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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Edward Taylor (c. 1642-1729)

[6745] Edward Taylor, manuscript page of Taylor’s Poetical Writings (year unknown), courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Edward Taylor was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1642 to Nonconformist parents of modest circumstances. In his mid-twenties, frustrated by the climate of intolerance toward Puritans, he fled England for Massachusetts. Entering Harvard with advanced standing, Taylor embarked on a course of study to prepare himself to become a minister. In 1671 he accepted a call to the ministry in the town of Westfield, a farming community on the fringes of the colony. He spent the rest of his life there, rarely leaving Westfield even for visits. Because the area was threatened by Indian attacks throughout the 1670s, Taylor’s church building had to do double duty as a fort, delaying the formal organization of the congregation as a Puritan church until 1679. As the most educated man in Westfield, Taylor served the town by assuming the roles of physician and teacher as well as minister.

Taylor’s education had left him with a lasting passion for books, and his library was a distinguished one, though many of the books were his own handwritten copies of volumes he could not afford to purchase in printed form. Much of Taylor’s time was devoted to writing sermons for public presentation, but he also produced a large corpus of some of the most inventive poetry in colonial America. While he did not publish any of this poetry in his lifetime, viewing it instead as a personal aid to his spiritual meditations and as preparation for giving communion to his congregation, he did carefully collect and preserve his manuscripts. His collection was not published until the twentieth century, after it was discovered in the Yale University Library in 1937.

Taylor experimented with a variety of poetic forms, composing paraphrases of biblical psalms, elegies, love poems, a long poem called God’s Determinations in the form of a debate about the nature of salvation, and his five-hundred-page Metrical History of Christianity. His best-known poems, a series of 217 verses called Preparatory Meditations, are lyric explorations of the Puritan soul and its relation to the sacrament. The poems’ struggles with complicated theological issues are carefully contained within rigidly structured six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter. While the metaphors and metaphysical conceits in Preparatory Meditations are elaborate (they are sometimes compared to the work of the English poet John Donne), much of Taylor’s other poetry is characterized by its plain-style aesthetic and its homely metaphors of farming and housekeeping. Taylor’s work is not easily categorized because his poetic experiments are so varied, employing forms ranging from common meter to heroic couplets and imagery ranging from the traditionally typological to the metaphysical. Still, all of Taylor’s work reflects his commitment to orthodox Puritan theology and his concern with ascertaining and sustaining a belief in his place among God’s elect. His poems enact, in literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch’s words, the “endless ritual celebration-exorcism of the Puritan self.”

Teaching Tips

  • Taylor’s use of puns and elaborate metaphors can make his work difficult for students to understand, especially when Taylor relies on archaic terms having to do with trades such as carpentry, weaving, smithing, printing, domestic economy, or horticulture. Have students use the Oxford English Dictionary to look up the complete history of unfamiliar terms (examples might include “nipper,” “squitchen,” “selvage,” “knot,” “stock,” “fillet,” “distaff,” “huswifery,” “quilt ball,” “kenning,” “rigalled,” or “receipt”). Use their research to investigate both the cultural context of Taylor’s imagery and his playful use of the different meanings of a single image.
  • Ask students to examine the different metrical forms and stanzaic patterns at work in Taylor’s poetry. Why does he use heroic couplets in the “Preface” to God’s Determinations (found in The Norton Anthology of American Literature) only to switch to other forms in the later sections of the poem? How does the predictable, relatively rigid ababcc verse form of the Preparatory Meditations relate to the complicated spiritual struggles explored within the poems? You can use students’ formal analyses of the poems to investigate the relationship between the ritualistic and the sincere, the irrational and the rational, within Taylor’s Puritan theology.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does the main text of “Meditation 8” relate to the poem’s prefatory biblical citation (“John 6.51. I am the Living Bread”)? What is the extended metaphor at work in this poem? What is the significance of Taylor’s focus on a basic domestic chore that is usually performed by women? Do you notice similar imagery in any of Taylor’s other poems?
  2. Context: Compare Taylor’s “Prologue” to the Preparatory Meditations and “Meditation 22” with Bradstreet’s “Prologue” and “The Author to Her Book.” How do these Puritan poets deal with their anxiety about their own literary authority? Do they share similar concerns? How are they different? What conclusions do they arrive at?
  3. Exploration: The only book of poetry known to have had a place in Taylor’s personal library was Anne Bradstreet’s Tenth Muse. Does his poetry seem influenced by her work? How is it different? How does his work fit or not fit within the tradition of “plain style”? Many critics have argued that Taylor’s poetry is best understood within the tradition of the English metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by its ornate language and by its profusion of metaphors and paradoxes. Where do you see this style at work in Taylor’s poetry? Does he seem more comfortable with one style than the other? Does he ever seem to meld the two?

Selected Archive Items

[2469] John Foster’s Woodcut Map of New England.
This map says it is “the first that ever was here cut, and done by the best Pattern, that could be had, which being in some places defective, it made the other less exact: yet doth it sufficiently shew the Scituation of the Country, and conveniently well the distances of Places.” It is from William Hubbard’s The present State of New-England, being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians, printed and published by Foster in Boston in 1677.

[6745] Edward Taylor, manuscript page of Taylor’s Poetical Writings (year unknown),
courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
This image shows a page from a manuscript of “Edward Taylor’s Poetical Writings.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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