Saturday, November 07, 2020

William Taylor of Norwich - 'Kräftig, aber klappernd'.

Born in Norwich, William Taylor (7 November 1765 - 5 March 1836) was an essayist, scholar and translator of German Romantic literature. Along with Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey he was also a leading mediator in Anglo-German literary relations. Indeed, it was because of Taylor's early advocacy of German literature that the influential Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (Universal Literary Newspaper) could declare in 1796 -

'Incidentally, German literature has the greatest number of followers in Norwich, for understandable commercial reasons.' [1] 

In his lifetime Taylor was widely read. Importantly,  his translations of German poetry  bridged German Romanticism to English Romanticism. Taylor's translations influenced the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth to produce Lyrical Ballads (1798), a vanguard  literary work of Romanticism which, with its inclusion of Coleridge's long poem The rime of  the Ancient Mariner, changed the course of English poetry. 

More recently, Taylor's name and contribution to English appreciation of German literature is featured in Peter Watson's tour-de-force survey of German science and culture, The German Genius (2010) [2]

William Taylor's diverse  interests included - philology, etymology, chronology, topography, history sacred and profane, ancient and modern, political economy,  statistics, international law, municipal law, Talmudic legend, Muslim ethics, Biblical texts, churches and sects, parliamentary reform, slave trade and almost every category of modern European literature.  Among the thousands of reviews and essays which he wrote are those with titles such as, 'The Jews in England', 'Songs of the Negroes of Madagascar', 'Historic doubts concerning Joan of Arc', 'On the Sublime and Beautiful', an 'Ode in Praise of Tea' and, 'Of the Use of Ice as a Luxury'.

As the only child of a wealthy merchant who traded and exported Norwich goods to continental Europe, Taylor was fortunate in his education. He was taught by the English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children's literature, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743 - 1825) at her Palgrave Academy in Suffolk. 

Barbauld informed her former pupil of her reading aloud a poem translated by him at an Edinburgh literary soiree and of the reception it received -  

'Are you aware that you made Walter Scott a poet ? So he told me the other day I had the gratification of meeting him. It was, he says, your ballad of Leonora, and particularly the lines-

'Tramp, tramp across the land they speed: Splash, splash, across the sea'. [3]

Later, Taylor lauded Barbauld as, 'the mother of his mind'. Barbauld's own career as a poet ended abruptly in 1812, with the publication of her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, in which she severely criticized Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars. Shocked by the vicious reviews it received, she published nothing more. 

Anna Barbauld can been in a group of three Muses, standing beside an easel with arm raised, in Richard Samuels' painting Nine Living Muses of Great Britain (1779). 

Devoted to his mother, Taylor never married, but did have a friendship unto the death, begun during  his schooldays when  meeting the serious-minded theologian and antiquarian Frank Sayers (1763-1817) at Barbauld's Palgrave Academy. A portrait of Sayers painted by John Opie dated 1800, hung for many years in William Taylor's library, and in all probability both men were homosexual. [2] 

For many years Taylor's daily routine consisted of rising early and studying until noon, swimming in the River Wensum from a bath house upstream from the city, followed by a long walk in the afternoon. In the evening he liked to drink (heavily) and discuss linguistics, literature and philosophy in society. 

In May 1790 Taylor visited France; arriving at Paris he declared himself to have ‘kissed the earth on the land of liberty.’ He spent nine days at the National Assembly, listening to its speakers debate upon the governance of the new, revolutionary France. The fever of the times are characteristically described by him thus-

'I am at length in that point of space where the mighty sea of truth is in constant agitation and every billow dashes into fragments some deep-rooted rock of prejudice or buries in a viewless gulph some institution of gothic barbarism and superstition. I am at length in the neighbourhood of the National Assembly, that well-head of philosophical legislation whose pure streams are now overflowing the fairest country on earth, and will soon be sluiced off into the other realms of Europe, fertilising all with the living energy of its waters.' [4]

Upon his return to Norwich Taylor translated some of the decrees of the National Assembly and read them at a meeting of the Revolutionary Society (which was named after the 1688 British revolution, not the recent French revolution). 

