The Praise of Hemp-Seed: Poem Suggests Cannabis Was Shakespeare’s Muse
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bard’s penchant for cannabis. Remnants of the drug were found in his pipes, afterall. In a recent analysis posted on ENCA it is supposed Shakespeare’s cannabis use served as an inspiration to his work- and was not simply a means to pass the time. John Taylor, described as both an actor and painter (who may be the unnamed painter of the Chandos portrait [of Shakespeare]) penned a poem werein he weaves Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries as users of cannabis.
Although the poem focuses on hemp paper immoralizing the works of great poets and writers, we may read deeper into the meaning of this, and come to suppose there is more implied than directly affirmed; as is the case in most poetry. Here are original excerpts from “The Praise of Hemp-Seed.” (You can read the full version here.)
In [hemp] 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 Lawrell wore,
Spencer, and Shakespeare did in Art excell,
Sir Edward Dyer, Greene, Nash, Daniell.
Silvester, Beaumont, Sir John Harrington,
Forgetfulnesse their workes would overrun
But that in paper they immortally
Do live in spight of death, and cannot die.
And many there are living at this day
Which do in paper their true worth display. . .
Acts, Statues, Lawes, would be consum’d and lost
All right and order, topsy-turvy tost:
Oppression, wrong, destruction and confusion,
We’rt not for paper, were the worlds conclusion.
Negotiations, and Embassages
Maps, Cartes, discoveries of strange passages:
Leagues, truces, combinations, and contracts,
Lawes, Nat’rall, Morall, Civill and Divine,
T’ instruct, reprove, correct, inlarge, confine.
“The Praise of Hemp-Seed” on its own may not convince Shakespeare’s use of cannabis as a muse, for the work only directly relays hemp as paper– but what if this is not merely the case? I refer directly to “the discoveries of strange passages,” of which in Shakespeare’s own voice give light to implications of cannabis use. We all know the Bard prefers to speak in tongues.
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
In closer inspection, Shakespeare (also) speaks of the immortalization by nature- which is to say in his words, nature is the source of “print” (cannabis was the prefered paper in his time). We may accept both intentions of the ending couplet. To print, on cannabis (of nature), and to print as to write continuing work to be immortalized in cannabis, “not let that copy die.”
Else, in 60 years all writing and memory of poets would “away.” (Reference lines 8-9.) Shakespeare goes on to say those not endowed with nature’s gifts shall not only be forgotten, but lack an integral touch of youth and muse: “let those whom nature hath not made for store,/ Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.” This gift, could it not be cannabis itself, to pen work worthy of remembrance?
(I might refute my own thought, as Shakespeare is known to discredit and apologize for his plays before they begin. As illustrated in “To the Reader.”)
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
In “Sonnet LXXVI ” Shakespeare all but marks his direct use of cannabis, and laments his use of the “weed” (see what he did there?) produces the same work, over and over. He ascribes his singularity to marijuana, “and keep invention in a noted weed.” In consequence of his continued use, those who know him immediately recognize his words. Shakespeare then muses of experimenting with “new-found methods” and “compounds strange.”
Could Shakespeare be contemplating moving beyond weed, or leaving it behind for indwelling inspiration?
I should mention hemp was used to make clothes, and “weed” refers to both tobacco and cannabis, as ENCA notes.
Again returning to “The Praise of Hemp-Seed,” Taylor notes,
And many there are living at this day
Which do in paper their true worth display:
Is this subtlety alluding the grandiose writers are known for their use of hemp, as “in paper their true worth display,” as if to undermine the luster of their work with the influence of marijuana? Which is to say their words are not the fruit of internal light, but from the influence of cannabis.
Must say their lines, but for the paper she ete
Had scarcely ground whereon to set their feete.
A potential reference to being high- both in an underscoring sense, in the influence of marijuana, and the topical note of the printed page immoralizing and placing each writer’s lofty work.
What say you of this? Was cannabis Shakespeare’s muse? Does this change your opinion of his work?
About the Author
JessiRae Pulver-Adell is an addiction & recovery blogger for Harbor Village. She writes to elucidate the disease of addiction and is an activist for the homeless and animals. She enjoys furry creatures, Jrock, and towering bookshelves! Have a story or a pitch to share? Email her directly at Jupveradell@harborvillageflorida.com.