Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Edward Taylor: “My Stock is stunted”
January 4, 2013
By Aaron Belz
How many recessions has our country endured? According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. has experienced dozens of significant, months-to-years-long “business cycle contractions,” the largest in the past century being the Great Depression (and its aftershock in 1937-38), the Recession of 1945 (post-WWII) and what is now being called the Great Recession (2007-2009). This last one, we all know, resulted from subprime mortgage lending practices and the housing bubble they helped to create. Just days ago, we were about to careen off a “fiscal cliff” à la Thelma & Louise. Although the inevitable was to some extent avoided, perhaps our feelings still resonate with Louise’s: “We're not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.”
But if our story is to have a less romantic ending, we must heed plot clues in its preface. Our nation was born, after all, in hardship (see the Roanoke Colony). At the time we were English, our ability to endure was based on English and Christian convictions. We had no sense of what it meant to be American.
In 1693, before the U.S. economy even existed, Puritan pastor and poet Edward Taylor wrote, “My Gracious Lord, I would thee glory doe: / But finde my Garden over grown with weeds: / My Soile is sandy; brambles o’re it grow; / My stock is stunted; branch no good fruit breeds.” The poet is describing a personal problem—a moral and spiritual one, probably. The play on the word “stock” is my own, but we echo Taylor’s concern.
Many of Taylor’s poems, including his first blueprints for American life, rely on the garden metaphor. “A Garden, yea a paradise indeed” was how he described his hometown of Westfield, Mass., in 1708—“Of all Delightfull Beauteous flowers and sweet.” Seeing the New World’s “spangled Flowers bepinckt” Taylor acknowledged that only God himself could “with [his] Choice Spirits Gales” make “all Plants of Grace gust out like spice.” Taylor wanted blessing, in a material sense. He wanted to be rich both in this world and in his soul, of which he said to God, “When thou comest in, My Garden flowers will smile / And blossom Aromatick Praise the while.”
His best poems, though, are about blight. In my opinion the most poignant is “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” in which he compares his marriage to a “Curious Knot” out of which “a manly flower out brake”—a baby boy is born. Then another is born. When arrives the “unlookt for, Dolesome, darksome hour” of a son’s death, Taylor acknowledges God’s sovereignty. When one of his daughters dies, “Griefe o’er doth flow,” yet he commits this, too, to God’s providence and concludes: “In joy, may I sweet Flowers for Glory breed, / Whether thou getst them green, or lets them seed.” The Taylors ended up losing five out of their eight children.
The garden metaphor was hugely popular among Metaphysical poets, of which Taylor was but one, and among Puritans such as John Owen (Mortification of Sin, 1656). It continues through the United States’ founding, nineteenth century utopianism and right up to the present day (see Leo Marx’s Machine in The Garden, 1964). Thomas Jefferson, though he abandoned Puritanism for a more generic form of deism, saw the garden as essentially democratic, representing the individual against the outside interest of federal government. He saw it as essentially American, representing the colonists’ rights against British control. He considered each person’s right to cultivate his own garden as “self-evident.” But somewhere along the way the corollary metaphors of pruning and blight were lost.
It is not necessary for us to zoom over “fiscal cliffs,” now or in the future, with a sense that hardship, debt and recession are merely economic or material realities. When we find that our “stock is stunted,” we can, with Taylor, consider our nation a garden, a blessing, but one that expands and contracts at the hands of a more skilled gardener. We can pray the words of Taylor’s most famous poem, “Huswifery,” which begins, “Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete.” That is to say, make us productive—and remind us that we are not our own.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”