Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Elizabethan Poem in Praise of Cannabis

by Stephen J. Gertz

Frontispiece portrait of John Taylor,
engraved by Thomas Cockson,
from The Workes of John Taylor (1630).

“Sweet sacred Muses, my invention raise
Unto the life, to write great Hempseeds praise...”

So begins The Praise of Hemp-seed, a minor epic poem dating from 1620  by John Taylor (1580 - 1653), who, though all but unknown to modern readers, was a prolific writer with over 150 works published in his lifetime and was amongst the most popular poets of the Elizabethan Era.

Known as “The Water Poet” - his primary source of income derived from his profession as a waterman, the trade of boatmen who ferried passengers across the Thames - his poetry, while far from gemstone, was notable for its diamond wit and keen  observations of the contemporary social and cultural scene.

Of what use is hemp?

“This grain grows to a stalk, whose coat or skin
Good industry doth hatchell twist, and spin,
And for mans best advantage and availes
It makes clothes, cordage, halters, ropes and sailes.”

Taylor enumerates the many manufacturers and trades dependent upon hemp, not the least of which are pharmacy:

“Apothecaries were not worth a pin,
If Hempseed did not bring their commings in;
Oyles, Unguents, Sirrops, Minerals, and Baulmes,
(All nature’s treasures, and th’Almighties almes),
Emplasters, Simples, Compounds, sundry drugs
With Necromanticke names like fearful Bugs,
Fumes, Vomits, purges, that both cures, and kils,
Extractions, conserves, preserves, potions, pils,
Elixirs, simples, compounds, distillations,
Gums in abundance, brought from foreign nations.”

All manner of physical complaint is relieved. “Most serviceable Hempseed but for thee, These helpes for man could not thus scattered be.”

One of the more notable aspects of The Praise of Hempseed is that within Taylor acknowledges the death of Shakespeare four years earlier and his place in poetry’s firmament; he was the first poet to do so:

“In paper, many a poet now survives
Or else their lines had perish’d with their lives.
Old Chaucer, Gower, and Sir Thomas More,
Sir Philip Sidney, who the laurel wore,
Spenser, and Shakespeare did in art excell,
Sir Edward Dyer, Greene, Nash, Daniel,
Sylvester, Beaumont, Sir John Harrington.
Forgetfulness their works would over run
But that in paper they immortally
Do live in spite of death, and cannot die.”

Taylor may have known William Shakespeare. In The True Cause of the Waterman’s Suit Concerning Players (1613 or 1614) he writes about the waterman’s dispute with London theater companies, which in 1612 had moved from the south bank of the Thames to the north, thus depriving the ferrymen of lucrative traffic.

Taylor was unabashedly attracted to the pleasures of life; amongst his many poems is A Bawd. A vertuous bawd, a modest bawd: as she deserves, reproove or else applaud (London: [printed by Augustine Mathewes] for Henry Gosson, 1635).

While we're on the subject , let us not pass over Taylor’s statement of hemp’s efficacy in matters of passion:

“Besides it is an easie thing to prove
It is a soveraigne remedie for love.”

A fascinating aside: Taylor wrote one of the earliest palindromes whose authorship can be firmly credited, one that celebrates a lifestyle of dubious morality, hempseed and the flesh:

“Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel.”

The title page to The Praise of Hemp-seed contains a declaration that could have come out of the mouth of hemp’s favorite spokesman in the modern world, actor Woody Harrelson:

“The Profits arising from Hemp-seed are
Clothing, Food, Fishing, Shipping
Pleasure, Profit, Justice, Whipping.”

Don’t know about the whipping. Lashes made from braided hemp threads? Shades of psychopathic Harrelson in Natural Born Killers!

In seventeenth century England the hemp plant was exploited for all it was worth. Contrary to Armour Meat Packing’s famous claim that when processing pigs they used everything but the squeal, when hemp was processed in Elizabethan England, they used everything and the squeal - of pleasure.

It is a measure of how literary reputations, popularity, and book collecting tastes ebb and flow that in 1902 a copy of the 1630 folio edition of The Workes of John Taylor sold for an astounding half of  what a Shakespeare Second Folio (1632) fetched, 100% more than what a first edition of John Donne’s Poems (1633) sold for in the same year (Out of Print & Into Profit, p. 203).

Now, unfortunately, when we think of the Waterman, if we think of him at all, we probably think of this latter-day H2O-guy:

It’s enough to drive a body into the arms of Mary Jane. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

TAYLOR, John. The Praise of Hemp-Seed. With the voyage of Mr. Roger Bird and the writer hereof, in a boat of brown-paper, to Quinborough in Kent. First edition. London: [printed by E. Allde] for H. Gosson, 1620.

STC 23788.

The Praise of Hemp-Seed is an exceedingly rare book. OCLC/KVK record only one hard copy (many on microfilm or digital file) of the first edition and only a handful of the second edition i1623) in institutional holdings worldwide. ABPC reports no copies of either edition at auction within the last thirty-five years.

Read the complete text of The Praise of Hemp-Seed here.


  1. "whipping" probably refers to rope whipping using hemp, hemp ropes where the technology that powered the Elizabethan navy and the merchant navy

  2. Great post... Coincidentally, I was just reading Louisa May Alcott's short story, "Perilous Play," which is about a similar topic and written by someone who's been dead for a while (though not quite as long as Taylor).

  3. it's kinda too good to be true that it was written in 1620. that's 24-hour time for 4:20

  4. does it mean they were smoking and gettin high?


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