Kjerstin Ostlind

Prof. Don Westblade

18th-C. Theology

February 13, 2006

When Glory Lights My Taper:

The Life and Artistry of Edward Taylor

 

“It is the major irony of Edward Taylor’s life,” biographer Francis Murphy remarks, “that he should be remembered neither as preacher nor theologian, but artist.”[1] For a man intent on complex but quiet service to God, a man who gave up an academic position to pastor a rural church in New England, and who took a vigorous part in the Northampton debate over who was eligible to partake in the Lord’s Supper, poetry was perhaps the least active part of Taylor’s life. Yet when Thomas H. Johnson discovered a manuscript of his poems in the library of Yale University, and proceeded to publish them in 1937, scholars were astounded with the pungency of his verse. His lines are rollicking and witty, metrically intense and deeply devout. Why such artistry from a man for whom publication was never an aim? The key to such a question lies in Taylor’s personal devotion. For him, poetry was the result of a life committed to Christ, a means of affection rather than an end in itself. Before poet, Taylor would have called himself many things—minister, doctor, lawyer, scholar, frontier-man, father. But it is his verse which reveals the profound private life that graced these varied roles.

The best sketch of Taylor’s person comes from his grandson, Ezra Stiles. “He was of small stature, but firm,” remarked the subsequent president of Yale University, in notes handwritten on the manuscript of a book about metallurgy:

 

Of quick Passions, yet serious and grave. Exemplary in piety, and for a very sacred Observance of the Lord’s Day. Very curious in Botany, Minerals, and Natural History. He was an incessant student, but used no spectacle glasses to his death. He was a vigorous Advocate for Oliver Cromwell, civil and religious liberty. A Congregationalist in opposition to Presbyterian church discipline. He was a physician for the town all his life.[2]

 

From memoirs like these, from the terse diary Taylor kept during his voyage to New England, from letters sent to Puritan notables like Increase Mather and Samuel Sewell, and from his poetry come what windows remain into the life of Edward Taylor come. Yet though the information is scant, his role in the rural towns of Connecticut, barely settled in the latter half of the seventeenth century, was considerable.

            Taylor first set foot on American soil at Boston, in July of 1668. He was 22 at the time, and kindled with a sharp intellect and likeable personality. Why exactly he chose to leave England is uncertain, but it no doubt had much to do with Act of Uniformity Parliament had passed six years before.  Taylor had been born to staunch Puritan stock the same year Cromwell took office (1642), and dissenting blood ran strong in his veins. His father was a farmer in Leicestershire, and the education he received as a boy certainly prepared him for the Puritan ministry he would later undertake. Beyond this, little is known of his years in England. He seems to have received a teaching position, and it is easy to speculate that the pressure of instructing under the Church of England led him to escape what one writer calls the “Babylonian captivity of conformity.”[3]

            At any rate, Taylor had received a fine education, and by the time he first met Increase Mather on the docks of Boston, he was more than qualified to enter Harvard. Mather took him home for several days, where he gained the acquaintance of prominent New Englanders, among them Charles Chauncy (president of Harvard) and John Hull. On July 23, 1668, Taylor matriculated at Harvard with advanced standing. His studies were admirably classical—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric and ethics. In all of these he excelled, and when he graduated in 1671, he was urged to stay and offered the honored position of “Scholar of the House.”

            It was at this time, however, that a certain Thomas Dewy, from the village of Westfield nearly one hundred miles southeast of Boston, came to inquire after a minister for their frontier church. When he approached Increase Mather, the theologian recommended 29-year-old Taylor. After wrestling with the proposition for nine days, and seeking advice from well-respected corners, Taylor accepted the call and left for Westfield on November 26, 1671.

