Protestant dissenter, formed in childhood and strengthened in the favorable atmosphere of Cromwell's regime, were severely tested during the first years of the Restoration. He refused to sign the Act of Uniformity of 1662 and was therefore prevented from teaching school and from worshiping in peace. On 26 April 1668, he sailed from Execution Dock, Wapping, bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
His earliest verses, written in England, exhibit his lifelong love of the Protestant cause and his anti-Anglican and anti-Roman position. In "A Dialogue between the writer and a Maypole Dresser" the young poet berates the maypole dancers for worshiping the Roman harlot Flora when they "sacrificed a slaughtered tree to her." He attacked the Church of Rome with the same kind of invective in the long poem written toward the end of his life, The Metrical History of Christianity. The most eloquent of his early poems, "The Lay-mans Lamentation," praises the zeal of the dissenting preachers silenced by the Act of Uniformity, which finally drove Taylor himself to the Bay Colony. In "A Letter sent to his Brother Joseph Taylor and his wife after a visit" Taylor exhibited his early interest in acrostic verse, a form in which he continued to write in Massachusetts. The names of himself, his brother, and his brother's wife appear in the initial and final letters of each line.
The hardships of Taylor's crossing of the Atlantic during the seventy days in which his ship was slowed by calms and buffeted by contrary winds are described in his diary, which also includes perceptive observations of natural phenomena, and of birds and fish, anticipating the imagery of his later poetry. On 5 July 1668, Taylor disembarked at Boston, and, after a visit with Charles Chauncy, president of Harvard, he entered Harvard College on 23 July as an upperclassman. He was the college butler in charge of kitchen utensils and responsible for collecting payment for food and drink consumed from the buttery—a position usually given a mature upperclassman. Taylor's life at Harvard for the next three years was busy and rigorous with recitations, disputations, and lectures carried on in Latin; with studies in Greek, Hebrew, logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, and astronomy; and with daily morning and evening prayers.
During his student years, Taylor continued to write poetry, including elegies on Zecharia Symmes, Francis Willoughby, and John Allen—all members of the Board of Overseers of Harvard College who died when Taylor was in residence at Harvard. Also extant is a fragment of an elegy which may be on the famous Richard Mather, founder of the Mather dynasty, who died in 1669. An elegy on Charles Chauncy, who died in 1672, was written during Taylor's first year at Westfield. All of these verses are similar in style, displaying more wordplay and wit than genuine feeling. The poem to Willoughby is an acrostic, and the verses to Chauncy are an elaborate double acrostic. They are an interesting historical addition to the corpus of 17th century funeral verse but are of little literary value. Taylor's later elegies to his wife and to Samuel Hooker are much more successful exercises in the genre.
After graduating with his class from Harvard in 1671, Taylor was faced with the necessity of choosing a vocation. He decided to become a resident scholar at Harvard, and on 16 November he was, according to his diary, "instituted ... scholar of the house." However, a few days later he was persuaded to undertake the hazardous journey of a hundred miles through deep snowdrifts in the dead of winter to Westfield to become minister to that small farming community in the Bay Colony. He remained in Westfield for the rest of his life, with only occasional visits to Boston and other New England towns.
By 1673 Taylor had a parsonage and a new, small meeting-house, built to serve also as a fort during the Indian troubles. The worshipers were summoned to meeting by the roll of a drum. By the summer of 1674 Taylor had fallen in love with Elizabeth Fitch of Norwich. On 8 September he sent her a love letter written in the florid rhetoric of the period, and the next month he composed for her an elaborate acrostic love poem. They were married 5 November 1674 and had eight children, five of whom died in infancy.
King Philip's War began in June 1675 and was waged with savage ferocity on both sides. In the spring of 1676 the citizens of Westfield were asked to consider removal to the larger town of Springfield for their protection, but Taylor refused the invitation, and Westfield escaped serious damage. During these troubled times Taylor apparently composed little or no verse. The Indian chief King Philip was killed in August 1676, and with the coming of peace Taylor was finally able to organize his church. At his ceremony of ordination on 27 August 1679, Taylor preached his first extant sermon: A Particular Church is Gods House, in which he demonstrates with his customary Calvinistic rigidity that the members of this "Particular Church" at Westfield are among God's chosen people, the elect, as distinct from the damned; for all people, he said, are "either in a State of Wrath, or a State of Favourits."
