Excerpts from Major American Poets: Edward Taylor (1642-1729)

Just for fun, I’ve recently started reading a couple cast-off old anthologies of American poetry published in the middle of the last century. It’s sometimes a slog, to be sure, but I do find interesting snippets here and there. I’ve decided to start posting some of them in chronological order by poet.

The vast majority of poets featured in the anthologies are from the late 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, but there are a few colonial era poets included. One of them is Edward Taylor, someone I’d never even heard of before. Here’s a brief bio from the Poetry Foundation:

Edward Taylor was an American Puritan poet and minister of the Congregational church at Westfield, Massachusetts for over 50 years. […] With the exception of two stanzas of verse, his works were unpublished in his lifetime.

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, and his father, William, a yeoman farmer, in 1658. The [English 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. […]

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 [of the Crown]. He refused to sign the Act of Uniformity of 1662 and was therefore prevented from teaching school and from worshiping in peace. On April 26, 1668, he sailed from Execution Dock, Wapping, bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Long story short, after attending Harvard and becoming a minister, Taylor lived out the rest of his life in the small town of Westfield with his family. Of his eight children, five died in infancy.

Edward Taylor: Puritan minister. Poet. Stone cold fox.

Anyway, there aren’t many of Taylor’s poems featured in the anthologies—and, as you might expect from a Puritan, the poems are all highly religious in subject—but despite the historical and cultural distance, some of the language and imagery are fascinating and evocative, if at times a little jarring. Here are a few of the snippets I found interesting:

On how God’s grace can turn us into lady bees…

Thou didst us mold, and us new-mold when we
Were worse than mold we tread upon.
Nay, nettles made by sin we be:
Yet hadst compassion.
Thou hast plucked out our stings; and by degrees
Hast of us, lately wasps, made lady bees.

On God’s tender bowels…

In [our] sad state, God’s tender bowels run
Out streams of grace: and he to end all strife
The purest wheat in heaven, his dear-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this bread of life.

On the universe as God’s bowling alley…

Upon what base was fixed the lath, wherein
[God] turned this globe, and riggalled it so trim?
Who blew the bellows of his furnace vast?
Or held the mold wherein the world was cast? […]
Who laced and filleted the earth so fine,
With rivers like green ribbons smaragdine?* […]
Who spread its canopy? Or curtains spun?
Who in this bowling alley bowled the sun?

* smaragdine means “having the color of emeralds.”

On the importance of the inward journey (and scary things we find there)…

You want clear spectacles: your eyes are dim:
Turn inside out, and turn your eyes within. […]

The understanding’s dark, and therefore will
Account of ill for good, and good for ill.
As to a [half-]blind man men oft appear
Like walking trees within the hemisphere,
So in [our] judgment carnal things excel:
Pleasures and profits bear away the bell.
The will is hereupon perverted so,
It lackeys after ill; doth good forego.

On the delicious temptation of gossip…

How wast thou tickled when thy droughty ears
Allayed their thirst with filthy squibs and jeers?

On the meaning of the Cross / Eucharist…

God’s only Son doth hug humanity
Into his very person. By which union
His human veins its golden gutters lie.
And rather than my soul should die by thirst,
These golden pipes, to give me drink, did burst.

On the poet’s sinful nature / puritan view of human nature…

Still I complain; I am complaining still.
O woe is me! Was ever heart like mine?
A sty of filth, a trough of washing swill,
A dunghill pit, a puddle of mere slime,
A nest of vipers, hive of hornets’ stings,
A bag of poison, civet box of sins.

Was ever heart like mine? So bad? black? vile?
Is any devil blacker? Or can hell
Produce its match? It is the very soil
Where Satan reads his charms and sets his spell […]

On soaking our souls in “holy soap”…

Lord, take thy sword: these Anakims destroy;*
Then soak my soul in Zion’s bucking-tub
With holy soap, and niter, and rich lye.
From all defilement me cleanse, wash, and rub.
Then rinse, and wring me out till the water fall
As pure as in the well: not foul at all.

* Anakims are a mythical race of giants mentioned in the OT.

On … God knows what…

Ye flippering Soul,
Why dost between the nippers dwell?

On reason vs. “sense”…

My reason now’s more than my sense, I feel
I have more sight than sense: which seems to be
A rod of sunbeams t’whip me for my steel.
My spirit’s spiritless and dull in me
For my dead prayerless prayers: the spirit’s wind
Scarce blows my mill about. I little grind.

On cleaning the pipes of our soul…

Had not my soul’s, thy conduit, pipes stopped been
With mud, what ravishment would’st thou convey?
Let grace’s golden spade dig till the spring
Of tears arise, and clear this filth away.
Lord, let thy spirit raise my sighings till
These pipes, my soul, do with thy sweetness fill.

On the “ebb and flow” of the Spirit…

When first thou on me, Lord, wrought’st thy sweet print,
My heart was made thy tinder box.
My ’ffections were thy tinder in’t:
Where fell thy sparks by drops.
Those holy sparks of heavenly fire that came
Did ever catch and often out would flame.

But now my heart is made thy censer* trim,
Full of thy golden altar’s fire,
To offer up sweet incense in
Unto thyself entire:
I find my tinder scarce thy sparks can feel
That drop out from thy holy flint and steel.

Hence doubts out bud for fear thy fire in me
Is a mocking ignis fatuus;**
Or lest thine altars fire out be,
It’s hid in ashes thus.
Yet when the bellows of thy spirit blow
Away mine ashes, then thy fire doth glow.

* a censer is a container in which incense is burned, typically during a religious ceremony.
** ignis fatuus means something deceptive or deluding. It is Latin for a will-o’-the-wisp, which, according to folklore, is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes.

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