by Stefanie on 25/11/2015 | Cultural Opinion

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

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.

In this article I will present and analyse the poem The Praise of Hemp-seed, starting with the foreword. In the first paragraph of the foreword, the poet makes quite clear that the poem is intended to portray the benefits of hemp seeds to non-users.

“…But make them understand what Hempseed is.” 

In the poem's first stanza, the poet makes quite clear that the poem is intended to portray the benefits of hemp seeds to non-users (CC. U.K. College of Agriculture, Food & Environment)
In the poem’s first stanza, the poet makes quite clear that the poem is intended to portray the benefits of hemp seeds to non-users (CC. U.K. College of Agriculture, Food & Environment)

He is aware that he has his critics, who see him as a simple waterman unworthy of readers. Many of his critics would also have wondered what on earth was worth writing about a seed. These ‘depraving minds’ who criticise both the poet and the seed are set straight in the foreword, in which he explains why the seed is indispensable for mankind and should be protected.

“…Hemp-seed (quothe he) what can be writ of that?
Thus these deprauing minds their iudgements scatter
Eyther against the Writer or the Matter.
But let them (if they please) read this Preamble,
And they will finde that J haue made a scamble
To shew my poore plentious want of skill,
How Hemp-seed doth deserue, preserue, and kill.”
 

John Taylor questions why other deceased writers and poets have never written about this interesting yet underexposed topic, preferring instead to dedicate their writing to more everyday subjects.

“I muse that neuer any exc’lent wit
Of this forgotten subiect yet hath writ.
The theame is rich, although esteemed meane,…”

“And say, O Hemp-seed, how art thou forgotten
By many Poets that are dead and rotten?”

Hemp fibres were used to produce textile products, such as the shirts worn by Taylor and his critics (CC. Shelly2dogs)
Hemp fibres were used to produce textile products, such as the shirts worn by Taylor and his critics (CC. Shelly2dogs)

This remarkable and impressive seed is important to one and all, be they citizen or king. After all it is used to make the clothes worn by both.

“And this rare Hempseed that such profit brings,
To all estates of subiects, and of Kings,
Which rich commoditie if man should lacke,
He were not worth a shirt vnto his backe.”

Taylor is well aware that this claim will cause a commotion among his critics, who incorrectly argue that their shirts are made of linen. In response, the writer claims that linen and hemp are one and the same. They are made from the male and female form of the same seed that, for centuries, has offered so many benefits to mankind.lon los mismono, a lo que el poeta responde que le lino y el co y navegarrcamientos como latigos r la creatividad aplicada a la

Some Critticks will perhaps my writing tax
With falshood, and maintaine their shirts are flax,
To such as those, my answer shall be this,
That Flax the male and Hemp the female is,
And their engendring procreatiue seed
A thousand thousand helpes for man doth breed.”

The poet ventures into the world of plants and argues that the plants that provide us with linen and hemp are one and the same – probably because the fibres of both plants are used for the production of textile. As far as Taylor is concerned, whichever way you look at it, the two plants are the same.

“So Hemp and Flax, or which you list to name
Are male and female, both one, and the same.”

The Water Poet believes that the reason for this persistent misunderstanding about the seed is that poets do not know enough about it, and are not aware of the many benefits of the hemp seed.

“The cause why Hempseed hath endur’d this wrong
And hath its worthy praise obscur’d so long,
I doe suppose it to bee onely this
That Poets know their insufficience is,
That were earth Paper, and Sea inke, they know
‘T were not enough great Hempseeds worth to show

The English ships of the time were built using a large number of components crafted from hemp; for instance, the sails were made of hemp fabric (CC. Id_germain)
The English ships of the time were built using a large number of components crafted from hemp; for instance, the sails were made of hemp fabric (CC. Id_germain)

The foreword subsequently continues with a long list of names of heathen gods and religious icons that have been worshipped throughout history. Taylor claims that if the people who worshipped these gods had known of the value of hemp seed, they would undoubtedly have fought for this seed and built buildings and altars for it.

