Taylor – “Glory Forth May Flame”

Edward Taylor (c 1642 – 1729) arrived in New England in 1668, finished his education at Harvard, and in 1671 was called to the frontier town of Westfield. Westfield’s obituary pays descriptive tribute: “And what a rich blessing GOD sent us in him, almost Fifty eight Years Experience has taught us.” He was not ordained for 8 years, for “the Town being till then greatly distress’d by the Indian War [King Philip’s War]; and to his Presence & Influence it was very much owing that the Settlement did not break up. He was eminently holy in his Life, and very painful and laborious in his Work till the Infirmities of great old Age disabled him” (I xx). And then that old inducement worked: he fell in love and married. For almost sixty years, his congregation remained loyal; his wife died; he mourned, he remarried; he sired 14 children, many dying in infancy. He exchanged letters and books with his college roommate, the energetic and ambitious Samuel Sewell.

As Grabo observes, “the social implications of Congregationalism, of the Covenant theology , and of the analogy between New Englanders and the Jewish nation provided little room for a recluse. Consequently, Taylor’s religious life forced him into the activities of his own community.” (Preface). Taylor was a Puritan who quite successfully lived in the world , but equally successfully kept a private & artistic life dedicated to his God.

His beliefs were rigid: he believed communion should be “closed” – open only to those who passed a multi-step regenerative process – and in independent church governance – closer to the Congregationalist than Presbytery form. His respected (and respectful) opponent in these arguments, the “Pope of Connecticut Valley, ” presided over neighboring Northampton. In the 1720s, Samuel Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards, came to assist and then took over at his grandfather’s death. Stoddard died a year before Taylor, the deaths of these two old lions ended an era, as the New Lights began to battle the Old and Northampton became central to the Great Awakening. Apparently, Taylor’s personal appeal was strong – unlike Williams and Edwards, he neither rejected nor was rejected by his congregation, which apparently cherished him. His arguments may not have persuaded – they opened communion within a few years of his death – but his presence did.

Taylor’s treatise compares preparation for communion to donning the “wedden garment.” Communion wedded man to God. That such a contract should be entered with solemnity, a cleansed heart and appropriate preparation was a tribute both to the ritual and to the God who generously offered his hand to that unworthy bride. Taylor prepared for administration with his “Preparatory Meditations.” These poems appear metaphysical. Like them, his analogies startle. The images, like his vision of communion itself, sees the act as bridging the “abyss” between this world and the holy realm. Unlike the perspicuity central to the plain style aimed at an earthly audience, the audience for these was omniscient, a fact that led Taylor to humility but also a sensual and complex form. As the statues high on a cathedral were carved to please God and the angels, so, too, was Taylor’s work.

He sets out his purpose in the “Prologue” in Gods Determinations. A “Crumb of Dust”, his ambition us “To make my Pen unto thy Praise alone.” He asks that his “dull Phancy” be ground, that he might “Write in Liquid Gold upon thy Name” so that God’s “glory forth doth flame.” And so he petitions: “That thou wilt guide its pen to write aright / To Prove thou art, and that thou art the best ? And show Thy Properties to shine most bright .” Self at the service of the art, art at the service of the faith: internalized and knotty.
Mignon summarizes the impetus of “Taylor’s intellectual life:” “his own struggle for sustaining grace, the regeneration of his congregation, and his understanding that these two realities were closely linked to his ministry.” (I xxiii) Preparing, indeed, cleansing himself, for the act of giving communion was important – if he believed the congregation should be regenerate, how much more so should he be. Grabo notes that each is a “secret prayer” and so contain both praise and a petition. Each begins with a question, develops an image or idea, and then petitions God to make the narrator act in a way that glorifies God and purifies the self. The first Meditation concludes with such a petition: “ Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.” In it, he grapples with the world’s complexity & size –grappling, as his contemporaries found so difficult, the space and time of a universe that contained a God, not anthropomorphic and immense in range and time, with whom a believer had an extraordinarily personal relationship. And under all are the paradoxical abstractions, as that first meditation begins:

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 satisfide
Marri’de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

His poetry provided a meditative focus for administration in this world of a bridge to the other. Perhaps his most famous is Meditation 8. The epigraph, John 6:51, “I am the living bread” introduces us his theme, communion as the bread of life. God joins with a man in a union best mirroring marriage – with its joy, commitment, responsibilities. Despite man’s unworthiness, despite his exile from Eden, at his door is bread for the “Bird of Paradise” – the starving soul. The soul’s long hunger is filled by “God’s sugar cake.” Intensity builds to the paradox: “This Bread of Life drops in thy mouth, doth Cry. / Eate, Eate me, Soul, and thou shalt never dy.” The poem is rewarding, if words & syntax strain. Grabo notes that abruptness as “curt.” Like Dickinson (his heir in many ways), the images appeal to the mind and rhymes strike us less as music than well-wrought puzzle – he foregrounds a word, an image, giving it space as Dickinson will with her dashes & abbreviated lines. But if she tweaks the forms, he submits himself to a stanza with strong closure – ababccc – three last rhymed lines. He emphasizes the domestic. “Gods tender Bowels” –his God is distant, unlike man; still, in the depth of that great and unimaginable infinity, springs sympathy.

