Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Spirit and the Muse: The Anxiety of Religious Positioning in John Taylor's Prewar Polemics

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Spirit and the Muse: The Anxiety of Religious Positioning in John Taylor's Prewar Polemics

Article excerpt

The preacher whose instructions, doe afford

The soules deare food, the euerliuing Word:

If Poets skill be banished from his braine,

His preaching (sometimes) will be but too plaine:

Twixt poetry and best diuinity

There is such neere and deare affinity,

As 'twere propinquity of brothers blood,

(John Taylor, Workes, II, 247)

The critical community does not revere John Taylor (1578-1653), perhaps not surprisingly. Most agree that Taylor, the self-styled 'King's Water-poet', was not for all time, but for an age. Indeed, he is most notable for the colossal disparity between his contemporary acclaim and his modern obscurity. He was one of the most widely read authors in Stuart England, and Bernard Capp's recent book, the first monograph to treat Taylor, both appreciates the unique flavour of his work and gives long-overdue recognition to his importance as a representative of attitudes toward politics and poetry in the period. Capp argues convincingly that Taylor merits further study, and indeed when literary criticism of the English civil war period takes too tight a focus, we risk forgetting the importance of popular literature to the culture that produced Milton, Marvell, Herrick, and Lovelace. This paper will investigate a moment late in Taylor's life that deserves further critical attention than Capp has given it - the crucial point just before the onset of the civil war, when Taylor began explicitly to politicize his lifelong taste for religious polemic. The tension and personal ambivalence that creep into his most fervid attacks on radical sectarians illustrate an often disturbing intersection of religious conviction, patriotic loyalty, and class interest.

Taylor was one of the most prolific popular writers of the seventeenth century. Even before the suspension of licensing and the explosion of print culture that accompanied the abolition of the Star Chamber in July 1641, Taylor's output had been immense, and his readers were quite willing to pay for it. In 1630 he published a folio volume of his works - an act of literary hubris for a popular writer, for which Taylor's idol Ben Jonson had been ridiculed in 1616 - and by 1642, Taylor could claim to have produced 220 titles. Each of these works was not individually intended to have universal appeal; Taylor's astonishing range of genres was capable of offering something to please courtiers, burghers, and servants alike. Among other things, the Workes contains moral essays, satire on court figures, verse chronicles, funeral elegies for nobles (including one for James I), comic encomia on beggars, bawds, and thieves, narratives of his own extensive travels, a life of the Virgin Mary, and an account of a famous glutton, the 'Great Eater of Kent'.

Taylor's early career was one of public self-fashioning. He was, in Capp's phrase, 'the first modern "personality"',1 and solicited any attention he could muster, whether it was for a hot pamphlet duel, a highly publicized journey to Scotland, or an attempt to row to Queenborough in a paper boat. He was always aware of the incongruity between his class and his aspirations to be a poet, and he cultivated that incongruity as a curiosity. The nickname 'waterpoet', by which he is still known, he took from his trade. As a waterman, he ferried passengers across, up, and down the Thames, particularly between the city proper and the liberties of Bankside and Southwark, and Capp associates this activity emblematically with Taylor's literary strategy. As a 'cultural amphibian', a ferryman between the educated elite and the urban working class, he is an illustration of the fluidity of social and cultural life.

His own social positioning was indeed fluid. He both solicited the attention of the elite at court and fought for the economic independence of his fellow watermen. His trade brought him into contact with players, lawyers, and poets, but it also made it unlikely that his own verse would ever be taken seriously. …

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