Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 12. John Taylor, the Thames waterman

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 12. John Taylor, the Thames waterman

John Minsheu, the lexicographer, indeed, took matters into his own hands, and, in 1617, printed “at his owne charge, for the publicke good,” his polyglot dictionary, Ductor in linguas; but, as stationers boycotted the book, he was forced to seek subscribers for it himself, and the experiment does not seem to have been a success. John Taylor, the Thames waterman, also resorted to publication by subscription, and, in his case, his whimsical personality, added to the amusement afforded by the rough wit and boisterous humour of his effusions, secured a large number of patrons. Before starting on one of his eccentric journeys, he would circulate a quantity of prospectuses or “Taylor’s bills,” as he called them, with the object of securing subscribers for the account of his travels to be afterwards published. In this way, he obtained more than sixteen hundred subscribers to The Pennyles Pilgrimage (1618), a record of his journey on foot into Scotland. On the strength of this list, he had 4500 copies printed, but nearly half the subscribers refused to pay, and he castigated the defaulters in an amusing brochure entitled A Kicksey Winsey, or, A Lerry Come-Twang, which he issued in the following year. He also worked off copies of his publications by “presenting” them to various people, not forgetting to call on the morrow for “sweet remuneration.” But, notwithstanding king James’s dictum, as reported by Ben Jonson, that he did not “see ever any verses in England equal to the Sculler’s,” Taylor cannot be accounted as anything more than a voluminous scribbler, possessed of irrepressible assurance and facile wit of a coarse vein. He had, however, the saving grace of acute observation of men and manners, and this has given his productions a certain value for the student of social history. The term “literary bargee” befits him much better than his own self-styled title “the water-poet”; and his unrelenting satirical persecution of Thomas Coryate shows him in an unamiable light. In 1630, he gathered into one folio volume, which he called All the Workes of John Taylor the Water-poet, sixty-three of his pieces in prose and verse; but, before his death, in 1653, the number of his publications had exceeded one hundred and fifty.