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Cleaning the Unclean; Clearing the Unclear–Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor (1642-1729)What sort of a poet writes throughout his entire life, some 87 years, in an obscure backwater Massachusetts town, publishing only a handful of works before death? Yes, I suppose if we consider Amhearst a backwater, then this description would fit Emily Dickinson fairly well, but Dickinson’s poetry appeared in book form just a few years after her death. The works of Edward Taylor lay buried in obscurity for more than two centuries before being unearthed in the depths of the Yale libraries in the 1930s.

The sort of poet represented in Taylor was one who wrote for his own purposes and benefit. The Preparatory Meditations, probably the minister’s finest works and most reminiscent of his obvious forebears Herbert and Donne, expand on a passage of scripture to be preached on an upcoming Sunday. As these lyrics were penned more for the devotional purposes of Taylor himself than with an eye to any outside reader, it should not surprise us that his language seems at times obscure, especially when that language lies some 300 years in our past.

Let’s consider “Meditation 26 (Second Series)” in which Edward Taylor meditates on Hebrew 9:13-14:

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

These verses pass by the reader of Hebrews fairly quickly. For the knowledgeable Christian, the theological concept contained there is foundational and sufficiently familiar to be read without much consideration. That, it seems, was precisely what Taylor the poet and (presumably) Taylor the preacher wanted to avoid. Consider, passing stanza by stanza, how he unpacks and explicates these verses.

In the first stanza, leading off with “Unclean, unclean,” the poet evokes both Isaiah 6 and Leviticus 13:45. Accounts of Jesus healing lepers, such as the one in Luke 5:12-14 are suggested here as well. This entire stanza focuses on the unclean speaker, emphasizing the problem, far beyond what Hebrews overtly states.

The next stanza defines the problem posed by this unclean state. Essentially, Taylor reminds us that he is filthy but also that God demands cleanness from those who “enter to Thy fold.” This unclean state is not simply an annoyance but an apparently insurmountable obstacle to God’s presence or even the lesser grace of church membership. In fact, I find his emphasis on “Church Fellowship” as opposed to eternal salvation rather surprising given Taylor’s theological background.

Having confessed his state and pointed out the problem created by that state, Taylor proceeds, in stanza three, to offer and then contradict a solution to the problem. Can the church cleanse him? They don’t seem to have the appropriate cleaning supplies to get the job done.

The fourth stanza continues this tour of futility, branching into the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law for its solutions. Neither the red heifer of Leviticus 19:2 or the “Burnt and Sin Offerings . . . do the feat.” However, he says as he makes an important transition, these rituals and presumably those offered by the church as well, “Emblemize the Fountain Spring/ Thy Blood, my Lord, set ope to was off Sin.” In other words, those human actions such as sacrifices are useless except as they prefigure the sacrifice of Jesus.

The following stanza celebrates the efficacy of cleansing that comes through Christ. Here, Taylor gets back to the heart of his Bible text but does so having made its urgency considerably greater. Here we have the peculiar imagery of blood cleansing something and making it white. In Isaiah 1:18, we read of blood-red sins being cleaned to white, but how can blood itself perform the cleansing? The paradox is not original to Taylor but is lifted from Revelation 7:14: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In the final stanza, the poet turns from the theory to the practice, calling directly on his Lord to wash him and fit him for not just heaven but “Church Fellowship with Saints most clear.” In return, he offers to sing God’s praises, which seems a fairly insignificant repayment of a great gift. Yet of course in Taylor’s theological view, no gift he can offer would be particularly interesting to God. Praise is the best he can do.

We see in this fairly straight-foward meditation how Edward Taylor’s mind merged a myriad of scriptures together as he prepared to preach on a single text. His images and metaphors in this poem were relatively simple and derived mostly from the Bible itself. By taking his poems slowly, however, a reader can unpack them for richer understanding just as Edwards himself unpacked his Biblical texts for richer understanding.

Posted in American Literature, Puritan.

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