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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edward Taylor
Celebrated today as colonial America’s most prolific and inventive poet, Edward Taylor was virtually unpublished in his lifetime.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” contemplations.

      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.

Although Taylor’s 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" (1720)
      "Cant.3 . Valediction, to the Terraqueous Globe" (1720)
God's Determinations
      "The Joy of Church Fellowship rightly attended." (1680)
      The Preface (1680)
      "The Souls Groan to Christ for Succour" (1680)
      "Christ's Reply" (1960)
Occasional Poems
      "4. Huswifery" (1682)
      "6. Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children" (1682)
Preparatory Meditations, First Series
      "6. Another Meditation at the same time" (1939)
      "8. Meditation. Joh. 6.51. I am the Living Bread" (1939)
      Prologue (1939)
Preparatory Meditations, Second Series
      "115. Meditation. Cant. 5:10. My Beloved" (1960)
      "Meditation 26. Heb. 9.13. 14. How much More shall the blood of Christ, etc." (1960)
      "Meditation 43. Rom. 9.5. God blessed forever." (1960)
      "Meditation. Col. 2.17. Which are Shaddows of things to come and the body is Christ" (1960)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
IMAGE filePuritan Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death

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American Authors
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.

Secondary Sources