290. (Edward Taylor)

Edward Taylor’s poetry affirms the divided, fallen self differently from other poet in the broad metaphysical tradition. Here is “The Prelude” to God’s Determinations:


Infinity, when all things it beheld

In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,

Upon what Base was fixt the Lath wherein

He turn’d this Globe, and riggalld it so trim?

Who blew the Bellows of His Furnace Vast?

Or held the Mould wherein the world was Cast?

Who laid its Corner Stone? Or whose Command?

Where stand the Pillars upon which it stands?

Who Lac’de and Fillitted the earth so fine,

With Rivers like green Ribbons Smaragdine?

Who made the Sea’s its Selvedge, and it locks

Like a Quilt Ball within a Silver Box?

Who Spread its Canopy? Or Curtains Spun?

Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?

Who made it always when it rises set:

To go at once both down, and up to get?

Who th’ Curtain rods made for this Tapistry?

Who hung the twinckling Lanthorns in the Sky?

Who? who did this? or who is he? Why, know

It’s Onely Might Almighty this did doe.

His hand hath made this noble worke which Stands

His Glorious Handywork not made by hands.

Who spake all things from nothing; and with ease

Can speake all things to nothing, if he please.

Whose Little finger at his pleasure Can

Out mete ten thousand worlds with halfe a Span:

Whose Might Almighty can by half a looks

Root up the rocks and rock the hills by th’ roots.

Can take this mighty World up in his hande,

And shake it like a Squitchen or a Wand.

Whose single Frown will make the Heavens shake

Like as an aspen leafe the Winde makes quake.

Oh! what a might is this Whose single frown

Doth shake the world as it would shake it down?

Which All from Nothing fet, from Nothing, All:

Hath All on Nothing set, lets Nothing fall.

Gave All to nothing Man indeed, whereby

Through nothing man all might him Glorify.

In Nothing then embosst the brightest Gem

More pretious than all pretiousness in them.

But Nothing man did throw down all by Sin:

And darkened that lightsom Gem in him.

That now his Brightest Diamond is grown

Darker by far than any Coalpit Stone.


The questions of the poem seem to have already been answered with the first line: Infinity has accomplished all of this, by its own resources. But that does not explain why they are asked. The reason seems to be an admission that Infinity itself cannot be comprehended aside from such witty figures and the belief that Infinity is not a person, and that a person must be responsible for creation.  Against this, though, the poem may be thought to ask its initial questions only to rebuke them: the failure to comprehend infinity is felt in the inaptness and even the ineptness of the conceits of those questions. Though they are structured with care, from the foundations of a house to its frippery and finery to its jovial entertainments, the conceits crash against the response: “It’s Only Might Almighty.” The proper wit for the subject matter is that of the final lines:


Which All from Nothing fet, from Nothing, All:

Hath All on Nothing set, lets Nothing fall.

Gave All to nothing Man indeed, whereby

Through nothing man all might him Glorify.

In Nothing then embosst the brightest Gem

More pretious than all pretiousness in them.

But Nothing man did throw down all by Sin:

And darkened that lightsom Gem in him.


The play on “nothing,” the ambiguities entailed by “nothing” being a something, culminate in the double possibility of “Nothing man did throw down all by Sin,” where “Nothing” both modifies man, who throws down “all” and where it is the object of “throw down,” that which was thrown down, “all” (entirely) by sin: in that second reading, the inconsequence of throwing down “nothing” by sin has been made valid by Christ’s redemption, while the weight of “nothing” that has been built up by the poem to this point (“nothing” as the ultimate substance) is acknowledged so as to make the sin itself consequential and real. The wit of the questions and the wit at the poem’s close are different species and Taylor sets them against one another, with the second seeming to have the upper hand, and the final image of the gem and diamond representing an image purer, simpler, than that developed in the opening questions.

The reconciliation not only of discordant parts within a metaphor but of discordant metaphors within a poem is found also in Taylor’s most famous poem:



Thou sorrow, venom Elfe:

Is this thy play,

To spin a web out of thyselfe

To Catch a Fly?

