By Mary Marie Dixon

Edward Taylor, who was both poet and a Puritan minister in the early eighteenth century, contemplated the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in his poems and sermons.  He definitely opposed the ideas of transubstantiation, which he interpreted as the Catholic belief, and consubstantiation, which he identified with the Lutherans.  His poems and meditations are meant to describe and inspire a spiritual experience that engages God. I will deal primarily with the ideas of symbol and metaphor as they relate to his writings about the Eucharist. While Taylor is careful to keep the descriptions of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper out of the realm of the spiritual, in terms of their being changed such as in transubstantiation or consubstantiation, he inadvertently draws attention to them as glorified emblems. His intent was as David Brown and David Fuller have pointed out, “to exclude the very notion of sacramentality” (64).  I have chosen a few examples to illustrate what I feel is typical of this approach.

In his Meditation on John 6:51, “I am the Living Bread,” First Series, #8, he compares himself (and all humans) to a bird in a cage separated from its native food.  As he distances humans from their nature and transforms them into birds, so he distances the bread that God makes from the material world.  “Heaven’s sugar cake” becomes an angel’s ministration. The metaphor of the bird in a cage is an effective one that both describes the condition of man and makes a bridge for understanding the ministrations of heaven.  It is, however, incongruent with the terminology that he uses to describe the food of this creature. The imagery for the food is all spiritual even though it includes the element of bread.  The bread is not recognizable and is not material and is therefore inconsistent with the image of the eater, the bird in the cage.  The bread takes on a surreal presence, too, in that it cries, “Eate me.”

Taylor’s intent to elevate the very elements of the supper comes in extravagant claims: that it “excels what Caesar had,” and that all the world’s food is just like “sawdust” in comparison with the food of the Bread of Life.  The bread of this table is taken out of its element and translated into a new spiritual emblem that causes earthly things and food to seem but dust.

In one sense, Taylor subverts the idea of symbol.  He is not reaching for a plurality as Karl Rahner explains symbol: “a plurality as intrinsic element of its significant unity”(Vol.4, 229), in other words, the symbol along with its fulfillment.  There is no unity of spirit and material in the bread and the wine.  For Taylor, there appears to be no significance to the bread or wine, other than that they are poor tokens to stand in for the spiritual food that is partaken of.  Rahner points out that in the theology of the symbol, it is “not something separate from the symbolized¼ the symbol is the reality, constituted by the thing symbolized as an inner moment of the moment itself, which reveals and proclaims the thing symbolized, and is itself full of the thing symbolized, being its concrete form of existence” (Vol. 4, 251).  This idea seems foreign to Taylor.  His bird in the cage will not be affected by a symbol, but only by an outside reality of heavenly bread that cannot be contained in the material bread of the Lord’s Supper. Here even the metaphor does not work, because the material characteristic of the bird is inconsistent with the spiritual characteristics of the heavenly food.

In his Meditation # 10 on John 6:55, Taylor contemplates the drink of heaven as something outside the confines of earth.  The concept of symbol does not work for this imagery either.  Even though it would be possible to think of the liquor and vessels and nectar that are used to describe the wine, Taylor does not allow his reader to meditate on the earthly character of these things. He describes the drink in surreal and heavenly language in that it is “liquour brew’d, thy Sparkling Art Divine/ Lord, in thy Chrystall Vessells,”  and  as “blesst Nectar Shining stand/ Lockt up with Saph’rine Taps” (142-3).  The drink is so far removed from the common grape that it has lost touch with this element.  The material is left far behind in these meditations and cannot be seen as touching the glories of the spiritual reality.  The bread and the wine are not the concrete form of the thing symbolized as Rahner says, nor can they be for Taylor in his ecstatic reveling in the spiritual.

According to Rahner, “the grace of God constitutes itself actively present in the sacraments by creating their expression, their historical tangibility in space and time” (Vol.4, 242).  For Taylor, the expression which God gives to the Lord’s Supper is quite outside the elements of the material.  The material space and time is dust for Taylor, and his concern is with spiritual realities that come about for him in the act of meditation.