In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, Taylor embarked on another tour of Europe, visiting France, Italy and Germany, partly on business for his father. In Paris he met the Norfolk-born political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791) 

In 1792, while visiting the Norfolk market-town of Alysham, the English satirical novelist and playwright Frances Burney, (1752-1840) noted of Norwich's political life -

'I am truly amazed to find this country filled with little revolution societies which transmit their notions to the larger committee at Norwich which communicates the whole to the reformists in London. I am told there is scarce a village in Norfolk free from these meetings'. [5] 

It was the British Prime Minister Pitt the Younger who called Norwich the Jacobin city after the clandestine French political movement which agitated for improved worker's rights and conditions. The historian E.P. Thompson in his groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Classes sets the scene for the radical politics of late 18th century Norwich.  

Norwich, an ancient stronghold of Dissent, with an abundance of small masters and artisans with strong traditions of independence, many have even surpassed Sheffield as the leading provincial centre of Jacobinism......... In August 1792, when the Norwich Revolution Society sponsored a cheap edition of Rights Of Man, it claimed to have forty-eight associated clubs. By October it claimed that the 'associated brethren' were not fewer than 2,000.

But Norwich, was, in other respects, by far the most impressive provincial city. Nineteen divisions of the Patriotic Society were active in September, and, in addition to the weavers, cordswainers, artisans, and shopkeepers who made up the society, it still carried the cautious support of the patrician merchant families, the Gurneys and the Taylors. Moreover, Norwich owned a gifted group of professional people, who published throughout 1795 a periodical - The Cabinet - which was perhaps the most impressive of the quasi-Jacobin intellectual publications of the period. Its articles ranged from close analysis of European affairs and the conduct of the a war, through poetic effusions, to disquisitions upon Machiavelli, Rousseau, the Rights of Women and Godwinian Socialism. Despite the many different degrees of emphasis, Norwich displayed a most remarkable consensus of anti-Ministerial feeling, from the Baptist chapels to the aspiring philosophes of The Cabinet from the 'Weavers Arms' (the headquarters of the patriotic Society) to the House of Gurney, from the Foxite Coke of Holkham to the labourers in the villages near the city. The organisation extended from Norwich to Yarmouth, Lynn, Wisbech and Lowestoft. [6]

Throughout his life William Taylor was a Unitarian, attending the newly-built Octagon chapel which was completed in 1756 in the Neo-Palladian style by architect Thomas Ivory (above). Classified  as  'liberal'  in the family of churches, Unitarians place emphasis on reason when interpreting scripture. Freedom of conscience and the pulpit are core values of its tradition. Unitarianism is also known for rejecting several orthodox Christian doctrines, including original sin, predestination, and the infallibility of the Bible. The Unitarian's tolerant creed catered well for the liberal beliefs of several leading Norwich citizens including William Taylor from the year of the Octagon Chapel's completion in 1756 to the present day. [7]

In Taylor's day, the late 18th and early 19th century, the Octagon congregation included most of Norwich's principal Whig families - the William Taylors and John Taylors (unrelated one to the other, the Marsh family (the carriers), several leading medical families, the Aldersons, Dalrymples and Martineaus, beside Alderman Elias Norgate, the Alderman John Green Basely, the Bolingbrokes, some of the Barnards and J.E. Smith the botanist.  [8]

Taylor's great literary protégé without doubt was George Borrow (1803-1881) who lived at Willow Lane while attending Norwich Grammar School during his teenage years. In many ways Norwich's connection to the Romantic movement is embodied in  George Borrow who was of a dashing, Byronic-like appearance, of athletic build, over 6 feet tall with a shock of white, not blonde, hair.  A pugilist with a fiery temper, holding strong opinions including being a fervent anti-Papist, he was  keen to study the culture and language of the Romany people who he first encountered on Mousehold Heath. As a young man Borrow roamed the length and breadth of Britain as a tinker, while also studying the Romany language and its culture. 

Its in Borrow's Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851) a literary work which hovers somewhere between the genres of memoir and novel, and which has long been considered a classic of 19th-century English literature, that a conversation between an old man and a young man is recollected. Taylor speaks first,- 

‘Suicide is not a national habit in Germany as it is in England.’

‘But that poor creature, Werther, who committed suicide, was a German.’