For Why?


I saw a pettish wasp

Fall foule therein:

Whom yet thy Whorle pins did not clasp

Lest he should fling

His sting.


But as affraid, remote

Didst stand hereat,

And with thy little fingers stroke

And gently tap

His back.


Thus gently him didst treate

Lest he should pet,

And in a froppish, aspish heate

Should greatly fret

Thy net.


Whereas the silly Fly,

Caught by its leg

Thou by the throate tookst hastily

And ‘hinde the head

Bite Dead.


This goes to pot, that not

Nature doth call.

Strive not above what strength hath got,

Lest in the brawle

Thou fall.


This Frey seems thus to us.

Hells Spider gets

His intrails spun to whip Cords thus

And wove to nets

And sets.


To tangle Adams race

In’s stratigems

To their Destructions, spoil’d, made base

By venom things,

Damn’d Sins.


But mighty, Gracious Lord


Thy Grace to breake the Cord, afford

Us Glorys Gate

And State.


We’l Nightingaile sing like

When pearcht on high

In Glories Cage, thy glory, bright,

And thankfully,

For joy.

The point of the poem is that Hell’s Spider would get the better of us—it knows its strength against those entangled in the web just as the natural spider dies—and so we would be doomed either to die the slow death of the wasp or the quicker more brutal death of the fly, were it not for God, who freeing us converts us into a nightingale, a bird more potent than the fly.

But it is not easy to know that this is what Taylor means; the moral of the sixth stanza, “Strive not above what strength has got” would seem to be drawn from, if not directed to, the spider of the first five lines. But humans, in the lines that follow, are flies or wasps in the web of Sin. The trouble is not in identifying the spiders, but in deciding on how the relationship of human to spider differs in both parts of the poem. In the former, the poet would seem fascinated with the spider, without condemnation; the answer “for why?” is simple: “Nature.” And nature, being of God’s creation can, even in the case of a venom elf Spider, be appreciated by the poet, even somewhat admired, as an object of study. But the spider of Sin is not natural, and this is the spider’s web in which humans are tangled. God intervenes, breaking through that unnatural web with an unnatural interruption of the web metaphor; we end, happily, if ambivalently, perched signing in God’s catch. The metaphor is not entirely happy, but this is before Sterne and it may have been thought a liberating captivity of the soul.

It is not quite right to say that the metaphor of the spider is rebuked, but that it is made unnatural. In both of the poems, Taylor dramatizes a confrontation between two orders of thought, two orders of understanding, manifest in metaphors that thwart and check one another, as a consequence of a limitation in the condition of the human imagination—fallen as it is, Taylor would perhaps say. The violence is not that of Donne, turned against the world, or that of Marvell, serenely conquering by the natural magic of poetry; it is instead a violence that erupts from the expression of the poetry itself, disrupting its unity.


The fabric of “Huswifery” is torn differently yet:


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.


The poem would be a bland analogy of soul to spinning wheel, with the cloth of God woven out upon it, were it not for the final stanza when the cloth in turn is asked to cover the poet’s understanding, will , judgment, conscience, memory, words, and actions. But were not “conversations” already taken to be the reel? Are not the understanding and judgment and will elements in the soul that is the “holy Spoole”?

As in the other poems, the rupture within the poem’s logic is an expression of the rupture within self that only God can mend: self is the wheel upon which God spins the cloth to cover self. We exist, Taylor implies, in a relationship with God wherein we are sufficient material for our own salvation at the hands of God.

In all of these poems, the divisions are revealed by tracing the thought of the poem, but they are nowhere registered by the cadence and nowhere registered by the poet’s self-awareness; it is as if, for Taylor, each poem holds its parts harmoniously. There is not tearing of hair at the tearing asunder of self, because ultimately the self is held together, preserved in its unity by something greater than it is; and so Taylor’s faith permits his form.


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