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The World of John Taylor the Water Poet: 1578-1653

Bernard Capp. 1578-1653. New York and Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. 7 pls. + 211 pp. $39.95.

Though this is, and almost certainly will be for years to come, the definitive book on John Taylor, its true virtue is that it engages with a number of exciting debates within the fields of English social, political, and cultural history. The trajectory of John Taylor's life -- Thames waterman, published poet, projector, royalist pamphleteer -- provides Capp with an excellent opportunity to explore the social and cultural dynamics of seventeenth-century England. A prolific writer, John Taylor penned, by Capp's estimate, approximately 150 separate titles. However, such prodigious productivity alone has not fixed Taylor's place as an object of scholarly attention, and one of the strongest aspects of Capp's work is the skill with which he urges that Taylor be taken seriously.

According to Capp, Taylor allows us "a fascinating glimpse into the world of a seventeenth-century Englishman of humble background and status" (1). In contrast to this view of Taylor as seventeenth-century everyman, Capp also claims that Taylor's story "has its own intrinsic interest," for it reveals an individual who was able to create "a bizarre new identity for himself as `the king's water-poet'" (2). Finally, the success of this new identity and of the published work through which it was purveyed is seen usefully to disrupt the simplistic dichotomy between elite and popular culture, demanding a more complex model capable of recognizing not only the shifting and permeable border between elite and popular, but also the fractures within the field of popular culture itself that is too often simplified and homogenized. In exploring each of these lines of investigation, Capp touches on several points of controversy that now engage historians of the period. Thus we are given an admirable account of the political ferment in the Watermen's Company in the early 1640s (146-50), a suggestive meditation on the eclecticism of much Protestant lay belief in the seventeenth century (132-40), and a vivid depiction of the period leading up to 1640 that suggests, in a mildly revisionist vein, that there was indeed no high road to civil war.

Pursuing the notion that Taylor is an exemplary seventeenth-century Englishman of humble background and status, Capp explicitly contrasts him with Nehemiah Wallington, a seventeenth-century Puritan whose incessant diary-keeping has been examined by Paul Seaver (1, 36). The argument within this contrast becomes clear when Capp claims that Taylor "speaks for a far wider constituency than the tormented Puritan" (1). The rough-speaking bon vivant with a traditional sense of morality based on reciprocal obligations within a hierarchical social world probably did speak for a wider constituency than did Wallington. However, Capp underestimates the differences between printed pamphlets and private diaries, downplaying the possibility that texts geared for the market may be less than ingenuous. Recognizing what he terms Taylor's "self-fashioning," he nonetheless tends to take Taylor's print pronouncements as reliable evidence of his actions and beliefs. Without irony, Capp points out that Taylor's "life was a series of picaresque adventures and humorous encounters, with more than a passing resemblance to a Fielding novel" (36).

If the book puzzles, it is because a tension remains between two of its main arguments. On the one hand, Taylor is identified as an exceptional creature, a "cultural amphibian" with a "rare ability" to create a bridge between urban tradesmen and a social elite (49, 193). On the other hand, Taylor is recognized, in contrast to Wallington, as the true representative of the age. In part this tension is the result of writing history in the form of a vita. A life is a strangely arbitrary unit -- a point emphasized by the title dates, 1578-1653 -- especially for what is in actuality offered as a cultural history: The World of John Taylor. Capp's argument for the broad yet complex and divided popular culture that determines this "world" is very attractive, but fully to convince it would need to demonstrate that Taylor's cultural project was not idiosyncratic, and to do that it would need to give greater attention to the publishers, printers and readers who made the bizarre and fascinating figure of John Taylor, The Water Poet, possible.
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Author:Lander, Jesse M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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