John Taylor (poet)

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John Taylor: a portrait engraved by Thomas Cockson, included in Taylor's 1630 poetry anthology

John Taylor (24 August 1578 – 1653) was an English poet who dubbed himself "The Water Poet".


John Taylor was born in Gloucester on 24 August 1578.[1]

After his waterman apprenticeship he served (1596) in Essex's fleet, and was present at Flores in 1597 and at a siege of Cadiz.

He spent much of his life as a Thames waterman, a member of the guild of boatmen that ferried passengers across the River Thames in London, in the days when the London Bridge was the only passage between the banks. He became a member of the ruling oligarchy of the guild, serving as its clerk; it is mainly through his writings that history is familiar with the watermen's disputes of 1641–42, in which an attempt was made to democratize the leadership of the Company. He details the uprisings in the pamphlets Iohn Taylors Manifestation ... and To the Right Honorable Assembly ... (Commons Petition), and in John Taylors Last Voyage and Adventure of 1641.

Taylor discusses the watermen's disputes with the theatre companies (who moved the theatres from the south bank to the north in 1612, depriving the ferries of traffic) in The True Cause of the Watermen's Suit Concerning Players (written in 1613 or 1614).

He also addresses the coachmen, in his tracts An Arrant Thief (1622) and The World Runnes on Wheeles (1623); recent development of horse-drawn carriages with spring suspension, and use of them for hire on land, had taken much trade away from the watermen. An Arrant Thief says:

All sorts of men, work all the means they can,
To make a Thief of every waterman :
And as it were in one consent they join,
To trot by land i' th' dirt, and save their coin.
Carroaches, coaches, jades, and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares :
Against the ground, we stand and knock our heels,
Whilst all our profit runs away on wheels ;
And, whosoever but observes and notes,
The great increase of coaches and of boats,
Shall find their number more than e'er they were,
By half and more, within these thirty years.
Then watermen at sea had service still,
And those that staid at home had work at will :
Then upstart Hell-cart-coaches were to seek,
A man could scarce see twenty in a week ;
But now I think a man may daily see,
More than the wherrys on the Thames can be.
When Queen Elizabeth came to the crown,
A coach in England then was scarcely known,
Then 'twas as rare to see one, as to spy
A Tradesman that had never told a lie.

Taylor was also the first poet to mention the deaths of William Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont in print, in his 1620 poem, "The Praise of Hemp-seed". Both had died four years earlier.

In paper, many a poet now survives
Or else their lines had perish'd with their lives.
Old Chaucer, Gower, and Sir Thomas More,
Sir Philip Sidney, who the laurel wore,
Spenser, and Shakespeare did in art excell,
Sir Edward Dyer, Greene, Nash, Daniel.
Sylvester, Beaumont, Sir John Harrington,
Forgetfulness their works would over run
But that in paper they immortally
Do live in spite of death, and cannot die.

A Swarm of Sectaries, and Schismatiques, 1641

He was a prolific, if rough-hewn writer (a wit rather than a poet), with over one hundred and fifty publications in his lifetime. Many were gathered into the compilation All the Workes of John Taylor the Water Poet (London, 1630; facsimile reprint Scholar Press, Menston, Yorkshire, 1973); augmented by the Spenser Society's edition of the Works of John Taylor ... not included in the Folio edition of 1630 (5 volumes, 1870–78). Although his work was not sophisticated, he was a keen observer of people and styles in the seventeenth century, and his work is often studied by social historians. An example is his 1621 work Taylor's Motto, which included a list of then-current card games and diversions.

He achieved notoriety by a series of eccentric journeys: for example, he travelled from London to Queenborough in a paper boat with two stockfish tied to canes for oars, described in "The Praise of Hemp-Seed",[2] which was re-enacted in 2006.[3] From his journey to Scotland in 1618, on which he took no money, Taylor published his Pennyless Pilgrimage. (Ben Jonson walked to Scotland in the same year.)[4] He is one of the few credited early authors of a palindrome: in 1614, he wrote "Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel". He wrote a poem about Thomas Parr, a man who supposedly lived to the age of 152. He was also the author of a constructed language called Barmoodan.[5]

Many of Taylor's works were published by subscription; i.e., he would propose a book, ask for contributors, and write it when he had enough subscribers to undertake the printing costs. He had more than sixteen hundred subscribers to The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Magesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging, published in 1618. Those who defaulted on the subscription were chided the following year in a scathing brochure entitled A Kicksey Winsey, or, A Lerry Come-Twang, which he issued in the following year.

By wondrous accident perchance one may
Grope out a needle in a load of hay;
And though a white crow be exceedingly rare,
A blind man may, by fortune, catch a hare.
A Kicksey Winsey (pt. VII)


  1. ^ Capp 1994, p. 7.
  2. ^ "The Praise of Hemp-Seed". Retrieved 25 June 2016.
  3. ^ "Programmes - Most Popular - All 4". Retrieved 25 June 2016.
  4. ^ Taylor 1888, pp. 10, 17–60.
  5. ^ Biase, Carmine G. (1 January 2006). "Travel and Translation in the Early Modern Period". Rodopi. Retrieved 25 June 2016 – via Google Books.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Taylor, John (pamphleteer)" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Taylor, John (1888). Early Prose & Poetical Works. London & Glasgow.
  • Capp, Bernard (1994). The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578–1653. Oxford: Clarendon Press. – the first full-length biography.
  • Chandler, John H. (1999). Travels through Stuart Britain: the adventures of John Taylor, the water poet. Stroud: Sutton.

External links[edit]