Little is known of Edward Taylor’s early life in England. His poetry displays a Leicestershire dialect; he was probably born in Sketchly, Leicestershire County, where his father was a yeoman farmer. He may have been educated in England. He seems to have read and been influenced by seventeenth-century English literature, including John Milton’s (1608–1674) epic poetry and the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne and George Herbert (1593–1633). Epics are long, heroic poems tied to a nation’s history. Metaphysical poetry is a type of highly intellectual, complex poetry using unexpected metaphors, incongruous imagery, and such linguistic feats as puns and paradoxes.
To escape the religious controversies and persecutions of the early 1660s and to avoid signing an oath of loyalty to the Church of England, Taylor emigrated to America in 1668. He studied at Harvard for three years and eschewed the teaching profession (that he practiced for a few years) for that of the ministry. In 1671, he was called to serve as minister at Westfield, Massachusetts, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He maintained friendships with such prominent Puritans as Increase Mather (1639–1723) and Samuel Sewall (1652–1730); married twice; fathered fourteen children; upheld Puritan theocracy; and wrote poetry.
None of his poetry was published during Taylor’s lifetime. His poems were discovered by Thomas H. Johnson in the 1930s at the Yale Library. They had been deposited there by Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), Taylor’s grandson and a President of Yale. Taylor seems to have written his poems as private devotions and communions with God. They express his rejection of worldly matters and dependence on God in his own struggle against Satan and evil. In his Preparatory Meditations, for example, Taylor prepares to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and so ponders the mystery of the incarnation, of God as flesh, and the transubstantiation of God’s blood and flesh into the wine and bread of the communion. Their variety of genres–including elegies, lyrics, and meditations–attests to his education in the classics and modern languages. Their original use of the metaphysical conceits (metaphors that yoke together two apparently highly dissimilar things), paradoxes, and puns attest to the Puritan God that was Taylor’s absolute that drew together all incongruities. The poems’ domestic details of everyday life reveal not only his Puritan faith but also seventeenth-century life in America.
Becoming America, Wendy Kurant, ed., CC-BY-SA