'Werther is a fictitious character, and by no means a felicitous one; I am no admirer either of Werther or his author.  But I should say that, if there ever was a Werther in Germany, he did not smoke.  Werther, as you very justly observe, was a poor creature. He is a fool who breaks his heart on any account; but it is good to be a German, the Germans are the most philosophic people in the world, and the greatest smokers: now I trace their philosophy to their smoking......[9] 

In the sequel to Lavengro, the equally unclassifiable The Romany Rye, (1857) Borrow refers to his mentor as -  

'a real character, the founder of the Anglo-German school in England, and the cleverest Englishman who ever talked or wrote encomiastic nonsense about Germany and the Germans'. [10] 

With Taylor's encouragement, George Borrow embarked on his first translation, Klinger's version of the Faust legend, entitled Faustus, his Life, Death and Descent into Hell which was first published in St Petersburg in 1791. Borrow, in his translation however, changed the name of one city, making one passage read:

'They found the people of the place modeled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equaled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday's best'.

For his ridiculing of Norwich society, the Norwich public subscription library burned Borrow's first publication. The ultimate harsh review.

Above - The artist Alfred Munnings' depiction of George Borrow with his gypsy companion Jasper Petulengro  at the summit of St. James Hill with its panoramic view of Norwich. Petulengro says - 'There's a wind on the heath brother, who would wish to die?'

Taylor made his name translating Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the themes and subject-matter of Lessing's drama greatly appealing to his radical and progressive convictions.

Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. It describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and a Templar knight resolve the misunderstandings between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its major themes are friendship, tolerance, relativism of God, a rejection of miracles and a need for communication. Primarily an appeal for religious tolerance, its performance was banned by the church, and was not performed until 1783, after Lessing's death. 

Far more problematic is the relationship between the German giant of literature,  Johann Goethe (1749-1832) to Taylor. Henry Crabb Robinson, who was a classmate of Taylor's at Barbauld's Academy, informed Goethe in 1829, 'Taylor’s Iphigenia in Tauris, as it was the first, so it remains the best, version of any of your larger poems'. 

Taylor sent his translation to Goethe in Weimar; but he never heard whether the poet received it, and for this perceived snub he became hostile in his judgement of Goethe in his last years. A statement in Goethe's Tages und Jahreshefte suggests the fault and negligence lay with Goethe himself, for he stated-  'A translation of the Iphigenia appeared in England; Unger reprinted it, but I retained neither the original nor the copy'.
But in fact, not only is the original edition and Unger’s reprint recorded as once in Goethe's library, but also Taylor’s Historic Survey of German Poetry, which includes the complete Iphigenia in its third volume. 

Goethe also wrote about Taylor erroneously, and of his monumental work he rather dismissively stated, on 20 August 1831 to Carl Friedrich Zelter -

“I received 'A Survey of German Poetry’ from England, written by W. Taylor, who studied 40 years ago in Göttingen, and who lets loose the teachings, opinions, and phrases that already vexed me 60 years ago.”

But in fact Taylor never studied at Gottingen.  Worse harsh criticism was to come for Taylor in 1831 when Thomas Carlyle published a review of hisHistoric Survey of German Literature. Carlyle's scathing review  seriously damaged Taylor’s literary reputation to the present-day and his hostility and intolerance towards Taylor is also evident in Sartor Resartus (1836) with its pun-like Latin title of 'The tailor retailored'. There may even be intentional word-play upon the proper name of Taylor and the lowly occupation of tailor in its title. Carlyle's novel also includes sharp and critical remarks upon Taylor's creed, that of Utilitarianism, as well as repeated mocking of the excesses of German philosophy and idealism. 

During Norwich's 'Golden Age' in literary and artistic life (circa 1760-1832), William Taylor became acquainted with several of the Norwich School Painters and gave lectures to the Norwich Philosophical Society on art. In a lecture of 1814 he advocated architecture and Urban settings to be higher artistic subjects than those of rural life. His comment may well have been directed towards leading artist of the Norwich movement, John Crome (1768-1821) who produced a number of urban Norwich riverscapes, some of which are set almost on his doorstep, including  Back of New Mills (below) dated circa 1814 -17. 

