Death tamed, subdued, washed fair by thee! Oh grace!
Made useful thus! Thou unto thine dost say
Now Death is yours, and all it doth in’t brace.
The grave’s a down bed now made for your clay.
Oh! Happiness! How should our bells hereby 35
Ring changes, Lord, and praises trust with joy.
Summary: First there is a prayer and thanksgiving to God for death having been vanquished and turned into an agent of good. Second, there is an explication and exhortation to the reader, made by God to us, which tracks the logic of the motto 1 Cor. 3.22, “death is yours.” The explication is that death is no longer a danger but now a good. Third, Taylor speaks in his own voice, calling the reader to praise with him. Therefore, you (like me) should be praising God for this transformation.
Death tamed: Death has been brought to heel. There is a reading of Job in which Leviathan and the Behemoth are Satan and the Death. Death, rather than a dangerous beast which can act on its own, has now been “tamed”. The idea of death as a monster was already present, for instance in Paradise Lost, Satan comes upon Sin and her offspring death at the gates to Hell:
Before the gates there sat
On either side a formidable shape.
The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold,
Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
With mortal sting. About her middle round
A cry of Hell-hounds never-ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal; yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there; yet there still barked and howled
The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either, black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful dart: what seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
I have not been able to find a specific instance of death being said to be “tamed” in any contemporary literature. The image is quite striking.
washed fair by thee! The first two lines of this stanza are directed to the Lord who has washed Death and left it now attractive.
Thou unto thine dost say/ Now Death is yours The poet continues as the speaker, but here he changes to second person: The Lord says to us “Death is yours.” But the line is written as repetition of what he has heard. Speaking to the Lord, he says, “[Lord] thou dost say.” In this, Taylor is writing prophetically, proclaiming the word of God to the reader. This is interesting how the Puritans used the concept of prophecy and applied it to preaching: I am proclaiming the revelation of God.
and all it doth in’t brace. Everything included in death, all that it embraces (is yours).
The grave’s a down bed now made for your clay. Death is referenced as a “sleep” for believers. Thus, Paul writing to the Corinthians in chapter 15, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Your clay, you mortal body.
Oh! Happiness! How should our bells hereby
At first, it is unclear who says “Happiness”, but use of “our” in the next clause identifies the speaker as Taylor to the reader: you and I should ring “our bells” for happiness.
The most interesting rhythm is in the first line of the stanza
Death tamed, subdued, washed fair by thee!
DEATH TAMED SUBdued WASHED fair
Say I am thine, my Lord: Make me thy bell
To ring thy praise. Then death is mine indeed
A hift to grace, a spur to duty; spell 40
To fear; a frost to nip each naughty weed
A golden door to glory. Oh I’ll sing
This triumph o’er the grave! Death where’s thy sting.
Summary: The poet ends with a conditional praise: It is conditional, because it depends upon the work of the Lord as to Taylor “Say I am thine”, if this is true, then death is a blessing to me. He then prays for the existence of the poem, “Make me thy bell”: cause me to be able to praise you for the transformation of death. He then lays out benefits of death. It is ends with a song of triumph over death.
Say I am thine, my Lord The first petition of the prayer. There is no condition in Taylor upon which to ground this petition. For instance, if you read the opening prayer in the Iliad, the priest to Apollo lays out what he has done for Apollo and then asks for Apollo to return the effort. Here, Taylor posits no grounds to be made the Lord’s.
Make me thy bell: In the sixth stanza, he calls upon the reader to ring his bell. Here, he calls upon God to make him a bell, to sing praise. As Peter writes, the end of salvation is praise of God, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
Then death is mine indeed: He affirms the offer of death and then proceeds to spell out how death is a benefit:
A hift to grace: “hift” is obscure. Perhaps a “help” or “gift”. The sense is clear, it is a benefit to grace.
a spur to duty: This could be, since I will not live long, I should work hard. But I think the better understanding comes from 1 Cor. 15 and the long discussion of the sureness of the resurrection for believers. Having said that death has been overcome, Paul then uses this as a basis for work: it will not be lost, “1 Corinthians 15:58 (AV)
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”
“If we had such a persuasion of this, we could not be so cold and careless in duty, and so bold in sin; but we have a wavering trembling assent, and some imperfect opinions about the things of God, and. not a full persuasion: 1 Cor. 15:58, ‘Therefore be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as you know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.’ If we did once know and were persuaded of this, if we had an evidence of things to come, and things unseen, we would be more steadfast and unmovable in the work of the Lord. If our expectations were greater, our observation of God would be greater, the business of eternal life would not be so neglected; conscience would not be so sleepy, nor should we venture upon sin so often as we do; this would put life into every exhortation you hear and read. Alas! we press and exhort day after day; it works not, why? because it is not ‘mingled with faith in them that hear it,’ Heb. 4:2. What earnest affections of soul would there be towards God and heavenly things if we did truly believe these things.” Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 13 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1873), 370–371.
“Since your labor, says he, is not in vain in the Lord, be steadfast, and abound in good works. Now he says that their labor is not in vain, for this reason, that there is a reward laid up for them with God. This is that exclusive hope which, in the first instance, encourages believers, and afterwards sustains them, so that they do not stop short in the race. Hence he exhorts them to remain steadfast, because they rest on a firm foundation, as they know that a better life is prepared for them in heaven.” John Calvin, 1 Corinthians, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), 1 Co 15:58.
Spell/ to fear: All fears ultimately rest upon the fear of death. Since death has been quelled, the basis for fear is dispelled. A spell, it means to ward off fear.
a frost to nip each naughty weed: Recalling that all things will be brought into judgment (1 Cor. 3:13) And, grace, as Barth will write centuries after Taylor, tears up sin by the roots. It is his kindness that leads us to repentance. Rom. 2:4.
A golden door to glory. Rather than leading us to death, death leads us to glory.
Oh I’ll sing
This triumph o’er the grave! Death where’s thy sting.
This first is a near quotation to 1 Cor. 15:54-57, “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”