If I were an avid smoker of marijuana, I’d be familiar with the plant species Cannabis sativa, which, when processed correctly, would be my steadfast companion on occasions of indulgence.
If, on the other hand, I were a practitioner or lover of erotic roleplaying involving bondage, I might be aware of the plant as I grabbed a hemp rope to the delight of my consensual partner.
And, if I were a farmer, I would probably know that Cannabis sativa could be responsible for insulating my barn and feeding my animals, fueling my tractor and providing a warm bed for the horses.
However, in the unlikely event that I were a seventeenth century poet, I might collect as much of it as I could, make myself a boat, and launch into the water with absolute confidence that I'd row successfully to my destination.
At least that’s what John Taylor did, in 1620, with his trusty second mate, Roger Bird.
Born in 1578 in Gloucester, and of unknown parentage, the ‘Kings Water-Poet’, the moniker he crowned himself with after serving with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex on the 1596 expedition to Cadiz, took up residence in London and became a ferryman on the Thames.
‘Watermen’ were a hardened bunch, and his choice of occupation was known for its prevalence of insobriety, gossipmongery, untruths and cheating, and as such were often the brunt of the literary illuminati’s sharpened quill.
With many of London's theatres situated on the riverbank, and the overcrowded and smelly London Bridge, with its pickpockets and cutpurses, a path not lightly chosen, Taylor would inevitably ferry writers, actors, and playwrights across the Thames on a daily basis, and may have heard directly from the mouths of William Shakespeare (the playwright of dubious existence), Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, or John Lyly, just how lowly his peers were regarded.
It was about this time, annoyed by how he and his fellow watermen were talked about and demeaned, that he began writing, including one poem were particularly concerned with here, ‘The Praise of Hemp-Seed’, which gives some indication as to his passions for the material that he used to build his boat.
I feel that Taylor is probably best placed to lead us through this expedition, in which he ventured to Queenborough, a small town on the Isle of Sheppey (or, sheep, originally), in his own words, which appear toward the end of his paper-celebrating work.
“I therefore to conclude this much will note
How I of paper lately made a Boat,
And how in forme of Paper I did row,
From London unto Quinborough Ile show.”
Taylor appears to have taken up this, and other challenges, as a result of being thoroughly hacked off with his employment prospects. After Mary, Queen of Scots' son James VI and I (because if you’re a king you’re allowed to confuse people) took the reins as monarch and ruled through what we now call the Jacobean era, the number of watermen increased hugely (by about one-thousand every year), while fares had stayed the same for over fifty years, and theatres began relocating to the north bank from the south.
Angered by this triangulation of assaults on his ability to make ends meet, Taylor petitioned the King for some sort of official license to limit the competition. He, like Uber four hundred or so years later, had no luck, or even a response from the Scottish Solomon.
So, he decided to buck the system, by writing and initiating bizarre challenges for which he begged subscriptions, rather like a charity run, but far more interesting.
Which is why we find him sailing the Thames in a vessel made of brown hemp paper.
“I and a Vintner (Roger Bird by name)
(And a man whom Fortune never yet could tame)
Tooke shipe upon the vigil of Saint Iames
And boldly ventur’d downe the River Thames
Laving and cutting through each raging billow,
(In such a Boat which never had a fellow)
Having no kinds of metal or no wood
To help us eyther in our Ebbe or Flood.”
This wasn’t his first inventive adventure. He'd undertaken several, like ‘The Pennylesse Pilgrimage’, when he made his way from London to Edinburgh and back again ‘neither by borrowing nor stealing on the journey’, or spending a single penny, and for which he collected over sixteen-hundred subscribers.
On completion of each adventure, Taylor would compile in a pamphlet the story of the journey, arguably producing some of the earliest English travel writing, as a way to prove he’d completed the challenge, as he did in the catchily-titled ‘The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Magesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edinburgh in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging.’
Whether the promises to pay he'd collected were made over a cup of beer or a tankard of ale or, one suspects in most cases, both and many, few paid up on his return to London. And so, with quill in hand, the water poet wrote and handed out a pamphlet in which he lampooned those who refused to honor their pledge, and suggested he would “name, ‘satirise, cauterise, and stigmatise all the whole kennel of curs” who continued in this undignified vein.
