Early American Soap Opera
I recently read a New York Times book review in which the critic, herself a novelist, qualified her backhanded praise for a novel that engaged some Christian themes. The reviewer didn’t care for the faith’s “deadening effect on the imagination.”
Having browsed the Christian bookstore at my neighborhood strip mall, I couldn’t pretend not to know what she meant, but her casual remark was still a provocation. She couldn’t have been thinking of the Christianity of Giotto, Bach, or Milton. And did she feel the same about Islam and Judaism? How did we get to a point in American history where an artist could state that belief in a triune God was toxic to creativity, and say it in a way that suggested she thought much of her audience would receive her statement as a truism?
Even American poets who claim art as their only religion share a Protestant cultural heritage. Our engagement with Puritan literature tends to be perfunctory and salted heavily with notes on daily colonial life. Puritan fervor, extruded through conventional English forms, feels both forbiddingly remote and tediously familiar. But can we empathize with anything in the metaphorical imagination of Puritan poets like Anne Bradstreet or Edward Taylor? What did these earliest American poets understand about their enterprise?
Jeffrey Hammond, a scholar of early American literature, cautions readers not to over historicize their encounters with Puritan poetry, but admits that being moved by it requires an effort of historical imagination: “Seeking an aesthetic empathy with seventeenth-century New Englanders does not require a modern reader to become a Puritan, only to try reading like one,” he advises. At first blush, it hardly seems worth the effort; it’s difficult enough to confront the radical “otherness” of Puritan theology. On top of that, literate New Englanders of the day delighted in poetic conventions (stock imagery and thunky pentameter couplets, for instance) that haven’t worn well for modern audiences.
Anne Bradstreet, first American poet and the favored introduction to Puritan literature in high school and college curricula, seems the least forbiddingly “other” because many of her poems reflect her faith in an affective, personal way that readers weaned on the Romantics can comfortably approach. Her “domestic” occasional poems, such as “Verses upon the Burning of My House,” confirm that piety drove the early American literary imagination—and thus tend to be handled at arm’s length as historical documents. Simultaneously, they’re valued for what has been valued in our more recent literary past: emotional immediacy, intimacy of address, conscience-searching. She’s not only our first poet, period, but our first confessional poet.
Yet, whether we examine Bradstreet’s verses as products of her age or value them for how they reflect our own, it’s easy to forget that these first American poems are enactments of a spiritual imagination. They aren’t aesthetic byproducts of a lived faith; they are the lived faith. Even when they seem spiritually bereft, Puritan poems dramatize the movement of grace through a wretched soul. Poetry was performance first, not individual expression in the fallen world; the Reformed Christian was always keeping tabs on and dramatizing her struggle for salvation through confession and praise, written and spoken. I’m interested in the poetry of Bradstreet and her contemporaries not because it’s poetically inventive (because it really isn’t) or historically illuminating (although it is). I’m interested in it because it was undertaken and received as a spiritual act, and the imagination that created it was both ignited by and in thrall to its source, God.
The Reformation’s big break with Catholicism hinged on the belief in an unmediated relationship with the Word. Being a Reformed Christian meant being your own exegete, an interpreter of God’s will as revealed through Scripture. Every soul was tasked with apprehending the Holy Spirit this way. The Puritans’ daily readings of the Bible (with all its songs, letters, parables, riddles, and reports) trained and rewarded a symbolic, metaphorical imagination. Puritans weren’t dour literalists; writing verse reflections and paraphrases of Scripture animated the heart and the intellect. It was a spiritually legitimate source of pleasure—and transformation.
But how cautious the bookish faithful would have been about the slide from meditation to an airy mysticism that dispensed with the God-given virtue of reason. Words could reveal truth, but they could also presume to undo, distort, or distract from it. In 1726, late-Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather reminded young ministers not to engage in too much “conversation with muses that are no better than harlots.” Not to fall back on the colonial stereotype, but what a killjoy. This hypervigilance, this ambivalence makes sense, though: If God revealed his grace through beauty, beauty sought and revered for its own sake tipped toward idolatry.
So, reading and making metaphors could reveal God’s will or stimulate idolatry. It could also allow the writer to know God’s creative power, in the tradition of imitatio Christi. This imitation of Christ teeters on the verge of sin as well: Get too juiced up on the thrilling creative act, and—wham—you become a hubristic glory-grubber. Not very Christ-like, and probably a sign that you weren’t getting into Heaven.
Congregationalist minister Edward Taylor, the Puritan master of the metaphor, incessantly flirted with this paradox. Whereas the poetic conventionality of Bradstreet mitigates her “otherness,” contemporary readers seem to have embraced Taylor’s sometimes extravagant flights from the predictable language of piety. His 219 preparatory meditations get the lion’s share of attention because they’re riddled with zesty, eccentric conceits that bring to mind English metaphysical poets such as George Herbert and Richard Crashaw. You get a taste of these in his preface to another of his long sequences, “Gods Determinations”
Who Lac’de and Fillitted the earth so fine,Ribbons Smaragdine? Bowling Alley? Is this a “forbidding otherness,” or are we entitled to bring our contemporary aesthetic prejudices to bear and call this wacky? Robert Hass, in his essay “Edward Taylor: What Was He Up To?”, highlighted Taylor’s delightful linguistic weirdness. What I can’t get over is that his most vivid and memorable poems weren’t written for an audience. What I mean is, they were self-conscious in the tradition of Puritan meditation, but they weren’t self-consciously inventive. His weirdness—our delight—is accidental. He wasn’t trying to whip up any souls but his parishioners’ by way of his own.
