Of Canons and Marginal Poets

In 1630 the entirety of the poet John Taylor’s work up until that point was printed in the relatively expensive folio form, something that had only previously been done for the historian and poet Samuel Daniel, the playwright Ben Jonson, and of course seven years earlier with the complete plays of William Shakespeare. These printings of Daniel, Jonson, and Shakespeare (whose folio was published posthumously and at the urging of Jonson who financially benefited from it) were in some sense avant-garde, for while religious and classical works were often distributed in this format, the seemingly ephemeral media of vernacular poetry and especially drama did not seem to warrant such lavish packaging. Jonson’s folio contains his classic plays such as 1605’s Volpone and 1610’s The Alchemist, Shakespeare’s listed in its contents the thirty-six plays which have made him the most celebrated writer in the English language. But what of this John Taylor, the self-styled “water poet” of Jacobean London?

He was a proud Thames boatman ferrying thousands of passengers across the river from Westminster to Southwark, where theaters, bear-baiting pits, and brothels lay beyond the reach of the Puritan leadership in London. A life-long boatman, he worked in a trade which employed at its height close to 20,000 men ferrying politicians and preachers, actors and writers, prostitutes and cut-purses, laborers and aristocrats over the fetid, stinking, putrid slog that was the early modern Thames. The table of contents for Taylor’s folio included accomplished verse as well as doggerel on the working class life of the city which now found itself the largest in Europe, as well as the earliest examples of what could be called investigative journalism when his brother and he traveled to Prague following that city’s infamous defenestration at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Readers were entertained by publicity stunts such as his trip to Edinburgh in pursuit of Jonson (with Taylor relying entirely upon strangers for support), and compendiums of useful information such as London tavern reviews. In 1630, fourteen years dead, Shakespeare was of course already in the process of being established as “not of an age, but for all time” (as Jonson put it in that folio’s dedicatory poem). Taylor was most certainly of his age, and yet we may stand to gain something if we try not necessarily to make him of our time, but to perhaps listen a bit to what he said of his.

Unless you are a scholar of sixteenth and seventeenth century literature you have probably never heard of John Taylor the Water Poet. Or for that matter Robert Greene, the bohemian university wit, or Richard Barnfield, the sodomitical sonneteer. Even if you are a scholar of early modern literature Greene is the only name you’d most likely be familiar with, and you would probably have to be a gender theorist to be familiar with Barnfield. These men, considered marginal writers, existed at the limits of their society. If not transgressive then they at least subverted some expectations of literary decorum, but not necessarily the decorum of their era (though sometimes they did that too). Rather they subvert our expectations of what we have come to consider canonical. One could add to this list writers like Thomas Nashe, the religious-propagandist for hire and author of the first novel in English, The Unfortunate Traveler. It’s a thrilling picaresque bildungsroman whose Jack Wilkins is forced to travel through the burnt-over country of the European wars of religion, and it deserves to be more widely read. Or Amelia Lanyer, who had the audacity to rewrite Genesis in defense of Eve. Or Robert Braithwaite, an early modern de Quincy who unapologetically celebrated his alcoholism. Or Robert Southwell, arguably the earliest metaphysical poet, who was also a pious Jesuit and found himself upon Queen Elizabeth’s pyres at Tyburn and whose skin was used to bind a book about his blasphemies. I do not mean to suggest the existence of an unidentified school with these incredibly varied figures. 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. The canon of Renaissance English literature has always been a variable list, from Dr. Johnson in the eighteenth century who first conceptualized the imaginary war between metaphysical and Cavalier poets, to Francis Turner Palgrave in the nineteenth century whose Golden Treasury set the rough contours of the canon as we’ve come to think of it, to the twentieth century renegade critic Yvor Winters who extolled little known poets like George Gascoigne and Thomas Campion as the equals of Shakespeare, and who divided the poets into Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan. In the twentieth century, feminist and queer critics helped to expand the canon while conservatives like Harold Bloom guarded the fortress of “Dead White Males” who constituted that list. And who are the standard names we see? A good approximation of it would be that Shakespeare, Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Phillip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and John Milton (depending on how “Renaissance” a given scholar considers him) are permanently on that list. Even Donne is a relatively recent addition with the enthusiasm of the New Critics and poets such as T.S. Eliot a century ago. Poets like Greene, Barnfield, and Taylor seems automatically of a different class than the exalted names which fill syllabi and comprehensive examination lists. Yet some of them had their moments of popularity in the past. C.S. Lewis, though disgusted by Barnfield’s homosexuality, acknowledged the genius of his verse, and Robert Southey thought Taylor a minor genius. Canons are ever malleable things, a given poet’s stock can both rise and fall. That writers like Greene, Barnfield, and Taylor are on the outs now doesn’t mean that they always were, or that they always will be. That they are today marginal may seem a given, but how are they transgressive?

