Ropes, Shirts or Dirty Socks

Adam Smyth

  • Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky
    Norton, 416 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 35370 9

In 1619, for a bet, John Taylor – prolific poet, proud Londoner, waterman, prankster, anti-pollution campaigner, barman, literary celebrity, palindrome enthusiast (‘Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel’) – sailed forty miles down the Thames to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from brown paper. He fashioned oars from dried fishes tied to sticks, and strapped inflated animal bladders to the sides of the boat to help it float. Taylor was not a shy man. His list of expansive jests included, in 1618, a walk to Scotland with no money, a parody of Ben Jonson’s more famous trip of the same year, which led to his subscription-funded account of The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Majesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging. By the time Taylor died in 1653, he had published more than 150 printed texts, including Laugh, and be fat; a miniature summarised Bible in verse; and The old, old, very old man, a verse biography of 152-year-old Thomas Parr. Taylor celebrated his paper boat trip in print, too, with a poem published in 1620 as The Praise of Hemp-Seed. As poetry it never rises above the laborious (‘Our rotten bottom all to tatters fell,/And left our boat as bottomless as hell’), its rhyming couplets as predictable as the pull of the oars. But Taylor’s lurching verse is significant in other ways: it provides the first printed mention of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont, who had died four years before, and is a powerful encomium to paper.

Taylor identifies two distinct, magical qualities that paper possesses. On the one hand, paper is ‘th’Eternall Testament of all our Weale’: it enables writers to defeat time. Poets, including Chaucer, ‘Sedney’, ‘Spencer’, Dyer, Greene, ‘Nash’ and ‘Daniell’, whose lines otherwise ‘had perish’d with their lives’, ‘in Paper they immortally/Do live in spight of Death, and cannot die’ – including Shakespeare, a writer (Taylor implies) for the material page, not the stage. (As ever, the 17th century’s sense of its emerging literary canon is only somewhat similar to our sense of that canon today.) Paper’s second remarkable quality is its material inconstancy: a sheet of paper has always been something else, and Taylor likes to think of this something else as a kind of ghost, a partially present other life. The pages carrying the words of Shakespeare were once ropes, or shirts, and these items, in turn, were owned by people from wildly different strata of society: today’s sonnet is written on ‘the Linnen of some Countesse, or some Queene …/Mix’d with the rags of some Baud, Theefe, or Whore’. Taylor, as he rowed theatregoers across the Thames, puffing out his cheeks in resentment, assumed the role of the literary outlier. He lingers over paper’s consolation: its muddling of hierarchies, its ironic blending of high and low, its whispered implication that things might be different.

May not the Linnin of a Tiburn slave,
More honour then a mighty Monarke have?
That though he dyed a Traytor most disloyall,
His Shirt may be transform’d to Paper royall.
And may not dirty Socks, from off the feet
From thence be turnd to a Crowne-paper sheet?

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