            Taylor’s mental struggle over the proposal is carefully recorded in his diary, where he speaks of reticence when first approached by Dewy, consultations with Chauncy and other instructors, and a trip to Boston to speak to Mather and “scholar of the house” Peter Thatcher. When he was finally assured of his vocation, Taylor records his harrowing journey to Westfield:

 

Wherefore tarrying till then, I not knowing how to cast down Goodman Dewy’s expectation after I had raised them, set forward, not without much apprehension of tedious & hazardous journey, the Snow being about Mid-leg deepe, the way unbeaten, or the track filled up againe, and over rocks and mountains, and the journey being about 100 miles; and Mr. Cooke of Cambridge told us it was the desperatest journey that ever Conneticut men undertooke.[4]

 

Taylor’s departure from Harvard certainly speaks to his good standing in the community, for of all the many men he consulted, none, apart from the assurance of God’s will, seemed glad to see him go. Indeed, his diary records that when he went to bid farewell to Charles Chauncy,  “his love was so much expressed that I could scarce leave him, and well it might be so, for he told me in plain words the he Knew not how to part with mee. [5] Taylor retained a close friendship and correspondence with many of these distinguished New Englanders, in particular with Increase Mather and his friend and roommate, Salem-town judge Samuel Sewell.

            Taylor undertook his roles as pastor of the Westfield church almost immediately upon his arrival, though it was eight years before he was formally ordained. Reasons for the delay are speculative—Taylor may still have been indecisive about settling in rural Westfield for good, or the constant threat of Indian attack may have deterred formal church organization. One record says that Taylor “did not determine for some time to stay; but, there being a prospect of organizing a church, he began to incline to settle,” indicating a certain reserve even after his arrival.[6]

            What is certain is that King Philip’s War broke out in 1665, and, after the massacre at Deerfield, the Council of Connecticut urged Westfield residents to remove north to the larger town of Springfield. Taylor was instrumental, however, in persuading that the Council allow the town to stay put, and himself provided an example by fortifying his home against attacks. The circumstances surrounding Taylor’s little church where very much those of the frontier, so perhaps it is understandable that the formal proceedings of ordination were put off for some time.

            On August 27, 1679, representatives from four churches met at last to give their blessing to the Westfield church. Taylor writes:

 

These then being sent our work came on apace, for temptations having attending our work one time after time before, I for my part was unheartened until now to prepare, and therefore now I had both hands full & must go down into the bay before the time. Wherefore having often in private sought God together in order unto this matter now upon the 20th day of August, that day fo’night unto the day of assemblage we set apart for a fast to be kept by our whole town in order to y great work of y day of imbodying, on which day I preached. …And as for the duty of prayer two of the brethren did help carry it on.[7]

 

Testimonies were given, the ordination sermon was preached, the famous Northampton revivalist Solomon Stoddard stood to fill the role of moderator, John Russell, Pelatiah Glover, and Samuel Loomus laid on hands and prayed, and at last, as Taylor writes, “y Moderator called us forth to enter covenant, which being done in y words of y covenant by and by recited he pronounced us a church of Christ.”[8]

Meanwhile, however, the bookish pastor had met and married Miss Elizabeth Fitch, the daughter of a minister in nearby Norwich Connecticut, on November 5, 1674.

            It was a certain sort of man who could travel for miles knee deep in snow, fortify his house against Indians, pastor a strict Congregationalist church under the rigours of a social-ecclesiastical covenant, and be no less a word-smith. A letter Taylor wrote to his fiancée, “my friend and only beloved,” the summer before his wedding, speaks invaluably to the poetic wit and, at the same time, perversely rational character of this complex Puritan on the threshold of a new nation. “Look not on it,” he says, “as one of Love’s hyperboles…”

 

…If I borrow the beams of some Sparkling Metaphor to illustrate my Respects unto thyself by, for you having made my breast the cabinet of your affection (as I yours mine), I know not how to offer a fitter Comparison to Set out my Love by, than to Compare it to a Golden Ball of pure Fire rolling up and down my Breast, from which there flies now and then a Spark like a Glorious Beam from the Body of the Flaming Sun.[9] 

 

Ecstatic and densely-packed metaphors are the trademark of Taylor’s writing, and he uses them here in an near-frenzy of ardent declaration. He keeps the intensity up for line upon line, until suddenly:

 

