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Life and Works

 

Edward Taylor (1642-1729) can safely be considered the most impressive poetic talents of the English colonial period. His work reveals a powerful intellect and a technical proficiency surprising for a Puritan minister in the American colonies. Like his Puritan predecessor Anne Bradstreet, Taylor wrote much of his poetry for private purposes. However, perhaps because he was a man, and certainly because he was an academically trained theologian, his approach to religious themes was much more orthodox than hers. In any case, this large body of significant poetry written on American soil during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries remained unknown for more than two hundred years after its author's death.

Taylor was born into the family of a yeoman farmer in Leicestershire, near Coventry, during the English Civil War and received a Nonconformist education which prepared him to be a Dissenter. Although he became a schoolmaster in the town of Sketchley, near his birthplace, his refusal to sign an oath of loyalty to the Church of England meant that his prospects for the future would be limited. Therefore, rather than compromise his religious principles, he emigrated to Boston in 1668 and, bearing letters of introduction to prominent figures such as Increase Mather, soon entered Harvard College with advanced standing.

It was probably there that he took the decision to study theology. After graduating in 1671, he accepted an offer to be the minister in the small frontier community of Westfield, one hundred miles southwest of Boston.

The journey to his new home on horseback took him eight days; but there he remained for the rest of his life, eventually marrying twice and fathering fourteen children, many of whom died in childbirth. His first wife was Elizabeth Fitch, daughter of a famous Connecticut minister named James Fitch. She bore Taylor eight children, five of whom died in infancy. In 1689 Elizabeth passed away and three years later, in 1692, Taylor married Ruth Wyllys, who bore him another six children, in addition to caring for the three surviving children from his previous marriage. Their fifth child, Kezia, was to be the mother of Ezra Stiles.



The naturally harsh conditions of life on what was then the western frontier included the threat of attacks from hostile Indians. That threat was especially severe during the bloody King Philip's War of 1675-6, which cost the lives of one out of every twenty New Englanders. Although Westfield suffered no major attacks, Edwards was pressed to help in preparing the town's defences and served, as well, as teacher and physician during the following decade. As a result, he was not formally ordained as minister in Westfield until 1682.

 

Portrait of King Philip

 

In that same year he began to compose his "Preparatory Meditations before My Approach to the Lord's Supper", so-called because they accompanied the writing of the sermons he delivered before administering Holy Communion. These sermons were especially important for Taylor because the Eucharist, along with baptism, was one of the two covenants of Grace, offering the promise of eternal life, that the Puritans believed in. These are short poems, written with an intellectual rigor and verbal ingenuity comparable to those of the English Metaphysical poets, in which he summarized the content of each sermon and expressed his fervent love of God. He often begins his meditations with a sense of impotence or sadness for the fallen human condition. Then, through contemplating a passage from the Bible - usually from the Song of Songs or the Psalms - he transforms his sadness into a joyful praise of the Lord. Thus, the typical Puritan themes to be found in these poems are the recognition of man's essential unworthiness and the shining promise of an everlasting life, for the Elect, in God's divine glory.
Apart from the Preparatory Meditations, he also wrote the improbably titled Gods Determinations touching his Elect: and the Elects Combat in their Conversion and coming up to God in Christ together with the Comfortable Effects thereof, usually referred to as God's Determinations. As its title indicates, this series of poems depicts in military terms the struggle of good against evil throughout the expanse of human history. It may well have been influenced by the morality plays that were common in England during his childhood. He also produced a 432-page-long poetic book of martyrs, the Metrical History of Christianity. Both of these works reflect the Puritan interest in studying biblical and secular history in order to discover evidence of the significant role that the Puritans were playing in preparing the world for the ultimate victory of God over Satan and the second coming of Christ, i.e., the end of time.

Taylor had an impressive library. As a young man he had copied by hand many of its approximately two hundred volumes from books he was too poor to buy. Interestingly, the only volume of poetry he owned was, Anne Bradstreet's The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, but he had almost certainly read the poetry of George Herbert and Frances Quarles as a schoolboy in Leicestershire. A glance at poems such as "Huswifery" and "The Preface" will suffice to demonstrate that he was familiar with and influenced by poets such as Herbert and John Donne.
But while the highly intellectual content of his poetry, its very complex syntax and elaborate conceits look back to the Metaphysical tradition, his use of the images and vocabulary of everyday life to elaborate religious allegories is firmly based on the Puritans' need to discover significance in the smallest details of nature and human experience. This drive had earlier led to a much more "generic" description of nature in Bradstreet's "Contemplations". For a mind like Edwards', however, it leads to an almost scientific quality of observation, as is clearly reflected in his depictions of natural phenomena and the behavior of insects in "Upon a Spider Catching a Fly" and "Upon a Wasp Chill'd with Cold". The important point, though, is that Taylor never lost sight of his religious duty. All such detailed observation must necessarily be "completed" by the presentation of a religious parallel and a moral lesson.

Ezra Stiles

Much of Taylor's best poetry, including a great deal of the Preparatory Meditations, was written for his own spiritual enrichment. But he did occasionally send poems to friends in Boston, and some of these were published during his lifetime. However, and for reasons that are still obscure, he asked his heirs not to publish his work; and it was in consequence forgotten for two centuries.


Taylor's grandson, Ezra Stiles (1727-95), who was president of Yale from 1778 until his death, deposited the manuscripts of most of his poems in the university's library, where they remained hidden until, in 1937, Thomas H. Johnson discovered them. This future editor of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955), another virtually unknown New England poet, published a large selection of his poems in The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor in 1939, making him undoubtedly the most famous Puritan poet of the twentieth century.

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)