John Taylor, Thames waterman and entrepreneurial pamphleteer, styled himself as the ‘king’s water-poet’ and the ‘queen’s waterman.’ His career spanned four decades and he applied his wit to satire, parody, history, political writing, and everyday irritations. Critics are far from complimentary to Taylor’s style: “What a scribbler he was! What a capacity he had to say in many words what could have been said in few … He bombasted the whole business” (Notestein 206-207). He remained proud of his English style of rhyming couplets and irregular meter, despite the criticism. Taylor was among the first to popularize travel literature, to use subscriptions to finance publication, to write without the support of a patron, and to write nonsense verse in English.
The son of a surgeon, he was born between 1577-1580 (sources vary), and died in 1653, the proprietor of a public house. Taylor’s education began at a Gloucester grammar school, and ended when he was unable to master Latin grammar. As an apprentice waterman, before the closing of the south shore Thames theatres, he came in contact with actors, gentry, and the educated elite. Soon, however, he was pressed into the service of the Royal Navy. After seven voyages, Taylor returned to London as a waterman, a career he continued until 1622, despite the success of The Sculler, Rowing from Tiber to Thames (1612).
As the title page states, The Sculler is a “hotch-potch, or Gallimawfry of Sonnets, Satyres, and Epigrams”. It includes two types of poems: anti-Catholic epigrams and satirical caricatures of court figures. The Sculler was published with Taylor’s own funds and lacked the effusive dedications employed by court poets. Its popularity enabled him to continue writing and publishing birthday odes, sonnets, epigrams, elegies, epithalamia, and rants about everyday life. He was also known to burlesque the work of his rivals. One such satire was Laugh and be Fat or a Commentary upon the Odcombyan Banket, which James I ordered to be burned because it was too obviously based on a work by rival travel writer Thomas Coryate. Eventually he would publish a folio of his writings as “a way to legitimize and preserve his works” (Panek 261). After this publication he abandoned poetry while continuing to write prose, for which education and rank were less important. These tracts are very rare since Taylor was arrested in 1649, because of his contacts with royalists; his books and papers were confiscated.
Taylor supplemented his income by obtaining subscriptions for pamphlets not yet written. Before going on a voyage, he would circulate ‘Taylor Bills’ that advertised his intention to travel. Those interested would pay in advance to ensure they would receive a copy of the account of his travels upon his return. In total, Taylor made ten journeys: to various inns of England, less travelled parts of Scotland and Wales, to Germany, and exotic Bohemia. He praised those who treated him well and ridiculed those who did not.
Taylor contributed to literature though he was not classically educated; he was able to gain popularity and maintain it. Still, later critics criticize his writing claiming that “although Taylor complacently styled himself the ‘king’s water-poet’ and the ‘queen’s waterman,’ he can at best be only regarded as a literary bargee” (Goodwin 433). Despite his critics, Taylor had a different view of his own style:
Sometimes the wits
and tongues do, most unfit,
Travell, when tongues do run before the wit.
But if they both keep company together,
Delight and profit is in both, or eyther.
(Taylor, "The Certain Travailes of an Uncertain Journey")