My Dear Love, lest my Letter Should be judged the Layish Language of a lover’s pen, I shall endeavour to show that Conjugal Love ought to exceed all other love. 1. Appears from that it represents, viz.: that respect which is betwixt Christ and his Church…[10]

 

And the rest of the letter is a perfectly rational argument for the ardour of his love based on sound Puritan theology and ecclesiastical diction, until he ends nicely with “[Love], having got you into my Heart, doth offer my heart with you in it as a more rich Sacrifice unto God through Christ, and so it subscribeth myself, Your True Love till Death.”[11]

            A piece of work like this, labored over and yet highly personal, poetic and yet informal, does wonders to illuminate the many aspects of a man like Taylor. Here we see him, as so often in his poetry, a man of intense passion and familial devotion. Yet none of that is divorced from his theology, nor his systematic, Puritan way of articulating. He is concerned with the glory of God, with the sanctity of the Sacraments, and with the covenant. He is learned in the extreme, and more than usually well-read. Yet serious as his demeanor seems to have appeared, his private life at least was illumined with an incredible sense of joy, that could not help but leap through the lines of even his most solemn prose.

            At any rate, Edward and Elizabeth were married in 1674, and according to every indication, enjoyed a happy communion. The couple did, however, partake in their share of grief, for of the eight children Elizabeth bore, only three (Samuel, James and Bathshua) lived past childhood, and none outlived their father. Taylor’s experience with mourning is poinagntly captured in his poem “Upon Wedlock and the Death of Children”:

           

            Griefe o’re doth flow: and nature fault would finde

            Were not thy Will my Spell, Charm, Joy, and Gem:

            That as I said, I say, take, Lord, they’re thine:

            I piecemeale pass to Glory bright in them.

            I joy, may I sweet Flowers for Glory breed,

            Whether thou getst them green, or lets them seed.[12]

 

Elizabeth herself died in 1689, at the age of 39, and the poem Edward penned that night is more than moving.

            Three years later, at the age of 50, Taylor married for the second time. His new wife was the young Ruth Wyllys, citizen of Hartford and descendent of arguably the most prominent family in the area. Her grandfather John Haynes had been governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as the first governor of Connecticut. Edward and Ruth had six children of their own, and along with them raised an orphaned granddaughter and the three surviving children from Taylor’s previous marriage. 

Taylor’s controversy with Solomon Stoddard over the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper is one of the better known incidents of his life, though less, perhaps, a single event than the result of a life lived quietly according to conviction. Stoddard, minister to Northampton and grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, was wildly popular with his own congregation. He was in large part responsible for a powerful revival in Massachusetts, and was so respected in the community that followers called him the “Pope” of Puritanism. Nor was Taylor without respect for him—indeed it was Stoddard who took the officiating role at Taylor’s formal ordination in 1679. But Stoddard was also involved in a reaction against the Half-Way Covenant, and took his ideas a bit too far for the pious and poetic sensibilities of Taylor. Stoddard proposed that communion be reserved not for visible saints, as was the standard practice, but for all “who lived outwardly decent lives,” as a means for those even without a conversion experience to “learn the necessity and sufficiency of the Death of Christ in order to [find] Pardon.”[13]  He called communion a “converting ordinance,” and thus considered it a potential means of grace for the unbeliever.

Against this more lenient view of the covenant, Taylor took virulent opposition. For him, the Lord’s Supper was an incredibly sacred event, a peculiar and precious grace offered to the Saints.  Of some seventy-two poems which have survived, at least thirty are meditations on communion. With typical imaginative wit, Taylor says:

           

In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run

Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife,

The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son

Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life:

Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands

Disht in thy Table up by Angells Hands.[14]

 

Taylor did not dare allow any to approach the Lord’s Supper with unclean hearts. He cautioned his congregation, as Paul the Corinthians, that “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (I Cor. 11:29).

