Water Poet

08 24 john taylor 1Today I want to tell you about John Taylor who was born in Gloucester on this day in 1578. In the early 1590s he moved to London and became a Waterman. He rowed passengers from one side of the Thames to the other. There was plenty of trade as, at that time, London Bridge was the only bridge in the city. Also there were always lots on people wanting to cross from the city in the north to visit the theatres on the south bank. He would have carried the actors as well as their audience. One of those theatres was The Globe and it is almost certain that he knew Shakespeare.

He must have enjoyed the company of all the creative people he met, because he began to write poetry of his own. He wrote a lot of poems, around 150 of them. They weren’t great poems but they do tell us a lot about life in the city in the early seventeenth century. He isn’t remembered for the quality of his poetry, or even really the quantity. He is remembered because he was an excellent self-publicist.

For a start, he called himself Water Poet, which is pretty memorable and people liked it. Also a lot of his work was about interesting journeys that he had made and he had an excellent way of raising money before he even started out. He would advertise his plans and ask for subscriptions. When he’d collected enough he would set off and then write about it. These days we would call it crowdfunding. In this way he travelled to Hamburg, to Prague, where he ended up in the middle of a war, and a journey where he undertook to walk from London to Edinburgh. The Pennylesse Pilgrimage recounts how he made the entire journey with no money at all, relying on friends and admirers to feed and house him on the way. He had 1600 subscribers for that journey. Almost half of them failed to come up with the money afterwards. The following year, he wrote a poem for them too. Not a very nice one. It is called A Kicksie Whinsie, or a Lerry cum Twang (‘Wherein John Taylor hath Satyrically suted seuen hundred and fifty of his bad debtors, that will not pay him for the returne of his journey from Scotland’) He was not a good person to get on the wrong side of. A disagreement with one poet led to a pamphlet war and each of them writing petitions to the king. He tried to engage another writer, William Fennor, in a public trial of wit at the Hope Theatre. We don’t know what it was meant to be, it sounds a bit like a poetry slam. Fennor failed to turn up. He also paid for it later when Taylor wrote a piece subtitled: The rymer William Fennor firkt, feritted, and finely fetcht ouer the coales wherein his riming raggamuffin rascallity, without partiallity, or feare of principallity, is anagramatized, anotomized, & stigmatized. Brilliant. William Fennor well and truly firkd there.

Taylor’s best known publicity stunt was the time he rowed down the Thames in a boat made from brown paper. Or at least he said he did. According to his own account he and a friend rowed some 40 miles and kept the vessel afloat by attaching the inflated bladders of eight bullocks to the hull, four along each side. Instead of oars he used two dried fish tied to canes. This journey is recounted in The Praise of Hempseed. The feat was repeated in 2003 (minus the fish oars I believe) by Tim FitzHigham in aid of Comic Relief. It was from him that I first heard about John Taylor, so it was nice when he turned up again for my blog today. Thank you Tim.

Despite not being the best of poets he did occasionally have a lovely turn of phrase. When describing a person who is drunk he uses jug-bitten and pot-shaken. Shallow-pate or lerrycometwang meant a fool. He is also responsible for one of the first recorded palindromes: Lewd I did live & evil did I dwel.


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