When we have named Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Jonson, Fletcher, Milton, Dryden and Pope, it is generally imagined that all our first rate deceased Poets have been enumerated; this is a mistake: Drayton should, undoubtedly, be inserted, chronologically, between Spenser and Shakspeare; both of whom he, in some instances, excels.
He was descended from an ancient and worthy family, originally of the town of Drayton in Leicestershire, which gave name to his ancestors; but his parents removing into the bordering county, he was born at the village of Hartshull, or Hartshill, in the parish of Atherston in Warwickshire, in the year 1563.
He gave such early tokens of genius, and was of so engaging an aspect, sweet a temper, and graceful a deportment, as not only to render him the delight of his instructors, but also to be the means of his preferment; for, before he was ten years of age, as he himself informs us, he appears to have been page to some person of distinction; to have "marveil'd" at the idea of, and vehemently to have desired to be, a Poet.
—from my cradle — I
Was still inclin'd to noble Poesie,
And when that once Pueriles I had read,
And newly had my Cato construed,
In my small selfe I greatly marveil'd then,
Amongst all other, what strange kind of men
These Poets were; and pleased with the name,
To my milde Tutor merrily I came,
(For I was then a proper goodly page,
Much like a Pigmy, scarse ten yeares of age)
Clasping my slender armes about his thigh,
O my deare master! can not you (quoth I)
Make me a Poet; doe it, if you can,
And, you shall see, Ile quickly be a man.
ELEGIES. Folio, 1627.
From some lines by his intimate acquaintance, Sir Aston Cokain, we learn that he was a student at the university of Oxford, by the support, as it is said, of Sir Henry Goodere; though it does not appear that he took any degree there. It has been suggested, from a passage in the third book of his poem on "Moses his Birth and Miracles," descriptive of the Spanish armada in 1588, that he might possibly have been at Dover at that critical period, in a military capacity; be that as it may, it is certain that he had sedulously cherished and cultivated his propensity and talent for poetry, in which he became eminent ten years before the death of queen Elizabeth.
In 1593 he published a collection of Pastorals, &c. and, soon after, his Barons Wars; England's Heroical Epistles; The Legends of Robert, Duke of Normandy; Matiida; Pierce Gaveston; and Great Cromwell: for which latter pieces he is stiled by a contemporary, "Tragaediographus."
Part of his Poly-Olbion, the first eighteen songs of which were not published till 1613, is said to have been written before 1598.
For these admirable productions, and his personal deserts, he was highly celebrated, not only as a great genius, but a good man; not only for the sweetness and elegance of his words, but of his actions and manners; for his humane and honourable principles, as well as his refined and polite parts. The Poly-Olbion he enlarged by the addition of twelve songs, and it was published complete in 1622.
The curious and important geographical descriptions, with which this singular and noble poem abounds, will furnish much information to every antiquary who has a regard for his country; his great display of knowledge and observation both political and natural history, cannot fail to please, if not instruct, every researcher into those departments of science; and the general strain of benevolence, which pervades his works, endears him to readers of every class: thus was he characterized, not only by Poets, or the more florid and panegyrical writers of his time, but also by Divines, Historians, and other Scholars of the most serious learning. On subjects connected with Scripture very few have in any degree succeeded; there Milton reigns unrivaled! yet is there much real poetry, and true sublimity, in Drayton's David and Goliah, The Flood, and The Birth of Moses.
But it is in the Pastoral and Fairy stiles of writing that Drayton eminently excels — may I be bold enough to say? — every other English poet, ancient or modern! Withers and William Browne approach him nearest in the former, Shakspeare in the latter; Spenser and Gay follow Withers and Browne: Ambrose Phillips and Pope bring up the rear. Dramatic Pastoral is not here adverted to; if it were, Jonson's Sad Shepherd, and Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, might, like the first created Pair, walk hand in hand, with simple majesty, as paramount to all!
Drayton's earliest patron, of whom we have any information, was Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth; Sir Walter Aston of Tixhall, in Staffordshire, was also his long and approved friend to whom many of his choicest productions are most gratefully dedicated.