Taylor now resumed his poetic activity. By about 1682 (the date is conjectural) he was composing his major poem Gods Determinations touching his Elect: and The Elects Combat in their Conversion, and Coming up to God in Christ together with the Comfortable Effects thereof. The long title (typical of the period) indicates the subject and movement of the poem--the various ways of God in converting the predestined elect to Christianity (specifically to orthodox Congregationalism) and the spiritual joys of saving grace once the Christian has ascertained the effects of grace in his soul. The poem is somewhat polemical in tone, suggesting that Taylor may have intended to publish it and distribute it to the citizens of Westfield for the purpose of convincing some of the more recalcitrant members of the community to accept saving grace and to enter into full communion with the church. There are a number of passages written to convince the reader that past sins are not certain signs of damnation and that excessive doubts as to a person's worthiness to accept full membership in the church are the devil's work. The poem was not published in Taylor's lifetime, but passages may have been read to his congregation during Sunday morning worship or at evening prayer meetings.
In justifying the ways of God to the elect and in exposing the machinations of the devil, Taylor had a number of previous works—such as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), John Bunyan's The Holy War (1682), Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom (1662), and Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Conflict (translated from the Italian in 1613)--which could have served as models for his own poem of spiritual combat. A possible source for the psychological aspects of Taylor's poem, and one much closer to home, is William Ames's Conscience with the Power and Cases thereof (1639), a copy of which (in Latin) was in Taylor's library. Ames's psychological profile of the devil as one who tempts men to damnation by convincing them they are not of the elect is similar to Taylor's concept of Satan. Sermons and tracts depicting what John Downame called Christian Warfare (1633), that is the clash between personified virtues and vices, were numerous in Taylor's day, and despite what some scholars have suggested, they probably had more influence on the poem than did the morality plays or the Elizabethan drama.
Gods Determinations touching his Elect ... is a dramatization of Taylor's Calvinistic religious beliefs concerning predestination, creation, the nature of God, original sin, saving grace, redemption through faith in Christ, the division of mankind into the damned and the elect, and the joys of eternal salvation. There is some allegory, and the devil reminds us of the personified vices of the morality plays, but the poem is not an exercise in symbolism nor in Neoplatonism. Heaven and hell are depicted as real places. Christ, Satan, and the angels may sometimes take on the physical attributes of real persons.
The major part of the poem depicts the various methods by which God, through Christ, brings salvation to the elect. The struggle for their salvation is dramatically presented as a combat for the souls of the elect between Mercy and Justice on the one hand and the devil on the other. The effect of sin on natural man and the combats for his redemption are graphically presented, often in a colloquial, down-to-earth style. Of disobedient man's terror of God's wrath Taylor writes:
Then like a Child that fears the Poker Clapp
Him on his face doth on his Mothers lap
Doth hold his breath, lies still for fear least hee
Should by his breathing lowd discover'd bee.
Satan, raging at those of the elect who deserted him for Christ, says that now they have two enemies—God and Satan—both of whom will never trust them: "You'l then have sharper service than the Whale, / Between the Sword fish, and the Threshers taile."
For the modern reader the most interesting part of the poem, perhaps, is to be found in what Taylor calls "Satans Sophestry," in the devil's psychological warfare against those who may wish to think of themselves as the elect. His temptations range from appeals to the baser passions to the attempt by subtle arguments to insinuate doubts in the soul's assurance of saving faith. One of his most insidious arguments is that, if a person has any doubts at all about the possibilities of his spiritual regeneration, then he is not one of the elect because God is supposed to give the elect assurance of saving faith. On the other hand, if a person believes he is assured of saving faith, then he (poor sinner that he is) is guilty of pride, the cardinal sin, and so damned. Another line of attack is to convince the sinner that his so-called love of God is really love of self (a sin) and that his real motivation is fear of hell and desire for the joys of heaven. A third method of attack is what Taylor calls the "ath'istick Hoodwinke"—that the attributes of the Christian God—his ubiquitousness and his incarnation in "a mortal clod"—are contrary to reason and to common sense and that in fact God does not exist. These arguments and many more were probably suggested to Taylor by such books as William Ames's Conscience with the Power and Cases thereof.