On his Meditation on Isaiah 25:6, First Series, #11 (143), Taylor explains the key to the enjoyment of the heavenly food.  “Goe Fast and Pray,/ Untill thou hast an Appitite afresh” (145).  It is only by engaging in the spiritual discipline of the mind that Taylor can engage the heavenly meal.  He has little or no concern for the elements of the supper, only in the heavenly realities.  Hence, even the metaphorical element is weakened in Taylor’s verse.  Because he cannot bring himself to truly consider the common elements of bread and wine, and because he has been so careful in sequestering the spiritual experience to the heavenly realm, his verse is not grounded in the metaphor of bread and wine. Taylor’s struggle to make the Lord’s Supper a purely spiritual experience that transcends the material and relies on meditation as the fuel of its endeavor is explained by David Miller’s observation that, “Taylor struggles with the danger of creating too perfect a metaphor” (118).  This struggle manifests itself in his use of sublime language that elevates and distances the reader and the celebrator from the common bread and wine of the table.

In his Meditation on 1 Corinthians 10:16, Second Series, #III (412-13), Taylor frames the context of the blessed cup in terms of “Heavens all blissful flower, ¼Spirituall Liquour, ¼ Theandrick blood,¼ Graces Egg, ¼” and other such terms. It is very difficult to relate to the meal in terms of the material.  The symbol is not useful for Taylor, in that it does not and cannot contain the essence of the feast.  He writes, “It’s Spirituall Food that nourisheth spiritually/ The new born babe to thrive in using Faith. / The Soule it quiets: Conscience doth not sting./ It seales fresh pardon to the soul of sin” (413).  I doubt that Rahner would disagree about the role of Faith in the Lord’s Supper, but his concepts of symbol and sacrament are facilitators for this spiritual experience. However, Taylor is careful to over-emphasize the spiritual, while de-emphasizing the material, and that is telling of his fear of the popish tradition.  His partaking of the Lord’s Supper seems almost exclusively based on the mental and then spiritual assent of the reality of heavenly things.  His expression circumvents the real presence or the helpful presence of the spiritual in the material.  The concept of symbol that Rahner was so careful to explain, Taylor is careful to avoid.  His acknowledgement of the material bread and wine is cursory, not fundamental.

There is a sublime element in Taylor’s writings that inspires and urges one to seriously aspire to thinking in terms of spiritual realities, but there is also a missing note in contemplating the wonder of the Word made flesh, the presence of the Lord in common bread; then by extension in common flesh, our own.  The expansive realities of Taylor’s Lord’s Supper are valuable and important, but they lack the connection to the material.  It is by spiritual effort that man can enjoy the heavenly bread and the heavenly drink, in Taylor’s way of thinking.  This spiritual effort can be daunting and maybe even unattainable.  I prefer to think of the bread and wine as corporeal elements that become the presence of the things they signify (symbol) and manifest a reality that is helpful in comprehending the spiritual principle that is the power of the sacrament.  It is helpful to understand the symbol as signifier and essence bearer; then, the spiritual realities become more accessible.  Taylor’s way of thinking precludes this, and he saw danger in it.  Yet his heavenly reality is dependent in its own way upon the very images that he perceives as dust.  Without them the context for the metaphor becomes obscure, and the contact to the spiritual reality of the metaphor is lost.  For all the rhetoric of “heavenly bread, spiritual food, heavenly drink,” Taylor is still bound to the very thing he tries to transcend.

Works Cited

Brown, David and David Fuller Signs Of Grace: Sacraments In Poetry And Prose.

Harrisburg, PA: 1996.

Patterson, Daniel. Ed. Edward Taylor’s Gods determinations; and, Preparatory

meditations : a critical edition.  Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003

Pekarske, Daniel T. Abstracts of Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations 1-23.Vol 4.

Milwaukee [Wis.]: Marquette University Press, 2002.


3 Responses to “Edward Taylor: Symbol and Metaphor”

  1. […] We’ve just published Mary Marie Dixon’s new essay, Edward Taylor: Symbol and Metaphor. […]

  2. […] Marie Dixon reflects on Edward Taylor’s view of the Eucharist in this essay at LiturgicalCredo, an online literary journal and member of the Council of Literary Magazines and […]

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