I’d been teaching this poem for over a decade when a student put up his hand one summer and asked, “Does this mean that Taylor believed in transubstantiation?” I said “No, of course not. He’s a Puritan.” Indeed, he was reactionary even in the 17th century. But that voice brought me up – I had not always experienced the poem anew as I taught it. But, he was engaged, sensed the intensity. Grabo argues the studies of emblems Taylor used were based on Jesuit texts. And his question reminded me of the energy Puritans spent on their beliefs; we tend toward the familiar – we anthropomorphize our God, literalize. But my student felt as Taylor did. Remarkably and deeply literate (even by today’s standards), Puritans loved words and recognized them as symbols. Theirs was an uneasy faith – resting neither in assurance nor despair. But it was an overpowering one.

In privacy, meditating upon his God and that great, simple rite of his church, Taylor sees glistening transcendence, central to his Puritan beliefs but universal. Those poems might present (did he suspect) temptation? For a moment after class I speculated if that might not have prompted the privacy, but could he have known that a class now – centuries later – knew the controversies in print (not read by many) rather than in blood (shed by many). But such speculations are above my pay grade. Nor did I ask my student what his faith was, how it defined what he brought to the poem (nor did I know but indirectly that a student with a charismatic background was moved this spring). What I did know was that, as every semester, at least one student is deeply moved by a poem that comes from a belief system quite different than their own – their head hasn’t acquiesced but their heart has felt. And I’m not sure their response would change if they understood, as his editor Daniel Patterson does, that Taylor’s “theory of metaphor thus parallels his view of the emblems of Communion; by consciously emphasizing the earthly inferiority of the bread and wine and of his metaphors, Taylor amplifies the disparity between the two realms and stresses the glory of his God” (32).

My Catholic friend argues he had a Catholic sensibility – and in the delight in symbol and ritual, he has a point. Taylor’s thinking, though, was also intensely introspective and concerned with the margins of man’s direct and unmediated relationship with his god. Certainly, those concerns characterize a strain in American art. His work may have a touch of yearning sadness, but, unlike later writers, he also offers resolution and gratitude, coming from awe.

3 Poems by Edward Taylor from Preparatory Meditations


Lord, Can a Crumb of Dust the Earth outweigh
Outmatch all mountains, nay the Crystal Sky?
Imbosom in’t designs that shall Display
And trace into the Boundless Deity?
Yea, hand a Pen whose moysture doth guild ore
Eternal Glory with a glorious glore.

If it its Pen had of an Angels Quill,
And sharpened on a Precious Stone ground tite,
And dipt in Liquid Gold, and mov’de by skill
In Christall leaves should golden Lettres write,
It would but blot and blur: yea, jag and jar
Unless thou mak’st the Pen, and scribener.

I am this Crumb of Dust which is design’d
To make my Pen unto thy Praise alone,
And my dull Phancy I would gladly grinde
Unto an edge on Zions Pretious Stone
And Write in Liquid Gold upon thy Name
My Letters till Thy glory forth doth flame.

Let not th’ attempts break down my Dust I pray
Nor laugh Thou them to scorn, but pardon give.
Inspire this Crumb of Dust till it display
Thy glory through’t: and then thy dust shall live.
Its failings then thou’lt overlook I trust,
They being Slips slipt from thy Crumb of Dust.

Thy Crumb of Dust breaths two words from its breast,
That thou wilt guide its pen to write aright
To Prove thou art, and that thou art the best
And show thy Properties to shine most bright
And then thy Works will shine as flowers on stems
Or as in Jewellary shops, do jems.

Meditation 1

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 atisfide
Marri’de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O’re running it: all running o’re beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the Same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my streight’ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure Dmall! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.

I Am The Living Bread: Meditation Eight: John 6:51

I kening through Astronomy Divine
The Worlds bright Battlement, wherein I spy
A Golden Path my Pensill cannot line,
From that bright Throne unto my Threshold ly.
And while my puzzled thoughts about it pore
I finde the Bread of Life in’t at my doore.

When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my Corps) to tweedle praise
Had peckt the Fruite forbad: and so did fling
Away its Food; and lost its golden dayes;
It fell into Celestiall Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsell more.

Alas! alas! Poore Bird, what wilt thou doe?
The Creatures field no food for Souls e’re gave.
And if thou knock at Angells dores they show
An Empty Barrell: they no soul bread have.
Alas! Poore Bird, the Worlds White Loafe is done
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.

In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run
Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife
The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.

Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,
Which from his Table came, and to thine goeth?
Doth he bespeake thee thus, This Soule Bread take.
Come Eate thy fill of this thy Gods White Loafe?
Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take
And Eate thy fill. It’s Heavens Sugar Cake.

What Grace is this knead in this Loafe? This thing
Souls are but petty things it to admire.
Yee Angells, help: This fill would to the brim
Heav’ns whelm’d-down Chrystall meele Bowle, yea and higher.
This Bread of Life dropt in thy mouth, doth Cry.
Eate, Eate me, Soul, and thou shalt never dy.