1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Taylor the Water Poet

John Payne Collier, "Praise of Hemp-Seed" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 4:135-37.



This poetical tract is dedicated to Sir Thomas Howet, Sir Robert Wiseman, and Mr. John Wiseman, who it seems had pecuniarily aided the author and his companion (a Vintner) to undertake their "dangerous voyage," which was literally performed for a wager in a paper boat supported by bladders. In a humorous "Preamble," the author vindicates the adoption of so trifling a subject, by reference to the works of some of his predecessors, in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Scotch, and English. Among the latter he cites Michael Drayton, who composed a poem called The Owl; Richard Niccols, author of The Cuckoo; Sir John Davys, who wrote Orchestra; Sir John Harington, who published The Metamorphosis of Ajax; Thomas Middleton, author of The Ant and the Nightingale; Thomas Nash, who wrote a tract in praise of the Herring, &c.

The body of the tract does not require, nor merit, any very especial notice. It was produced for sale, and Taylor forced into it the description of a storm, which he states he had written three years before, but could never find a fit place for its insertion till then. In speaking of paper and its uses, he gives the subsequent enumeration of English poets who had died before 1620:—

Old Chaucer, Gower, Sir Thomas More,
Sir Philip Sidney, who the lawrell wore;
Spenser, and Shakespeare did in art excell,
Sir Edward Dyer, Greene, Nash, Daniell,
Silvester, Beumont, Sir John Harrington.

The following, he states, were still living:—

As Davis, Drayton, and the learned Dun,
Jonson, and Chapman, Marston, Middleton,
With Rowlye, Fletcher, Withers, Messenger,
Heywood, and all the rest where e're they are.

In Drunken Barnaby's Journal, printed not earlier than 1640, there is a passage, accompanied by a plate, for which great credit has been given to the author. It relates to the execution of a cat by a Puritan, because it had killed a mouse on Sunday. The humorous thought came from, or was used by, Taylor twenty years earlier. He is speaking of a Brownist:—

The Spirit still directs him how to pray,
Nor will he dress his meat the Sabbath day,
Which doth a mighty mystery unfold;
His zeale is hot, although his meat be cold.
Suppose his Cat on Sunday kill'd a rat,
She on the Monday must be hang'd for that, &c.

It is very likely to have been a sort of proverb against the Puritans before the time when Taylor employed it. On the title-page is a woodcut representing the different uses to which hemp was applied.