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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:

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.

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Hide Your Fires: On Shakespeare and the ‘Noted Weed’

Reports spread this week that the English language’s most celebrated writer might have smoked marijuana, but the fuss only reveals how little is known about the Bard of Avon.

Folger Shakespeare Library

The Internet has been aflame in recent days over the question of whether William Shakespeare, the most venerated figure in the English language, liked to get high. Media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic jumped on forensic analysis of pipes from Shakespeare’s garden, with many taking irreverent delight in how they reported the news that the Bard of Avon may have smoked marijuana. People were so excited about the news, in fact, that they failed to notice that it wasn’t news at all—but merely a resurrection of a study from 2001. This isn’t even the first time that the media has revived this story—the study led to several articles back in 2011 as well. But the episode is emblematic of a larger issue: the huge discrepancy between public adulation of Shakespeare and historical knowledge of the man himself, and the desire of many to fill that void.

The study in question, from the South African researcher Francis Thackeray and his colleagues, certainly warrants public interest. Thackeray, an anthropologist, told me he was inspired to investigate whether Shakespeare enjoyed marijuana while reading the author’s poems—specifically Sonnet 76, which contains the verse, “Why write I still all one, ever the same/ And keep invention in a noted weed,” as well as a reference to “compounds strange.” Thackeray and his team analyzed 24 pipe fragments from in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, including several from Shakespeare’s birthplace and the home he owned later in his life at New Place. The tests found strong evidence for use of nicotine and, more surprisingly, cocaine—a fascinating discovery for anyone interested in the consumption habits of Elizabethan England.

Evidence for marijuana was less substantive. The 2001 study states that “unequivocal evidence for cannabis has not been obtained.” The researchers did detect mass-to-charge ratios of compounds that were indicative of compounds derived from marijuana, but not in quantities sufficient for proof. The study argues that the lack of evidence may be “associated with the effects of heating, and problems in identifying traces of cannabinoids in old samples,” but ultimately concludes that “the results are suggestive but do not prove the presence of cannabis.” Thackeray told me that he has since revisited the data and believes the evidence for cannabis to be more substantial than before, but this apparently strengthened evidence is not seen in any new reports.

Aside from the lack of any conclusive proof for presence of marijuana, it’s even harder to tie the pipes directly to Shakespeare himself. They have been dated only according to their size and dimensions—the study says that they “probably date to the 17th century.” (Shakespeare died in 1616, for reference.) The provenance of the fragments does little better, as scholars can’t say how much time Shakespeare actually spent at his final home of New Place, and his birthplace became an inn in the early 17th century. Short of digging up Shakespeare’s body and putting it through chemical testing (and Thackeray has proposed doing just that in the past), there’s slim evidence to indicate that Shakespeare was a stoner.

Stories like these continue to seize the public’s imagination because there’s still so little information about one of the most studied figures in history. Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., gave me the rundown of what is known about the Bard: He was born in Stratford-upon Avon; he moved to London and had a successful career as a poet, actor, and playwright; and he eventually retired from the London stage and returned to Stratford, where he bought a home for himself and his family. And yet there’s little information about his educational background, and there are a whole seven years of his life—between the birth of his twin children and his arrival in London—for which there are no records whatsoever.

It’s no wonder then that new claims about Shakespeare’s life draw so much attention. Take, for instance, the alleged discovery of Shakespeare’s dictionary by two New York booksellers, which prompted a piece in The New Yorker questioning the collective hunger for relics tied to the playwright. Articles from earlier this year reported on the claim that a likeness of Shakespeare had been discovered in a late-16th-century botanical book, and still others puzzled over several different portraits purported to depict the “real” Shakespeare. And that’s without even delving into articles about whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, or gay, or hey, did he even write any of those plays?

Many of these discoveries and theories end up being either debunked or disregarded by Shakespeare scholars, mainly because they fail to fulfill the very specific criteria these scholars require to verify authenticity. “The standard is very high with a new ‘discovery’ about Shakespeare,” Witmore said, “and it is that we should feel that it is unreasonable to doubt the assertion.” That is, scholars must be able to discount all other alternative explanations for the discovery before they can agree that it’s attributable to the Bard. Witmore and his colleague, Heather Wolfe, actually provide a thorough overview of the painstaking verification steps Shakespeare scholars must take in their response to the discovery of the dictionary. Unfortunately, what don’t receive the same degree of public attention are the new discoveries that scholars have verified, among them being the fact that Shakespeare may have had a co-author on up to a third of his plays, according to Witmore.

Just because most Shakespeare discoveries tend to be unverifiable doesn’t mean that future announcements of new findings will be greeted with any less enthusiasm. “It is startling that anyone could have written so creatively for so long, and that a set of works would continue to speak to people and be adapted from one language and place in time to another,” Witmore said. “I think that is fundamentally difficult to explain, and in a way it’s both inspiring and, as an achievement, mystifying, which is why we still have questions.” Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, meaning surely the analysis is just beginning.

Reports spread this week that the English language’s most celebrated writer might have smoked marijuana, but the fuss only reveals how little is known about the Bard of Avon.