On the accession of King James to the throne of England (to which Drayton had been, perhaps, in some degree instrumental), he felicitated that first monarch of Great Britain on the occasion, by "A Congratulatory Poem to King James, &c. 4to 1603," which, in the Preface to his Poly-Olbion, and elsewhere, he hints to us, he was but ill-requited for. In the same year he was chosen by Sir Walter Aston one of the Esquires who attended him when he was created Knight of the Bath at the coronation of the said King; and the addition of Esquire accompanies his name in all his publications posterior to that period. In his allegorical fable of "The Owle" he seems to have shadowed his own wrongs, and to have characterized himself in the bird who gives title to the poem; which not being, perhaps, so much known as some other of his works, the following similarity therein to Shakspeare's description of the "poor sequester'd stag," in As You Like It, may not be unacceptable.
Loe, in a Valley peopled thick with Trees,
Where the soft day continuall Evening sees,
Where in the moyst and melancholy shade,
The Grasse growes rancke, but yeelds a bitter Blade,
I found a poore Crane sitting all alone,
That from his brest sent many a throbbing grone;
Groveling he lay, that sometime stood upright;
Maim'd of his joynts in many a doubtfull fight.
His Ashie Coate that bore a glosse so faire,
So often kiss'd of th' enamored Ayre;
Worne all to ragges and fretted so with rust,
That with his feete he trod it in the dust:
And wanting strength to beare him to the Springs,
The Spiders wove their Webs even in his wings:
And in his traine their filmie netting cast,
He eate not Wormes, Wormes eat on him so fast.
His wakefull eyes, that in his Foes despight,
Had watch'd the walles in many a Winters Night,
And never winck'd nor from their object fled,
When Heaven's dread thunder rattled o'er his head,
Now covered over with dimme cloudie kels,
And shrunken up into their slimy shels.
Poor Bird that striving to bemone thy plight,
I cannot do thy miseries their right;
Perceiving well he found me where I stood,
And he alone thus poorly in the Wood:
To him I stept, desiring him to show
The cause of his calamitie and woe.
Folio edit. 1619.
Whether this be an imitation of Shakspeare, or the "sequester'd stag" be an imitation of this, cannot now be ascertained; As You Like It, tho' not printed till 1623, is conjectured by Mr. Malone to have been written in 1600: The Owle was not published till 1604.
Another remarkable similarity, unnoticed by the commentators, occurs in this Poem; in As You Like It we have
—the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city.
in The Owle, the various birds are thus addressed: "Quoth he, you foolish Burgers of the Field."
This description of the "poore crane," though very pathetic and affecting, is, it must be acknowledged, as much inferior to Shakspeare's "hairy fool," as his Fairy-train, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is to Drayton's Nymphidia.
On a retrospect of what has been already written, it is feared that the preference given to Drayton before Spenser and Shakespeare will be thought unfounded in true poetic taste, and mature judgment; let it, however, be considered, that this preference is only in trifles: had Spenser's Pastorals, or Shakspeare's Dream of Oberon and Titania, never been produced; The Faerie Queene, Othello, Macbeth, &c. would have placed their authors far above all, Chaucer excepted, who went before them: for Drayton's great work, the Poly-Olbion, though highly meritorious, must not be mentioned when those most excellent productions are spoken of.
It were no difficult task to speak as contemptuously, as hath been done panegyrically, of our praise-worthy poet, and to cite high authority for it; which the following quotations will both prove and correct.
"Menage, the greatest name in France for all kinds of philologick learning, prided himself in writing critical notes on their best lyrick poet Malherbe: and our greater Selden, when he thought it might reflect credit on his country, did not disdain even to comment a very ordinary poet, one Michael Drayton." Warburton's Preface to Shakspeare.
In Hawkins's Complete Angler, 5th edit. 1792, p. 127. n. is the following pertinent remark upon the foregoing impertinent passage.
