| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Celebrated today as colonial America’s most prolific and inventive
poet, Edward Taylor was virtually unpublished in his lifetime. Not until the
twentieth century did Thomas Johnson unearth Taylor’s long buried
manuscripts at the Yale University Library and in 1937 publish the
first selections from Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations (1682–1725)
and Gods Determinations touching his Elect (c. 1680). These collections
revealed Taylor to be a frontier parson with a secret passion for
the confessional lyrics and versified theological allegories popular among
seventeenth-century English poets and clerics. Despite Taylor’s prominence as
minister of the Congregational Church in Westfield for fifty-eight years until
his death on June 24, 1729, details of his life remain rudimentary.
Most likely born in
1642 in Sketchley, Leicestershire, England, the son of a yeoman farmer, Taylor
often adopts quaint colloquialisms and the imagery of provincial farming and
weaving in his later poems. According to great-grandson Henry Wyllys Taylor’s
family memoir (1848), Taylor studied at Cambridge University, although certain
proof is lacking. As a Protestant dissenter, he was buoyed by Oliver Cromwell’s
Puritan Commonwealth (1649–1660), but after the Restoration under Charles II,
his refusal to sign the 1662 Act of Uniformity probably prevented Taylor from
teaching school, worshiping, or pursuing a licensed clerical career. His
earliest verse and later sermons virulently satirize “Popish” and Anglican
worship as well as other heresies (such as Quakerism) that threatened an
orthodox Calvinist theology and congregational polity.
Brimming with nautical
observations, Taylor’s Diary (1668–1671) catalogs his Atlantic crossing,
from the April 26, 1668, departure to his safe deliverance on July 5 in the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. After conferring with President Charles Chauncy, he
entered Harvard University on July 23 as an upperclassman, where he served two
years as college butler and was chamber-fellow with diarist Samuel Sewall, a
lifelong friend and correspondent. When he departed on November 27, 1671, for
Westfield, Taylor journeyed, “not without much apprehension,” through the
Connecticut Valley’s rugged forests. Despite his fears, Taylor settled
energetically into his multiple roles as farmer, rural physician, and minister
to a frequently endangered band of the pioneering Puritan elect, who were
called to Sabbath worship by “beat of drum.” After delays occasioned by Indian
warfare and other early hardships, the first church at Westfield was formally
organized on August 27, 1679. The gathering of local elders and neighboring
clergy included Northampton’s Solomon Stoddard, with whom Taylor would later
split bitterly over differences in administering the Lord’s Supper. Delivered
on this occasion, Taylor’s spiritual “Relation” and his “Foundation Day
Sermon,” now in the Westfield Church Records, are among his earliest
extant prose writings. As penitent sinner, Taylor recounts his personal
conversion and acceptance of God’s grace, and as community preacher, he leads
his congregation to the founding of a “Particular Church” over which he would
preside for another fifty years as spiritual guide, disciplinary statesman, and
piously learned theologian.
Although Taylor wrote
several pro forma funeral elegies for public figures and a verse
declamation defending the English language, these early literary efforts
(1668–1671) were somberly pedantic exercises. But in his next attempts at
occasional verse (1674–1683), he sought for more varied lyrical forms:
acrostics and love poems to his wife-to-be, miniature allegories on insects or
domestic objects, as in “Huswifery,” and spiritualized contemplations of
natural “occurants,” such as “The Ebb & Flow.” Among the most moving poems
is the anguished pathos of “Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children” (1682?). On
November 5, 1674, Taylor had married Elizabeth Fitch, who bore him eight
children, five of whom died in infancy; his second wife (1692), Ruth Wyllys,
produced six children. With its heart-wrenching revelation of how premature
death tests one’s submission to God’s will, “Upon Wedlock, & Death of
Children” resembles the elegies of Anne Bradstreet, whose 1678 second edition
of poems Taylor owned. His 1689 funeral elegy for Elizabeth Fitch, “My Onely
Dove,” echoes, though not without “Gust of Sorrows groan,” the customary
eulogistic praise for a Puritan woman as “Mistriss, Mother, Wife.” During this
early period, Taylor also inaugurated his first version (1674–1675) of metrical
paraphrases of the Psalms (1–9, 18). He transcribed a second version, of
virtually all different Psalms (11–39, 48–49), during the early 1680s. The
paraphrases are a self-conscious tutorial in versification, imitative of the
English Sternhold-Hopkins psalter and the Massachusetts Bay Psalm Book.
In the occasional poems as well as Psalm paraphrases, Taylor’s distinctive
meditative voice begins to emerge, perhaps as a result of his identification
with David’s gift of hymn-like poesy or the inspiration of “occurant”
During the late 1670s and early 1680s, Taylor also brought
together his vision of Christian salvation history with varied verse
experiments to create his first 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. Having imaginatively
re-enacted God’s “Glorious Handywork” of cosmic creation and the debate between
Justice and Mercy over humankind’s destiny, the collection of thirty-five poems
traces Christ’s combat with Satan for three ranks of elect human souls,
then culminates with the redeemed “Saints’” final joyful acceptance of “Church
Fellowship Rightly Attended.” Taylor’s own ministerial “warfare” to rescue his
Westfield flock from Indian attacks and second-generation backsliding would
have been a likely stimulus, as well as a need to maintain doctrinal
purity by admitting only regenerate converts to the church and Lord’s Supper.
Critics today often praise Taylor’s occasional lyrics because they appeal to
post-romantic sensibilities, but the formally didactic history of spiritual
combat was commonplace in an age that valued plain-style rationality and in
which Taylor might turn for models to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Paul
Bunyan’s The Holy War, Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom,
and countless sermons and tracts.
