1902 Encyclopedia > John Taylor

John Taylor
English poet

JOHN TAYLOR (1580-1654), commonly called "The Water Poet," was born at Gloucester in August 1580. Of his parentage and early boyhood very little is known, and that little is mainly to be gleaned from various scattered personal allusions in the numerous short writings of this prolific wit and rhymster. After fulfilling his apprenticeship to a waterman, he seems to have served (1596) in the fleet under the earl of Essex, and to have been present at the naval attack upon Cadiz. On his return to England he took up the trade of Thames waterman, and for a time at any rate was a collector of the dues exacted by the lieutenant of the Tower on all wines destined for London. The title of "Water Poet," which he owes to his occupation on the river, is a misnomer. Taylor was no poet, though he could string rhymes together with facility; his wit, which was vigorous and vulgar, found best expression in rollicking prose. He shows a broad sense of rough fun, occasionally of humour; but for the most part his comi-calities would now meet with scanty appreciation. He had a very good opinion of himself, his writings, and his importance ; and it was he himself who set forth that he was the "king's water poet" and the "queen's water-man." His literary performances can most easily and most satisfactorily be studied in the handsome quarto, contain-ing all his productions, edited by Mr C. Hindley, and pub-lished in 1872. His "works," sixty-three in number, first appeared in one large volume—now a rarity sought after by collectors—in 1630. He delighted in eccentric freaks, calculated in narration to astound both the sober country-folk and the somewhat sceptical Londoners. Thus, with a companion as feather-brained as himself, he once started on a voyage from London to Queensborough in a paper boat, with two stockfish tied to two canes for oars ; before the journey's end was reached the frail boat collapsed, as might have been expected, though a qualified success finally met Taylor's efforts. The spirit of the bargee was in him, and he delighted in rough give-and-take; a rude lampoon was one of his favourite verbal weapons. Thus Thomas Coryat, the author of Crudities, having excited the literary waterman's ridicule, was rewarded with a ludicrous dedication in the production entitled Taylor's Travels in Germanie; again, the " water poet" indulged in abusive satire to his heart's content in an "effusion" which he called A Kicksey-Winsey, or a Lerry ____-Twang—a literary castigation which he inflicted upon those subscribers to a certain " work " of his who omitted to substantiate their promises. This production was entitled The Penniless Pilgrimage, or the Moneyless Perambulation of John Taylor, and consisted of an account of its author's pedestrian tour from London to Edinburgh; and to this work some sixteen hundred persons are said to have promised their support. Another w;agering ven-ture was a journey to Prague, where he is said to have been received and entertained by the queen of Bohemia in 1620. Two years later Taylor made "a very merry, wherry ferry voyage, or Yorke for my money," and in the ensu-ing year another water-journey, which he subsequently described in prose and verse as A New Discovery by Sea with a Wherry from London to Salisbury. At the out-break of the Civil War Taylor forsook the river and retired to Oxford, where he tempted fortune by keeping a public-house. His sympathies were wholly with the Boyalists, —the Boysterists, as he called them once; and, when the town surrendered, the "water poet" returned to London and kept a public-house under the sign of The Crown, in Phoenix Alley, Long Acre. He incurred some odium from his loyal observance of the king's death in the placement above his door of the sign of The Mourning Crown, and he was forced to take the latter down. With characteristic readiness he substituted for it his own portrait, with some doggerel lines underneath. It was here that in December 1654 he died, and in the neighbouring churchyard of St Martin's-in-the-Fields his remains were laid.
At the most, Taylor can only be called an amusing and vulgarly clever pamphleteer; he wrote nothing worthy of remembrance save by the historian of the period in which he lived, by the antiquary, and by the enthusiastic student of the many straggling little by-ways of literature.

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