There is a human quality that seeks to examine the condition of the self within one’s constraints — be those literal or perceived — and hungers for inclusion in a higher society. For the African born former slave Olaudah Equiano, as described in his “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African”, the constraint he is navigating within is the literal bondage into which he is thrust after being ripped from his African homeland at eleven years old and sold into slavery. Equiano finds that the society he is brought into is at once both the oppressor and the path to freedom. From another perspective, the Puritan Edward Taylor finds his soul confined to a bodily “bird cage”- one with inadequacies he is thoroughly disgusted by, and it is the higher society of pure faith that he so humbly, yet vexingly wishes to be washed by (292). As each man struggles to interpret his “vile” and bound condition, a development of voice both compels each towards transcendence, while revealing the paradoxical nature of the human condition.
The contrast between Olaudah Equiano’s former life in Africa, where his father was a village leader, and his experience as a slave is made shockingly apparent as he describes the conditions that he and fellow slaves are subjected to. Reaching the African shore, Equiano is “tossed up” to the crew aboard a slaver-ship, where he witnesses “black people of every description chained together”, and later finds himself crammed below deck among them to suffer the “loathsomeness” of the suffocating “stench” (695). With exposure to the gates of a figurative hell manifested in the “boiling furnace” aboard the ship, which he imagines holds his fateful death, Equiano crosses a threshold from out of his “natural” state and into one keenly aware of a world beyond his former reality. As noted by Terry Bozeman, in “Interstices, Hybridity and Identity,” “The differences between the inhabitants of the world he is stolen from to the one he is being carried off to are so viscerally apparent that Equiano thinks that he has entered into a ‘world of bad spirits’, one for which he has not yet developed a vocabulary to describe” (63).
The constraining feeling of an inadequacy of language can often manifest into a deeper sense of deficiency, a sentiment expressed by the Puritan minister Edward Taylor in his numerous poems spanning the late 17th century and early 18th century of colonial America. Operating within a cultural society that valued piety and frowned upon any exertion of selfish identity, Taylor continually reflects on his lack of appropriate language as being insufficient for God’s grace, which he claims resides down “A Golden Path my pencil cannot line” in Meditation 8 (292). He goes on to describe his condition without the promise of said grace throughout his poetry, lamenting his station as a soul slave to the unclean body, one “vile, / Yea, all Defiled” and which he reduces to a “Lump of loathsomeness” in Meditation 26 (297). For Taylor, a life of sin, which is inherent to man’s possession of original sin, is as loathsome as the condition of a common slave, and Taylor’s prose struggles to adequately confess his “Leproused flesh”, and find a penance of sorts, calling upon God to “wash me” (297).
Endeavoring to surpass the “common slave” status, Equiano realizes that his only path to salvation is through embracing the ways of his masters and learning the language that will allow him to venture beyond his marginalized status. Thanks to the kindness shown by a few white men and women, Equiano becomes both literate and baptized and is therefore no longer dependent upon second-hand knowledge for his salvation. As he progresses through his learning journey, his various masters recognize his capabilities and grant him more status than what is entrusted to a “common slave”, as he terms the men who live only to labor. In some instances, he even experiences the happiness and love of friendship with free white men, something one would imagine incompatible with a state of slavery. He begins to develop a sense of self-worth through the English lens, relishing “their society and manners” (702). Equiano even comments that he “no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners” (702). Though this comment can seem disparaging towards his identity and people, Equiano views his instruction as moving him towards a superior status and further, by proving his faculty for such intellect- he thus negates the construct of an inherent inequality.
However, Equiano’s path to enlightened slave-hood presents him with an ironic dilemma; for his use of the English language both enables him to elevate above the common-slave status, while creating in him a dissatisfaction with his Master’s Machiavellians, bringing a criticism upon himself that reinforces his clear subjugation. Being aware of the injustice his former Master is contriving in selling him to another, Equiano proclaims that he was promised his freedom after having served for years under said master. The response he receives is counterintuitive to his aim, as he is told he “talks too much English”, suggesting unfitness to yet participate in such a communion as the English language, and making his enlightened-yet-bound state all the more bitter (705). If there is any truth to the idiom, “ignorance is bliss”, perhaps its truer complement is that awareness ignites a deeper sense of pain.
Similarly, Taylor finds a deeper pain in his contemplation of his soul’s predicament, as he tries to use language as a bridging altar to God, but must simultaneously uphold his subscription to Puritan society. Believing in God’s pre-determined “election” of those who will be saved, the puritan is not supposed to resort to the selfishness of making one’s own case before God, but rather admit to man’s depravity, thus heightening the miracle of God’s grace. Further, Taylor often calls into question the fitness of the common man’s soul for communion with God, speaking out against a neighboring church allowing those without public conversion admittance to communion. Wilson Brisett describes in “Edward Taylor’s Public Devotions”, that Taylor’s argument held “those who participated in communion without assurance of salvation ate and drank judgment upon themselves” (459). Such strict protocol for grace leaves one fascinated by Taylor’s propensity to venture into such metaphysical prose.