”Oh had these men the worth of Hempseed knowne,
Their blinded zeale (no doubt) they would haue showne
Jn building Temples, and would alters frame,
Like Ephesus to great Dianaes name.”  

Finally, the author turns to the reader to indicate that the poem is about to start and to ask the reader to read it first before forming an opinion, which is a dig at those who doubt him.

The Praise of Hemp-seed, the poem

These are the first lines of the poem in praise of the hemp seed:

“Sweet sacred Muses, my invention raise
Unto the life, to write great Hempseeds praise…”

The writer is inspired by muses to write a song of praise for this seed’s marvels. The song of praise begins with an explanation of the many applications of hemp. The seed grows into a plant of which the stalk is used by the textile industry to produce clothes, ropes, halters and sails.

“This grain grows to a stalk, whose coat or skin
Good industry doth hatchell twist, and spin,
And for mans best advantage and availes
It makes clothes, cordage, halters, ropes and sailes.”

Great phenomena, such as shipping, stem from this seed, which he calls a small atom and which fills all corners of the earth with its wonders. Even kings of lands far away agree.

“From this small Atome, mighty matters springs,
It is the Art of nauigations wings;)” 

“From Pole to pole, it cuts both Seas and Skyes,
From th’ orient to the occident it flyes.
Kings that are sundred farre, by Seas and Lands,
It makes them in a manner to shake hands.
It fils our Land with plenty wonderfull,”

While the seed may be small, it is a wonderful means of spreading God’s word.

“This little seed is the great instrument
To shew the power of God Omnipotent…”

“It is an instrument by the appointment of God for the encrease
of the Gospell of Christ.” 

Without the hemp seed, apothecaries would have had no means to develop the natural medicines used to treat all kinds of illnesses (CC. “thörR)
Without the hemp seed, apothecaries would have had no means to develop the natural medicines used to treat all kinds of illnesses (CC. “thörR)

Taylor shows his admiration for this small seed which he considers to be a superior and divine phenomenon: “this high supernaturall straine”. The poet then moves on to more down-to-earth, material matters. He logically and simply explains that without this seed, there would be no fishing nets, without which people cannot catch fish to eat.

“Without this seed the Whale could not be caught,
Whereby our oyles are out of Greenland brought.
Nay wer’t not for the net made of this seed,
Men could not catch a Sprat whereon to feed.”

Not only does the seed serve as food, it is also a source of income for thousands of people in the places where it is cultivated, as it is used for a wide range of crafts and professions.

“Besides, it liberally each where bestowes
A liuing vpon thousands where it growes;”     

After this, a few lines are dedicated to the many producers, manufacturers and craftsmen who are dependent on hemp and need it to be able to do their work, such as spinners, weavers, fishnet makers, fishers, fish traders, fabric traders, shopkeepers and tailors. Without hemp, they would all lose their source of income.

“The Taylors trade would hardly get them bread
If Hempseed did not furnish them with thread…” 

The same fate would face the pharmacists of Taylor’s time. Without the hemp seed, they would have no means to develop natural medicine on the basis of cannabis, such as oils, salves and balsams used to treat all kinds of illnesses. Nor could these medicines have been supplied from other countries.

“Apothecaries were not worth a pin,
If Hempseed did not bring their commings in;
Oyles, Unguents, Sirrops, Minerals, and Baulmes,
(All nature’s treasures, and th’Almighties almes),
Emplasters, Simples, Compounds, sundry drugs
With Necromanticke names like fearful Bugs,
Fumes, Vomits, purges, that both cures, and kils,
Extractions, conserves, preserves, potions, pils,
Elixirs, simples, compounds, distillations,
Gums in abundance, brought from foreign nations.”

“Transported medicines daily bring releefes,
Most seruiceable Hempseed but for thee,
These helpes for man could not thus scattered be.”

