And still thou by the gracious chemistry
Dost of his carcass cordials make rich, high, 20
To free from Death makest death a remedy:
A curb to sin, a spur to piety.
Heaven’s brightsome light shines out in Death’s dark cave.
The golden door of glory is the grave.
Summary: The body of Christ is made into a medicine. Death itself is transformed into a good thing: rather than being a final tomb, it is a golden door to glory.
Taylor’s concepts and imagery are quite consistent and easy to find in his contemporaries. Indeed, the contemporaries provide excellent comment on his meaning in these short lines.
Thou …his: The poet seems to be directly addressing God. The first line of the poem is addressed to “Lord.” But here there is a distinction being made between God and Christ. This is the place where Christian theology can become extraordinarily stretching. God is tri-personal, a tri-unity. Christ is God and man: two natures, one person. Thus, God who cannot die and man who must die meet in an extraordinary manner.
Gracious chemistry: the concept of alchemy and chemistry are not necessarily well-distinguished at this time. A fundamental goal of alchemy was the transmutation of lead to gold. Here, God performs a transmutation of turning death into a means of life. There are two transformations: the carcass of Christ is made into a “cordial”, i.e., a medicine. Second, death is made into a “remedy”.
To free from Death: Death is referred to as a sovereign:
For death (in which the Bridegroom first cometh to us) is, in itself, “the king of terrors:” other afflictions—as poverty, reproach, imprisonment, debt, exile, sickness, &c.—are inferior fears, which possibly may be escaped, and out of which there is oftentimes deliverance; but death is the sovereign lord and king of all of them, from whence there is no return. He that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more, but passeth presently unto the highest tribunal, there to receive the eternal judgment, whether of absolution or of condemnation.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 684–685. This has it basis in Hebrews 2:14-15 and in Romans 5:14, “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses.” Thomas Boston has a striking use of this concept:
Death reigns among them. See where they sit, Matth. 4:16. ‘In the region and shadow of death.’ The whole society are a parcel of condemned criminals, John 3:18 that know not how soon the sentence shall be executed upon them; their father the devil ready to be the executioner; they are all in a dying condition, their souls have got their death’s wounds, and they are pining away in their iniquity, while in the meantime their eyes are held that they cannot see the preciousness of the Physician. Nay, they are dead already in a spiritual sense; God, the life of the soul, is departed far from them. O! why will ye stay in the congregation of the dead? Come out from among them to the Lord of life.
Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 650.
makest death a remedy: Now rather than being a means of condemnation and loss of God, death has been transformed into a means of good. Taylor names three:
A curb to sin, Thomas Boston explicates this concept:
Consider ye must die: Heb. 9:27, “It is appointed unto men once to die.” Death is certain, and therefore repentance is necessary. O if men would realize death to themselves, sinners would soon find it necessary to turn a new leaf. One hearing Gen. 5. read in the church, was so impressed with the thoughts of death, that he presently betook himself to a new course of life, that he might die well. We must all meet with death, lie down in the grave; let us view it aforehand, and see how it calls us to repent. Look to thy dying hour, and to thy grave, O impenitent sinner, and consider these few things.
- Wouldst thou be content to die as thou livest? Thou livest in thy sin, without God; wouldst thou desire to die so? Many indeed entertain Balaam’s wish, for the death of the righteous, while they care not for their life, Num. 23:10, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” But remember he did not get it, chap. 31:8, “Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” And while death is so uncertain, it is the hanging of an eternal weight on a hair, to look to get matters mended then, that are not mended now.
- Consider, what will a sinful life look like on a death-bed? How will ye be able to look your unrepented-of guilt, and a long eternity in the face together? Ezek. 22:14, “Can thine heart endure, or can thine hands be strong in the days that I shall deal with thee? I the Lord have spoken it, and will do it.” Sin sits easy now on a sleepy conscience, while health and strength lasts, and death appears not. But when death stares thee in the face, and the awakened conscience flies upon thee, it will cut thee to the heart, that thou hast not repented before.
- What will it be to die, and go to another world with a load of unrepented-of guilt on thy back? Look to your grave aforehand; think with yourselves, how will it be to lie down there with your bones full of your iniquity? Is it not best now, to shake off and east away your transgressions, as knowing that however ye may live with them, ye cannot die with them well.
- At a dying hour ye must part with the world, and the enjoyment of your lusts. The foul feast ye sit at now, death will overthrow the table, and the sad reckoning for it comes in then, and continues for ever. O rise up now, and leave it by repentance. Part with these things at God’s call, which ye must part with ere long, whether ye will or not.
Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Sermons and Discourses on Several Important Subjects in Divinity, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 6 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 434–435.
a spur to piety. Richard Baxter wrote an entire book on the subject published by Banner of Truth as Dying Thoughts. Just as the thought of death drives one to repentance, contemplating death teaches us to prepare for another world. Thomas Brooks (referencing also the King of Terrors):
Look, as a crucified Christ hath taken away the guilt of sin, though he hath not taken away sin itself, so he hath taken away the sting of death, though he hath not taken away death itself. He spake excellently that said, ‘That is not death, but life, which joins the dying man to Christ; and that is not life, but death, which separates the living man from Christ.’5 Austin longed to die, that he might see that head that was crowned with thorns. ‘Did Christ die for me,’ saith one, ‘that I might live with him? I will not, therefore, desire to live long from him.’ All men go willingly to see him whom they love, and shall I be unwilling to die that I may see him whom my soul loves? Bernard would have us never to let go out of our minds the thoughts of a crucified Christ. Let these, says he, be meat and drink unto you, let them be your sweetness and consolation, your honey and your desire, your reading and your meditation, your contemplation, your life, death, and resurrection. Certainly he that shall live up to this counsel will look upon the king of terrors as the king of desires.
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 215.
The golden door of glory is the grave. Thomas Brooks uses quite similar imagery. As he explains:
Eighteenth place, Death is nothing but the believer’s inlet into glory. Death is the gate of life, it is the gate of paradise; it is the midwife to bring eternity to bed. When Jacob saw the chariots that were to bring him to Joseph, his spirit revived, Gen. 45:27. Ah, Christian! death is that chariot that will bring thee not only to a sight of Jacob and Joseph, but also to a blessed sight of God, Christ, angels and ‘the spirits of just men made perfect, Heb. 12:23, 24. Here we meet with many inlets to sin, to sorrow, to affliction, to temptation; but death, of all inlets, is the most happy inlet; it lets the soul into a full fruition of God, to the perfection of grace, and to the heights of glory; and why, then, should a gracious soul be unwilling to die?
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 461–462.