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.”

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