The soul is compelled to examine its statehood, and though Taylor’s faith calls for strict moderation in all things, Taylor is compelled to seek that holy language he claims is beyond his reach, superior to his faculties. Emily Whitmore succinctly notes in her short video lecture, that Edward Taylor’s poems aim to “deliver him into full consciousness of his own sinfulness”, as he paints the vile condition of sin and the inadequacy of such a state, and further that he wishes to transcend this, “trying to hoist himself via the scripture . . . raise himself out of his own sinfulness by lifting his eyes to God”. Indeed, Taylor’s vehicle for ascent is scripture and it is language that allows him to move between the body and the soul, temporarily escaping the body through the endeavors of prose. Both Taylor and Equiano attempt to move outside of their station to examine themselves within a bondage, and while Equiano’s is the literal bondage of the body within the Other’s white society, for Taylor, his bondage is of the soul housed within the body. This body, Taylor feminizes in “A Fig for Thee, Oh! Death”, as an attempt of distancing himself; he is separating his soul from the conceptual “Other” that is the flesh, prone to tempestuous ways. In this case, the flesh becomes associated with the female body- which he notes as the “strumpet” and “prostitute”, embodying all that is tempting- including the Eating and drinking that are evil joys (307). Partaking of the world is what drives decay within the world- yet the body is of the world and thus continually drawn towards it, creating the paradoxical relationship humanity has within one’s own self.
Taylor often further explores the paradox extending beyond the self, the concept that God offers grace to those who offend him and likewise those he afflicts. As the well-known late scholar of early American literature Sargant Bush explains in his entry “Paradox, Puritanism, and Taylor’s God’s Determinations”, man must simultaneously believe and fight Satan’s attacks on one’s confidence, realizing that he is “totally undeserving of mercy- yet saving grace is available to him nonetheless” (58). This undeserving nature is what reappears as metaphor in Taylor’s poetry, as he claims to lack worthy words of praise. Taylor extorts “My Hide-bound Soul that stands so niggardly / That scarce a thought gets glorified by’t / My Quaintest metaphors are ragged Stuff / Making the Sun seem like Mullipuff” in Meditation 22, going to address his prose as “besmear[ing]” God’s glory “with ink” (294). Brisett asserts that in other poems, including Meditation 34, “Taylor…. sets out a problem that is clearly connected to language, but also extends to his entire being” (462). Although Taylor is a white male with prominent status in his society as minister, his “being” seemingly privileged on account of such station, he is bound to a perhaps deeper distress in identifying the absolute necessity for salvation, yet coming to terms with his forbidden desire to achieve such salvation for himself, submitting utterly to God’s predetermination. Taylor must fight off both the temptations to assert the self and the attacks by Satan upon the Puritan, which cultivate the fear of not being one of the elect, as Daniel Patterson notes in his critical essay, outlining the Puritan’s relationship with Satan the taunting force, as a tool of God (Patterson).
Equiano, on the other hand, is faced with a more immediate bondage, one that he is physically forced to submit to, and thus more physically inclined to dissolve. He similarly determines that his freedom should come from God, but is met repeatedly with the metaphorical Satan, embodied by those white men who scorn and beat him down. Equiano notes to himself, “I thought that if it were God’s will I ever should be freed it would be so, and, on the contrary, if it was not his will it would not happen; so I hoped, if ever I were freed, whilst I was used well, it should be by honest mean”. Equiano finds himself working towards developing his talents, while also accepting God’s hand as the ultimate wielder of his destiny. In such a way, both Equiano and Taylor submit to a higher authority, while entertaining the temptation for personal industry- cultivating soul or stock.
While Taylor’s industry for self-preservation theoretically leads him contrary to God’s grace, Equiano’s industry within white society is his path to physical liberty. A captain noticing Equiano’s talents entreats Equiano’s final and kindest master, a Quaker merchant, to allow him to rent Equiano’s labor. The Quaker merchant gives Equiano the choice to go work part-time aboard the Captain’s ship and Equiano accepts happily, enumerating his reasons as that “I might in time stand some chance by being on board to get a little money, or possibly make my escape if I should be used ill: I also expected to get better food, and in greater abundance; for I had felt much hunger oftentimes” (710). Equiano has found a way to work towards his freedom from within the system- rather than escape while being “used well”- treated kindly, or resort to stealing, he begins to buy and sell goods from port to port in hopes of purchasing his freedom through his works. He prides himself on following God’s plan for his freedom through “honest” means. Ironically, however, his honest obedient work aboard the Captain’s ship is at the cost of other slaves’ freedom- for much of the time the ship’s cargo is in fact other Africans. Thus, Equiano’s definition of following the rules, which indeed prove his ability to be a good “citizen”, are conceived within the constructed system he has been instructed by. He is elevating himself within white society, but such elevation does not equate to true freedom. In a bitter realization, one can see the underlying corruption with which industry is in some cases pregnant, serving as the antithesis to a perhaps more profound liberty, at least according to voices such as Taylor’zs.
