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A milkwhite hand sets ‘t on a righteous head.

An hand unrighteousness cant’ dispose it nay

It’s not in such a hand. Such hands would bed                                         15

Black smuts on’t should they fingers on it lay.

Who can the crown of righteousness suppose

In an unrighteous hand for to dispose?


This stanza makes a simple point: The one who gives a crown of righteousness must himself be righteous. If someone unrighteous were to bear the crown, the crown itself would be damaged.

This is a principle of the Law of Moses. If something clean touches something unclean, they both become unclean:

Haggai 2:10–14 (AV )

10 In the four and twentieth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying, 11 Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying, 12 If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No. 13 Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean. 14 Then answered Haggai, and said,

            So is this people, and so is this nation before me, saith the Lord;

            And so is every work of their hands;

            And that which they offer there is unclean.

Such an idea would have been well-known by a Puritan pastor in the 17th Century.  It perhaps is interesting to observe that this rule did not apply to Jesus. When touched someone clean, they became clean:

Mark 1:40–42 (AV 1873)

40 And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. 41 And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. 42 And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.

The rhythm of this stanza is largely regular.

The most interest effectcomes in the second line of the stanza (line 14):

An hand unrighteousness cant’ dispose it nay

The more common construction is adjective –  noun.

Here are the examples in this poem

An unholy head

Inherent righteousness

Ripe fruit

Studded carbuncles

Righteous life

Milkwhite hand

Black smuts

The poem does contain the phrase: crown of righteousness, where a noun + of  + noun construction creates an adjectival use of the second noun. This is an effect borrowed from Hebrew. Paul uses it in his letter, and the structure has been brought over to the English translation which Taylor takes up.

But in line 14 we have construction: indefinite article + noun + adjective. The construction makes sense, but it is unusual. Perhaps Taylor only used for the force or meter:

an HAND unRIGHTeous versus  an unRIGHTeous HAND

But the result is to throw the concept of “unrighteous” to the foreground: the unworthiness of such  a hand is the point of the stanza. This phrase, by being put forth in an unusual manner makes that plain.