Gods Determinations touching his Elect ..., unlike Milton's Paradise Lost, is a "dated" poem, quite obviously of its period. It does not have the universal and permanent appeal of Milton's epic, nor can Taylor at any time equal the skill of Milton's blank verse. The poem is like an anthology of poems written in various meters and in various styles, sometimes colloquial, sometimes ornate, sometimes plain and direct, but it is given coherence and dramatic effectiveness by a single theme (the redemption of the elect) and a single narrative line (the rise of the elect from anguish and despair to the glories of heaven).
At about the same time he was writing Gods Determinations touching his Elect ..., Taylor was also composing a series of occasional poems. Only one can be dated precisely—"Upon the Sweeping Flood Aug: 13. 14, 1683." This, the most powerful of the series, has been widely admired. (Joyce Carol Oates used its title as the title for a collection of her short stories.) The flood, which Taylor refers to in his church record, is given allegorical and religious significance: the storm and flood were sent by God to drown man's carnal love, for the sins of man have acted as a purge on the heavens. Allegorizing natural events, "occurants" as Taylor called them, was habitual among Puritan writers. Several other occasional poems are also allegorical. The spider in "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly" is the devil destroying sinful, natural man, and in "The Ebb and Flow" the tide suggests Taylor's rising and falling expectations of election. Allegory occurs also in Taylor's most moving occasional poem, two stanzas of which, published in Cotton Mather's Right Thoughts in Sad Hours ... (1689), were the only lines by Taylor to appear in print during his lifetime. "Upon Wedlock and Death of Children," written in 1682 or 1683, refers to the deaths of two of his children and to his marriage to Elizabeth Fitch, which he calls a "True-Love Knot." The word knot has the seventeenth-century meaning of "garden" as well as the modern meaning. Because theirs is true love, the knot can never be untied; it is a Gordian knot. From this garden sprang four flowers, two of which grew to maturity, two of which died: "But oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans, / And six weeks Fever would pierce hearts like stones." But Taylor's grief is assuaged with the acceptance of God's will:
Lord, theyre thine.
I piecemeal pass to Glory bright in them.
I joy, may I sweet Flowers for Glory breed,
Whether thou getst them green, or lets them seed.
In 1682 Taylor embarked upon Preparatory Meditations before my approach to the Lords Supper, a series of more than two hundred poems grouped in two series written, "Chiefly upon the Doctrin preached upon the Day of administration." Unpublished until the 20th century, the poems are a private spiritual diary of great significance to our understanding of the religious and psychological history of the period. The poems are uneven in poetic merit and frequently repetitious in theme and diction, but a few of them are written in the metaphysical and baroque style and may properly be considered the last exemplars of the metaphysical school.
In his imagery Taylor frequently made use of the metaphysical conceit of what Samuel Johnson called, in commenting on Donne, discordia concors "a combination of dissimilar images... the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together." But Taylor is sometimes even more fantastic than Donne. His imagery may be as extravagant as that of Crashaw or the now-forgotten poet John Cleveland, whom Taylor mentions in his poem on Pope Joan. Today we would call such yoking of images surrealistic, as in his famous line "Should Stars Wooe Lobster Claws." The strongest influence from the metaphysical school is George Herbert, an Anglican poet and preacher, widely respected by the American Puritans in spite of doctrinal differences and especially admired by Taylor, who was perhaps at his best when writing under Herbert's influence, as in meditation six of the first series, "Am I thy Gold?"
