June 24, 1729
Puritan minister and poet
" . . . Is this thy play,/To spin a web out of thyself/To catch a fly?/For why?"
From Edward Taylor's poem "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly."
Edward Taylor was a Puritan minister in Westfield, Massachusetts, who wrote poetry to express his religious inspiration and beliefs. (Puritans were a Christian group who observed strict moral and spiritual codes.) The only verses by Taylor that appeared in print during his lifetime, however, were two stanzas from "Upon Wedlock & Death of Children" (1682 or 1683), which Puritan minister Cotton Mather (see entry) included in his book Right Thoughts in Sad Hours (1689). His work was virtually unknown until scholars discovered and published his poetry in the twentieth century. Yet today he is considered a major American poet, and his more than two hundred Poetical Meditations (1682–25) have been called the most important poetic achievements of colonial America. Although he accepted the stern beliefs of his fellow Puritans, he often focused on God's grace (good will) and the experience of religious ecstasy (joy) and that spirit is reflected in his verse.
Seeks religious freedom
Edward Taylor was born in Sketchley, England, around 1642. Little is known about his early life, but scholars assume his parents were dissenters (Protestants who rebelled against the practices of the Church of England, the official religion of the country). Nevertheless, Taylor apparently did not experience persecution as a result of his family's beliefs while he was growing up. Although he supposedly went to Cambridge University, there is no record of his attendance. In addition, his religion prevented him from taking the oath of loyalty to the Church of England that was required of all Cambridge students. Taylor must have received an education, however, for he later wrote that he was a teacher in rural England during the mid-1660s.
In 1668 Taylor decided to join other Puritans in seeking religious freedom in the American colonies. Leaving his home and family, he set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Upon his arrival he contacted Puritan leader Increase Mather (see box in Cotton Mather entry) and John Hull, master of the Massachusetts mint (government agency that prints money). Through these connections Taylor was able to study for the ministry at Harvard College. When he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1671 he accepted a position as the only minister in Westfield, Massachusetts, a town on the frontier about a hundred miles away from Harvard. In 1674 Taylor married Elizabeth Fitch, and after her death he wed Ruth Wyllys in 1692. With his two wives he had fourteen children, most of whom he outlived.
Portrays benevolent God
Taylor remained in Westfield for the rest of his life—fifty-eight years. During the late 1670s he began writing poetry, and he continued to compose verses until shortly before his death. Like other Puritan poets, he used plain, everyday images such as a spider catching a fly or a "sweeping flood" to convey the power of God. He also described the universe as a "Bowling Alley" in which the Creator (God) is a sportsman who rolls the sun into its place. Other images depicted God as a designer hanging the "Tapistry" of the world's landscape and lighting the sky with "twinckling Lanthorns [twinkling lanterns]." Twentieth-century scholars, who discovered Taylor's manuscripts in the 1930s, have organized his work in three distinct groups according to chronology and themes.
Taylor completed his first collection of poems, a total of thirty-five, which he gave the title God's Determinationstouching his Elect, in the early 1680s. With this group, his main theme is that a forgiving God presides over the battle between Christ (the embodiment of goodness) and Satan (the Devil, or the ultimate evil force) for control of the elect (Christians who are chosen by God for salvation, or forgiveness of all sins). By portraying a loving and merciful God, Taylor differed dramatically from his fellow Puritans, who constantly warned their congregations that an angry God would doom them to eternal suffering—in the fiery furnace of the underworld—if they did not repent (feel regret) for their sins. For instance, the most popular clergyman-poet of the day, Michael Wigglesworth, wrote The Day of Doom. In this collection of verses he attempted to frighten his readers into seeking forgiveness from God.
Edward Taylor is now considered a major American poet, but his unpublished verses were not discovered until the twentieth century. The most popular poet during Taylor's lifetime was Michael Wigglesworth, a clergyman whose book The Day of Doom (1662) became a best-seller. By 1751 The Day of Doom had gone through seven editions. The sixth edition of his popular second book, Meat Out of the Eater (1670), was published in 1721. Wigglesworth's works were so often read and reread that no copies of the first edition of either book have survived. His verse sermons did not appeal to later generations, but his contemporaries admired and heeded his dire predictions. Wigglesworth warned that hellfires awaited "whining hypocrites, Idolaters, false worshippers,/Prophaners of Gods Name, Blasphemers lewd, and Swearers shrewd,/Scoffers at Purity, Sabbath-polluters, Saints persecuters,/Presumptuous men and proud"—and a whole array of other sinners bound for eternal damnation.
