‘Nonsence is Rebellion’: John Taylor’s ‘Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence, upon Nonsence’ (1651-1654) and the English Civil War

John TaylorYou may know that we’ve moved to a rolling release format and have just published the first article for the volume.

The piece is by Emily Cock (University of Adelaide) and examines the political content of John Taylor’s Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence Upon Nonsence: Chuse you either, or neither (1651–1654), challenging the customary dismissal of this poem as light-hearted nonsense verse.

Now, in this guest post, Emily recounts how Taylor’s work came to her attention.

In my Honours year I decided to edit and annotate an early modern text for my thesis project. To this end, I was skimming through titles in the library catalogue when this entry, understandably, caught my attention:

The essence, quintessence, insence, innocence, lye-sence, & magnifisence of nonsence upon sence: or, Sence upon nonsence. The third part, the fourth impression, the fifth edition, the sixth addition, upon condition, that (by tradition) the reader may laugh if he list. In longitude, latitude, crassitude, magnitude, and amplitude, lengthened, widened, enlarged, augmented, encreased, made wider and sider, by the addition of letters, syllables, words, lines, and farfetch’d sentences. And the lamentable death and buriall of a Scottish Gallaway nagge. Written upon white paper, in a brown study, betwixt Lammas day and Cambridge, in the yeare aforesayd. Beginning at the latter end, and written by John Taylor at the sign of the poor Poets Head, in Phoenix Alley, near the middle of Long Acre, or Coven [sic] Garden. Anno, millimo, quillimo, trillimo, daffadillimo, pulcher. London: n.p., 1654.

It was a difficult thing to resist. My intrigue grew as I discovered countless texts by John Taylor (1578–1653) in our microfilm collection, but only one book about him. By the time I made it to the microfilm machine to read the three editions of this ‘nonsence’ (which proved both hilarious and utterly bizarre), I had learned that Taylor was indeed one of the most prolific and popular writers of the early to mid-seventeenth century, and a bona fide self-made celebrity, but that his work had virtually disappeared after his death.1

Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence, upon Nonsence: Chuse you either, or neither was printed in three parts by an unknown London publisher in 1651 (parts one and two, in quarto) and posthumously in 1654 (part three, in octavo). Its only subsequent printing was an extract in Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense (London: Harper Collins, 1997), and there were no sustained literary critiques. As I collated and re-typed the three editions and unpacked each piece of nonsense, I learnt the truth of Gertrude Stein’s observation about editing: ‘I always say that you can not tell what a picture really is or what an object really is until you dust it every day and you cannot tell what a book is until you type it or proof-read it. It then does something to you that only reading never can do.’2 In my case, engaging with Taylor’s writing at the level of the comma led to my first academic obsession as an undergraduate, and the understanding that, contrary to Malcolm’s reading of Nonsence as light-hearted nonsense verse, Taylor’s text was actually a passionate blast against the political and religious upheavals gripping his beloved London. Taylor’s nonsense, as T.S. Eliot said of King Lear’s, ‘is not vacuity of sense: it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it’.3

Taylor has long been a favourite with historians seeking colourful details and anecdotes of London life, but as a writer he has been thoroughly under-examined. In ‘Nonsence is Rebellion’, I therefore highlight the political content of Nonsence, and the stylistic features that Taylor employs to express his critique in his dangerous times.


  1. See Bernard Capp’s The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet 1578–1653 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

  2. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 1933 (London: Penguin, 1966), 124.

  3. Quoted in OED Online, s.v. ‘nonsense, n. and adj.’, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128094> [accessed June 2013].

You can read Emily’s full article, “‘Nonsense is Rebellion’: John Taylor’s Nonsense upon Sense, or Sense, upon Nonsence (1651–1654) and the English Civil War”, here.


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