Thursday, May 16, 2013

Edward Taylor: Poet-Preacher

Continuing on with my project to read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature in one year (a project I have called The One Year Norton), I arrived today at the poetry of Edward Taylor (1642-1729).  Taylor was a Puritan, who fled England to escape persecution, attended Harvard, and ultimately became the minister/physician of Westfield, Massachusetts.  Very little was known about Taylor's life until the 1930s, when Thomas H. Johnson uncovered a huge body of his poetry in the Yale University library.

Taylor's poetry demonstrates an active and creative mind, steeped in literary tradition and religious faith.  Puritans were not, generally speaking, a creative lot.  But the discovery of Taylor's poetry revealed "work by a Puritan divine that was remarkable both in its quantity and quality."  The Norton Introduction explains, "Nothing previously discovered about Puritan literature had suggested that there was a writer in New England who had sustained such a life-long love affair with poetry."

Perhaps Taylor's best poems are the Preparatory Meditations, which were part of his preparations for sermons.  These are influenced by the "metaphysical" British poets John Donne and George Herbert, who used elaborate metaphors to explore abstract ideas like faith, love, the soul, grace, and God.  Each poem begins with a Bible text, and proceeds to use that text as inspiration for poetic meditation.  In "Meditation 8," Taylor's text is John 6:51, "I am the living bread."  Taylor envisions his soul as a bird caged in his body, unable to reach the bread of God's grace:
 "When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my corpse) to tweedle praise
Had pecked the Fruit forbade: and so did fling
Away its food; and lost its golden days;
It fell into Celestial Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsel more."
The "Bird of Paradise" eating the forbidden fruit and thus encaging and starving itself recalls Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, and being banished from paradise.  Humanity, in the Bible's narrative, will ultimately be redeemed by Christ, who calls himself "The bread of life."  Taylor concludes his poem on a hopeful note:
"This Bread of Life dropped in thy mouth, doth Cry;
Eat, Eat me, Soul, and thou shalt never die."
This particular poem was written on the occasion of communion, and so it is appropriate that Taylor meditates on eating the bread of Christ, as his congregation would during communion.  While Taylor's poems are often serious and deep on content, he sometimes displays a playfulness and self-effacing humor, as in Meditation 22:
"My quaintest metaphors are ragged stuff,
Making the Sun seem like a Mullipuff (fuzz ball)"
But the most moving of all poems included in the Norton, for me, is titled "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children."  Taylor was married twice and had 14 children, many of whom died as infants.  In 17th century New England, the infant mortality rate was ridiculously high, and so Taylor experienced many times the bitter pain of losing a child, plus he lost his first wife.  This poem is a meditation on his pain, and contains a beautifully hopeful extended metaphor.  Taylor describes his marriage as a knot of two branches, and his children as flowers blooming off of them.  After the death of his first wife, he married again, and flowers bloomed again from this union:
"my branch again did knot,
Brought out another Flower, its sweet-breathed mate."
Some flowers grew to maturity, while others were pruned early, as infants, like his daughter Elizabeth.  Taylor writers:
"But Oh! a glorious hand from glory came
Guarded with Angels, soon did crop this flower
Which almost tore the root up of the same,
At that unlooked for, Dolesome darksome hour.
In prayer to Christ perfumed it did ascend,
And Angels bright did it to heaven 'tend."
As a Christian, Taylor believes his dead children go to heaven, and he envisions them as flowers ascending, even as they carry away pieces of his soul:
"I piecemeal pass to Glory
bright in them."
As 21st century readers, we may not share Taylor's religious beliefs, but we may appreciate how this faith afforded him a sense of meaning and comfort in the face of so much innocent and senseless death.  He acknowledges the pain and suffering:
"But Oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans,
and six week's Fever would pierce hearts like stones."
But the poet, Christ-like (or Buddha-like) lets go of his dead children, believing they will become part of something larger:
"I say, take, Lord, they're Thine…
Whether thou get'st them green, or lets them seed."
It's refreshing for me to discover a poet like Edward Taylor, because he defies the stereotype of the austere, stoic Puritan.  He was obviously a man of great sensitivity and clarity of vision, a brilliant poet, and therefore (probably) a brilliant preacher.  I grew up going to church and I've certainly heard my share of boring sermons.  Maybe if more preachers were also poets, interpreting and contemplating scripture with creativity and literary sensitivity, church could be a place of real inspiration.

The Bible itself is a brilliant literary text, full of poetry and adventure and tragedy and letters and parables.  As an English major (and now teacher) I can say I benefitted tremendously from my knowledge of the Bible.  Part of appreciating the Bible has to do with appreciating language and poetry, as Edward Taylor did.

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