This once eminent poet was of an ancient family which derived its name from the town of Drayton in Leicestershire; but his parents having removed into Warwickshire, he was born in the village of Harshul or Hartshill, in the parish of Atherston in that county, near the river Anker, about the year 1563. In what situation or circumstances his parents were is not recorded; but they were probably not opulent, as we find him very soon indebted to patronage for the benefits of education. His early discovery of talents, and sweetness of disposition and manners, recommended him to some person of distinction, whom he served in quality of page, and who bestowed what was needful for the cultivation of his mind.
In his youth he discovered a propensity to read poetry, and was anxious to know "what kind of creatures poets were." To ratify this curiosity, the works of Virgil, and other classics, were put into his hands, which inspired him with a taste superior to his years, and made him dislike vulgar ditties, especially the ballads of one Elderton, a drunken poet, at that time in much fame among common readers. Whether sir Henry Godere of Polesworth was his first patron, is uncertain; but that gentleman is said to have maintained him for sometime at Oxford, where, however, his name does not occur among the scholars of any college or hall. From his description of the Spanish invasion in 1568, it has been supposed that he was an eye-witness of the defeat of the armada, and held some commission in the army; and this, however doubtful, is the only intimation we have of his having applied to any regular profession.
Besides sir Henry Godere, he found a liberal patron and friend in sir Walter Aston of Tixhall in Staffordshire, to whom he gratefully dedicates many of his poems; and sir Henry Godere, sometime before his death, recommended him to the countess of Bedford. By means of sir Walter Aston and sir Roger Aston, gentlemen of the bedchamber to king James in his minority, he is said to have been employed as a confidential agent in a correspondence between the young king of Scotland and queen Elizabeth: but this part of his history rests on no very solid foundation. It is more certain that he rendered the services and homage of a poet to king James, among the first who congratulated him on his accession to the British throne, and even condescended to praise his majesty's poetical talents in a sonnet of which he was afterwards ashamed. On the same happy occasion, he appeared as one of the squires who attended sir Walter Aston, when he was created a knight of the Bath. His duty to his king, however, was so ill repaid, that he gave up all hopes of rising at court, and his fable of The Owl, published a year after the coronation, is supposed to glance at persons and incidents connected with his disappointment. He adverts to the same subject, but so obscurely as to convey no information, in the preface to his Poly-olbion, nor from this time have we any account of his personal history; and can only conjecture from certain hints in his dedications and prefaces, that although he obtained the additional patronage of the justly celebrated Thomas Sackville, lord Buckhurst, earl of Dorset, and retained the esteem and kind offices of many private friends, he rose to no situation of wealth or eminence, and did not always derive much advantage from his numerous publications. He died Dec. 23, 1631, and was buried in Westminster Abbey under the north wall, near a door which then opened to one of the prebendal houses. His monument, a tablet of blue marble, with a bust, and some lines by Ben Jonson, was erected at the expense of the countess of Dorset in the south aisle. Aubrey, from whose MSS. this information was obtained, attributes the verses, not to Jonson, but to F. Quarles.
It is not very easy to recover the exact dates of his various pieces, as some of them were printed without that necessary appendage, and the titles of a few were changed on republication. Mr. Ritson, whose accuracy may be in general relied upon, arranges them in the following order. 1. The Harmonic of the Church, containing the spiritual Songs, and holy Hymnes of godly Men, Patriarches and Prophets, all sweetly sounding to the Glory of the Highest; printed by R. Jones, 1591, 4to. This, which is a very rare book, and was unknown to his editor Oldys, has not been reprinted in any edition of his works. 2. Idea: the Shepherd's Garland, fashioned in nine Eglogs: and Roland's Sacrifice to the nine Muses; printed for T. Woodcocke, 1593, 4to. From the title of this last performance Drayton was sometimes called Rowland by his contemporaries. The Shepherd's Garland was afterwards reprinted by the author under the title of Pastorals, containing Eglogues, with the Man in the Moon. In subsequent editions we find a tenth Eglogue added. 3. Matilda, the fair and chaste Daughter of Lord Robert Fitzwalter; 4to. one of his heroical epistles. 4. Mortimeriados; the lamentable Civil Warres of Edward the Second and the Barons; printed by J. R. for Matthew Lownes, 1596, 4to. and published afterwards under the title of The Barons Wars. 5. England's Heroical Epistles; 1598, 8vo. 6. A gratulatorie Poem to the Majestic of K. James; 1603, 4to. not reprinted in any edition of his works. 7. The Owle; 1604, 4to. 8. Moses in a Map of his Miracles; 1604, 4to. 9. A Paean triumphall, composed for the Society of Goldsmiths of London, on king James's entering the city; 1604, 4to. not reprinted. 10. Poems; 1605, 8vo. 11. The Legend of Great Cromwell; 1607, 4to. added afterwards to his other Legends. 12. Poly-olbion: the first eighteen books, 1612; and the whole thirty books in 1622, fol. 13. Poems, viz. The Barons Warres, England's Heroical Epistles, Idea, The Legend of Robert Duke of Normandy, of Matilda, and Pierce Gaveston; 1613, 8vo. Poems, 1619, folio, and without date, 8vo. 14. The Battle of Agincourt; 1627, fol. 15. The Muses Elizium, lately discovered, by a new Way over Parnassus; 1630, 4to.