With Rivers like green Ribbons Smaragdine?
Who made the Sea’s its Selvedge, and it locks
Like a Quilt Ball within a Silver Box?
Who Spread its Canopy? Or Curtains Spun?
Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?
If Anne Bradstreet was the dutiful congregant, Taylor was the fired-up clergyman, responsible for inciting the souls in his charge. Written over the course of 43 years, his preparatory meditations (full title: Preparatory Meditations before my Approach to the Lords Supper. Chiefly upon the Doctrin preached upon the Day of administration) are devotional exercises usually based on a Hebrew psalm or passage of the Gospels for which Taylor had prepared a sermon. The Eucharist, now a grape-juice-and-bread-cubes affair open to any self-professed Christian, was for Taylor’s congregation the most profound sacrament, requiring a public confession of conversion as well as rigorous spiritual preparation. Not everyone was up to the task. Taylor had to be.
Did Ever Lord Such noble house mentain,Taylor swings from luxurious exuberance and pride (“I’le bet a boast with any that this Bread /I eate excels what ever Caesar had”) in joining Christ’s feast, to bewildered humility, in which he becomes “Dead Dust,” a “dumpish” heart unworthy of the invitation. Sometimes clever, sometimes almost joyfully ragged, Taylor’s metaphors constantly give way to these images of abject self-effacement.
As my Lord doth? Or Such a noble Table?
‘T would break the back of kings, nay, Monarchs brain
To do it. Pish, the Worlds Estate’s not able.
I’le bet a boast with any that this Bread
I eate excels what ever Caesar had.
Take earth’s Brightst Darlings, in whose mouths all flakes
Of Lushous Sweets she hath do croude their Head,
Their Spiced Cups, Sweet Meats, and Sugar Cakes
Are but dry Sawdust to this Living Bread.
I’le pawn my part in Christ, this Dainti’st Meate,
Is Gall, and Wormwood unto what I eate.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What wonder’s here, that Bread of Life should come
To feed Dead Dust? Dry Dust eate Living Bread?
Yet Wonder more by far may all, and Some
That my Dull Heart’s so dumpish when thus fed.
Lord Pardon this, and feed mee all my dayes,
With Living Bread to thy Eternall Prayse.
(from “Meditation 9: John 6.51. I am the Living Bread”)
He will meditate more than once on this same Scripture. Here he manages to sustain the metaphor of his soul as bird in this retelling of the Fall and redemption through Christ’s love:
Alas! Alas! Poore Bird, what wilt thou doe?God grinds, kneads, and serves his own son as the Bread of Life—a homely metaphor so fascinating because Taylor’s Reformation theology rejected the idea that Christ becomes physically present as flesh and blood in the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper. It was understood and promoted as a symbolic transformation, yet here in Taylor’s metaphor, and throughout the Meditations, the act is reimagined as a viscerally felt, physical transformation.
The Creatures field no food for Souls e’re gave.
And if thou knock at Angells dores, they show
An Empty Barrell: they no Soul bread have.
Alas! Poore Bird, the Worlds White Loafe is done.
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.
In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run,
Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife
The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.
(from “Meditation 8: John 6.51. I am the Living Bread”)
Like Bradstreet, Taylor employed conventional imagery (God as shining light, Christ’s flock of sheep, the soul as tired pilgrim), but also was freewheeling with lavish and sometimes tasteless images: “Tender Bowells,” Christ’s blood as beer and wine, divine love swimming through veins and arteries, globs of fat dripping from the candle of Reason, half an ant’s egg covering the heavens, and so on. Is some of this fantastic lumpiness Taylor’s vanity at play? Do his elaborate metaphors reach too far to re-create God’s creativity and put him in the Puritan’s paradox?
“Natural things are not unsuitable to illustrate supernaturals by,” Taylor writes in Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper:
For Christ in his parables doth illustrate supernatural things by natural,No God but in things, then? We visually stimulated, sensation-hungry readers and writers can find some aesthetic empathy here. And maybe there was a trust operating within Taylor’s metaphorical inventions—the trust that God’s aesthetics are not our own. Taylor wrote not to dazzle a discriminating public, but to offer up his re-creations to his Creator.
and if it were not thus, we could arrive at no knowledge of supernatural
things, for we are not able to see above naturals.
Without the demands of his faith, would his poetry have flourished? His melodramatic admissions of unworthiness (“my Dull Heart’s so dumpish”) may alienate a modern sensibility, but there’s something there that those who have embraced art as a “secular religion” will recognize: that itchy sense of falling short of a perfection whose terms remain mysterious, the belief that the process will reveal more than the result of the labor. The hunch, however detached from dogma, that our gifts of perception aren’t wholly under our own control.
Illustration by Tom Bachtell.