Equiano sees himself as the humble subject of God’s providence, and believes himself to be working towards his salvation honestly, but his definition of honest work has become intertwined with the white society’s industry. Thus, he is at once proving his equally human capacity for salvation and for sin, and reveals the paradoxical relationship between the two, echoing the tension between Taylor’s piety and self-determination. By attempting to secure his own freedom through works, the Puritan ideology of Taylor, which defines works as compulsively attached to selfish preservation, is illustrated, for Equiano’s obedient works participating in the slave trade in order to secure personal liberty, are selfish. However, one can argue that Equiano had very little choice but to submit to working in the slave trade, if he wished to preserve himself. Such participation may have been the only way he could ultimately secure the position of influence he eventually exerts in the abolitionist movement — through his liberated writing — thus making a greater impact. Sometimes good movements are built upon humanity’s bondages in one form or another, and the bondage to the flesh allows for a development of the soul. One’s afflictions ultimately bring one closer to God’s bosom, as Taylor proposes- to “succour” Christ, and an ultimate submission to providence (299). Thus, not only is Equiano’s struggle towards freedom revealing a seemingly flawed human system that requires his participation in antithetical slavery, but perhaps the further paradox of the “greater good” emerges. This paradox harkens the classical belief in a simultaneously anti-God (or anti-righteous) character of Satan, and God’s deliberate use of Satan, to bring forth justice and finally mercy to Christians- an idea explored in depth and seemingly relished by Taylor within his work “Gods Determinations”. Ultimately, the struggle without ever pure consolidation in the physical- or the ever “hungering”- is of purpose, for as Bush puts it, “if man is to continue to hunger after righteousness, his hunger must not be satisfied” (59). In such a way, the men ever seeking that simultaneous justice and mercy, the “Bread of life” Taylor describes, have only one means for growth beyond their station, and that is their respective voices (293).
Interestingly, the language developed by the two voices reveals their underlying politics in light of their social contexts. Taylor, whom has no further human station to rise to, having been born as a white male within white patriarchal society, employs language that can utterly damn him- highlighting his inadequacies without restraint. He has nothing to prove to his fellow man, and is thus free to thoroughly explore and speak to his inner convictions. Conversely, Equiano’s prose aims to make the case for himself within a society that still prerequisites proof of his worthiness. Every shortcoming that he may admit to is shown only to demonstrate his ability to overcome- to learn, to assimilate. While assimilating, he is thus rebelling- revealing his equal faculties and the transgression of any inhumane treatments towards him. Both men seek to reveal sin, but it is whose sins they are revealing that demonstrate the status from which their voice rings.
Each man’s bondage sparked a voice bringing him towards transcendence. While sin de-sanctifies the soul, and the slave trade dehumanizes the man, the only vehicle beyond the marginalized bondage becomes a simultaneously pious and industrious literacy. Equiano’s paradox in both seeking liberty by honest means, while determining to “behave” as a perceived symbol of his deservingness for providential freedom, gives rise to an interesting interplay of reverence and rebellion, implied by his transcendence. Equiano both praises society for its intellect, while forcing it to acknowledge the intellectual depth and equality of the speaker himself. Seeking to transcend his station as a mere body alone, Taylor’s pious literary expedition reveals the tension between recognizing the needed justice upon bodily sin, and mercy upon the (hopefully) be-graced soul it houses. Ever driven to separate the two, his industry in this endeavor is at once the force that reminds him of his inadequacy and his selfish desire for grace. He thus uses a language ripe with praise for God and self-depreciation in order to reduce the ego. Taylor, as a voice prominent in society, works to reduce himself, while Equiano, a voice marginalized by society, works to grow himself, both in a desire to transcend bondage through providence. The perspectives from which people operate are intimately tied to our condition within society, and though our endeavors may be unto the same design, our trails become uniquely our own. Within this personal narrative however, we find the ever-present human quality that is determined to journey on.
Bozeman, Terry S. “Interstices, Hybridity and Identity: Olaudah Equiano and the Discourse of the African Slave Trade” Studies in the Literary Imagination. (2003): 61-70.
Brissett, Wilson. “Edward Taylor’s Public Devotions.” Early American Literature 44.3 (2009): 457-487. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 June 2015.
Bush, Sargent. “Paradox, Puritanism, and Taylor’s “God’s Determinations”. Early American Literature Vol. 4, No. 3, University of North Carolina Press, 1970. 48-66.
Equiano, Olaudah. “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Eds. Nina Baym et al. Vol. A. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 688-721. Print.
Patterson, Daniel. “Edward Taylor’s Gods Determinations and Preparatory Meditations.” Kent State University Press (2003).
Taylor, Edward. “Meditation 8”. “Meditation 22”. “Meditation 26”. “The Soul’s Groan to Christ for Succour”. “A Fig for Thee, Oh! Death”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Eds. Nina Baym et al. Vol. A. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 290-307. Print.
Whitmore, Emily. “Edward Taylor Lecture.” (2014). Film.