Skip to main content

Life Sketch of Edward Taylor: Physician, Pastor, Poet

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor

The editor, Thomas H. Johnson, who restored Emily Dickinson's poems to the poet's original forms, also enjoys the credit for discovering and making widely known the poetry of Edward Taylor.

Taylor's grandson Ezra Stiles inherited the reverend's literary works. Taylor did not want his poetry to be published, and his grandson abided by that wish. Stiles donated his grandfather's poetry collection to Yale University, where Stiles had served as president from 1777 until his death in 1795.

In 1939, Thomas H. Johnson happened upon the collection and sought to publish the important works. Their value was immediately appreciated by the literary world, and Taylor's poems have become an important part of the American canon.

Early American Poet

With Anne Bradstreet, Phillip Freneau, and Phillis Wheatley, Edward Taylor is now deemed one of the first important American poets. According to critic and scholar Thomas H. Johnson, Taylor's library held "only one book of English poetry: Anne Bradstreet's verses."

In The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, Johnson asserts, "It seems probable that had the poetry of Edward Taylor been published during his lifetime, he would long since have taken a place among the major figures of colonial American literature."

Kinship to Metaphysical Poets

Taylor's poetry reveals a kinship with the Metaphysical poets, such as George Herbert and other late Elizabethans. Johnson found two groups of poems, "God's Determination" and "Sacramental Meditations" in the Yale manuscript.

The subject of Taylor's poetry is the love of Jesus Christ, a focus he formed early and maintained his entire life. In 1722 at age eighty, Taylor wrote his last poem, which still focused on Christ. Taylor often relied on the metaphysical conceit.

To dramatize his love of Christ, Taylor creates perfectly unified extended metaphors; for example, a garden emitting the perfumes of foliage, a spinning wheel, a pipe moving liquid. As he progressed in his art, his poetry became more unified, developing one figure at a time.

Challenge to Modern Readers

Reading Taylor may challenge today's readers because of the difference in language use and style. An example is his "Meditation One":

What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn'd?
What ! hath thy Godhead, as not satisfi'de
Marri'de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

The familiar forms of direct address "thine," "thy," and many altered spellings, and at times even slightly changed meanings cause the modern reader some confusion. Nevertheless, Taylor's poems are precise, and the reader can trust him to be offering the best of his skillful work. With a little effort, the reader will reap much satisfaction from Taylor's poems.

Minister and Physician

Poet Edward Taylor's tombstone avers, "Aged, Venerable, Learned, & Pious Pastor-Served God and his Generation Faithfully for Many Years," a hearty recommendation to future generations.

Edward Taylor served his own generation as a minister in a small church in Westfield, Massachusetts, and he also served this community professionally as a physician. But readers likely would never have heard his name had he not crafted into poetry his personal search for God.

Sources

Most Widely Anthologized Poem, “Huswifery”

Make me, O Lord, thy Spining Wheele compleate.
Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee.
Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate
And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee.
My Conversation make to be thy Reele
And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine:
And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord, winde quills:
Then weave the Web thyselfe. The yarn is fine.
Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills.
Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice,
All pinkt with Varnisht Flowers of Paradise.

Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will,
Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory
My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill
My wayes with glory and thee glorify.
Then mine apparell shall display before yee
That I am Cloathd in Holy robes for glory.

Recitation of "Huswifery"

Commentary on "Husewifery"

Edward Taylor’s most anthologized poem is “Huswifery.” This poem offers a useful example of the poet’s style and subject matter.

First Sestet: Praying to Act as a Holy Instrument

Make me, O Lord, thy Spining Wheele compleate.
Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee.
Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate
And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee.
My Conversation make to be thy Reele
And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

The speaker is addressing the Divine Belovèd Father, beseeching the Creator to put him and his talent to use for the purpose of spreading the Holy Name and Word.

The speaker employs a metaphysical conceit (extended metaphor) of a spinning wheel to compare the speaker’s spiritual function to that early American household instrument used to make cloth, the spinning wheel.

The speaker begs the Lord the allow the distaff of the spinning wheel to be the "Holy Word," the "Swift Flyers neate" to be his feelings, while his soul should be used as the "Spoole." His conversation is to become the "reel" upon which the cloth issues from the wheel.

Second Sestet: Producing the Holy Cloth of Virtue

Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine:
And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord, winde quills:
Then weave the Web thyselfe. The yarn is fine.
Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills.
Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice,
All pinkt with Varnisht Flowers of Paradise.

The speaker then continues the long metaphor to ask to become the loom on which the thread is spun as the Holy Spirit winds each piece that will become the finished garment.

God’s rules will guide the speaker’s "Fulling Mills" from which the holy threads will tucked and washed and dyed in the Lord’s own choice of "Heavenly Colours." The speaker asks for the finished cloth to portray "Flowers of Paradise."

Third Sestet: Wearing Holy Robes

Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will,
Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory
My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill
My wayes with glory and thee glorify.
Then mine apparell shall display before yee
That I am Cloathd in Holy robes for glory.

The finished garment which will clothe the speaker will outfit him to become a true beacon of all fine qualities; thus, he asks that his "Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory, Words, and Actions" all be sanctified and melded into the fine cloth that he has been able to effect.

The Lord’s making the devotees his own fine spinning wheel will result in the speaker’s ability to create and don "Holy robes of glory" in which he can comfortably appear before the sight of God, after spreading His word and glorifying his Name to others.

Tombstone of Edward Taylor

Tombstone of Edward Taylor

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes