Divinely Human: Edward Taylor’s relationship with God
Often when writers write about God, it is from a rather lofty position. In celebrating what is divine, some writers seem to forget their own human qualities and understanding. Humanity is on the opposite end of the spectrum, often at war with spirituality (Anne Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit,” for example).
What makes Edward Taylor’s poetry and mediations unique is that his relationship with God is deeply rooted in the physical world. In incorporating God even into his own corporal body, Taylor marries together both the human and the divine, celebrating the best of both worlds in a manner that is both accessible to the reader and deeply, unabashedly personal.
In his poem “Huswifery,” Taylor gets straight to the human point even in the title, telling us that we are about to read about housework and domesticity. What an odd thing for a minister to write about; not only household tasks, but tasks typically assigned to women. Wouldn’t a minister be occupied with loftier goals? To quote George Eliot’s Mr. Tulliver, “My notion o’ the parsons was as they’d got a sort o’ learning as lay mostly out o’ sight” (20). This is what makes Taylor’s poem extraordinary. By asking God to use him as a woman would use a mundane, everyday object (in this case, a spinning wheel), Taylor greatly humbles himself, his metaphors knowing no such gender restrictions. The subject of “Huswifery” is Taylor petitioning God to make him a tool of sorts, namely a spinning wheel, then later, a loom (1, 7). Taylor gives an account of each working part of a spinning wheel, each line adding a new layer to his metaphor in order to make him a “Spinning Wheel complete” (my emphasis) (1).
To start, the distaff is what holds the raw wool or flax into place when spinning; Taylor asks God to make His “Holy Word” his own distaff so that he can be guided into the proper places presumably to lead a virtuous life (2). The flyers are what regulate the action of the spinning, and Taylor wants God’s “Swift Flyers” to regulate and/or temper his own “Affections” and actions (3).
On a spinning wheel, the spool twists the yarn into a cord of consistent thickness (or weight”); in asking God to make his soul a “holy spool,” Taylor is perhaps asking that his soul be a medium through which God’s doctrine is interpreted in a consistent manner (4). The next two lines say, “My conversation make to be Thy Reel / And reel the yarn thereon spun of Thy Wheel” (5-6). The reel gathers together the finished thread; Taylor wants his own conversation to be God’s reel, to hold together the metaphorical thread of God’s Word, and through him and his conversation, God can gather together what he has spun on his Taylor-turned-spinning-wheel. In just six lines, Taylor has effectively equated each way a spinning wheel works with a way in which he can takes God’s Word and doctrines, interpret them, and give them back to his congregation in a fashion that is both pleasing to God and understandable by his parishioners.
The complicated metaphor doesn’t end there. Now that he has transformed God’s Word into yarn, Taylor wants to weave it into cloth by asking, “Make me Thy Loom then, knit therein this Twine” (7). As a spool or bobbin guides the thread when sewing or weaving, Taylor entreats God to let the Holy Spirit guide him like “wind quills” during this weaving process (8).
However, in line 9, Taylor pulls back just slightly from his man-made metaphor. Even while putting the divine into earthly, understandable terms, he realizes that some things are too delicate for human understanding. “The yarn is fine,” he writes, meaning it’s too fragile and precious for him (or any person) to handle (9). Taylor gives over to God, asking Him to “weave the Web Thyself” (9). God’s decrees (“Ordinances”) will then cleanse (“Fulling Mills”) the unique cloth that Taylor and God are making together, afterwards dyeing it in “Heavenly Colors Choice” (10-11).
The last stanza is Taylor clothing not only himself in these newly-made “Holy robes,” but also
mine Understanding, Will,
Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory,
My Words, and Actions” (13-14).
Everything about his person will be filtered through his ecclesiastical wardrobe so that he may always walk “with glory and  glorify [God] (16).
That’s a heady statement for a humble, pious, (Puritan) man of God, but he has achieved his purpose in his poem without becoming irreverent or blasphemous. From the mundane and humble beginnings of a simple spinning wheel, Taylor spins a magnificent praise of God, ending in “Varnished” glory (12, 18). He (nearly literally) knits together everyday human experience with the glory of God, producing fine raiment that the Catholics would call “divinely human.”
Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. Carol T. Christ. New York: Norton & Company, 1994. 20.
Taylor, Edward. “Huswifery.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. Shorter 2nd Ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton & Company, 2008. 134-42.
Edward Tayor’s “Huswifery” has numerous aspects of excellence as a well-crafted poem and a sermon of Puritan belief. For modern audiences no longer concerned nor familiar with the details of weaving, it stands as an early-American example of metaphysical poetry and the use of the poetic conceit.
The term conceit, in literature, refers to an elaborate and surprising figure of speech comparing two things that are extremely dissimilar.
That definition could apply to any metaphor, but when it is extended throughout a poem and involves highly abstract and elaborate correspondences, it enters the realm of metaphysics and passes beyond the definition of a simple implied comparison.
The title is a word that was commonplace in the 17th century but has since disappeared from use except for a remnant in the negative term “hussy,” that denotes a lewd or brazen woman. In Taylor’s time, his title was pronounced with a silent “w” and a short “i” and sounded like “hussifry.” It denoted the full range of domestic tasks performed by Puritan housewives. In the poem, those tasks are narrowed to spinning and weaving.
The tone of the opening sentence is prayerful. The poet says, “Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete.” The succession of interrelated metaphors explains the poet’s intention in this odd-sounding request. Gradually we see spinning and cloth making as a figurative expression of the activity of the Master Weaver, who clothes people in grace.
Each part of the spinning wheel is equated with an aspect of spiritual life. The distaff is a piece of wood on which is wound flax or wool that is spun into thread. It is metaphorically equated with the Word of God – the Bible – from which we extract grace. The “affections” or emotional feelings are the “flyers” that twist and make thread from the raw material on the distaff.
The “spool” onto which the thread is wound is the soul of the speaker. The “reel” that holds the finished thread is referred to as the speaker’s “conversation,” by which he means his social exchanges with others. Thus, in stanza one we see the mechanical progression of the word of God becoming the grace necessary for salvation.
In the next stanza we proceed from spinning wheel to loom. On the loom the thread of God’s word is woven into cloth. God, who operates the loom, winds or turns the “quills”
(hollow tubes onto which the yarn is wound) and produces a web of cloth from the myriad threads. God’s ordinances (laws and sacraments) act as “fulling mills” that cleanse the cloth and prepare it for dyeing and decorating with designs.
In the concluding stanza the speaker asks God to garb or outfit him in raiment made from the newly spun and woven cloth. Once attired in this glorious garment, the speaker will be able to give God glory in return.
Though some of the terminology rings strange to a modern ear, Taylor has created a poetic prayer for salvation couched in images readily apprehensible to an audience of his day. All dedicated Puritan ministers offer their lives in service to the Almighty, but few have the talent to do so with such ingenious poetry.