"Dr. Warburton, in the preface to his Shakespear, speaking of this poem, [Poly-Olbion] says it was written by one Drayton; a mode of expression very common with great men, when they mean to consign the memory of others over to oblivion and contempt. Bishop Burnet speaking of the negociations previous to the peace of Utrecht, says in like manner, that 'one Prior was employed to finish the treaty.'"
But both those gentlemen, in this their witty perversion of an innocent monosyllable were but imitators of the Swedish ambassador, who complained to Whitlock, that "a treaty had been sent to be translated by one Mr. Milton, a blind man." A note on Warburton's Preface transfers his' supposed imitation of the Swedish ambassador to that of the meanly-arrogant Pope; who sneakingly copied, or rather slily stole from, the poets he unjustly abused: instances of which are notorious, respecting him and Crashaw,
"— our greater Selden, &c. did not disdain to comment a very ordinary poet, one Michael Drayton.] This compliment to himself for condescending to write notes on Shakspeare, Warburton copied from Pope, who sacrificed Drayton to gratify the vanity of this flattering editor. 'I have a particular reason (says Pope in a letter to Warburton) to make you interest yourself in me and my writings. It will cause both them, and me to make a better figure to posterity. A very mediocre poet, one Drayton, is yet taken notice of, because Selden writ a few notes on one of his poems.' Pope's Works, Vol. IX. P. 350, 8vo. 1751. HOLT WHITE." Steevens's Shakspeare, 1793, V. i, P. 178. n.
After the perhaps-exaggerated praise of, and certainly unmerited-contempt thrown on Drayton, by the fastidious Pope, and his supercilious commentator; it will be but candid to let our modest Poet speak, respecting Spenser, for himself.
"Master EDMUND SPENSER had done enough for the immortalitie of his Name, had he only given us his Shepheards Kalendar, a Master-piece if any. The Colin Clout of SKOGGAN, under King HENRY the Seventh, is prettie: but BARKLEY'S Ship of Fooles hath twentie wiser in it. SPENSER is the prime Pastoralist of England. My Pastorals bold upon a new straine, must speake for themselves, and the Taber striking up, if thou hast in thee any Country-Quicksilver, thou hadst rather be at the sport, then heare thereof." Address "To THE READER OF HIS PASTORALS." Folio, 1619.
It may he necessary, merely to establish a controverted fact, to consider Drayton in a point of view not generally attended to; that of a dramatic author: in his collection of Sonnets, entituled "IDEA," is the following one.
In pride of wit, when high desire of fame
Gave life and courage to my labouring pen.
And first the found and vertue of my name,
Won grace and credite in the eares of men:
With those the thronged Theaters that presse,
I in the circuite for the Lawrell strove,
Where the full praise I freely must confesse,
In heate of blood and modest minde might move:
With showts and claps at everie little pawse,
When the prowd round [The Globe Theatre] on everie side hath rung.
Sadly I sit unmov'd with the applawse,
As though to me it nothing did belong:
No publique glorie vainely I pursue.
The praise I strive, is to eternize you.
POEMS: By Michaell Draiton, Esquire. 1605.
The Folio, 1619, reads, "All that I seeke, is to eternize you."
We have here Drayton's own authority for his being a dramatic writer; but, if that were wanting, "ADDITIONS" to the "HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF THE ENGLISH STAGE," Steevens's Shakspeare, 1793, V. 2, p. 468, seq. furnish ample testimony of his writing for the theatre, alone, and in conjunction with Munday, Chettle, Dekker, Wilson, Hathwaye, Smith, Middleton, and Webster: that his productions were successful, his sonnet evinces; for he was too modest a man to boast of applause never bestowed.
He was sometimes stiled Poet Laureat, but that was merely complimentary; Ben Jonson being, at the same period, Court-Poet.
There is an uncommonly beautiful Song, consisting of two stanzas; the first of which is found in Shakspeare's Measure for Measure, and both in Fletcher's Rollo, Duke of Normandy; beginning with, "Take, oh take those lips away:" the author of it not certainly known.