Composes occasional poems
Taylor's second group of poems consists of occasional verses (poems for special occasions), which were probably written in the 1680s. Departing from great theological (religious theory) issues, he wrote about common human experiences to express his faith. For instance, in "Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children," he showed how love between husband and wife is strengthened through the loss of children. Grief leads to a better understanding of divine will. In "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly" he portrayed the "dance of death" between a spider, a fly, and a wasp. The poem symbolizes the human predicament: the sinner (the "silly fly") risks being caught by Satan ("Hell's spider"), while the person who is saved (the wasp) has the strength to escape Satan's web.
"Upon a Spider Catching a Fly"
In "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly" Edward Taylor portrayed the "dance of death" between a spider, a fly, and a wasp. The poem symbolizes the human predicament: the sinner (the "silly fly") risks being caught by Satan ("Hell's spider"), while the person who is saved (the wasp) has the strength to escape Satan's web.
Thou sorrow, venom [poison] elf.
Is this thy play,
To spin a web out of thyself
To catch a fly?
I saw a pettish [angry] wasp
Fall foul therein.
Whom yet thy whorl pins [pins on a spinning wheel] did not clasp
Lest he should fling
But as afraid, remote
Didst stand here at
And with thy little fingers stroke
And gently tap.
Thou gently him didst treat
Lest he should pet [grow angry],
And in a froppish [irritable], waspish heat
Should greatly fret
Whereas the silly fly,
Caught by its leg
Thou by the throat tookst hastily
And 'hind the head
This goes to pot, that not
Nature [natural reason] doth call.
Strive not above what strength hath got
Lest in the brawl
This fray seems thus to us.
Hell's spider gets
His intrails [internal organs] spun to whip cords thus.
And wove to nets
And sets [snares].
To tangle Adam's race [humans]
In's [his] stratigems
To their destructions, spoil'd, made base
By venom things
But mighty, gracious Lord
Thy grace to break the void, afford
Us glory's gate
We'll nightingale sing like
When perched on high
In glory's cage, thy glory, bright.
Reprinted in Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1991, pp. 160–61.
Produces best work
Taylor's greatest contribution to American literature was his third group of poems, which he titled Preparatory Meditations Before My Approach to the Lord's Supper. Numbering nearly two hundred, the verses in this collection are remarkable for being distinctly non-Puritan. Again, the poet depicted a loving God who is willing to forgive sinners. Taylor composed the verses in Meditations to prepare himself to give communion to his congregation, and the poems reveal his spiritual journey through the world. Reflecting on his love for God, he meditated on God's equally strong love for humankind: it is "matchless . . . filling Heaven to the brim!" Taylor continued writing poetry until 1725, only four years before his death. He composed his verses primarily for personal purposes, so colonial Americans did not read his work. Yet Taylor's poetry is valued today not only for its literary merit but also for its glimpses into the gentler, more human side of the Puritan spirit.
For further research
"Edward Taylor" in The Puritans: American Literature Colonial Period (1608-1700).http://www.falcon.jmu.edu/-ramseyil/amicol.htm Available July 13, 1999.
Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991, pp. 160–61.
Grabo, Norman S. Edward Taylor. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.
Silverman, Kenneth, ed. Colonial American Poetry. New York: Hafner, 1968.
Stanford, Donald E. Edward Taylor. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
Edward Taylor (ca. 1642-1729), Puritan poet and minister, was one of the finest literary artists of colonial America.
Born in England, highly educated, and living a rather isolated frontier life at Westfield, Mass., Edward Taylor appears to have been outside the major developments in Puritan New England. His theology resembled that of his orthodox Boston contemporaries Michael Wigglesworth, Increase and Cotton Mather, and his lifelong friend Samuel Sewall, more than that of Solomon Stoddard, minister at nearby Northampton, whose liberal views on church membership Taylor strongly disapproved. He disliked James II and his colonial appointment Governor Andros, and he was heartened by the Revolution of 1688. As a strict Congregationalist, Taylor opposed the Plan of Union between Congregational and Presbyterian churches. His poetry recalls the somewhat older, baroque English tradition of George Herbert and Richard Crashaw.
Little is known about Taylor's early life. The date and exact place of his birth are uncertain. Born and raised in Leicestershire near Coventry, in a Nonconformist home, he left England because, as a devout Puritan, he felt unable to comply with the Act of Uniformity. He was in his mid-20s when he emigrated to America in 1668 and already embarked on a career in the ministry. His letters of introduction to Increase Mather and others, and his admission to Harvard in advanced standing, indicate that he was well educated. He was one of four speakers at his commencement in 1671.