In his diction Taylor combined the colloquial with the cosmic (again like Donne), employing abstruse theological or philosophical terms with the homely idiom of the farm or the weaver's trade. The line "My tazzled Thoughts twirld into Snick-snarls run" illustrates his fondness for "domestic diction" and also the influence of the sixteenth-century rhetorician Petrus Ramus, the followers of whom eschewed the ornate style and, like Emerson later, preached that the poet should "fasten words to things." Taylor's frequent use of the plain style is Ramist. His occasional employment of the ornate style is derived from the King James version of the Bible, and especially from the Song of Solomon, which Taylor loved and which had a pervasive influence on his last meditations. Taylor also employed, sometimes to excess, the various rhetorical devices of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handbooks such as irony, synecdoche, metonymy, meiosis (diminishing), and amplification. He was especially fond of amplification, which combined with ploce (repetition of a word) and polyptoton (repetition of a word root) results in what Yvor Wintershas called "a punning piety." In meditation 2.48 he writes with reference to the devil and the powers of darkness:
Their Might's a little mite, Powers powerless fall.
My Mite Almighty may not let down slide.
I will not trust unto this Might of mine:
Nor in my Mite distrust, while I am thine.
In the emblem tradition as it appears in the poetry of Francis Quarles (1592-1644), a poet the Puritans admired, a poem makes a moral, epigrammatic comment on a picture that illustrates a theological or philosophical idea. The tradition is also evident in Taylor's verse, most obviously "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly," where the spider in his web symbolizes the devil. Typology as used in biblical exegesis—an object, event, or person in the Old Testament (the type) foreshadows an object, event, or person in the New Testament (the Antitype)—is also pervasive, especially in the meditations of the second series. The Jewish Passover considered as a type of Christian Communion, or Lord's Supper as Taylor called it, is one of Taylor's favorite constructs.
Taylor's meditations are an important part of a long tradition of meditation writing in verse and prose, beginning, as far as verse is concerned, with Robert Southwell and continuing through John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, and, finally, Taylor. Richard Baxter's treatise, The Saints Everlasting Rest (1650), which had considerable influence on meditation writing in verse, advocated an orderly method of meditation involving the three faculties of the soul—memory, understanding, and will (the emotions) in that order. Louis Martz has shown in his introduction to Donald E. Stanford's edition of Taylor's poems that some of Taylor's Preparatory Meditations ... are organized according to this tripartite division. Frequently the Puritan poet appears to be following another threefold pattern--despair as he contemplates the sins of mankind and his own personal sin, joy when he thinks of Christ's promise of redemption to the elect, and hope and resolution when he considers the possibility that he too may be one of the elect. There are also many meditations which appear to have no preset pattern. Taylor was writing at the end of, that is during the decadence of, the meditative tradition, and his poems usually do not have the closely-knit logical organization of the best poems of Donne and Herbert.
Of the more than 200 meditations, a number appear to be independent or occasional poems, but some form well-defined, coherent groups. The central theme of the forty-nine poems of the first series is love--the divine love of God and Christ for man as proven by Christ's saving grace to the elect and, conversely, the human love that the elect should have for Christ and God. Three unnumbered poems, entitled "The Experience," "The Return," and "The Reflexion," which Taylor placed among his first meditations, graphically depict the minister-poet's love of Christ, and one of them, "The Reflexion," presents what appears to be a mystic moment in which Taylor actually saw a vision of Christ at the Communion table:
Once at thy Feast, I saw thee Pearle-like stand
'Tween Heaven, and Earth where Heavens
Bright glory all
In streams fell on thee, as a floodgate and,
Like Sun Beams through thee on the
World to Fall.
The experience may have been the inspiration for the first series of preparatory meditations. The meditations consist of poems contemplating the truths of the scripture as seen typologically; attacks on the various “heresies” which are not in agreement with his view of Christ’s perfect humanity and divinity; and moving statements of Taylor’s belief in the perfect humanity and perfect divinity of Christ. Toward the end of his life Taylor wrote a series of meditations (series two, 115-133) on sequential texts from the Song of Solomon, or Canticles, which many Christians of the 17th century considered to be an allegorical poem celebrating the "wedding" of Christ with the members of his church. Taylor adopts the view of Origen, a church father whom he greatly admired, that Canticles may be interpreted as a celebration of the wedding of Christ with the individual soul. In these moving poems, heavily influenced by the diction and imagery of the Bible, Taylor meditates on his union with Christ with almost mystical intensity.
