by David Cannafacts on 20/11/2015 | Cultural Opinion

A seventeenth-century English cannabis activist: John Taylor, the Water Poet Part I.

Hemp Poetry The poem The Praise of Hemp-seed was published in 1620 by John Taylor, the Water Poet. Surprisingly enough, he praises the many benefits that the hemp seed has to offer mankind. His passion, some four hundred years ago, rivals that of modern cannabis activists. Learn more about this poet and his song of praise for the hemp seed.


In the early seventeenth century, John Taylor, the Elizabethan ‘Water Poet’ penned an impressive poem, The Praise of Hemp-seed. It is striking that this poem not only praises and describes the many benefits for mankind of hemp itself, but of hemp seeds too. The passion with which the poet does so rivals the passion of any cannabis activist of today. Some four hundred years ago, John Taylor was already very much on the case.

The Profits arising by Hemp-seed are}
} Cloathing, Food, Fishing, Shipping,
}  Pleasure, Profit, Iustice, Whipping.

The poem The Praise of Hemp-seed praises the many benefits and applications of hemp seeds (CC. fluffymuppet)
The poem The Praise of Hemp-seed praises the many benefits and applications of hemp seeds (CC. fluffymuppet)

This excerpt is taken from the first page of the poem The Praise of Hemp-seed, just under the title, before the foreword. From the offset, the writer is very clear what the poem is about, just in case it wasn’t already obvious from the title. This surprising poem, penned in 1620 by John Taylor, better known as the Water Poet, praises and describes the many benefits and applications for mankind not only of hemp itself, but of hemp seeds too.  The passion with which the poet does so rivals the passion of any cannabis activist of today. Modern cannabis and hemp activists, as well as those of times gone by, share the same passion when it comes to defending the qualities of this ancient plant. Some four hundred years ago, John Taylor was already very much on the case.

During the course of the poem, the Water Poet discusses the many possibilities and applications of hemp and the many advantages that growing the seeds had for society in his time. When hemp was processed in seventeenth-century England, all parts were used: the fibres, stalk, leaves, everything.

Hemp was used in Taylor’s time as a raw material in the preparation of food and production of textiles and medicines, just as it had been thousands of years before that. On the first page of his poem, Taylor refers to the food and clothing, as well as the health benefits of hemp. In Elizabethan times, hemp was cultivated in Great Britain and mainland Europe to supply the British Navy’s huge demand for hemp for producing ropes, nets, sails, fishing tackle and other nautical equipment.

John Taylor also refers to the administration of law. Unfortunately, the strong hemp ropes of the time were also used to hang and whip criminals, which was common practice in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Another use the poet refers to in the title is more uplifting: recreational cannabis. Cannabis was also used for relaxation and enjoyment.

In short, the poet clearly refers to the use of cannabis for medicinal, recreational and industrial purposes. Some four hundred years ago, John Taylor was already very much familiar with these uses.

Who was John Taylor?

In the 17th century, watermen transported passengers across the River Thames, as London Bridge was the only other connection between the banks (CC. DncnH)
In the 17th century, watermen transported passengers across the River Thames, as London Bridge was the only other connection between the banks (CC. DncnH)

While relatively unknown among modern readers, John Taylor was a prolific author. In his lifetime, he published more than 150 works and was one of the first ‘celebrities’. He became known throughout the country and was one of the most popular poets and personalities in Elizabethan and Jacobean London (during the reign of James I).

He was known as the ‘Water Poet’ because his main source of income was from his work as a waterman. He transported passengers across the Thames in the time that the London Bridge was the only connection between the two shores.

While his works and poems were far from refined, he was a sharp observer of the social and cultural climate of the time, as a result of which his work is often studied by social historians. Despite all the criticism, he remained true to his own style of poetry and irregular metre. He discussed his adventurous life and published numerous pamphlets, poems and essays about the period in which he lived. Through his texts, we are given insight into the world of a London waterman in the forty years of the reign of James I to the aftermath of the English Civil War.