Translated into our vernacular, can we say that Greene was a bohemian, Barnfield was gay, or that Taylor was working class? To do so risks pushing us into that fallacious presentism that flattens the distance between them and us, generating a category mistake in imposing our perspective onto that foreign country that is the past. Seemingly generations of high school teachers have tried to make Shakespeare more appealing to disinterested students by claiming that he was the equivalent of a Hollywood screenwriter, but to make this claim is to ignore the perhaps very literal but also very pertinent fact that movies didn’t exist in early modern England. This is not a small issue; denizens of the past were not just like us only covered in more dirt and with less sophisticated technology. Their head-space was different from ours. The twentieth century French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault claimed that time periods were defined by what he called epistimes, ideological structures which dominate and circumscribe what sorts of ideas are possible within a given cultural context. To take an example from religion, atheism that is vociferously materialist and makes positive denials of the transcendent or supernatural doesn’t seem to really exist before a relatively modern moment. The term “atheist” existed, but it didn’t mean what it means today, and scholars like Lucian Lefebvre doubted whether it could exist in the past. “Atheist” could mean “atomist,” or “heretic,” or “Epicurean,” or even “skeptic,” but it didn’t mean what it means today because what it means today was impossible to think in a past dominated by religious faith. In the same way, concepts like the bohemianism I associate with Greene don’t really emerge until the nineteenth century. They are reliant on certain requirements, like the emergence of a capitalist economic order to rebel against, or Romantic aesthetic theories of inspiration. It’s the same with the concept of homosexuality as a static and essential identity. This perspective doesn’t really emerge until almost the turn of the twentieth century. And yet to read the writings of Greene and Barnfield one finds oneself respectively reading the work of a bohemian and a gay man.

Some helpful critical terminology can be borrowed from the twentieth century Marxist critic Raymond Williams, who argued that these sorts of ideological constructs can be dominant, residual, or emergent in our society. That is to say that in any given time period a range of conceptual possibilities do exist, but what marks a given period as different from another one is the proportion of these various conceptual possibilities in relation to one another. As such, we can think of my “movement” as not just marginal, and not just transgressive, but emergent as well. Greene, Barnfield and Taylor did the things people had always done, but in expressing them they provide clues to the ways perhaps universal human activity was localized in a particular time and place, namely in early modern England. They offer us a transgressive poetics of the emergent marginalized, a prehistory of identities we associate with the contemporary world.

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.

Eliabethan drinking

As the driver of a passenger-boat, Taylor got to meet some interesting friends. These associates included the playwright Thomas Dekker whose “canting pamphlets” supplied dictionaries for the respectable to understand the vocabulary of London’s criminal underworld, and where he displayed an ear for regular speech that made him the David Mamet of the day. Or Edward Alleyn, the greatest actor of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage who had been so spooked by the seeming appearance of an actual demon during one of the incantation scenes in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that he donated 35,000 pounds for the founding of Dulwich College, but who was not so spooked that he had any problem collecting payment from a brothel he owned at Southwark. For that matter, neither did his father-in-law who required a portion of those profits as part of his daughter’s dowry, and who happened to be the Dean of St. Paul’s. This father-in-law was a poet himself (of no small fame) named John Donne. And of course, among all of his compatriots which included actors, writers, members of court, bishops and ministers, there was chief among them all the great Ben Jonson.

The poet Alexander Brome wrote of the two friends “Jonson and Taylor in their kind were both/Good wits, who like one, need not t’other loathe. /Wit is like beauty, Nature made the Joan/As well’s the Lady,” comparing Jonson as “Lady,” to Taylor as mere “Joan,” understood as a common hum-drum sort of woman, but one who is not without her own charms. There were similarities of course, such as Jonson’s experimental 1614 masterpiece Bartholomew Fair with its bawdy, cockney characters like Littlewit, Quarlous, and Winwife, it’s anal-retentive Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, and of course his ultimate triumph Ursula the Pig Woman. They are all mixed together on one day in the city’s eponymous fair. The play demonstrated an ear for common speech, just like Taylor in the best of his writing. But there was no mistaking the two in terms of literary station. Jonson may have also come from modest origins, but he was a graduate of Cambridge who exhibited great classical learning in his translations of Horace. Taylor on the other hand would seem to be more classifiable with the almost entirely forgotten balladeers of the time, such as his other friend John Trundell who published common-metered songs on broad-sheets popular in the streets and taverns of the metropolis.

