Taylor uses an extended observation of a spider with first a wasp and then a fly to create a metaphor for our relationship to sin, hell, God, and grace.
Such an extended use of a single metaphor was not uncommon in 17th century preachers. Richard Sibbes was a master of hanging an entire sermon on a primary metaphor.
As a preaching technique, it is a useful means of permitting a hearer to keep track of the various elements of a sermon. However it must be used carefully lest the metaphor control the teaching or the relationship between metaphor and the doctrine becomes too cute.
Taylor’s use of the conceit apparently breaks form in the last stanza, because he turns to nightingales after speaking about flies. However rather than spoil the metaphor he actually illustrates a profound truth: When God frees us from the tangled web of sin, he does not merely free a fly, he makes something new: the fly becomes a bird; the Zombie (Eph.2:1-3) becomes a real human being:
the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Thus, Taylor’s shift to bird from insect drives home his point vividly. He also expresses the essential joy of the Christian life – which exists despite the concurrent pain of our trials. It is a paradoxical thing- but that is for another time.
Interesting how Taylor sets up his observation to metaphor movement in the first stanza with a question to sorrow. Sorrow of course has nothing to do with spider’s or flies-only men beset by sin and its effects.
UPON A SPIDER CATCHING A FLY
By Edward Taylor
Thou sorrow, venom Elfe:
Is this thy play,
To spin a web out of thyselfe
To Catch a Fly?
I saw a pettish wasp
Fall foule therein:
Whom yet thy Whorle pins did not clasp
Lest he should fling
But as affraid, remote
Didst stand hereat,
And with thy little fingers stroke
And gently tap
Thus gently him didst treate
Lest he should pet,
And in a froppish, aspish heate
Should greatly fret
Whereas the silly Fly,
Caught by its leg
Thou by the throate tookst hastily
And ‘hinde the head
This goes to pot, that not
Nature doth call.
Strive not above what strength hath got,
Lest in the brawle
This Frey seems thus to us.
Hells Spider gets
His intrails spun to whip Cords thus
And wove to nets
To tangle Adams race
To their Destructions, spoil’d, made base
By venom things,
But mighty, Gracious Lord
Thy Grace to breake the Cord, afford
Us Glorys Gate
We’l Nightingaile sing like
When pearcht on high
In Glories Cage, thy glory, bright,