In 1688, when he heard that Stoddard was about to allow unregenerate sinners to partake of the Lord's Supper, Taylor sent him a letter opposing the move. Stoddard laconically replied that he was not at leisure to go into the reasons for his innovation and then proceeded to liberalize the communion service in the manner Taylor feared. The church at Northampton appears to have followed Stoddard's practice until his grandson, the great Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards, returned to the conservative restrictions of former days, a decision which was eventually instrumental in his being discharged of his duties as pastor of that church and sent out to preach to the Indians. The controversy over Stoddard's practice was widespread and bitter; yet it was engaged in by some of the chief pastors of the period, including Increase and Cotton Mather.
In 1690 Taylor entered in his commonplace book six syllogisms arguing that the Lord's Supper is not a converting ordinance, and in this same year, after reading a sermon by Stoddard defending his practice, he wrote in his book thirty-four pages of animadversions against Stoddard. He made use of this material in 1694 in his series of sermons preached on his own doctrine of the Lord's Supper. In the course of these sermons he continually attacks Stoddard for destroying a precious sacrament.
The first Mrs. Taylor died 7 July 1689. Taylor's moving elegy on her describes the joys and griefs of their married life, especially those caused by the deaths of their children, and his own grief at the death of the children's mother:
Five Babes thou tookst from me before this Stroke.
Thine arrows then into my bowells broake,
But now they pierce into my bosom smart,
Do strike and stob me in the very heart.
On 6 June 1692, Taylor married Ruth Wyllys of Hartford, who survived him.
Late in 1697 Taylor engaged in controversy with Benjamin Ruggles, pastor of the church at Suffield in the Bay Colony, who began to express what Taylor considered to be dangerous Presbyterian views, dangerous not for doctrinal reasons—for the doctrines of the two churches were almost identical—but because Presbyterianism would deprive the independent Congregational minister of power over his church and place it in the hands of a church synod. Taylor's struggle against the establishment of Presbyterianism in New England is described in the Westfield church record and is referred to in his poem on the death of Samuel Hooker (circa 1635-1697), minister of the Congregational church in Farmington, Connecticut. In this most powerful of all of Taylor's elegies Ruggles is referred to as one of several "Young Cockerills" and Presbyterianism is called "refined Prelacy at best." The next year Taylor wrote an elegy on his sister-in-law Mehetabel Woodbridge. On 18 January 1701 James Taylor, Taylor's son by his first wife, died in Barbados. The poet refers to his death in meditation 2.40: "Under thy Rod, my God, thy smarting Rod, / That hath off broke my James, that Primrose, Why?" In the same year Taylor began, on 31 August, a series of fourteen sermons, entitled Christographia, on the nature of Christ's person and the unity of the divine and human natures in Christ. The series was finished on 10 October 1703. In his day, Taylor had a reputation for pulpit eloquence. His Harvard classmate Samuel Sewall wrote in his Letter-Book, "I have heard him preach a sermon at the Old South upon short warning which as the phrase in England is, might have been preached at Paul's Cross," Sewall, who lived in Boston, had access to the best preaching of the day. Taylor's poetry was almost completely unknown in his lifetime, but now that almost all of Taylor's extant poetry and prose have been published, it seems unlikely that his reputation as a preacher will ever equal his reputation as a poet. In his sermons he never exhibits the power and the beauty of the great Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards.
In structure and style his sermons are in the tradition of the Puritan preaching of his time. There is usually a three-fold structure--doctrine, reason, and use—or as Taylor put it on the title page of Christographia, each sermon is "Opened, Confirmed, and Practically improved." The purpose of the Puritan sermon was to explain the scripture and to instruct the congregation in the practical application of scriptural doctrine. Taylor came naturally to the plain style he employed, for most Puritan divines preferred it to the learned and ornate style of the Anglican preachers. Yet he was also preaching to a congregation of poorly educated farmers for whom a plain style and at times colloquial diction were necessary. He refers to the Quakers as "the old Clucking hen of antichrist" and to natural man as "a mushroom." In his attacks on Stoddard he refers to the Communion bread: "Hands off: its Childrens bread; a Crumb of it may not fall to dogs. But all of it belongs to every Child in the Family." However, Taylor's talent as a poet sometimes appears in his sermons, especially in passages depicting the sweetness of saving grace and the mystical union of Christ and the believer.