These remembrances of Drayton are swelling beyond the limits prescribed in this publication, yet cannot the collector of them refrain from inserting "A Canzonet," from his "Odes," Folio, 1619, addressed "To His Coy Love;" which contains such a similarity of ideas and expression to the quoted Song, as to induce a suspicion that they might both have proceeded from the same pen.
I pray thee leave, love me no more,
Call home the Heart you gave me,
I but in vaine that Saint adore,
That can, but will no save me:
These poore halfe Kisses kill me quite
Was ever Man thus served?
Amidst an Ocean of Delight,
For Pleasure to be sterved. [i.e. For lack of Pleasure.]
Shew me no more those Snowie Brests,
With Azure Riverets branched,
Where whilst mine Eye with Pientie feasts,
Yet is my Thirst not stanched,
O TANTALUS, thy Paines ne'r tell,
By me thou art prevented
Tis nothing to be plagu'd in Hell,
But thus in Heaven tormented.
["to be tormented is intolerable!" must be understood.]
* Riverets] the proper diminutive of "Rivers," which "Rivulets" is not.
Clip me no more in those deare Armes
Nor thy Life's Comfort call me;
O, these are but too pow'rfull Charmes,
And doe but more inthrall me.
But see how patient I am growne,
In all this coyle about thee;
Come nice Thing, let thy Heart alone,
I cannot live without thee.
coyle] so in Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen.
"— in my heart was Palamon, and there
Lord, what a coil he keeps!"
In addition to his encomium on Spenser as a "Pastoralist," Drayton in his Estimate of the Poets, addressed to H. Reynolds, Esq; says,
Grave morrall Spencer after these came on
Then whom I am perswaded there was none
Since the blind Bard his Iliads up did make,
Fitter a taske like that to undertake,
To set downe boldly, bravely to invent,
In all high knowledge, surely excellent.
Our Swan of Avon he thus briefly characterizes,
Shakespeare thou hadst as smooth a Comicke vaine,
Fitting the socke, and in thy naturall braine,
As strong conception, and as Cleere a rage,
As any one that trafiqu'd with the stage.
In lordly Ben's commendation he is more diffuse.
Next these, learn'd Johnson, in this List I bring,
Who had drunke deepe of the Pierian spring,
Whose knowledge did him worthily prefer,
And long was Lord here of the Theater,
Who in opinion made our learn'st to sticke,
Whether in Poems rightly dramatique,
Strong Seneca or Plautus, he or they,
Should bear the Buskin, or the Sock away.
ELEGIES, folio, 1627.
Jonson, whose praise was precious, is lavish of panegyrick in "A Vision on the Muses of his Friend M. Draytcn;" and tradition ha named him as the Author of the following Epitaph, copied literatim from the monument in Westminster Abbey, where our Poet was buried.
Michaell Draiton Esqr. a memorable Poet of this Age, exchanged his Laurell for a Crowne of Glorye Anno. 1631:
Doe pious Marble: Let thy Readers Knowe
What they, and what their children owe
To DRAITON'S name, whose sacred dust
Wee recommend unto thy TRUST:
Protect his Mem'ry, and Preserve his Storye:
Remaine a lasting Monument of his Glorye;
And when thy Ruines shall disclame
To be the Treas'rer of his NAME;
His Name, that cannot fade, shall be
An everlasting MONUMENT to thee.
So much pains having been taken to establish the true orthography of our Greatest Dramatick Poet's Surname; it may not be thought impertinent to conclude these Memoirs with remarking a variation, by Drayton him self, from the customary mode of spelling his own Christian-name.
A copy of "THE MUSES ELIZIUM," &c. 4to. 1630. in the editor's possession, in the title-page of which is printed, "By MICHAEL DRAYTON Esquire." has, on the preceding leaf, the author's autograph; literally thus.
To the Noble Knight and
my heighly Esteemed Ffrend
Sr. RICHARD BRAWNE
all health and happinesse
Ffrom his Servante and
Ffrend MICHELL DRAYTON.