If I were an avid smoker of marijuana, I’d be familiar with the plant species Cannabis sativa, which, when processed correctly, would be my steadfast companion on occasions of indulgence.
If, on the other hand, I were a practitioner or lover of erotic roleplaying involving bondage, I might be aware of the plant as I grabbed a hemp rope to the delight of my consensual partner.
And, if I were a farmer, I would probably know that Cannabis sativa could be responsible for insulating my barn and feeding my animals, fueling my tractor and providing a warm bed for the horses.
However, in the unlikely event that I were a seventeenth century poet, I might collect as much of it as I could, make myself a boat, and launch into the water with absolute confidence that I'd row successfully to my destination.
At least that’s what John Taylor did, in 1620, with his trusty second mate, Roger Bird.
Born in 1578 in Gloucester, and of unknown parentage, the ‘Kings Water-Poet’, the moniker he crowned himself with after serving with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex on the 1596 expedition to Cadiz, took up residence in London and became a ferryman on the Thames.
‘Watermen’ were a hardened bunch, and his choice of occupation was known for its prevalence of insobriety, gossipmongery, untruths and cheating, and as such were often the brunt of the literary illuminati’s sharpened quill.
With many of London's theatres situated on the riverbank, and the overcrowded and smelly London Bridge, with its pickpockets and cutpurses, a path not lightly chosen, Taylor would inevitably ferry writers, actors, and playwrights across the Thames on a daily basis, and may have heard directly from the mouths of William Shakespeare (the playwright of dubious existence), Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, or John Lyly, just how lowly his peers were regarded.
It was about this time, annoyed by how he and his fellow watermen were talked about and demeaned, that he began writing, including one poem were particularly concerned with here, ‘The Praise of Hemp-Seed’, which gives some indication as to his passions for the material that he used to build his boat.
I feel that Taylor is probably best placed to lead us through this expedition, in which he ventured to Queenborough, a small town on the Isle of Sheppey (or, sheep, originally), in his own words, which appear toward the end of his paper-celebrating work.
“I therefore to conclude this much will note
How I of paper lately made a Boat,
And how in forme of Paper I did row,
From London unto Quinborough Ile show.”
Taylor appears to have taken up this, and other challenges, as a result of being thoroughly hacked off with his employment prospects. After Mary, Queen of Scots' son James VI and I (because if you’re a king you’re allowed to confuse people) took the reins as monarch and ruled through what we now call the Jacobean era, the number of watermen increased hugely (by about one-thousand every year), while fares had stayed the same for over fifty years, and theatres began relocating to the north bank from the south.
Angered by this triangulation of assaults on his ability to make ends meet, Taylor petitioned the King for some sort of official license to limit the competition. He, like Uber four hundred or so years later, had no luck, or even a response from the Scottish Solomon.
So, he decided to buck the system, by writing and initiating bizarre challenges for which he begged subscriptions, rather like a charity run, but far more interesting.
Which is why we find him sailing the Thames in a vessel made of brown hemp paper.