In June 1705 the bones of a "monster" were discovered at Claverack on the bank of the Hudson River near Albany, New York. The discovery caused considerable excitement, and accounts of the remains appeared in the Boston News-Letter and several years later in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. At the time their discovery was considered proof of the existence of giants in the earth before the flood. Today the bones are thought to be mastodon remains, the first to be discovered in America.
At least two of the teeth were brought to Taylor in Westfield for examination. He claimed that one weighed five pounds, the other two. Combining this evidence with the report that a thigh bone seventeen-feet long had also been discovered and that the ground was discolored for seventy feet, Taylor constructed in his imagination a marvelous giant seventy-feet tall and described him in a remarkable poem of one hundred and ninety verses, entitled "The Description of the great Bones dug up at Claverack...." Taylor, like his contemporaries Increase and Cotton Mather, had a fondness for prodigies and remarkable providences.
Early in the 18th century (the exact date has never been determined) Taylor began a long poem which eventually ran to well over 20,000 lines. The first part of the poem presents the sufferings and persecutions of the Christians from the beginning until the twelfth century, and, after a lacuna in the manuscript, there is an account of the martyrdoms of Queen Mary's reign in England. The poem is untitled. Donald E. Stanford, who in 1960 made and later published a transcript of the poem, called it A Metrical History of Christianity. The primary sources are the Magdeburg Centuries (1567-1574) of Matthias Flaccus and the well-known book Actes and Monuments of these Latter Perilous Days, first published in English in 1563 and usually known as The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe. Written in decasyllabic couplets and in eight other verse forms, Taylor's long and frequently tedious poem is uneven in literary merit, varying from the crudest doggerel to exalted hymns to God's grace. There are a few powerful lines on the operation of God's justice, but there are also unnecessarily detailed descriptions of the physical agonies of the martyrs and some extremely vitriolic language in several attacks on the Papacy reminiscent of the pamphlet war of the previous century.
Taylor was ill and enfeebled in the final years of his life, but he persisted in writing poems until almost the end. "Upon my recovery out of a threatening Sickness," which begins, "What, is the golden Gate of Paradise / Lockt up 'gain that yet I may not enter?," was written in December 1720. In January 1721 he composed "A Valediction to all the World preparatory for Death," a flawed, eccentric, but moving, poem (which exists in several heavily corrected versions). In it Taylor bids farewell to the physical world including the stars, sun, moon, and air, while he eagerly anticipates the joys of singing, above the angels, God's praises in heaven. Throughout the eight cantos he enumerates in vivid detail the pleasures and sorrows of earthly life, including his "study, Books, Pen, Inke, and Paper," all of which he is about to relinquish for his life in a heaven which he believes in and depicts with absolute conviction:
When I've skipt ore the purling Stile with joy
Twixt Swift wing'd Time and Fixt Eternity
And am got in the heavenly strand on High
My Harp shall sing thy praise melodiously.
In 1723 Taylor wrote his elegy on Increase Mather (1639-1723), who had died on 23 August. The long title begins "Increase Mather," Mather is praised as a champion of Congregational orthodoxy, and his opponents, especially the Roman Catholics who made Mather "their Maypole Music," are denounced at some length. Timothy Cutler, a rector of Yale University who defected to Anglicanism, is more briefly dismissed: "Cutler's Cutlery gave th' killing Stob." In October 1725 Taylor wrote his last preparatory meditation, which begins: "Heart sick my Lord heart sick of Love to thee!" During his final years Taylor composed a scurrilous attack upon the so-called Pope Joan, the legendary Pope John VIII of the ninth century, who according to some Protestant apologists was a woman disguised as a man. The myth had wide circulation from medieval times through the seventeenth century. The poem is in six versions or drafts and several fragments, indicating that Taylor spent more time on the poem than it was worth.
Taylor died on 24 June 1729 and was interred in the old burying ground at Westfield, Massachusetts. His interesting tombstone, engraved with the face of a primitive angel, fell into disrepair but has now been reconstructed.
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.”
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.
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.)