MICHAEL DRAYTON, of an ancient family in Leicestershire, was born in the village of Harshul, in the parish of Atherston, in Warwickshire, in 1563. This voluminous and once highly-popular poet has gradually sunk into a state of undeserved oblivion, from which he can alone be extricated by a judicious selection from his numerous works. These may be classed under the heads of historical, topographical, epistolary, pastoral, and miscellaneous poetry. The first includes his Barons Warres, first published in 1596 under the title of Mortimeriades; the lamentable Civil Warres of Edward the Second, and the Barons" his Legends, written before 1598 and printed in an octavo edition of his poems in 1613, and his Battle of Agincourt. It cannot be denied that in these pieces shore are occasional gleams of imagination, many just reflections, and many laboured descriptions, delivered in perspicuous language, and generally in smooth versification; but they do not interest the heart or elevate the fancy; they are tediously and minutely historical, void of passion, and, for the most part, languid and prosaic. The second department exhibits the work on which he rested his hopes of immortality, the elaborate and highly-finished Poly-olbion, of which the first eighteen songs made their appearance in 1612, accompanied by the very erudite notes of Selden, and the whole was completed in thirty parts in 1622. The chief defect in this singular poem results from its plan; to describe the woods, mountains, vallies, and rivers of a country, with all their associations, traditionary, historical, and antiquarian, forms a task which no genius, however exalted, could mould into an interesting whole, and the attempt to enliven it by continued personification has only proved an expedient which still further taxes the patience of the reader. It possesses, however, many beauties which are poetically great; numerous delineations which are graphically correct, and a fidelity with regard to its materials so unquestioned, as to have merited the reference of Hearne and Wood, and the praise of Gough, who tells us that the Poly-olbion has preserved many circumstances which even Camden has omitted. It is a poem, in short, which will always be consulted rather for the information that it conveys, than for the pleasure that it produces.
To England's Heroical Epistles, which constitute the third class, not much praise can now be allotted, notwithstanding they were once the most admired of the author's works. Occasional passages may, it is true, be selected, which merit approbation for novelty of imagery and beauty of expression; but nothing can atone for their wanting what, from the nature of the subjects chosen, should have been their leading characteristic — pathos.
It is chiefly as a pastoral poet that Drayton will live in the memory of his countrymen. The shepherd's reed was an early favourite; for in 1593 he published his Idea: the Shepherd's Garland, fashioned in nine Eglogs: and Rowland's Sacrifice to the nine Muses, which were reprinted under the title of Pastorals, and with the addition of a tenth eclogue. His attachment to rural imagery was nearly as durable as his existence; for the year previous to his death he brought forward another collection of pastorals, under the title of The Muses Elisium. Of these publications, the first is in every respect superior, and gives the author a very high rank among rural bards; his descriptions are evidently drawn from nature; they often possess a decided originality, and are couched in language pure and unaffected, and of the most captivating simplicity.
The miscellaneous productions of Drayton include a vast variety of pieces; odes, elegies, sonnets, religious effusions, etc. etc. To specify the individual merit of these would be useless; but among them are two which, from their peculiar value, call for appropriate notice. A most playful and luxuriant imagination is displayed to much advantage in the Nymphidia, or The Court of Fairy, and an equal degree of judgment, together with a large share of interest, in the poem addressed to his loved friend Henry Reynolds, On Poets and Poesy. These, with the first collection of pastorals, part of the second, and some well-chosen extracts from his bulkier works, would form a most fascinating little volume. Drayton died on December 23, 1631, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.