In addition to these, Mr. Ritson mentions some poems inserted in England's Helicon, 1600; and a poem signed M. D. before Marley's Ballets, 1600, probably by Drayton, who has also commendatory verses before Middleton's Legend of D. Humphrey, 1600; Murray's Sophonisha, 1611; Davies's Holy Roode, 1609; Chapman's Hesiod, 1618; Vicars's Menuduction, 1622; sir John Beaumont's poems, 1629; in Annalia Dubrensia, 1636; and before Holland's Posthume, 1626. The supposition that he wrote a play called The Merry Devil of Edmonton has been satisfactorily refuted by the editor of the Biographia Dramatica; but in the Censura Literaria the following is attributed to his pen, Ideas Mirrour Amours in quatorzains, che suve e tace assair domanda, 4to. 1594. These stanzas are dedicated, in a poetical address, to "the deare chyld of the Muses, and his ever kind Maecenas, Antony Cooke, esq." — A collection of his principal works was printed in a folio volume in 1748, and a more complete, but still imperfect one, in 1753, in four volumes, 8vo. In 1788 the late Mr. Hurdis republished his Heroic Epistles with notes and illustrations, 8vo.
Few men appear to have been more highly respected by his contemporaries, and there is reason to think he associated on very familiar terms with Jonson, Shakspeare, Selden, and other men of the first eminence for literary character and personal worth. Meres, a divine and poet of considerable note in his time, informs us that Drayton, "among scholars, soldiers, poets, and all sorts of people, was helde for a man of virtuous disposition, honest conversation, and well-governed carriage, which," he adds, "is almost miraculous among good wits in these declining and corrupt times." And an anonymous dramatic writer introduces his name in a piece entitled The Return from Parnassus, or the Scourges of Symony, with this character: "He wants one true note of a poet of our times, and that is this: he cannot swagger it well at a tavern, or domineer in a hot-house." Mr. Warton introduces this encomium in his analysis of Hall's Satires, with the following remarks: "Our poets, too frequently the children of idleness, too naturally the lovers of pleasure, began now to be men of the world, and affect to mingle in the dissipations and debaucheries of the metropolis. To support a popularity of character, not so easily attainable in the obscurities of retirement and study, they frequented taverns, became libertines and buffoons, and exhilarated the circles of the polite and the profligate. Their way of life gave the colour to their writings: and what had been the favourite topic of conversation was sure to please, when recommended by the graces of poetry. Add to this, that poets now began to write for hire, and a rapid sale was to he obtained at the expense of the purity of the reader's mind."
Drayton's character appears to have been perfectly free from censures of this kind; but the testimonies to his merit as a poet are yet more copious, and deserve to accompany every edition of his works. If they have no other value, they serve to illustrate the history of taste, and the instability of fame. By Fitz Geoffry, a divine and poet who flourished at the latter end of queen Elizabeth's reign, he is styled, "the golden-mouthed poet, for the purity and preciousness of his phrase." Allot, in his England's Parnassus, is no less partial to his writings; and Robert Tofte, the translator of Ariosto's Satires, speaks of him as "not unworthily bearing the name of the chief archangel (Michael) singing after his soul-ravishing manner." Burton, the historian of Leicestershire, asserts that he may be compared with Dante, Petrarch or Boccace, Marinella, Pignatello or Stigliano; but wily, he exclaims, "should I go about to commend him, whose own works and worthiness have sufficiently extolled to the world?" Drummond of Hawthornden commends the Poly-olbion, as being one of the smoothest poems he had seen in English, and said he should dare to compare some pieces in it with the best transmarine poems. To these testimonies we may add the no less liberal praises of Bolton, Bodenham, sir John Beaumont, and Alexander, earl of Sterling.
