JOHN TAYLOR, usually called the WATER-POET, from his being a waterman as well as a poet, and certainly more of the former than the latter, was born in Gloucestershire about 1580. Wood says he was born in the city of Gloucester, and went to school there, but he does not appear to have learned more than his accidence, as appears by some lines of his own. From this school he was brought to London, and bound apprentice to a waterman, whence he was either pressed or went voluntarily into the naval service, for he was at the taking of Cadiz under the earl of Essex, in 1596, when only sixteen years old, and was afterwards in Germany, Bohemia, Scotland, as may be collected from various passages in his works. At home he was many years collector, for the lieutenant of the Tower, of the wines which were his fee from all ships which brought them up the Thames; but was at last discharged because he would not purchase the place at more than it was worth. He calls himself the "King's Water Poet," and the "Queen's Waterman," and wore the badge of the royal arms. While a waterman, he very naturally had a great hatred to coaches, and besides writing a satire against them, he fancied that the watermen were starving for want of employment, and presented a petition to James I. which was referred to certain commissioners, of whom sir Francis Bacon was one, to obtain a prohibition of all playhouses except those on the Bank-side, that the greater part of the inhabitants of London, who were desirous of seeing plays, might be compelled to go by water. Taylor himself is said to have undertaken to support this singular petition, and was prepared to oppose before the commissioners the arguments of the players, but the commission was dissolved before it came to a hearing.
When the rebellion commenced in 1642, Taylor left London, and retired to Oxford, where he was much noticed, and esteemed for his facetious turn. He kept a common victualling house there, and wrote pasquils against the round-heads; by which he thought, and Wood too seems to think, that he did great service to the royal cause. After the garrison at Oxford had surrendered, he retired to Westminster, kept a public-house in Phoenix-alley, near Long-acre, and continued constant in his loyalty to the king; after whose death, he set up a sign over his door of a mourning crown; but that proving offensive, he pulled it down, and hung up his own picture, with these verses under it:
There's many a head stands for a sign,
Then, gentle reader, why not mine?
And on the other side,
Tho' I deserve not, I desire
The laurel wreath, the poet's hire.
He died in 1654, aged seventy-four, as Wood was informed by his nephew, a painter of Oxford, who gave his portrait to the picture-gallery there in 1655. This nephew's own portrait, also by himself, is on the staircase. His works were published under the title of "All the Workes of John Taylor the water-poet, being sixty and three in number, collected into one volume by the author, with sundry new additions; corrected, revised, and newly imprinted," 1630, folio. These pieces, which are not destitute of natural humour, abound with low jingling wit, which pleased and prevailed in the reign of James I. and which too often bordered upon bombast and nonsense. He was countenanced by a few persons of rank and ingenuity; but was the darling and admiration of numbers of the rabble. He was himself the father of some cant words, and he has adopted others which were only in the mouths of the lowest vulgar. From the date of this volume it is evident that it does not contain those "pasquils" and satires which Wood says he wrote at Oxford, and which perhaps it might have been unsafe to avow, or re-publish, as he did not survive the times of the usurpation. Five articles, however, whose titles may be seen in the "Bibliotheca Anglo-Poetica," were published between 1637 and 1641. One of them is the life of old Par, printed in 1635, when Par is said to have been living at the age of one hundred and fifty-two.