Taylor published his ever-critical thoughts on a wide range of subjects, ranging from politics to sewing, from poetry to shipping, from religion to society, as well as provocative jokes. He had a complex and contradictory personality and was symbolic of many contrasts in a world that was soon to literally be at war with itself.

John Taylor, the Water Poet

Portrait of John Taylor, in many ways a pioneer in his time, (gravure produced by Thomas Cockson for Taylor's volume of poetry published in 1630)
Portrait of John Taylor, in many ways a pioneer in his time, (gravure produced by Thomas Cockson for Taylor’s volume of poetry published in 1630)

John Taylor was born in Gloucester, England, on 24 August 1578 and died in 1653. During his teenage years, he was a waterman apprentice on the River Thames. Before the South Bank of the Thames, where the theatres were, was closed, he had already come into contact with actors, the bourgeoisie, and the well-educated elite.

He was nonetheless put under pressure to serve in the Royal Navy. In 1596 he served on the Essex Fleet, was present at Flores in 1597, and fought the Spanish at sea. He was, however, always a poet at heart. After various voyages, Taylor returned to London where he continued working as a waterman until 1622, despite the success of his first published work, The Sculler, Rowing from Tiber to Thames (1612).

Thanks to Taylor’s connections with the theatre (the watermen transported theatregoers from north London to the theatres on the South Bank of the Thames) and his interest in poetry, he must have known Shakespeare. Taylor was in fact one of the first to refer to Shakespeare’s death and he did so in the poem that is the subject of this article: The Praise of Hemp-seed, published in 1620. The poem includes a list of poets whose work and names remained famous due to the fact that their poems were published. Taylor set great store by making a name for himself for posterity and in order to achieve his immortality, he used the power of the printing press.

Despite his lack of classic education, Taylor very definitely contributed to the literature of the time. He succeeded in securing fame and maintaining it. Later critics of his work claimed, however, that while Taylor was self-important enough to call himself the Water Poet and the Royal Waterman, he could at best be described as a literary waterman. Despite all criticism, Taylor always continued to view his own style differently.

John Taylor, the pioneer

Taylor was a pioneer in many ways. He was one of the first to make travel literature popular. He used the money of his subscribers to finance the publications of his own work, and he was also one of the first to write a palindrome, that was truly recognised as such. In 1614 he wrote: ”Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.”

He became famous for a series of rather eccentric journeys he allegedly made which he later wrote about in his works, such as the voyage in his clearly cannabis-related poem  THE PRAISE OF HEMP-SEED. The Voyage of Mr. Roger Bird and the Writer hereof, in a Boat of browne-Paper, from London to Quinborough in Kent.  The poet writes about his voyage from London to Queenborough, Kent, in a paper boat, with two stock fish tied to canes for oars. While Taylor claimed to have completed the voyage despite all the adventure involved, it seems fairly clear that this was an impressive publicity stunt that brought him a lot of attention and an increase in sales of the poem.

As mentioned earlier, Taylor was also a pioneer in the world of publishing. He used contributions from his subscribers to finance the publication of many of his works. That way he did not need a patron. It is comparable to the crowdfunding used to finance projects today. Taylor launched an idea for a book, asked his subscribers for funds, then started writing once he had enough subscriptions to cover the publishing costs.  At one point he had more than sixteen hundred subscribers. Before he left on his travels, he announced his plans and those interested paid in advance to ensure that they would receive a copy of his travel writing on his return. There is no doubt about it, Taylor was an energetic and determined visionary.

John Taylor, the cannabis activist

In Elizabethan England, hemp was used to produce hangman's ropes, as well as whips for punishment (CC. aliceskr)
In Elizabethan England, hemp was used to produce hangman’s ropes, as well as whips for punishment (CC. aliceskr)

Activism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the world. Today, it is largely associated with political, environmental, social and cultural protest. Activists share common goals and see the necessity in directly and immediately bringing about change to the status quo. They are motivated by their passion for certain matters, such as John Taylor’s passion for the hemp seed, a passion developed throughout his lifetime and informed by his experiences. There are many forms of cannabis activism , such as writing a long poem in praise of this wonderful seed, to name but one example.

