A Fig for Thee, Oh! Death
Though the poem’s title, A Fig for Thee, Oh! Death, suggests that the subject matter will be primarily focused on the topic of death, another, different meaning can perhaps be derived from the way Taylor approaches the subject matter. By avowing again and again his lack of resistance to save his body, his life, from Death, for his soul is protected by God, Taylor draws attention to the disparity between body and soul and perhaps tries to reconcile the vast gap between the two.
From the beginning Taylor brings up the two sides which makes up man, the soul and the body, the ‘kernel’ and the ‘nut’ (14). Death is personified as a ghastly carnivorous monster, characterized by "Ghastly eyes, with Butter teeth, bare bones... Grizzly hide, and clawing Talons fell." (1). Its attempts to crack open the frail shell of the human body, "Thy blows do break its shell, Thy Teeth its Nut..." (14), do not frighten the speaker. The soul is protected by the Almighty, "Its Heavenly kernel’s box abides most safe." (12) Indeed, the speaker within the poem seems almost eager to give up the body, comparing the body to that of a hedonist, a temptress, "My Body, my vile harlot... laboring to drown me into Sin’s disguise." (25) Thus the focus of the poem shifts from the contemplation of Death, to the body which is more a liability than anything else.
Death is now a savior, something to defeat the evil with. “Hence for my strumpet I’ll ne’er draw my Sword . . . but let thy frozen grips take her Captive . . . and grind to powder in they Mill the grave.” (29) Death, instead of the frightening visage of monster and destroyer, is a welcome entity, something to destroy the temptation and wiles of the body. The body is the only thing keeping the speaker from Heaven, from attaining grace. Once Death has disposed of the body and Judgment day arrives, “Till she hath slept out quite her fatal Sleep. When the last Cock shall Crow the Last Day in...” (36), the imprisoned and destroyed, and ultimately imperfect, body will rise along with the soul to ascend to heaven. “The Soul and Body now, as two true lovers...And going hand in hand thus through the skies Up to Eternal glory glorious rise.” (47)
Death has shifted from monster who would crack open a human body, to a welcome distraction from the temptations that “she”, the body, offers, to a necessary component in achieving the grace that people crave. Yet, at the last lines, Death is once more transformed, or rather the point of view of the narrator changes. “Is this the Worst thy terror then canst, why then should this grimace at me terrify?” (51), where the speaker addresses Death directly, admonishing it for being so slow in killing the flesh, keeping the speaker from rising to the heavens.
The transformation from Death as a horrific vision to a desirable being lays focus to the body. Instead of lamenting the body, and thus the soul, for being weak and sinful, the body itself is a separate entity from the individual. It is now a ‘she’, the devil in disguise bent on indulging in pleasures of the flesh, “Laboring to drown me into Sin’s disguise By Eating and by drinking, such evil joys...”(25) Eventually the body’s demise at the hands of Death, the scenes almost reminiscent of an ‘epic’ adventure story where the villain is slain by the hero, allows the soul to go free and join the pure and more ‘refined’ body which awaits in heaven after passing judgment (40). Taylor reasons that the ‘shell’ on Earth is an imperfect one anyway, the real body awaits in heaven for the soul. Only by giving up the body and the deformities it harbors, can the individual be saved. In the same way, the soul is left to the care of Heaven (12).
In this way. Taylor resolves the conflict of the body and soul, how the body can offer so many temptations yet still allow the individual to ascend to heaven. There is almost a parallel between the way Taylor sets up the poem and the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus dies on the cross for the sins and faults of the people on Earth; his body is taken away; his soul ascends to heaven. He is resurrected three days later. Taylor seems to suggest that in the same way, a human must accept Death and giving up one’s soul to Heaven, one’s body to Death, and eventually reuniting the two in Heaven, this time without the faults which existed on Earth.