1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Taylor the Water Poet

David Masson, in Life of John Milton (1859-94; 1965) 1:482-84.



Still lower in the social scale than Wither, and named among the poets of the day only by way of good-humoured jest, was Taylor the Water-Poet. Honest John, a Gloucester man by birth, and now over fifty years of age, had been known in his double capacity of poet and waterman for at least twenty years. In his youth he had served in the navy, and had been in Holland, Germany, and other parts of the Continent; more recently, and since setting up as a Thames waterman, he had made wherry voyages along the English coasts, and up rivers never penetrated by a London boat before; and he had also made a journey to Scotland on foot at the time when Ben Jonson was there. No man knew the town better than he; and there was not a person of any mark in town or near it, from the King and the Privy Councilors down to the Gloucester carrier of the landlord of the inn on Highgate Hill, but had a word for The Sculler. With a fund of rough natural humour, and an acquired knack of writing, he had won his name of "the water-poet," and at the same time increased his custom as a boatman, by a series of printed effusions, none of them above a sheet or two in length, and consisting either solely of verse, or of verse and prose intermixed, under such titles as The Travels of Twelvepence, The Praise of Beggary and Begging, Taylor's Pennyless Pilgrimage, or Journey without Money, from London to Edinburgh in Scotland, and back to London, A very merry Wherry Voyage from London to York with a Pair of Oars, A Kecksy-winsy, or a Lery-cum-Twang, wherein John Taylor hath satirically suited 750 of his bad debtors, that will not pay him for his Journey to Scotland, Elegies and Religious Narrations, The World runs on Wheels, The Praise of Hempseed, The Praise of a Jail, and the excellent Mystery and Necessary Use of all sorts of Hanging. His plan for disposing of these productions seems to have been to hawk them about personally among his patrons and acquaintances, or to sell them in parcels to those who retailed ballads and other cheap popular literature. In more than one instance, however, he had dedicated to the King, or come forward in some public way as a wit and pamphleteer. Thus, in 1613, he had led "a suit against the players," the object of which was to prevent the increase of play-houses on the north side of the river, it being manifestly to the advantage of the Thames watermen that the theatres should be kept on the south side. More recently he had been writing furiously against the nuisance of hackney coaches, and in favour of the old modes of locomation by foot or on water. One way or another, his broad-sheets had a circulation which more than paid their expences. They were good reading for the Gloucester carrier on the road, and they were laughed over at Court. King James, according to Ben, had been in the habit of saying jocularly that he knew no verses equal to the Sculler's. Confident in his popularity, the Sculler had had the audacity to print, or bind together for sale, in 1630, a folio edition of his collected Works, including all that he had written in prose or in verse up to that date. He was to live four-and-twenty years after the publication, and besides distinguishing himself by his sturdy loyalty during the Civil Wars, was to pen a father quantity of prose and verse, enough to make a second folio, had all been collected.