It does not seem out of place to regard John Taylor as a fully fledged cannabis activist. Although it would take centuries before the absurd ban on cannabis would be introduced in the United States – a country that had not even been founded in Taylor’s time – Taylor certainly has a lot in common with the activists of today. After all, he was hugely driven when it came to spreading knowledge of the healing powers of the plant and the industrial, spiritual and recreational benefits of this plant in England at the end of sixteenth, and the beginning of the seventeenth, centuries.

Jack Herer, Ben Dronkers, Howard Marks, Marc Emery and Tommy Chong are just some examples of the many famous cannabis activists who actively defended in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They know like no other the consequences of the ban on cannabis and the current war on drugs.

The Praise of Hemp-seed: introduction, contents, and foreword

Taylor described how many people earned their living from hemp, by producing paper for example (CC. Smallest Forest)
Taylor described how many people earned their living from hemp, by producing paper for example (CC. Smallest Forest)

This poem from 1962, The Praise of Hemp-seed, is very interesting and illustrative from beginning to end. It gives us great insight into the importance of cannabis and hemp in daily life in the society in John Taylor’s day. Read the full text of The Praise of Hemp-seed .

It is not actually necessary to read the poem to discover what it is about and what the poet wants to tell us. All of this is laid out in the poem’s introduction, table of contents and foreword.

Just before the foreword, Taylor addresses his readers with the words Noble Sirs, and presents to them his vision, which is then repeated in the poem itself: the hemp seed is a small seed, a tiny grain that offers the world great, wonderful and uncountable benefits. He then cites the abovementioned benefits and adds a couple that are slightly more characteristic of his time.

 “I haue here of a graine of Hempseed made a mountaine greater then the Apennines or Caucasus, and not much lesser then the whole world. Here is Labour, Profit, Cloathing, Pleasure, Food, Nauigation: Diuinitie, Poetry, the liberall Arts, Armes, Vertues defence, Vices offence, a true mans protection, a Thiefes execution, Here is mirth and matter all beaten out of this small Seed.”

In Taylor’s view, this tiny grain of hemp is of great importance to the world, due to its countless extraordinary properties and applications with regard to work, income, clothing, food and shipping. Taylor doesn’t forget the recreational and spiritual aspects of the plant either, referring to pleasure and the divine. Throughout the centuries, hemp has been used for many purposes, such as increasing creativity for poetry and the liberal arts. In Elizabethan England, hemp was used for producing ropes and hangman’s ropes, as well as whips for punishment; or in other words, weapons to protect virtuous people and to punish crimes and criminals – true protection of the people, and execution of a thief.

The table of contents contains a list of all parts of this poem in praise of hemp seed.

 3 The profit and pleasure all Countries haue by Hemp-seed.
4 How it propagates the Gospell.
5 Nauigation, with the Commodities it brings and carries.
6 How many Trades and Functions liue by it.
7 How when it is worne to ragges, it is made into Paper.
8 How many liue by it being Paper. 

The titles of the various parts give a good overview of the contents of the poem, the facts about hemp seed and, of course, the cannabis plant. At that time, all countries benefitted from the many advantages and enjoyment that hemp offered. On the one hand, cannabis was used throughout history for religious and spiritual purposes. On the other hand, it was crucial to shipping all kinds of products (the materials needed to build ships came from hemp), from basic and raw materials to luxury products. Taylor was privy to this information thanks to his experience as a waterman and crew member on various sea voyages. Furthermore, many people earned their living from hemp, by producing paper, for example.

In the second part of this article, we will look more closely at the foreword and the poem itself. John Taylor wrote this work as a song of praise for the many benefits that hemp and hemp seed have to offer mankind. Written some four hundred years ago, it shares the passion of the cannabis activists of today.

Comment Section

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Sjoerd

Wow! Even back then they knew the benefits which we have for some reason ignored and buried. It’s time for that to change

04/01/2016

Psyborg

Here is the full text of the poem

http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/taylor1.html

03/04/2016

Eadric Streona

He sounds a proper character and no mistake.

20/05/2017

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