1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Drayton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:98-99.



MICHAEL DRAYTON, born, it is supposed, at Atherston, in Warwickshire, about the year 1563, and the son of a butcher, discovered in his earliest years such proofs of a superior mind, that, at the age of ten, he was made page to a person of quality — a situation which was not in that age thought too humble for the sons of gentlemen. He is said, upon dubious authority, to have been for some time a student at Oxford. It is certain that, in early life, he was highly esteemed and strongly patronised by several persons of consequence; particularly by Sir Henry Goodere, Sir Walter Aston, and the Countess of Bedford: to the first he was indebted for great part of his education, and for recommending him to the countess the second supported him for several years. In 1593 Drayton published a collection of his pastorals, and soon after gave to the world his more elaborate poems of The Baron's Wars and England's Heroical Epistles. In these latter productions, as in the History of the Civil War by Daniel, we see symptoms of that taste for poetised history (as it may be called) which marked the age which is first seen in Sackville's design of the Mirrour for Magistrates, and was now developing itself strongly in the historical plays of Shakspeare, Marlow, and others. On the accession of James I. in 1603 Drayton acted as an esquire to his patron, Sir Walter Aston, in the ceremony of his installation as a Knight of the Bath. The poet expected some patronage from the new sovereign, but was disappointed. He published the first part of his most elaborate work, the Polyolbion, in 1612, and the second in 622, the whole forming a poetical description of England, in thirty songs, or books.

The Polyolbion is a work entirely unlike any other in English poetry, both in its subject and the manner in which it is written. It is full of topographical and antiquarian details, with innumerable allusions to remarkable events and persons, as connected with various localities; yet such is the poetical genius of the author, so happily does he idealise almost everything he touches on, and so lively is the flow of his verse, that we do not readily tire in perusing this vast mass of information. He seems to have followed the manner of Spenser in his unceasing personifications of natural objects, such as hills, rivers, and woods. The information contained in this work is in general so accurate, that it is quoted as an authority by Hearne and Wood.

In 1627, Drayton published a volume containing The Battle of Agincourt, The Court of Faerie, and other poems. Three years later appeared another volume, entitled The Muses' Elysium, from which it appears that he had found a final shelter in the family of the Earl of Dorset. On his death in 1631, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a Monument, containing an inscription in letters of gold, was raised to his memory by the wife of that nobleman, the justly celebrated Lady Anne Clifford, subsequently Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery.

Drayton, throughout the whole of his writings, voluminous as they are, shows the fancy and feeling of the true poet. According to Mr. Headley — "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 anywhere sinks below himself, it is in his attempts at satire. In a most pedantic era, he was unaffected, and seldom exhibits learning at the expense of his judgment."