Taylor accepted a call to be minister at Westfield, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1675 Westfield was threatened by Indian invasion. The village suffered no major attack, but not until 1679, when hostilities ceased, was a church formally organized. He had led in the preparations for the town's defense and had also become its teacher and physician. He drafted the creed for the new church and alone had responsibility for it in the early years.
Man of Letters
Taylor compiled a distinguished library. Of its approximately 200 volumes many were copied by hand from books he was too poor to buy. His grandson Ezra Stiles, later president of Yale, described him as a classical scholar, master of three ancient languages, and an able historian, and as "A man of small stature, but firm; of quick Passions, yet serious and grave." Stiles inherited Taylor's library and carryed out his wish that the poetry not be published. Scarcely known in its own day, Taylor's work was bequeathed to Yale University by a descendant in 1883. Not until 1939 was a significant selection of poems published, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
One of Taylor's poems is a moving and complex elegy for his first wife, Elizabeth Fitch, whom he married in 1674; she bore eight children and died in 1689. In 1692 he married Ruth Willys; they had six children.
Not usually autobiographical, Taylor's poems fall into four groups. The first, "God's Determinations Touching His Elect, " is a long dramatic allegory written probably before 1690. Present critical attention centers on the second group, "Preparatory Meditations before My Approach to the Lord's Supper, " 217 poems written between 1682 and 1725. The third group, his miscellaneous poems, includes some of the best-loved short pieces, in which familiar subjects are used to express metaphysical themes. The last category is the Metrical History, an unpublished poem over 430 manuscript pages long, which describes the history of the Protestant church.
Although Taylor's poetical structures are traditional in their basic allegory, their intricacy and dynamics are deeply original. His lines move to a rough cadence; the verbs are strong, the imagery vigorous, the nouns often plain. In the celebrated preface to "God's determination, " for example, he portrays God as a master builder who "Blew the Bellow of his Furnace Vast, " constructed the world, and "in his Bowling Alley bowled the Sun."
Taylor's art glorifies Christian experience. Like a sermon, a poem for Taylor was a means of renewing one's awareness of his spiritual condition. Of course, conversion itself depended on the divine infusion of grace. But, once converted, the saint could, by means of meditation, recall and refresh that experience and prepare again to reenact his union with Christ at the Lord's Supper. Taylor never tired of celebrating that union; for him it was the central event in history as well as the central experience of an individual life. Frequently his meditations begin with the poet's feeling impotent and depressed; his words seem awkward and artificial. But focusing on a passage from Scripture, often from Psalms or the Song of Songs, unlocks the poet's powers of love and praise.
Taylor used biblical references to the fullest advantage. He depended on a traditional system of biblical analogues created by early Christian exegetes and widely used by later writers (Milton and George Herbert among them). Certain Old Testament stories were said to prefigure the life of Christ: Jonah and the whale, for example, typified Christ's death and resurrection, as did Abraham's sacrifice. Circumcision prefigured baptism; the Hebrew Passover, the Lord's Supper; and so forth. A meditation centered, for example, on the "wine from Canaans Vineyard" suggests communion and themes of suffering and grace, since the wine is Christ's blood. But it also implies Christ's second coming, since Canaan, the Promised Land, is the type of Christ's kingdom on earth described in Revelations. Thus Taylor here refers simultaneously to the community of saints joined with Christ in the millennium and the continuous communion of the individual with a redemptive Christ here and now.
A similar cluster of themes constitutes the basis of all Taylor's work, be it meditation, sermon, history, verse dialogue, or scientific treatise. Christographia is a collection of sermons about the human and divine natures of Christ. Like the Mathers, but with a view of Christ's coming that emphasized His love rather than His judgment, Taylor recorded divine providences and unusual natural phenomena. He investigated and compiled lore on the medicinal properties of natural things—a work of use of him as a physician.
As an elderly, physically challenged man, resisting the removal of his church to a new meeting house on a new site, Taylor left much in his verse unpolished and uncorrected. He seems not to have intended his poetry for the public. Evaluation of his work awaits scholarly clarification of the role of the Puritan poet in America and of Taylor's intentions for his work.
Donald E. Stanford, ed., The Poems of Edward Taylor (1960), contains the important poems, the complete text of the "Preparatory Meditations, " and valuable introductions to the poetry by Louis L. Martz and by Stanford. The authoritative biography of Taylor is Norman S. Grabo, Edward Taylor (1962). Recommended for its analysis of the literature of the period is Kenneth B. Murdock, Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (1949).
Keller, Karl, The example of Edward Taylor, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975. □