Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II and was sentenced to a year in prison. While teaching at Harvard from 1963 until his sudden death at the age of 60 in 1977, he was active in the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War (“Poets”).
The poem “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” a found poem, was first published in the Lowell’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946). Although a footnote in the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry explains that Lowell used text from famous 18th century preacher Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1001), further scrutiny and comparison will show that Lowell’s poem was constructed from different sources contradictory to conventional belief.
Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan theologian and philosopher of British American Puritanism, was one of the forerunners of the age of Protestant missionary expansion in the 19th century (“Edwards”). He was known for his “fire and brimstone” sermons and his leadership in the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement in North America from the 1720’s to the 1740’s.
As mentioned earlier, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” is a found poem since most of the material used is from a different source, as seen in the comparison chart on pages 6 – 8 of this analysis paper. There are some profound stylistic rearrangements that would classify it as a “treated,” as opposed to “untreated,” example.
The poem, written in the first person, begins with the speaker using visual imagery to describe how he saw spiders “swimming from tree to tree,” (line 2) and how they marched through the air one autumn day. The descriptions lend a sense of weightlessness to the spider and this is coupled with the alliteration in “tree to tree” that emphasizes the movement.
Geographic placement, relying only on the information in the poem, would narrow the location down to the New England region on the east coast of North America where the prevailing wind is “westerly.” Also, the line “Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea” (line 9) refers to the fact that in New England, both the sunrise and the ocean and to the east.
The text for the poem’s first stanza is mainly taken from a letter (“Of Insects”) written by Jonathan Edwards to Judge Paul Dudley in 1723. In this letter, Edwards recorded his observations and ruminations about these creatures, noting their “shining webs and glistening strings” that fascinated him.
The first stanza ends with a semi-colon, rather than a full stop, to merge the material from the letter “Of Insects” with the second stanza that primarily draws from Edwards’ Ezekiel 22:14 sermon.
In the second stanza, Lowell takes lines from the Edwards’ sermon based on the biblical passage Ezekiel 22:14, “Can thine heart endure, or can thine hands be strong in the days that I shall deal with thee? I the Lord save spoken it, and will do it.” Edwards used the pulpit to revive the congregation’s fear of the inevitability of torment in the eternal fires of hell as a repercussion for unorthodox and sinful lifestyles. He compares sinners to insects that are dangled over a fire, vulnerable to the flames.
The second stanza begins with Edwards’ line, “What are we in the hands of the great...