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Poem of the week: Upon Wedlock, and the Death of Children by Edward Taylor | poetry

Upon Wedlock, and the Death of Children

A Curious Knot God made in Paradise,
And drew it out still neatly Fresh.
It was the True-Love Knot, more sweet than spice
And set with all the flowers of Graces dress.
Its Weddens Knot, that ne’re can be unti’de.
No Alexanders Sword can it divide.

The slips here planted, gay and glorious grow:
Unless an Hellish breath do sindge their Plumes.
Here Primrose, Cowslips, Roses, Lilies blow
With Violets and Pinkes that void perfumes.
Whose beautiful leaves ore laid with Hony Dew.
And Chanting birds Cherp out sweet Musick true.

When in this Knot I planted was, my Stock
Soon knotted, and a manly flower out brake.
And after it my branch again did knot
Brought out another Flowre its sweet breath’d mate.
One knot gave one tother the tothers place.
Whence Checking smiles fought in each others face.

But oh! a glorious hand from glory came
Saved with Angells, soon did Crop this flowere
Which almost tore the root up of the same
At that unexpected for, Dolesome, darksome houre.
In Pray’re to Christ perfum’d it did ascend,
And Angells bright did it to heaven tend.

But pausing on’t, this sweet perfume’d my thought,
Christ would in Glory have a Flowre, Choice, Prime,
And having Choice, chose this my branch forth brought.
Lord, take’t. I thank thee, thou takst ought to mine,
It is my pledge in glory, part of me
Is now in it, Lord, glorify with thee.

But praying pray my branch, my branch did sprout
And bore another manly flower, and gay
And after that another, sweet brake out,
The which the former hand soon got away.
But oh! the tortures, vomit, screechings, groans,
And six weeks fever would pierce hearts like stones.

Griefe o’re doth flow: and nature fault would find
Were not thy Will, my Spell, Charm, Joy, and Gem:
That as I said, I say, take, Lord, they’re thine.
I piece meal pass to Glory bright in them.
In joy, may I sweet Flowers for Glory breed,
Whether thou getst them green, or lets them seed.

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Thought to have been born in Sketchley, Leicestershire, England, around 1642, Edward Taylor was committed to the English Dissenters, a movement of Protestant Christians opposed to the Anglican Church and state involvement in religious matters. As a result, he emigrated to Massachusetts in 1668, in protest at the signing of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. After graduation from Harvard, I have served as a minister in the frontier Massachusetts town of Westfield.

This week’s extraordinary poem is theologically agile, and versatile in the deployment of a broadly metaphysical technique (see Samuel Johnson’s discussion of Metaphysical poetry and the “discordia concors”). Despite elaborations, a strand of personal anguish is tangible. The concept of the “knot” permeates Taylor’s imagination, and one of its ramifications is the knotted-ness of grief, including its challenge by faith.

Perhaps the ABABCC rhyme-scheme itself is one of the forms expressing the versatile knot. Figuratively, the primary knot is the marriage bond, entwining, for a Christian couple, earthly concord with spiritual marriage to Christ. Taylor plants a further metaphor, that of the garden or “knot garden”, beautifully deployed in the flower imagery of stanza two. And thereby hangs another knot – “the base of a woody branch enclosed in the stem from which it arises” (to quote the Norton Anthology). Taylor’s own knotting activities indicate procreation as well as pruning. Modern readers might like to contemplate the dance of the DNA spiral as an offshoot of the sexual-spiritual encounter.

The details of the four children outlined in the poem may be found in the comprehensive notes here, including names and dates. In the poem, these children only fleetingly emerge from their sacrificial and metaphorical roles. The effect, when they do emerge, is powerful. In the third stanza, two of the infants, close in age, make facial responses to one another – a delightfully lively “knotting” in which “checking smiles fought in each other’s face”. The inspired verb-choice, “fought”, grounds the fatherly observation, suggesting that the babies are still struggling with the muscular intricacies of smiles and utter laughter. More grimly, the last two lines of the sixth stanza give way to the despair of witnessing children’s physical suffering: “But oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans, / And six weeks fever would pierce hearts like stones.” This is the moment when the mask of transformation seems to be ripped off, in a planned move which temporarily interrogates the universe God has created. It simply reinforces the dedication, however, and Taylor declares that God’s will continue to be “my spell, charm, joy and gem”. It’s as if he’d picked a noun for each loved child, as he confirms the sacrificial gift of each: “as I said, I say, take, Lord, they’re thine”. There’s a finely placed reprise of the flower imagery (and a fine complacency) in the reference to death’s inevitability whether “thou getst them green, or lets them seed”.

Taylor published little verse during his life, although it’s said he eventually gathered his many poems together in his own handmade leather binding. Clearly, his metaphysical technique, like his whole theology of poetics, was influenced by George Herbert. Negotiating, like Herbert, between private prayer and public sermon, Taylor can bear proximity to that great English preacher-poet. He, at his best, was also a true explorer of “the land of spices; something understood”.

The text reproduced here is from the Poetry Foundation. The PF site includes other poems by Taylor, and an excellent general essay on her life and work.

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