Monday, April 11, 2011

People: The Thames and Poetry

We've discussed London’s famous, and infamous, river Thames and the piracy that abounded during the hey day of the boatmen who rowed from one shore to another for a fee. This was during the reign of the Virgin Queen and James I and at one point in 1641 there were some 4,000 boatmen in the watermen’s union. Needless to say, not all of these were honest characters but some, at least, were ingenious, talented and quirky.

The man who lives up to all three of those qualities was born in Gloucester around 1580 and went by the name of John Taylor “the Water Poet”. According to one source he attended a grammar school in Gloucester until it was time to learn Latin, a language which the rough-hewn John never got the hang of. As a young man, Taylor first spent time in the 1590s aboard ship as a sailor, serving at the siege of Cadiz. Returning to London, he operated a scull on the Thames, taking passengers for a fee and then regaled his captive audiences with his poetry.

He was, in fact, an excellent poet and his topics ranged from current events to other poets to troubles on his familiar waters. In fact, he pulled the kind of thing that modern writers frequently do when they get a few minutes alone with a literary agent: he pitched his writing to wealthy passengers. Most of Taylor’s 150 publications were accomplished by subscription wherein Taylor would accumulate backers and pay for the printing of his work with their money. In one particularly famous case, some of the backers did not come through with their shares of the funding and received harsh criticism in verse from the injured poet.

Taylor published while continuing to work as a full-time waterman. On top of all this, he had a penchant for performing stunts that drew publicity to him personally and to his poetry. His The Penylesse Pilgrimage told the story of his adventures while walking from London to Edinburgh and back without any cash on hand. As the frontispiece read in part:

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 and Fro…

The poem was published by subscription in 1618; 4,500 copies in total. This was, incidentally, the subscription that saw about half of Taylor’s backers defaulting on their promised support.

Another stunt, performed the following year, saw Taylor making a scull entirely out of brown paper. Using two dried fish tied to canes as oars, Taylor rowed his friend Roger Bird down the river. The surprisingly seaworthy paper boat was kept afloat by inflated bull’s bladders and it made it from London to Queenborough, 40 miles total, without the least trouble, although the story goes that Bird prayed throughout the entire voyage. Taylor included a poem about the journey in what may be his most famous compendium, The Praise of Hempseed which you can find on the web here.

Taylor had an agile, brilliant mind that served him his entire life. He invented a language which he called Barmoodan and wrote Poem in the Utopian Tongue entirely in it. He is also credited as being the first to write down a palindrome that was actually called by that name: “Lewd did I live & evil did I dwel”. It makes Mark Twain’s “Yreka bakery” look a little weak. Taylor was also the clerk of the Watermen’s Guild during the “great dispute” of 1613. The Guild’s issue had to do with the theater guilds that moved their theaters from the south to the north bank of the Thames in 1612, depriving many boatmen of steady fares. Once again, Taylor put pen to paper and wrote The True Cause of the Watermen’s Suit Concerning Players to inform the public of his guild’s grievances.

Taylor left the Thames in 1622 to devote himself to writing, but events would not let him sit quietly by, pen in hand. He became a publican in Oxford and London under Cromwell and continued in that role until the 1640s, all the while writing. He died, probably well into his 70s, in 1653 and was eulogized by some of the great writers of his day. Ben Jonson, for instance, said that there would never be “… any verses in England equal to the Sculler’s”. High praise for a simple sailor, who wrote more because he loved to than for any real material gain.

Header: Contemporary engraving of John Taylor


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Taylor is like you in that you write because you love to as well...

His palindrome is great too! I'm going to have to use that one sometime.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Taylor had an interesting way with words, even in a time when lots of great writers were working and known. I wish he was familiar to more people.