Some of the most moving and articulate expressions of Puritan thought can be seen in the poetic works of Edward Taylor. Although the metaphysical nature of Taylor's poetry puts him somewhat at odds with other Puritan literary figures, he powerfully captures the devotion and simplicity that made the Puritan tradition what it was (and is). Combining poetic pathos with keen theological insight, Taylor paints vivid portraits of sin and redemption ("Meditation 26,") life in the church ("The Joy of Church Fellowship Rightly Attended,") and the richness of his own personal communion with God ("Meditation 8"). In this paper, I will examine the latter work, looking at examples of how Calvinist doctrines such as Total Depravity form the basis for the Puritans' relationship with their God. However, it does not stop there as we get a truly beautiful look at how God's grace issues a call to the repentant to eat the Bread of Life ("Heaven's Sugar Cake") and, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, to "worship God and enjoy Him forever."
Before I begin my exegesis of "Meditation 8," I feel it would be helpful to briefly discuss the theological perspective which is the basis for Taylor's world view: i.e. Reformed Theology, otherwise known as Calvinism. This belief system centers around five doctrinal positions adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1619. These "Five Points of Calvinism" stressed the sovereign will of God in choosing His elect from among a fallen and depraved world. The Five Points were eventually organized under the acrostic "TULIP" (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). Although a detailed exposition of the Five Points is obviously beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that these doctrines continue to have a profound influence on Protestant Theology to this day.
The moving, childlike faith Taylor exhibits in "Meditation 8" is a natural outgrowth of his understanding of God's grace, which stems from these concepts. To illustrate this, we will briefly examine another one of his works, "Meditation 26." In contrast to the joyful tone of "Meditation 8," this poem is a heart-wrenching look at Taylor's realization of his own imperfection in light of God's holiness: "Unclean, Unclean: My Lord, Undone, all vile/ Yea, all Defiled: What shall Thy Servant do?/ Unfit for Thee: not fit for holy Soil,/Nor for Communion of Saints below" (350). This is the doctrine of Total Depravity in a nutshell, reminiscent of the Biblical musings of the Prophet Isaiah: "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…" (Isaiah 6:5), as well as those of the Apostle Paul: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24)
Such a vivid revelation of one's own sinfulness can only enhance the appreciation of God's grace and mercy. This is evident as the poem progresses: "Oh! Richest Grace!/…In this bright Crystal Crimson Fountain flows/ What washes whiter than the Swan or Rose" (350). The basis for Taylor's intimacy with God is the knowledge that God's love and forgiveness have cleansed him from his aforesaid wretchedness, giving him free access to both God and to the church. With this in mind, let us begin our look at "Meditation 8." The poem opens with Taylor's gentle musings about the vastness and wonder of creation and the unspeakable glories that must lie behind it: "I kenning through Astronomy Divine/ The World's bright Battlement, wherein I spy/ A Golden Path my pencil cannot line,/ From that bright Throne unto my Threshold lie" (344). These thoughts are reflective of King David's song of praise in Psalm 8: "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers…What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" (Verses 3-4). However, even as Taylor takes in God's glory from afar, he gets a reminder of it which is much closer than he had expected: "And while my puzzled thoughts about it pour,/ I find the Bread of Life in't at my door" (344).
This epiphany of God's immediate presence inspires Taylor to further reflect on his life, and the sin and redemption which have so profoundly affected it. Although not as gloomy and fatalistic as "Meditation 26," these themes are no less a key aspect of this work: "When that this Bird of Paradise put in/ This Wicker Cage (my Corpse) to tweedle praise/ Had pecked the Fruit forbade: and so did fling/ Away its Food: and lost its golden days:/ It fell into Celestial Famine sore:/ And never could attain a morsel more." Just as Adam threw away his standing with God by eating of the forbidden fruit, Taylor realizes that he too has followed in this despairing path. In light of this, he also realizes his utter helplessness to do anything about it: "Alas! Alas! Poor Bird, what wilt thou do?/ The Creatures' field no food for Souls e'er gave./ And if thou knock at Angels' doors they show/An Empty Barrel: they no soul bread have./Alas! Poor Bird, the World's White Loaf is done./ And cannot yield the here the smallest crumb" (344).
However, the poem then makes a dramatic change in tone. Expounding on Jesus' statement in John 6: 35 ("I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst,") Taylor paints for us a beautiful portrait of a loving, merciful God extending His grace in abundance: "In this sad state, God's Tender Bowels run/ Out streams of Grace: and He to end all strife/ The Purest Wheat in Heaven His dear-dear Son/ Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life./ Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands/ Dashed on Thy Table up by Angels' Hands" (344).
In my opinion, the next few lines are among the most moving in the poem. Further expounding on God’s invitation to come and partake freely of His grace, Taylor goes on to give us an intimate look at his own personal communion with God: “Did God mold up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,/ Which from His Table came, and to thine goeth?/ Doth He bespeak thee thus, This Soul Bread take?/ Come Eat thy fill of this thy God's White Loaf?/ It's Food too fine for Angels, yet come, take/ And Eat thy fill. It's Heaven's Sugar Cake” (p 344). The last line, in which He describes the Christian life not only as bread, but also as “sugar cake” reveals that Taylor knows the authenticity of which he writes. God’s presence is not simply an abstract concept to him. It is a living reality that he experiences in his everyday life.
As the poem concludes, Taylor summarizes his message by blending the poem’s two contrasting themes. First, he returns to his thoughts on the fragility and utter helplessness of fallen man: “What Grace is knead in this Loaf? This thing/ Souls are but petty things it to admire,/ “ However, characteristic of his own work, and Calvinist theology in general, the topic returns once again to God’s grace, freely extended to sinners: “Ye Angels, help: This fill would to the brim/ Heav'ns whelmed-down Crystal meal Bowl, yea and higher,/ This Bread of Life dropped in thy mouth, doth Cry:/ Eat, eat me, Soul, and thou shalt never die” (p 344-345). As Taylor penned these beautiful words, I can’t help but speculate that he was contemplating the invitation of the Prophet Isaiah: Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness (Isaiah 55:1-2).
In conclusion, this striking and profound poem is helpful in a variety of different areas. To the Christian, it can serve as a modern-day psalm to be used for reflection and devotion. To the historian, it is an elegant summary of the prevalent religious thought of the day set in unique, picturesque language that vividly enhances its depth and spiritual insight. In the rich literary heritage that is the Puritan tradition, Edward Taylor's writing shows a richness and creativity, which challenges, encourages and inspires. May all who read his work be touched by the heart and spirit behind it.
(1) Taylor, Edward. "Meditation 8" taken from "The Norton Anthology of American Literature" Sixth Edition, Volume A. 2003, 1998, 1994, 1989, 1985, 1979 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc,New York, NY. P. 344