“May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.”
Maybe 100 people lived in the village of Westfield, Massachusetts, in the the 1670s—maybe more, maybe less. The Puritan colonies were just then establishing themselves, carving out new settlements in wilderness forests that had once been the sole province of the Wampanoag, a local native tribe, as well other Native peoples.
By the 1670s war would break out, King Phillip’s War, an unthinkable bloodletting that shaped the minds of the colonists almost as forcefully as their immigrant Calvinism. King Phillip’s War was perhaps the most disastrous war in American history, one in ten of the Indians the colonists dead. But that’s another story.
There was in Westfield, a prelate, a Puritan preacher named Edward Taylor, who spent every last year of his ministry in a single church. Upon his arrival in New England in 1668, he’d enrolled at Harvard College, then graduated, and taken up the ministry at Westfield, where he served God and his people until he died in 1729.
Strangely enough, this man—a wilderness preacher, really, and a staunch conservative—had an incredibly rich imaginative life as a poet, a life he apparently shared with no one. For most of his ministry he was composing lines for a variety of occasions, but critics agree that his masterpieces are the “Preparatory Meditations,” a series of poems he created throughout his life to try to make himself worthy for the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of communion.
But no one saw those poems, apparently, until, in the 1930s, almost two centuries later, when a scholar named Thomas Johnson found a bound manuscript in the library of Yale University. They were shocking, absolutely shocking—and for several reasons.
They were brilliantly imaginative, for one thing. Two centuries after Plymouth Plantation, American historians would not have believed that a Puritan preacher could fashion such intricate intimacy. What’s more, those poems—some of them at least—are something of a scandal in their gaudy earthiness. They’re rich and vivid and devout, the enterprise of an immensely creative artist who apparently cared not a whit what anyone thought about what he was doing. Hours and hours he must have worked on his poetry, and nobody knew.
I think those Prepatory Meditations are amazing. They are what everyone says they are—rich, almost metaphysical tapestries, sometimes bizarre in their forthright character, charmingly un-Puritanical.
But I love the fact that, like Emily Dickinson, Edward Taylor seemed interested in creating them only for himself and his God. Impossible as it seems, he sat at his desk, quill in hand, and, it seems, wrote only to please God.
I’d like an editor. Edward Taylor never had one. I’d like an audience. Taylor thought of only one reader—God almighty. Honestly, I’d like to sell a book. Taylor, standing before the bread and wine, wanted only to be worthy.
My motives may be mixed, even tainted, when compared to his purity; but I’d like to think that the two of us are brothers in more than one profession. I’m guessing that Edward Taylor, like the psalmist, liked to repeat this line—one of the last from 104: “May my meditation be pleasing to him.” As do I.