This week, I’ll put up a couple of posts with Edward Taylor’s poetry. This is possible because some scholars were willing to put in long hours. Don’t expect criticism here – just appreciation. I’ve known and studied under experts on him, but that was chance and a lifetime ago. I never became a scholar and am even less expert on Taylor; I haven’t read most of his growing body of poems and sermons. You may be drawn to read more, but he and his works are very much those of a 17th century Puritan. Still, if you find the large body resistible, you are likely to find a poem or two attractive – each semester I teach a few and never tire of them. And his body of work demonstrates the value of academic scholars – what we owe them for immersing themselves in another time and place, in puzzling out handwriting and explicating texts. It was under people who approached these works with respect that I (and my generation) were drawn into this discipline. We’re retiring now and it may be a bit late, but this is thanks to those mentors.
This blog and others often see academia as a house of cards. Few see it that way more than I. And many complain of the politicized and brittle approach to literature of the late twentieth century. Few see it that way more than I. But in the 1930s Thomas H. Johnson, going through the papers that Taylor’s grandson, Ezra Stiles, left at Yale, found a great body of work. That was the beginning – an edition of those poems. My gratitude for another critic is both personal – my fond memories of a harsh Nebraska March in 1971 when Charles Mignon was a sweet and gentle teacher of Emerson – and more abstract, I’m grateful that good man spent decades immersing himself in Puritan aesthetics and Puritan thinking to produce the two volumes of Taylor’s Upon the Types of the Old Testament. These were a family’s private treasure, brought to a later frontier – Nebraska. Mignon devoted himself to transcribing and publishing, giving the works a loving context a well-written introduction, and a series of articles that “open” them.
William Scheick was more acerbic than Mignon, but a semester later, in an Austin classroom, his enthusiasm for colonial literature was palpable. He applied that learning and love to Taylor’s poems in The Will and the Word. His 1974 book and Norman Grabo’s 1988 Twayne introduction remain insightful. (Though the thought that a 1988 critique of a writer who died in 1729 would not be “complete” because the primary works weren’t is always a surprise.) Both write well, analyze well, and help us understand the conventions – aesthetics and emblems – of the period. (By the way, Grabo taught at A&M when my husband was first hired, chairing the dissertation of my early business partner. He engendered her enthusiasm in the period.) Daniel Patterson’s critical edition of the poems is now available.
We see how a few writers in a small colony remain important 350 years later. I won’t defend administrative or critical theory excesses, self-indulgence or turf building, But I am defending the core mission of literature departments – to read, to teach, to explicate, to edit, to write. These men provided models of close reading and good writing, of a willingness to plumb depths in individual works. A sentimental or narcissisitic study of literature blocks empathy, but study takes us out of ourselves and immerses us in the writer’s world. Only then do we appreciate the artful unique expression, molded and structured by that time & place; only then can we understand the writer & the work, only then can they lead us. The unique is important but so, without sentimentality and narcissism, is our knowledge that what is true of them remains true of us.