Edward Taylor: Playing the Woman21 February 2009
Becoming a female is no new thing for male devotional writers in the Christian tradition. Theologians and mystics have often resorted to feminine alter (“altar”?) egos to speak of their response to a proactive, authoritative God. American Puritans did the same thing by reading biblical erotica in terms of the believer’s spiritual intimacy with God. Edward Taylor embraces this tradition through an anagogical reading of the Song of Solomon in his Preparatory Meditations, interlacing it with the New Testament motif of the Church as the bride of Christ.
Consider how Taylor chooses to emphasize metaphors of womb-like receptivity. He writes, “My Silver Chest a Sparke of Love up locks,” explaining how when the penitent’s chest sees Christ’s beauty, “Her Downy Bosom opes” (I.4.1,5). More often this receptiveness is construed in terms of a “Cabbinet,” where the body houses the soul, and the soul houses Christ:
Oh! that my Soul . . .
Might be thy Cabbinet, of Pearle of Price.
Oh! let thy Pearle, Lord Cabbinet in mee
I’st then be rich! nay rich enough for thee. (I.2.13, 16-18)
This “Cabbinet” is a shoddy home for Christ’s presence, but Christ overlooks its poverty and deems it acceptable. God is at work in this implantation. As Michael North puts it, “The pearl, God’s donation, comes sperm-like into the soul; its growth into full glory is implicit in it, promised in the original donation.” Sperm-like indeed: “The Soule’s the Womb,” Taylor says plainly in II.80.31, and “Christ is the spermodote.” Taylor wishes to bear God’s holy seed (II.4.25-26), pregnant with divine glory.
Albert Gelpi explains how this was an acceptable pattern of Puritan humility for Taylor, who, among the “Christian poets who saw their manhood broken by God’s holy lust,” became women before God. God reigns in supreme power, righteousness and honor, so if masculinity is characterized by potentia, then one may deduce that God himself is the masculine by which all other things become feminine. Even male saints must enact a gendered drama and become passive partners to their saving, being wooed by Him. Ivy Schweitzer calls this process “gynesis,” playing the woman in order to signify “a rhetorical position of subordination and subservience to God.”
Much of Taylor’s poetry presents this marriage to God in frightful, forceful ways. God drills a new heart in him. God overcomes him at every turn. This is for male poets “the logic of spiritual conversion – figured as a rape or ravishment, or, at the very least, a welcomed intrusion – to position themselves in relation to God and Christ as feminized, deauthorized, and self-denying souls.” A man must be violated for his own good, which, by God’s hand, actually means un-defilement. The divine rape is not rape after all. It is regeneration.
Suffice it to say that Taylor recruits his feminine alter-ego for the claiming of authenticity. It enacts the drama of humiliation and glorification by God, Schweitzer’s “model of redeemed subjectivity.” The bride of Christ archetypally, apart from the inconvenient particulars of real women, permits space for Taylor to empty himself and receive the fullness of grace, all in the form of “the Other who completes him in the mystical and ecclesiastic sense.” He comes away from his private piety cleansed and whole, intact as a man – if only because he has not wagered himself as such. Or has he?
[See next post]