Saturday, February 24, 2007

Muskify thy palace with their reek

I think this may be the only soft furnishing item once belonging to an early modern poet still in existence: the Reverend Edward Taylor’s needlepoint cushion cover, carefully transported with him to the Massachusetts Bay colony from his Leicestershire home. The source is

That Taylor was responsive to such items might be judged from his poem ‘Housewifery’ (‘Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete … Make me thy loom then, knit therein this twine’), and , always alert to the natural world, he is a rather good poet of insects: spiders attract his attention (‘Upon a spider catching a fly’ - though he cannot shake off the general anti-spider prejudices of the period in that poem: it is a ‘venom elf’ that makes him think of how ‘Hell’s spider’ ensnares ‘Adam’s race’). Rather more sympathetic to the insect involved is:

‘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 warm breath and shine, as saving,
Which with her legs 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.
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, 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 petticoats were lined,
With reason's fleece, and hoises 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
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 animal.
Till I enravished climb into

The Godhead on this lather do,
Where all my pipes inspired upraise
An heavenly music furred with praise.

Taylor responds to the wasp’s (female) daintiness, to the rationality of its behaviour, and as showing a spark of divinity in its ‘nimble’ work – one assumes that his view would have been that the maker of his prized cushion had shown similar ‘vital grace’.

This all reminded me of E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, where a wasp is used as a marker of spiritual inclusiveness: Mrs Moore has this tenuously, Sorley the missionary cannot imagine wasps being admitted to heaven, while the Brahmin Professor Godbole sends both Mrs Moore and the wasp on their way towards spiritual fulfillment (but can’t quite manage to feel the same way about the stone):

1. “Going to hang up her cloak, she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew … ‘Pretty dear,’ said Mrs Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night’s uneasiness.”

(Chapter 3)

2. “And the jackals? Jackals were indeed less to Mr Sorley’s mind, but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps…”

(Chapter 4)

3. “He impelled her (i.e. Mrs Moore) by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. His senses grew thinner, he remembered a wasp he had seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone. He loved the wasp equally, he impelled it likewise, he was imitating God. And the stone where the wasp clung – could he … no, he had been wrong to attempt the stone …”

(Chapter 33)

More Taylor poems at:

but apparently he also wrote a long poem about some fossil bones which were sent to him, which I am now very keen to see and read, and will need to locate a copy of one of the Yale editions of his manuscripts. My title is from his 'Lord, dub my tongue'.

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