Phillips, who is supposed to speak sometimes the sentiments of his illustrious relation, Milton, remarks that Drayton in his time (Drayton's) was not much inferior to Spenser and sir Philip Sydney for fame and renown in poetry: "however, he seems somewhat antiquated in the esteem of the more curious of these times, especially in his Poly-olbion, the old fashioned kind of verse, whereof, seems somewhat to diminish that respect which was formerly paid to the subject, as being both pleasant and elaborate, and thereupon thought worthy to be commented upon by that once walking library of our nation, Selden; his England's Heroical Epistles are more generally liked; and to such as love the pretty chat of nymphs and shepherds, his Nymphals, and other things of that nature, cannot be unpleasant."
Notwithstanding this decline, an attempt was made to revive Drayton about half a century ago, by Oldys, who obtained subscriptions for a folio edition of his works, and this, as already noticed, was followed by another in octavo. To each was prefixed an Historical Essay on the author's life and writings, almost a continued panegyric, but insisting chiefly on points unconnected with the character of genuine poetry. The deductions, indeed, must be many when we find that the highest praise is paid, not to the inventive powers of the poet, but to the fidelity of the historian, and the accuracy of the topographer. In these respects we are assured that Drayton may yet be consulted with advantage; we have the authority of Mr. Gough that the Poly-olbion contains many particulars which escaped Camden's notice; but when in this, or in his Barons' Wars and Legends, we look for the beauties of imagination, the search, although it does not always end in disappointment, must be allowed to be too painful for common curiosity. Drayton was certainly not destitute of genius. His Pastorals and his Nymphidia may be advanced in proof of a more than common share of original fancy, and his descriptions are sometimes very striking; but the pains he took to be accurate, and the historical terms of "the truth and nothing but the truth," which he imposed on his Muse, left no scope for imagination, and made invention appear almost a crime. As he wrote with such views and such a taste, it is impossible to blame the present age for not being easily reconciled to go through his works, unless as a task.
Mr. Headley labours, with more than usual effort, to convince us that the neglect into which Drayton has fallen is owing to the discouragement which his "voluminousness" presents, and which induces most readers to skim his works superficially, without going deep enough to be real judges of his excellence. But when this amiable critic descends to particulars, he affords, perhaps, a better apology for those superficial readers. After giving all the merit due to the Poly-olbion, which entirely resolves itself into the use that way be made of it by antiquaries, he is compelled to allow, "that 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. In the Legends and Heroical Epistles, both the time and 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 trespassed upon. In order to be introduced to good incident and reflection, we must toil through dry facts, listen with patience to the developement of uncertain primary causes, and at last, perhaps, are obliged to have recourse to a prose explanation in the notes." Mr. Headley, however, has proved that while Drayton's works were sinking into oblivion, his poetical successors availed themselves of many of his thoughts and expressions. Milton, Rochester, and Pope, are supposed to have been considerably indebted to him.
The learned and elegant editor of Phillips's Theatrum appears to me to have appreciated the poetry of Drayton at its full value, when, at the same time that he thinks his taste less correct and his ear less harmonious than Daniel's, he asserts that "his genius was more poetical, though it seems to have fitted him only for the didactic, and not for the bolder walks of poetry. The Poly-olbion is a work of amazing ingenuity; and a very large proportion exhibits a variety of beauties, which partake very strongly of the poetical character; but the perpetual personification is tedious, and more is attempted than is within the compass of poetry. The admiration in which the Heroical Epistles were once held, raises the astonishment of a wore refined age. They exhibit some elegant images, and some musical lines. But in general they want passion and nature, are strangely flat and prosaic, and are intermixed with the coarsest vulgarities of ideas, sentiment, and expression. His Barons' Wars and other historical pieces are dull creeping narratives, with a great deal of the same faults, and none of the excellencies which ought to distinguish such compositions. His Nymphidia is light and airy, and possesses the features of true poetry."