MICHAEL DRAYTON was born in the parish of Atherston, in Warwickshire. His family was ancient, but it is not probable that his parents were opulent, for he was educated chiefly at the expense of Sir Godfrey Goodere. In his childhood, which displayed remarkable proficiency, he was anxious to know what strange kind of beings poets were, and on his coming to college he importuned his tutor, if possible, to make him a poet. Either from this ambition, or from necessity, he seems to have adopted no profession, and to have generally owed his subsistence to the munificence of friends. An allusion which he makes, in the poem of Moses's Birth and Miracles, to the destruction of the Spanish Armada, has been continually alleged as a ground for supposing that he witnessed that spectacle in a military capacity; but the lines, in fact, are far from proving that he witnessed it at all. On the accession of King James the First, he paid his court to the new sovereign, with all that a poet could offer, his congratulatory verses. James, however, received him but coldly, and though he was patronized by Lord Buckhurst and the Earl of Dorset, he obtained no situation of independence, but continued to publish his voluminous poetry amidst severe irritations with his booksellers. Popular as Drayton once was in comparison of the present neglect of him, it is difficult to conceive that his works were ever so profitable as to allow the bookseller much room for peculation. He was known as a poet many years before the death of Queen Elizabeth. His Poly-olbion, which the learned Selden honoured with notes, did not appear till 1613. In 1626 we find him styled poet laureate; but the title at that time was often a mere compliment, and implied neither royal appointment nor butt of canary. The Countess of Bedford supported him for many years. At the close of his life we find him in the family of the Earl of Dorset, to whose magnanimous countess the Aubrey MSS. ascribe the poet's monument over his grave in Westminster Abbey.
The language of Drayton is free and perspicuous. With less depth of feeling than that which occasionally bursts from Cowley, he is a less excruciating hunter of conceits, and in harmony of expression is quite a contrast to Donne. A tinge of grace and romance pervades much of his poetry: and even his pastorals, which exhibit the most fantastic views of nature, sparkle with elegant imagery. The Nymphidia is in his happiest characteristic manner of airy and sportive pageantry. In some historic sketches of the Barons' Wars he reaches a manner beyond himself — the pictures of Mortimer and the Queen, and of Edward's entrance to the castle, are splendid and spirited. In his Poly-olbion, or description of Great Britain, he has treated the subject with such topographical and minute detail as to chain his poetry to the map; and he has unfortunately chosen a form of verse which, though agreeable when interspersed with other measures, is fatiguing in the long continuance by itself: still it is impossible to read the poem without admiring the richness of his local associations, and the beauty and variety of the fabulous allusions which he scatters around him. Such, indeed is the profusion of romantic recollections in the Poly-olbion, that a poet of taste and selection might there find subjects of happy description, to which the author who suggested them had not the power of doing justice; for Drayton started so many resemblances, that he lost his inspiration in the effort of memory. In the Barons' Wars, excepting the passages already noticed, where the
Purpureus late qui splendeat unus et alter,
we unhappily exchange only the geographer for the chronicler. On a general survey, the mass of his poetry has no strength or sustaining spirit adequate to its bulk. There is a perpetual play of fancy on its surface; but the impulses of passion, and the guidance of judgment give it no strong movements nor consistent course. In scenery or in history he cannot command selected views, but meets them by chance as he travels over the track of detail. His great subjects have no interesting centre, no shade for uninteresting things. Not to speak of his dull passages, his description is generally lost in a flutter of whimsical touches. His muse has certainly no strength for extensive flights, though she sports in happy moments on a brilliant and graceful wing.