He called it ‘A Kicksey Winsey, or, A Lerry Come-Twang,’ and many coughed up the sixpence.
Unlike the Pennylesse Pilgrimage, which floundered only at the subscription-collecting stage, the paper boat journey hit a rough patch fairly quickly into the voyage, “twixt Essex, Calves and Sheepe of Kent”.
“The water to the Paper being got,
In one halfe houre our boat began to rot:
The Thames (most lib’rall) fild her to the halves,
Whilst Hodge and I sate liquoured to the calves”
Such we fear’d the graves our end would be
Before we could the Towne of Gravesend see:
Our boat drunke deeply with her dropsie thirst,
and quaft as if she would her bladders burst.”
It does appear that a third man, Hodge, may have been onboard also, and that might be why Taylor tied eight inflated bullock's bladders to the craft for additional (some might say any) buoyancy.
No word is given as to who blew them up, but Taylor certainly had enough hot air for the task.
In 1614, in one of the Hope Theatres first ‘performances’, Taylor challenged Wilhelmus Vener, anglicized to William Fennor, known later for his roles at the neighboring Swan Theatre in plays like Benjamin Jonson’s ‘Masque of Augurs’, and for his book ‘The Compter’s Commonwealth’, which tells the story of his imprisonment in the Wood Street small-prison for vagrancy, to a ‘poetic duel’.
This challenge didn’t go too well either, and Taylor was apparently booed off-stage, probably accompanied by rotting fruit and vegetables that were sold openly for the purpose of hurling, and not an uncommon occurrence, even for major players in the other London theatres, the Globe and Curtain.
Back in the water, Taylor tells us of the final stage in his journey, and rescue.
“Whilst we within sixe inches of the brim
(Full of salt water) downe (half sunck) did swim
Thousands of people all the shores did hide,
And thousands more did meet us in the tide
With Scullers, Oares, with ship-boats, & with Barges,
To gaze on us, they put themselves to charges.”
From there on, Taylor wrote continually, and was with little doubt the most prolific poet of his time, with over two-hundred publications, most subscription-based, and in pamphlet form, and gathered into ‘All the Workes of John Taylor the Water Poet’ in 1630.
Lots of elements of the world he lived in annoyed him, and he voiced that annoyance in a way no-one else was at that time. His narrative was very much of the moment, and based on the observation of all around him, which makes his work a brilliant source for social historians.
Though he was less educated than most well-known authors, he was arguably more widely read, because his marketing genius was to produce many cheap, easily-digestible and curious reads, written in the vernacular of the period, and appealing to a broad audience of ordinary working-class Londoners.
While he was lampooned for his ungraceful use of English by the likes of those he ferried to the era’s pinnacles of literary performance, and frowned upon by serious literary types, he remains one of the few authors of credited with a palindrome, when in 1614, he wrote "Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel", and created an entire language called Barmoodan while traversing the deep waters from bank to bank.
When Mark Twain commented hundreds of years later that one should never let schooling interfere with an education, he could've been talking about Taylor, whose writing was never curtailed by strict modes of learning, boundaried by social expectations, or limited by being taught what writing should or shouldn't be.
While few remember the Kings Water-Poet today, and Thomas Cookson’s rather menacing 1630 engraving doesn’t make you want to hug him exactly, Taylor was an intriguing figure, and would've been well-known along the Thames, often seen gathering subscriptions for his next great adventure, and selling his latest work, like the wonderful ‘A Svvarme of Sectaries, and Schismatiques: wherein is discovered the strange preaching (or prating) of such as are by their trades coblers, tinkers, pedlers, weavers, sowgelders, and chymney-sweepers.’
He was seventy-three when he expired, a fine age for anyone in 1643, and with him died much of his celebrity, the renown he had acquired, most of his fine works, as well as, unfortunately, the hemp paper boat. But, we’ll let him have the final word on that.
“But whilst we were at our dinners thus were merry
The Country people tore our tatter’d wherry
In mammocks peecemeale in a thousand scraps
Wearing the reliques in their hats and caps.”
photo by Andrew Neel