Whether inspired by
his occasional verse or the patterned deliberateness of the Psalm paraphrases
and Gods Determinations, Taylor inaugurated in 1682 the Preparatory
Meditations before my Approach to the Lords Supper, two extended series of
217 poems—and his greatest artistic achievement. Generally composed after he
had drafted a sermon or preaching notes, the poems are private meditations,
“Chiefly upon the Doctrin preached upon the Day of administration,” in which
Taylor applies to his own soul lessons gleaned from the sacrament day’s
Biblical text, which doubles as the poem’s title. Like The Temple (1633)
by Anglican George Herbert, with whom Taylor is most often compared, the Preparatory
Meditations belongs to a tradition of meditative writing in verse and
prose. Taylor’s purpose is self-examination, to root out sins that infect his
soul and to cultivate instead a heart receptive to God’s sweet grace and
readied to hymn “New Psalms on Davids Harpe to thee.”
As a preacher and
Puritan, debased by his human condition, Taylor felt spiritually unworthy of
God’s grace. His poetic petitions to God and Christ serve as ritualized
cathartic cleansings and as twofold preparations of the soul: first, for the
imminent preaching of God’s Word to his Westfield congregation and
administering of the Lord’s Supper; second, as a saint’s lifelong preparation
for the heavenly union with Christ. As the Treatise Concerning the Lord’s
Supper (1693–1694) indicates, Taylor reacted vehemently against Solomon
Stoddard’s liberalizing doctrine that permitted all church members to partake
of the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance.” By contrast, Taylor demanded
an “Evangelicall Preparation”; those desiring to partake of the Lord’s Supper
were expected to make a prior spiritual relation of conversion and, by
practicing “prayer, meditation, and self-examination,” to cultivate a proper “festival
frame of spirit.” Meditation, therefore, provided a means for examining the
heart and for contemplating the feast’s benefits, mainly its nature as a
covenant seal and commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice.
But these poems also
became Taylor’s private spiritual diary, a preparation not merely for his own
earthly Supper, but for the eternal feast at which Taylor, like the heavenly
angels, would be wed as a “Loving Spouse” to the Bridegroom Christ forever. Not
surprisingly, the second series of meditations evolves thematically from Old
Testament types (1–30) that foreshadow Christ, then focuses on New Testament
Christology (2.42–56) and the Supper (2.102–111), and culminates with a
twelve-year study of Canticles (2.115–165). The Song of Solomon was regarded as
one of the Bible’s most poetic books and a clearly predictive allegory of
Christ’s promised marriage with the redeemed church and saints. With its
lavishly sensuous metaphors of feasts, gardens, lovers’ wooing, anatomized
beauties, and marital union, it might also have been Taylor’s own visionary
preparation for death. After suffering a severe illness in 1720, he also
composed three versions of “A Valediction to all the World preparatory for
Death 3d of the 11m 1720” (January 1721) and two variants of “A Fig for thee
Oh! Death,” which in their renouncing of earth’s splendors and defying of
death’s terrors complement the heavenly visions of the final Canticles poems.
reputation will undoubtedly rest upon the Preparatory Meditations, these
poems account for a mere twenty-five percent of the output from an immensely
imaginative mind that also produced twenty thousand lines of A Metrical
History of Christianity. But the plethora of Psalm and Job paraphrases,
elegies, acrostics, love poems, allegorical histories, meditations, and
occasional lyrics, written during a lifetime spent in New England, give ample
proof that the wilderness frontier did not deaden but instead nourished
Taylor’s latent poetic talent. Taylor’s themes are sin inherited from Adam’s
fall and salvation in which Christ’s curative mercy tempers God’s justice;
God’s providential design that makes history script for redemption; the Old
Testament’s predictive typology fulfilled in the New Testament; the Lord’s
Supper as a spiritual commemoration of Christ’s body and blood; and the Supper
as a mere shadow of the eternal marriage feast to come.
Taylor inherited an
exegetical and poetic tradition that was rooted in the Calvinist belief in the
literal text and sole authority of Scripture as God’s Word, from which
spiritual meanings might be drawn only within strict frameworks of prudent
interpretation. He struggles rebelliously against the limits of a fallen
language and “Goose quill-slabbred draughts,” so inadequate to the divine subject
that demands a “Transcendent style.” But, through the repeated task of poetic
composition and soul-searching examination, he underscores his desire to
perfect both faith and art. Even though they were not published, the care with
which Taylor transcribed the minor poems, Gods Determinations, and the Preparatory
Meditations into four hundred manuscript pages of the leatherbound
“Poetical Works” suggests his intent to preserve these poetic offerings. For
the modern reader, they are a truly rare find, from a man described by his
grandson Ezra Stiles as “of quick passions, yet serious and grave. Exemplary in
piety, and for a very sacred observance of the Lord’s day,” but only long after
his death known as New England’s premier poet.
Karen E. Rowe|
University of California at Los Angeles
In the Heath Anthology
A Valediction to all the World preparatory for Death 3d of the 11m 1720, Version 1
"A Fig for thee Oh! Death, Version 2"
"Cant.3 . Valediction, to the Terraqueous Globe"
"The Joy of Church Fellowship rightly attended."
"The Souls Groan to Christ for Succour"
"6. Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children"
Preparatory Meditations, First Series
"6. Another Meditation at the same time"
"8. Meditation. Joh. 6.51. I am the Living Bread"
Preparatory Meditations, Second Series
"115. Meditation. Cant. 5:10. My Beloved"
"Meditation 26. Heb. 9.13. 14. How much More shall the blood of Christ, etc."
"Meditation 43. Rom. 9.5. God blessed forever."
"Meditation. Col. 2.17. Which are Shaddows of things to come and the body is Christ"
Puritan Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death
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Links to Taylor sites including many offering primary texts.
The Poems of Edward Taylor
Brief biography and a collection of Taylor's poems for browsing.