Yet though he wrote copiously and preached determinedly, Taylor’s meditations were still, for the most part, private. His poetry he understood as a gift, a means to bring his heart closer to God through the tool of the creative imagination. He rarely partook in verbal invective or visible antagonism. Rather, his theological opposition was of the exemplary sort. Taylor quietly ministered to his church, and focused on ensuring that each of his own members were decidedly within the realm of the covenant before they stepped up to the communion rail. He continued to scrutinize his own heart, and countered the callousness he found there with his forcefully tender devotional writing:

 

What, shall the frosty Rhime upon my locks

Congeale my braine with chilly dews, whereby

My Phansie is benumbd: and put in stocks,

And thaws not into steams of reeching joy?

Oh! Strange Ingratitude! Let not this Frame

Abide, Lord, in mee. Fire me with thy flame.

 

Lord, let thy Glorious Body send such rayes

Into my Soule, as ravish shall my heart,

That Thoughts how thy Bright Glory out shall blaze

Upon my body, may such Rayes thee dart.

My tunes shall dance then on these Rayes, and Caper

Unto thy Praise: when Glory lights my Taper.[15]

 

Before he accused others, the mature Taylor turned an introspective eye and practiced the habit of self-examination. Privately, his was the poetry of a loving sinner’s soul, naked before God. 

            Nor was Taylor’s role within the Westfield community strictly limited to ministerial duties. Certainly those took precedence, and foremost on his heart was the desire that God be gloried in the members of his church. But such desires bear out fruit in all areas. Taylor was in every way a stolid member of a rural community. He was head of a large household, settled in the midst of what was still largely wilderness. And, what is more astonishing, he was primary doctor to Westfield all his life, as well as farmer and village lawyer. He had a great, though amateur, interest in science and medicines, and taught himself the disciplines of alchemy, astronomy, sampling and pathology. (Some of the more unusual metaphors in his poetry are less surprising with such interests in mind.) 

            And in the midst of more manual occupations, Taylor retained the same love for books and scholarship he had when he left Harvard. Books were hard to come by in rural New England, but Taylor built up an incredible library by borrowing and then hard-copying manuscripts. By the time of his death, his library numbered some 220 volumes, and was valued at £54 4s. 7d.—more than a quarter of his earthly wealth rested in words! Surprisingly, the only volume of poetry (excluding the classical authors) was by Anne Bradestreet, whose son Simon was a close friend. Other volumes included metallurgy, biology and medicine, classical texts, secular and church history, contemporary politics and social treatises, and, of course, theology.

            Though Bradstreet’s was the only work of poetry in his home, there is no doubt that Taylor was well-read in the verse of every literary age. Primary poetic influences include the British metaphysicals, whom he mirrored so closely. Richard Crashaw, John Milton, John Donne, George Herbert and the like had long cultivated the practice of centering a poem upon interesting metaphor, and executing with highly technical skill. Though his early poems take a more didactic turn (he attempted a metrical history of the Church, for example, and dialogues on Election and the tension between Justice and Mercy), his mature verse rings out, as intricate and clean as that of any metaphysical. Like his British predecessors, Taylor imbued an ordinary object or event—a spider catching a fly, a candle burning or disease taking hold of the body—with sweet, spiritual significance. He took every occasion as a lesson in truth, and even wrote a poem when he read of Mastadon bones uncovered in Claverack, New York. Many readers have noted that his meditations follow the pattern outlined by Richard Baxter in his Saint’s Everlasting Rest, which argues for writing as a means to transfer truth from the head to the heart and to summon affections from a wayward will.

            But Taylor’s poetry is also intensely metrical, full of broken rythmns and highly-packed sound shifts. In this, as well as in his profound sense of ecstasy, he is more closely akin to the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

 

            Leafe Gold, Lord, of thy Golden Wedge, o’relaid

            My Soul at first, thy Grace in e’vry part

            Whose peart, fierce Eye thou such a Sight hadst made

            Whose brightsom beams could break into thy heart

            Till thy Curst Foe had with my Fist mine Eye

            Dasht out, and did my Soul unglorify.[16]

 

As much as he discovers lessons in the daily world, Taylor also finds his joys, and his verse is full of a highly sensualized delight. This poem moves from the broken perturbation of the opening to a tremendously jubilant closure, with the ending lines:

           

            My heart then stufft with Grace, Light, Life and Glee

            I’le sacrifice in Flames of Love to thee.[17]

 

Taylor thoroughly absorbed the aesthetics William Scheick articulates when he says: “Word and the Word, Christ, coincide phonetically; poetry writing is therefore devotional. Worthwhile poetry is evidence of a worthy soul; artifice is grace.”[18] Taylor viewed his work, both creative and ministerial, as a tool for God’s grace. He articulates as much himself when speaking of Christ’s body, the Church:

 

Now the Instruments that God makes use in framing this building are his Word, the Ministery of His Word, & his Ministers thereof. These are the golden Pipes convaying the Holy Oyle into the Vessells of Honour, from the Fountain of Grace, & Life. These are the Tooles & Artists which God imployes in building himselfe an House.[19]

 

Here, then, is the whole focus of Edward Taylor’s life. He was neither poet nor scholar, doctor nor father, farmer nor theologian in exclusion, but, quite simply, one of God’s “Tooles & Artists.” Beyond all, Edward Taylor was concerned with Words—the Incarnation that signals redemption for the world, the Scripture that defines the rule of life for all creation, and the squiggly lines on a page that mark man out as the creative image of God. By the time he died on June 24, 1729, Taylor had left a bright mark on contemporary theology with words.  He did not change the course of the history, walk in clouds of fame, or write the greatest poetry know to man. Perhaps he was too serious, too scholarly, or, conversely, too literarily ecstatic. But he did live quietly and vigorously, as a humble servant of Christ. Taylor was suited to his time and place, and gifted with a beautifully expressed intelligence. His life is a model for any man, and his dense, deep sacramental meditations preserve the triumphant power of Puritanism for even the most modern heart.


Bibliography

 

 

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Early American Poetry: Selections from Bradstreet, Taylor,              

            Dwight, Freneau, & Bryant. University of Wisconsin Press, 1978. pp. 62-120

 

Gatta, John. Gracious Laughter: The Meditative Wit of Edward Taylor. University of

            Missouri Press: Columbia, 1989

 

Goodman, William B. “Edward Taylor Writes His Love.” The New England Quarterly,

            Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 510-515

 

Keller, Karl. The Example of Edward Taylor. University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.

 

Keller, Karl, “Review: The Will and the Words,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd

            Ser., Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 355-356

 

Miller, Perry & Johnson, Thomas. The Puritans. American Book Company: New York.

            1938

 

Murphy, Francis. “Review: The Example of Edward Taylor.” The New England

            Quarterly, Vol. 49, No.2, pp. 323-325

 

Rowe, Karen E. Saint and Singer: Edward Taylor’s Typology and the Poetics of

            Meditation. Cambridge University Press, 1986

 

Scheick, William J. The Will and the Word: The Poetry of Edward Taylor. University of   

            Georgia Press, 1974.

 

Sibley, John Langdon. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University. Vol.

            2. Cambridge: Charles William Sever, University Bookstore, 1881. Johnson

            Reprint Corporation, U.S.A., 1967.

 

Taylor, Edward. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor.

            Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1943

 

Taylor, Edward. Ed. Francis Murphy. Diary. Springfield, Mass.: Connecticut Valley

            Historical Museum, 1964

 

Thorpe, Peter. “Edward Taylor as Poet.” The New England Quarterly. Vol. 39, No. 3, pp.

            356-372

 

 

 

 



[1] Diary, p. 7

[2] Sibley, 408

[3] Eberwein, 64

[4] Diary, 38

[5] Diary, 39

[6] Sibley, 402

[7] Sibley, 405

[8] Sibley, 406

[9] Goodman, 513

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] Johnson, 118

[13] Noll, 87

[14] Johnson, 129 (Meditation 8)

[15] Johnson, 171 (Meditation 76)

[16] Diary, 20 (Read this one outloud!)

[17] ibid

[18] Keller journal, 356

[19] Keller, 41