As far as Taylor is concerned, the seed is an important medicine against the most common illnesses (CC. Chuck Cocker)
As far as Taylor is concerned, the seed is an important medicine against the most common illnesses (CC. Chuck Cocker)

As Taylor said at the beginning of the poem, people also use hemp for the administration of law. Using the instruments of torture and execution produced in Taylor’s time, such as ropes, cords and whips, rogues and criminals were physically punished or hung to pay for their wrongdoings. It was the fear of the seed that kept them in check, according to Taylor.

“For Hempseed if men rightly vnderstand,
Is knowne the greatest Iustice in a Land :
How could men trauaile safely, here and there,
If Hempseed did not keepe a Theefe in feare;”
    

A little later, Taylor concludes his examination of the law aspects by stating that it is just that the hemp seed helps those that are good and kills those that are not.

To end this point of Hempseed, thus in briefe
It helpes a trueman, and it hangs a Theefe. 

And of course, we cannot ignore Taylor’s claims about the effectiveness of cannabis for passion and love. He says, “Besides it is an easie thing to prove

It is a soveraigne remedie for love”.

He then includes a short list of the names given to the seed in various countries, reflecting the benefits it offers. As far as Taylor is concerned, whatever its name, it’s an important medicine against the most common illnesses.

“The names that diuers Nations did attribute to Hemp-seed.

The Libians call’d it Reeua, which implies
It makes them dye like birds twixt earth and skyes,
The name of Choak-wort is to it assign’d,
Because it stops the venom of the mind.
Some call it Neck-weed, for it hath a tricke
To cure the necke that’s troubled with the crick.
For my part all’s one, call it what you please,
‘T is soueraigne ‘gainst each Common-wealth disease

While the therapeutic and medicinal applications of cannabis and the health benefits are innumerable, it is not a miracle cure. John Taylor recognises that it can do nothing for serious illnesses such as gangrene.

”For if they doe to a Gangrena runne,
There’s little good by Hempseed can be done;”

The seed was and is so very important for mankind that it even made possible the operations of the famous explorers in history.

“ And all the worthy things that these men did
Without this seed had bin vndone, and hid,”

John Taylor knew, like Jack Herer, Ben Dronkers and many others, that this small seed could, and can, save the planet
John Taylor knew, like Jack Herer, Ben Dronkers and many others, that this small seed could, and can, save the planet

As the poem comes to an end, Taylor cannot resist mentioning another important benefit of hemp: the crop rejuvenates the soil in which it is cultivated, as it returns to the soil 40% of the nutrients that it takes from it in the form of organic material. What’s more, this plant smothers weeds.

“ Moreouer, Hempseed hath this vertue rare
In making bad ground good, good corne to beare,
It fats the earth, and makes it to excell
No dung, or marle, or mucke can do’t so well :
For in that Land which beares this happy seed
In three yeares after it no dung will need,
But sow that ground with barley, wheat, or rye
And still it will encrease aboundantly ;
Besides, this much I of my knowledge know
That where Hemp growes, no stinking weed can grow,”
    

We have now come to the end of the poem, were John Taylor presents himself with feigned modesty as a self-taught and original writer that learned at the university of life. In his view, this poem justifies his role and work as a poet and writer, because it is his masterpiece.

“Thus ending (like to Jasons Golden-fleece)
This worke of Hempseed is my Master-peece.” 

Now that we are better acquainted with John Taylor, we can, without a doubt, regard him as a man who was ahead of his time in many ways. He was a Thames waterman who worked his way up to become a poet, literary, and business pioneer, a hemp and cannabis activist who dedicated his masterpiece to praise the many wonders of this small seed, a tiny grain, a small atom that creates life and helps mankind in all kinds of ways. John Taylor knew, like Jack Herer, Ben Dronkers and many others, that it all starts with a small seed that – even today – can save the planet.

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