The Cavalier movement of poetry, exemplified by men like Robert Herrick, John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace embodies the lusty world-view of gentlemanly leisure. They celebrate copious drinking, aristocratic nobility, classical learning, and a love of the traditional way of life which was being swept aside by the new science and the new religion in equal measure. But where that “School of Ben” admitted the well-educated and the well-connected, Taylor was the equivalent of a New York City cab-driver (and would have been seen as such by his contemporaries). Though he was occasionally the head of the boatman’s guild, the largest in the city, and he was not for want of privileged and powerful associates. As already mentioned, men like Jonson considered Taylor to be a friend, and encouraged his artistic ambitions. It’s true that Taylor’s verse can’t possibly stand next to the true greats of English Renaissance literature. Unlike Barnfield, or even Greene, his reputation was not tarnished by implications of sundry behavior, but rather it rose and fell on the merits of its own quality. Yet if Taylor lacked the metaphysical conceit, the turn of phrase, or the sheer wit of men like George Herbert and Donne, than he still had charm. Indeed while Taylor doesn’t match the technical virtuosity or the philosophical and technical acumen of more famous poets, he does in some ways have more of an accessibility.

Taylor had the consummate ability to turn a simple phrase, a skill that makes him more similar to a Madison Avenue advertising executive than to Donne. Indeed he was a master of marketing, as the gimmick of his trailing Jonson to Scotland demonstrated. In this way his working class connections kept him grounded in the vernacular, to the pulse of the streets (or the river) where ballads and broadsheets were more popular that the erudite circulated manuscripts of the academic poets. As Taylor would have put it, “Better fed than taught.” Indeed his work is replete with these sorts of aphorisms, as in “A simple maiden in her flower is worth a thousand coat of arms,” or “For man is man, and master of his fate.” Taylor’s work extolled the simplicity of solid, conservative English values, and the aphorisms he penned reflected that. In some sense he reminds one of Benjamin Franklin, whose Puritan work ethic and plain style marked him as a particular type of writer, albeit one who was not above stating some of his adages with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Indeed Franklin himself plagiarized Taylor directly, in the 1735 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac when he wrote “God sends meat, and the devil sends cooks.” It’s consummate Taylor, simple, but with an eye towards classical rhetoric in its parallelism. But though he was not a Donne or Jonson, Taylor was at least an enthusiast for the joy in language, how it sounds in the ear, and feels in the mouth. He was in his own way a harsh critic of his own skills, yet he took a joy in playing with language, which is still apparent four centuries later. Witness his palindrome, “Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel,” which despite its classic Calvinist message is an example of where form is more important than function. Taylor enjoys rhetoric and language, and the enthusiasm is obvious.

But Taylor, for his own self-image as a rustic entertainer who saw no shame in providing for the mass public what they wanted, was not averse to more serious messages. In his poem “The Description of Tyburn” he describes that cursed field in London that was wetted with the blood of martyrs both Protestant and Catholic. Site of so many executions under Henry, and then his Catholic daughter Mary, and then her Protestant sister Elizabeth; it was in many ways representative of the bloody sectarianism which marked the period. Though he was a solid conservative and advocate for the Church of England, it was the moderate via media of that denomination that in part attracted him. He writes “I Have heard sundry men oft times dispute/Of trees, that in one year will twice bear fruit./But if a man note Tyburn, ‘will appear,/That that’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.” The image of executed men being similar to a “Strange Fruit” reminds one of the jazz classic of that title by Abel Meeropol which took lynching as its subject. And for Taylor, despite this being the site of execution for ostensibly heretics, he allows that “The dying fruit is well prepared for heaven, /And many times a man may gather thence/Remorse, devotion, and true penitence.” He ends with “My pen from paper with this Prayer doth part, /God bless all people from their sins depart.”

In some ways it’s anachronistic to label and categorize these poets by more modern categories. Can we call Greene a bohemian, Barnfield homosexual, and Taylor working class? And though at the margins, is it fair to label them as transgressive? It’s true that some of them did transgress the morals of their day (as in Barnfield) and others certainly did not (as in Taylor). And yet what they transgress are our own expectations of a world which often seems inaccessibly foreign. The past has been defined to as in particular ways, and who is mentioned and who we are silent about are all choices that construct that past in ways that can sometimes be arbitrary. Though in one way it’s anachronistic to categorize these poets in particular ways, in others they came from a period not so unlike our own. If there is one thing they shared, it was access to the means of communication. England, indeed Europe, had undergone a media revolution after a century and a half of print, and in taverns and churchyards voices from the margins were able to reach a mass audience. Time has dulled those voices, but now we find ourselves in the midst of a new media revolution, with digital means of communication spreading information in ways that could revolutionize our culture as surely print did theirs. Debates have raged over who is allowed into a cannon and who is not, the potential of the digital is that it allows us to construct new cannons. In the Greek, “anthology” literally means a gathering of flowers. Greene, Barnfield and Taylor are but three flowers that could be pressed into a collection. The period they represent was filled with more voices than those you have traditionally heard of, it was a mighty choir. Now that we have the means, it’s time to listen to those voices as well.

Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he studies early modern religion and literature. He is a contributor at several sites, and can be followed at both edsimon.org and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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