1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Drayton

Henry Headley, in Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787) 1:l-lii.



Michael Drayton, Esq. The modern testimonies to whose merits are few when compared with his deserts. The case is, most readers, discouraged at his voluminousness, content themselves with superficially skimming him over, without going deep enough to be real judges of his excellence. He possessed a very considerable fertility of mind, which enabled him to distinguish himself in almost every species of poetry, from a trifling sonnet to a long topographical poem. If he any where sinks below himself, it is in his attempts at satire. The goodness of his heart seems to have produced in him that confused kind of honest indignation which deprived him of the powers of discrimination: he therefore lost the opportunities of seizing on those nice allusions, situations, circumstances, and traits of character, by which vice and folly are rendered odious and contemptible. His Poly-Olbion is one of the most singular works this country has produced, and seems to me eminently original. The information contained in it is in general so acute, that he is quoted as an authority both by Hearne and Wood. His perpetual allusions to obsolete traditions, remote events, remarkable facts and personages, together with his curious genealogies of rivers, and his taste for natural history, have contributed to render his work very valuable to the antiquary. To many just objections it is most certainly liable: his continual personifications of woods, mountains, and rivers, are tedious; and, on the whole, we must be satisfied to read rather for information than pleasure. Ben Jonson, in his Conversation with Drummond of Hawthornden, says, that "had he performed what he promised to write (the deeds of all the worthies), it had been excellent." — The writer of our Author's life, prefixed to the folio edition of his works, speaking of the Poly-Olbion, observes, that he has hitherto had no imitator. This is not strictly true, as there appeared, in 1621, the Palae-Albion, by Will. Slaytyer, a sort of chronicle in Latin and English verse, in which he has an address to Drayton, that contains the following acknowledgement:

Thy Poly-Olbion did invite
My Paleae-Albion thus to write;
Thine, ancient Albion's moderne glories,
Mine, moderne Olbion's ancient stories.

The first eighteen songs of the Poly-Obion appeared in 1612, folio. A poem confined to a single point of national history of sufficient importance to excite curiosity, taken at the same time so far back from the recesses of antiquity, as to have lost that intractability which the poet invariably finds in the management of recent occurrences, if well executed, bids fair for success. In the Legends and Heroical Epistles both the time and the events are properly limited; the attention is gratified, but not satiated. In the Barons Wars too extensive a subject is opened, and the province of the historian too far transgressed upon: in order to be introduced to good incident and reflection, we must toil through dry facts, listen with patience to the development of uncertain primary causes, and at last, perhaps, are obliged to have recourse to prose explanation in the notes. Our Author, who wants neither fire nor imagination, possessed great command of his abilities. He has written no masques; his personifications of the passions are few; and that allegorical vein, which the popularity of Spenser's works may fairly be supposed to rendered fashionable, and which over-runs our earlier poetry, but seldom occurs in him. While his contemporary, Jonson, studied away his fancy, and, unable to digest the mass of his reading, peopled his pages with the heathen mythology, and gave our language new idioms by the introduction of Latinisms; Drayton adopted a style that, with a few exceptions, the present age may peruse without difficulty, and not unfrequently mistake for its own offspring. In a most pedantic aera he was unaffected, and seldom exhibits his learning at the expence of his judgement. He was born at Atherston, in Warwickshire, as it is conjectured, about 1563. Aubrey's MSS. call him the son of a butcher; his biographers, whether from ignorance, or disbelief of the fact, or from a ridiculous delicacy, take no notice of this circumstance. He attended Sir Walter Aston as one of his esquires on his being created Knight of the Bath at the coronation of James the First. Drayton had indulged himself in forming expectations on James's coming to the throne, but was disappointed: this gave him a dislike to the times, and we find, in his Epistles to Brown and Sandys, a testy sort of dissatisfaction that does him no credit; so true is it, that a man seldom begins moralizing till he is either old, ill, or ill-treated. The MSS. abovementioned tell us, that his monument in the Abbey was given by the Countess of Dorset; and that the epitaph was written by F. Quarles, and not by Ben Jonson, to whom it is attributed. He died in 1631. The late Lord Lansdown has an original picture of him, which he highly valued; it was supposed to have been done by Peter Oliver, Graing. Biog. vol. II. p. 11.