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Edward Taylor: Upon a Wasp Chilled With Cold

Edward Taylor (1642-1729) was born in England during the civil war between Royalists and Puritans. As a schoolboy he developed the radical Protestant convictions ascendant during Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Having found his freedom to worship, study and teach restricted after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Taylor immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1668. There he completed his education at Harvard and accepted a call to the ministry, becoming pastor of the Congregational Church in Westfield, Massachusetts. He served the church for over fifty years, marrying twice and raising fourteen children in Westfield.

Although he may have composed some of his longer theological poems as efforts to evangelize and instruct his neighbors, much of his poetry was a private exercise—a mode of meditation prior to celebrating communion or a record of spiritual epiphanies he experienced, often triggered by careful observation of ordinary daily events. This poem is one of the latter kind, describing a tiny wasp recovering its energy after being chilled. One imagines Taylor sitting at his desk, looking up from the sermon he is writing, and becoming fascinated by the exercises of a small creature in the windowsill next to him.

Taylor’s poetry was unknown before a manuscript was discovered in the Yale Library in 1937 (Taylor’s grandson Ezra Stiles, who was president of Yale during the Revolutionary era, may have placed the manuscript there). The poems suggest an interesting tension in Taylor’s religious thinking. As a Puritan minister, he would have been trained to give straightforward, rational, scripture-based sermons. But his poems (as well as many of his extant sermons) depart from the plain style. They follow the “metaphysical” tradition of English poets John Donne and George Herbert (both of whom, as pastors, wrote spiritual poetry). This style is highly emotive and uses surprising analogies between physical events and spiritual states.

 

Upon a Wasp Chilled With Cold

The bear that breathes the northern blast
Did numb, torpedo-like, a wasp
Whose stiffened limbs encramped, lay bathing
In Sol’s[1] warm breath and shine as saving,
Which with her hands she chafes and stands
Rubbing her legs, shanks, thighs, and hands.
Her pretty toes, and fingers’ ends
Nipped with this breath, she out extends
Unto the sun, in great desire
To warm her digits at that fire.
Doth hold her temples in this state
Where pulse doth beat, and head doth ache.
Doth turn, and stretch her body small,
Doth comb her velvet capital. [2] As if her little brain pan were
A volume of choice precepts clear.
As if her satin jacket hot
Contained apothecary’s shop
Of nature’s receipts,[3] that prevails
To remedy all her sad ails,
As if her velvet helmet high
Did turret rationality.
She fans her wing up to the wind
As if her pettycoat were lined,
With reason’s fleece, and hoists sails
And humming flies in thankful gales
Unto her dun curled palace hall
Her warm thanks offering for all.

Lord, clear my misted sight that I
May hence view Thy divinity,
Some sparks whereof thou up dost hasp [4] Within this little downy wasp
In whose small corporation we
A school and a schoolmaster see,
Where we may learn, and easily find
A nimble spirit bravely mind
Her work in every limb: and lace
It up neat with a vital grace,
Acting each part though ne’er so small
Here of this fustian[5] animal.
Till I enravished climb into
The Godhead on this ladder do,
Where all my pipes inspired upraise
An heavenly music furred[6] with praise.

— Edward Taylor

 

[1] The sun—so called after the ancient Roman god who personified the sun.

[2] Head (like the crowning ornament on a column).

[3] Recipes.

[4] Fasten or clasp together.

[5] Made of a napped fabric.

[6] Clothed.

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