Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

6
Edward Taylor and Isaac Watts

I am very well aware of, and I appreciate very much, the charming anomaly by which, to inaugurate this series of essays to commemorate the Bicentary, the sponsors have invited me, who am not a citizen of the Republic but a subject of Queen Elizabeth. And I'm the more anxious to explain why I've chosen to write of the American poet Edward Taylor not in isolation but in company with his British contemporary, Isaac Watts. My intention is not in the least to minimize Taylor's American-ness; on the contrary I hope to emphasize it and define it, by showing how different the American is from the Englishman, despite the many things that these two had in common — not least, the fact that Edward Taylor passed the first twenty-five years of his life in his native England.

I am not without precedent in this. In particular, my colleague Albert Gelpi, in his book last year, The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet, introduced the name of Isaac Watts into his discussion of Taylor, being I believe the first historian to do so; and most of what I have to say can be regarded as the teasing out of implications that are pregnantly hinted at by Professor Gelpi, to whom accordingly I am much beholden. And indeed I can appeal further back, to twenty-six years ago, when Louis Martz wrote his Foreword to that splendid monument of American literary scholarship, Donald Stanford's edition of The Poems of Edward Taylor. For Professor Martz there and then hazarded the observation that 'poetry with Taylor's peculiar quality could not, I think, have been written at all in England, even by Taylor himself.' I am sure that Louis Martz was right; and insofar as such propositions can be proven, I hope to prove him right. It's with just that end in view that I propose to approach Taylor by way of Watts, a poet of equal seriousness, equally gifted, very similarly placed as regards doctrinal principle and political circumstance, whose poems however are as different as can be conceived from the poems that Taylor was writing at just the same time on the other side of the Atlantic.

Martz's testimony is particularly valuable because of course it was he, the learned author of The Poetry of Meditation, who defined conclusively Taylor's relationship with his English predecessors:

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