MICHAEL DRAYTON, a renowned poet, who lived in the reigns of Elizabeth, James and Charles I. sprung from an ancient family, originally descended from the town of Drayton in Leicestershire, but his parents removing into Warwickshire, he was born there, as he himself declares in his Poly-olbion, Song 13. A little village called Harful in that county claims the honour of his birth, by which accident it is raised from obscurity; he was born in the year 1573, according to the most accurate computation that can be made from the dates of his works. When he was but very young he gave such discoveries of a rising genius as rendered him a favourite with his tutors, and procured him the patronage of persons of distinction. In the year 1573, being then but about ten years of age, he was page to some honourable person, as may be collected from his own words in some of his epistles to Henry Reynold esquire, it appears that even then he could construe his Cato, and some other little collections of sentences, which made him very anxious to know, what sort of beings the poets were, and very pressing upon his tutor to make him, if possible, a poet. In consequence of this he was put to the reading of Virgil's Eclogues, and 'till even then, says one of his Biographers, he scorned any thing that looked like a ballad, though written by Elderton himself. This Elderton was a famous comedian in those days, and a facetious companion, who having a great readiness at rhiming composed many catches on Love and Wine, which were then in great vogue among the giddy and volatile part of the town; but he was not more celebrated for drollery than drinking, so that he obtained the name of the bacchanalian buffoon, the red-nosed ballad-maker, &c. and at last by the excessive indulgence of his favourite vice, he fell a martyr to it 1592, and Mr. Camden has preserved this epitaph on him, which for its humour, I shall here give a place
Dead drunk, here Elderton does lie;
Dead as he is, he still is drie.
So of him it may well he said,
Here he, but not his thirst, is laid.
If after this our author did not finish his education at the university of Cambridge, it is evident from the testimony of Sir Aston Cokain, his intimate friend, who mentions him in his Choice Poems of several Sorts, that he was for some time a student at Oxford; however, he is not taken notice of by Wood, who has commemorated the most part of the writers who were educated there. In 1588 it appears from his poem, entitled Moses his Birth and Miracles, that he was a spectator at Dover of the Spanish invasion, which was arrogantly stiled Invincible, and it is not improbable that he was engaged in some military employment there, especially as we find some mention made of him, as being in esteem with the gentlemen of the army. He early addicted himself to the amusement of poetry, but all who have written of him, have been negligent in informing us how soon he favoured the public with any production of his own. He was distinguished as a poet about nine or ten years before the death of Queen Elizabeth, but at what time he begin to publish cannot be ascertained. In the year 1593, when he was but 30 years of age, he published a collection of his Pastorals; likewise some of the most grave poems, and such as have transmitted his name to posterity with honour, not long after saw the light. His Baron's wars, and England's heroical Epistles; his Downfals of Robert of Normandy; Matilda and Gaveston, for which last he is called by one of his cotemporaries, Tragediographus, and part of his Polyolbion were written before the year 1598, for all which joined with his personal good character, he was highly celebrated at that time, not only for the elegance and sweetness of his expressions, but his actions and manners, which were uniformly virtuous and honourable; he was thus characterised not only by the poets, and florid writers of those days, but also by divines, historians, and other scholars of the most serious turn and extensive learning. In his younger years he was much beloved and patronized by Sir Walter Aston of Tixhall in Staffordshire, to whom for his kind protection, he gratefully dedicates many of his poems, whereof his Barons Wars was the first, in the spring of his acquaintance, as Drayton himself expresses it; but however, it may be gathered from his works, that his most early dependence was upon another patron, namely, Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth, in his own county, to whom he has been grateful for a great part of his education, and by whom he was recommended to the patronage of the countess of Bedford: it is no less plain from many of his dedications to Sir Walter Aston, that he was for many years supported by him, and accommodated with such supplies as afforded him leisure to finish some of his most elaborate compositions; and the author of the Biographia Britannica has told us, "that it has been alledged, that he was by the interest of the same gentleman with Sir Roger Ashton, one of the Bedchamber to King James in his minority, made in some measure ministerial to an intercourse of correspondence between the young King of Scots and Queen Elizabeth:" but as no authority is produced to prove this, it is probably without foundation, as poets have seldom inclination, activity or steadiness to manage any state affairs, particularly a point of so delicate a nature.
Our author certainly had fair prospects, from his services, or other testimonies of early attachment to the King's interest, of some preferment, besides he had written Sonnets, in praise of the King as a poet. Thus we see Drayton descending to servile flattery to promote his interest, and praising a man as a poet contrary to his own judgment, because he was a King who was as devoid of poetry as courage.
He welcomed his Majesty to his British dominions with a congratulatory poem printed in 4to, 1603.
The same year he was chosen by Sir Walter Aston one of the esquires who attended him, when he was with others created knight of the Bath at the coronation of his Majesty. It no where appears that ever our author printed those poems in praise of his Majesty; and the ungrateful reception they met, as well as the disagreeable experience of the universal degeneracy at court, so different from that of the Maiden Reign, might extinguish all hope of raising himself there.