There's the distinct possibility that Taylor's  influence upon the aesthetics of theNorwich School of Painters may be far greater than hitherto  has been acknowledged. 

One genre of literature which Taylor shared an interest with Anna Barbauld and the poet Southey, was children's literature, in particular, the fairy-tale. Southey is credited as being the author of the original version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in 1837, a year after Taylor's death, while Taylor himself wrote a version of Bluebeard and Cinderella.

William Taylor's friendship with Robert Southey (above, circa 1795) began in 1798 when Southey visited Norwich as Taylor's guest; the poet revisited him at Norwich in February 1802. In correspondence to Taylor, Southey asks him-

'Can you not visit Creswick next summer ? Coleridge will talk German with you; he is desirous of knowing you; and he is a sufficient wonder of nature to repay the journey'.  [11]

'I wish you could mountaineer it with us for a few weeks, and I would press the point if Coleridge also were here: but even without him we could make your time pass pleasantly; and here is Wordsworth to be seen, one of the wildest of all wild beasts, who is very desirous of seeing you'. [12]

Its testimony to their long friendship that the poet Southey (1774 -1843) who was Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death thirty years later, (Walter Scott having declined the post) could criticize Taylor's literary style yet their friendship remain intact, after writing to him, firstly-

' you too often (like your admirable old townsman Sir Thomas Browne) go to your Greek and Latin for words when plain English might serve as well'.

Perhaps influenced by his German reading, Taylor was fond of introducing newly coined words, most of which were as incomprehensible to the average reader as his ideas. The editors of the periodicals to which he contributed objected about his neologisms, his friends pleaded with him to abandon the habit. Sir James Mackintosh however, remarked of Taylor's idiosyncratic style, 'He does not speak any language but the Taylorian; but I am so fond of his vigour and originality that... I have studied and learned his language'. [13] 

Southey persisted in his pleas-

'How are plain Norfolk farmers - and such will read the Iris - to understand words which they never heard before, and which are so foreign as not to be even in Johnson's farrago of a dictionary ? I have read Cowper's Odyssey and to cure my poetry of its wheyishness; let me prescribe the Vulgar Errors of Sir Thomas Browne to you for a likely remedy.'  [14] 

Ignoring Southey's advice, the poet now severely admonished the Norwich scholar-  

'Now I will say what for a long while what I have thought. That you have ruined your style by Germanisms, Latinisms and Greekisms, that you are sick of a surfeit of knowledge, that your learning breaks out like scabs and blotches upon a beautiful face.......Wordsworth, who admires and reverences the intellectual power and the knowledge which you everywhere and always display, and who wishes to see you here [in the Lake District] as much as I do, frets over your barbarisms of language, which I labour to excuse, because there is no cure for them.' [15]

Taylor defended his literary style thus-

'Were I reviewing my own reviewals, I should say, This man's style has an ambitious singularity which like chewing ginseng, which displeases at first and attaches at last'.

'And yet my theory of good writing is, to condense everything into a nutshell: I grow and clip with rival rage, and produce a sort of yew-hedge, tangled with luxuriance and sheared with spruceness. The desire of being neat precludes ease, of being strong precludes grace, of being armed at points than being impervious at any'. [16]

Southey repeatedly invited Taylor to stay with him, along with Coleridge and Wordsworth at the Lake district, but Taylor repeatedly declined.  It may in fact have been far livelier at the Creswick cottage in the Lake District than Taylor could imagine. Government spies were sent to watch the comings and goings of the poet's residence, for Wordsworth and Coleridge were both known to the authorities for their radical political views, while in 1799 Coleridge and Southey were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) supervised by the scientist Humphrey Davy.  

