Poetry News

Moving Poets of the Seventeeth Century From the Margins

By Harriet Staff

John Taylor, the Water Poet

At Queen Mob's Teahouse, an interesting piece: "On Canons and Marginal Poets." Edward Simon focuses on John Taylor "the Water Poet," gradually working out to consider others you've never heard of (unless you are a scholar of 16th or 17th-century lit): "Robert Greene, the bohemian university wit, or Richard Barnfield, the sodomitical sonneteer [and rival poet mentioned in Shakespeare's sonnets]." "Rather I would suggest that then, as now, there is a certain wisdom to be found in those marginal places, a certain beauty in the in-between liminal spaces. These writers are marginal poets, and in some cases they are transgressive ones. There is something to be gained by moving them from those margins." More:

We can take this ferryman Taylor, this self-declared “water poet,” as representative of these marginal poets. Considering his conservatism, it may seem contradictory to argue that there is anything transgressive about him. Taylor, who liberally sprinkled his pamphlets with jokes at the expense of his wife, seemed almost achingly conventional when it came to matters of family. Indeed Taylor was a solid traditionalist, equally denouncing Jesuits and Puritans, a stalwart defender of God’s Church at Lambeth, and though working-class a committed royalist who denounced Parliament throughout the years of civil war. He was a not untypical breed of English reactionary, the sort one can still find over a pint of warm lager in many pubs today. He had been to Europe and Scotland, but regardless of what he saw or did on his travels the culture of England was always superior. The Catholic Church was the home of the antichrist, but he had no patience for separatists and Puritans. He knew what he liked – kneelers, prayer books, the king, and sack. And ferrymen.

At times however he did have a hearty, Falstaffian ecumenicism, declaring that all were allowed on his boat, regardless of their confession. Indeed if Greene is a marginal poet because of his bohemianism, and if Barnfield is one because of his sexuality, Taylor is among that group precisely because he was so conventional. To a Marxist he wouldn’t quite be a member of the lumpen-proletariat; he was more appropriately understood as at the bottom of the rung of the bourgeois, right at the moment of history when it becomes possible to talk about such a class. But in his poetry, reportage, pamphlets, and reviews Taylor provided a voice so common that it was overlooked in his own time and sadly still often overlooked today. Taylor was not particularly talented – though he still remains entertaining – but that was his great strength. Reading Taylor is like reading Falstaff if that character wrote the Henriad rather than his creator.

Read more at QMT.