In the year 1613 he published the first part of his Poly-olbion. It is a chorographical description of the rivers, mountains, forests, castles, &c. in this Island, intermixed with the remarkable antiquities, rarities, commodities, &c. This part is addressed to Prince Henry, the promising son of James I. by whose encouragement it was written. He had shewed Drayton some singular marks of his favour and seems to have admitted him as one of his poetical pensioners, but dying before the book was finished, he lost the benefit of his patronage. In this volume there are eighteen songs, illustrated with the notes of the learned Mr. Selden, and there are maps before every song, whereby the cities, mountains, forests, rivers, &c. are represented by the figures of men and women. It is interwoven with many episodes, such as the conquest of this Island by the Romans, the arrival of the Saxons, the Danes and Normans, &c. And bishop Nicholson observes, that Poly-olbion affords a much more accurate account of this kingdom and the Dominion of Wales than could have been expected from the pen of a poet. How poetically our author has conducted and executed his plan, is admirably expressed by the ingenious Dr. James Kirkpatrick, in a beautiful poem of his called the Sea-Piece. Canto II. which I cannot here omit transcribing.
Drayton, sweet ancient bard, his Albion sung,
With their own praise, their ecchoing vallies rung;
His bounding muse o'er every mountain rode,
And ev'ry river warbled where he flow'd.
In 1619 came out his first folio volume of poems. In 1622 the second part of his Poly-olbion was published, making in all thirty books or songs. In 1622 we find him stiled Poet Laureat. It is probable this appellation of Poet Laureat was not confined and restricted as it is now to his Majesty's Servant known by that title, who at that time it is presumed was Ben Johnson, because it was bestowed promiscuously as a mark of any poet's excellency in his profession.
In 1627 was published the second volume of his poems, containing the battle of Agencourt, in stanzas of eight lines. The mysteries of Queen Margaret in the like stanzas. Nymphidia, or the Court of Faeries. The Quest of Cynthia, another beautiful piece, both reprinted in Dryden's Miscellanies. The Shepherd's Sirena; also the Moon Calf; Satire on the Masculine Affectations of Women, and the effeminate disguises of the Men, in those times. Elegies upon several occasions. These are introduced by the vision of Ben Johnson on the Muse of his friend Michael Drayton, wherein he very particularly enumerates and praises his several compositions. In 1630 he published another volume of poems in 4to, intitled the Muses Elizium, in ten sundry Nymphals, with three different poems on Noah's flood; Moses his birth and miracles, and David and Goliah. The pastoral poems are addressed to Edward Sackville Earl of Dorset, and Lord Chamberlain, who had now made him one of his family. His divine poems are written in verse and various measures, and are dedicated to the Countess of Dorset; and there are some sublime images in them. At the end of the first divine poem, there are copies of verses in praise of the author, by Beal Sapperton, in Latin; Mr. John Fletcher, and Thomas Andrews in English; the last of which is very lavish in displaying the great extent of our poet's fame.
In 1631 Mr. Drayton died, or as it is expressed in his monumental inscription, exchanged his laurel for a crown of glory. He was buried among the poets in Westminster-Abbey, and the handsome table monument of blue marble which was raised over his grave the same year, is adorned with his effigies in busto, laureated. On one side is a crest of Minerva's cap, and Pegasus in a scutcheon on the other. Sir Aston Cokain composed an elegy upon him and Ben Johnson is said to have been the author of his epitaph, which is written in letters of gold upon his monument, with which I shall here present the reader.
Do pious marble let thy readers know
What they, and what their children owe
To Drayton's name, whose sacred dust
We recommend unto thy trust:
Protect his memory, and preserve his story,
Remain a lasting monument of his glory;
And when thy ruins shall disclaim,
To be the treasure of his name;
His name, that cannot fade shall be,
An everlasting monument to thee.
Mr. Drayton enjoyed the friendship and admiration of contemporary wits, and Ben Johnson who was not much disposed to praise, entertained a high opinion of him, and in this epitaph has both immortalized himself and his friend. It is easy for those who are conversant with our author's works to see how much the moderns and even Mr. Pope himself copy Mr. Drayton, and refine upon him in those distinctions which are esteemed the most delicate improvements of our English versification, such as the turns, the pauses, the elegant tautologies, &c. It is not difficult to point out some depredations which have been made on our author by modern writers, however obsolete some of them may have reckoned him. In one of his heroical epistles, that of King John to Matilda, he has the following lines
Th' Arabian bird which never is but one,
Is only chast because she is alone,
But had our mother nature made them two,
They would have done, as Doves and Sparrows do.
These are ascribed to the Earl of Rochester, who was unexceptionably a great wit. They are not otherwise materially altered, than by the transposure of the rhimes in the first couplet, and the retrenchment of the measure in both. As the sphere in which this author moved was of the middle sort, neither raised to such eminence as to incur danger, nor so deprest with poverty as to be subject to meanness, his life seems to have flowed with great tranquility, nor are there any of those vicissitudes and distresses which have so frequently fallen to the lot of the inspired tribe. He was honoured with the patronage of men of worth, tho' not of the highest stations, and that author cannot be called a mean one, on whom so great a man as Selden (in many respects the most finished scholar that ever appeared in our nation) was pleased to animadvert. His genius seems to have been of the second rate, much beneath Spencer and Sidney, Shakespear and Johnson, but highly removed above the ordinary run of versifiers. We shall quote a few lines from his Poly-olbion as a specimen of his poetry [omitted].