Taylor's aesthetic preference of the urban over the rural is trenchantly expressed in correspondence with Southey thus - 

'How can you delight in mountain scenery ? The eye walks on broken flints; not a hill tolerant of the plough, not a stream that will float a canoe; in the roads every ascent is the toil of Sisyphus, every descent the punishment of Vulcan: barrenness with her lichens cowers on the mountain-top, yawning among mists that irrigate in vain; the cottage of a man, like the aerie of an eagle, is the home of a savage subsisting by rapacity in stink and intemperance: the village is but a coalition of pig-sties; where there might be pasture, glares a lake; the very cataract falls in vain,- there are not customers enough for a water-mill. Give me the spot where victories have been won over the inutilities of nature by the effort of human art, - where mind has moved the massy, everlasting rock, and arrayed into convenient dwellings and stately palaces, into theatres and cathedrals, and quays and docks and warehouses, wherein the primeval troglodyte has learned to convoke the productions of the antipodes'. [17]

To which the poet Robert Southey parried -

'You undervalue lakes and mountains; they make me happier and wiser and better, and enable me to think and feel with a quicker and healthier intellect. Cities are as poisonous to genius and virtue in their best sense, as to the flower of the valley or the oak of the forest. Men of talent may and will be gregarious, men of genius will not; handicraft-men work together, but discoveries must be the work of individuals. Neither are men to be studied in cities, except indeed, as students walk into hospitals, you go to see all the modifications of the disease'. [18]

In his lifetime William Taylor (above) attracted considerable hostility for his radical religious and political views.  Nicknamed  'godless Billy' by fellow Octagon Chapel member, Harriet Martineau (1802-76) who petulantly reminisced of him:

'his habits of intemperance kept him out of the sight of ladies, and he got round him a set of ignorant and conceited young men, who thought they could set the whole world right by their destructive propensities'.  [19]

Taylor was not without a stochastic ability either. As early as 1804 he made the suggestion that ships could be powered with steam before the world’s first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat, began operating out of New York in 1807. In 1824 he introduced the idea of cutting through the isthmus of Panama when the first attempt to construct a canal through what was then a  province of Colombia at Panama, did not begin until 1881. [20] 

Both Taylor's life and writings offer a few cautionary lessons to writers, especially those not living at the hub and centre of either conventional society or London, the literary capital of England. Just as Taylor's contemporaries, the various painters associated with the 'Norwich School' discovered, Norwich, with its rural hinterland  of Norfolk and its North Sea coast-line was inspirational for creating art, but its patronage was thin. Art sales and advancement were facilitated far easier in London than Norwich. Likewise, the damage inflicted from a single malignant review can unjustly ruin a writer's reputation, sometimes long after their death.  One possible reason for unjust and critical hostility against Taylor would be prejudice against his sexual orientation.  At one time Taylor considered a vacancy at the British Museum, but it was taken before he applied. One suspects that he loved the familiar charms of Norwich far too much to ever leave the 'Do different' City.  There's more than a hint of humorous self deprecation in his stating- 

'Contented mediocrity is always the ultimate destiny of us provincials'.

But, as his words quoted here hopefully demonstrate, William Taylor was a highly expressive writer, a Vulcan-like wordsmith who wrote thousands of literary reviews and articles on an extraordinary range of topics in his lifetime.

In the late nineteenth century the German literary critic George Herzfelde considered Taylor's translation of Iphigenie auf Tauris to be 'Kräftig, aber klappernd' ('Powerful but Clattering') [21]. Herzfelde's pithy observation seems apt of much of Taylor's idiosyncratic writings and translations.

A single sentence suffices to highlight Taylor's Classical learning, aesthetic sensibility and subtle wit -

'Those who can die of a rose in aromatic pain have not grief in reserve for Medea's last embrace of her children'.


* William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England (1897) by Georg Herzfeld 

* C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975 Highly Recommended

* The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

*John Warden Robberds A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).
*Review from The Quarterly (1843-44).


[1] In the original - Uebrigens hat die deutsche Literatur aus sehr begreiflichen mercantilischen Gründen die zahlreichsten Anhänger in Norwich'.  

[2] Peter Watson -  The German Genius (2010) pub.Simon and Shuster page 314

[3] Chandler, David "Taylor, William" in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) speculates upon Taylor's sexuality. 

[4] John Warden Robberds - A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).

[5] The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

[6] C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Appendix III Romany Rye

[11] Robberds

[12] - [18] Ibid.

[19] The Life of George Borrow by Herbert Jenkins

[20] Perhaps from his reading Sir Thomas Browne's speculation that - 'some Isthmus have been eat through by the Sea, and others cut by the spade: And if policy would permit, that of Panama in America were most worthy the attempt: it being but few miles over, and would open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China'.

[21] William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England by Georg Herzfeld (1897)