The character of Drayton among his contemporaries was that of an elegant poet, and a modest and amiable man. The testimonies of Jonson, Drummond, Selden, Sir William Alexander, Browne and Sandys, are unquestionable authorities in his favour.
Jonson in his conversation with Drummond says, that Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion, had he performed what he promised, to write the deeds of all the worthies, had been excellent. Drummond says, "his Poly-Olbion is one of the smoothest poems I have seen in English; poetical and well prosecuted. There are some pieces in him I dare compare with the best transmarine poems; the 7th song pleaseth me much; the 12th is excellent; the 13th also; the discourse of hunting passeth with any poet." Meres, in his Wit's Treasury, pronounces the following eulogium upon him. "As Aulus Persius Flaccus is reputed among all writers to be of an honest life and upright conversation; so Michael Drayton (quem toties honoris & amoris cause nomino) among schollers, souldeers, poets, and all sorts of people, in helde for a man of vertuous disposition, honest conversation, and well governed carriage, which is almost miraculous among good wits in these declining and corrupt times, when there is nothing but rogery in villainous man; and when cheating and craftiness is counted the cleanest wit and the soundest wisdome." Winstanley is very lavish in displaying the great extent of his fame: "He had drunk as deep a draught at Helicon as any in his time: for fame and renown in poetry he is not much inferior, if not equal to Spenser: His England's Heroical Epistles, generally liked and received, entitling him unto the appellation of the English Ovid."
His reputation in the reign of Elizabeth and James I. stood on much the same level with that of Cowley in the two succeeding reigns; but it has declined considerably since that period.
The modern testimonies to his merit are few, when compared with those of the last century, and by no means equal to his desert. Most readers, either discouraged at his voluminousness, or from an unlucky perverseness or fastidiousness of taste, content themselves with superficially skimming him over, without going deep enough to be real judges of his excellence.
The Poly-Olbion, his greatest performance, is one of the most singular and original works this country has produced. The information contained in it is in general so accurate, that it is quoted as an authority by Hearne, Wood, and Nicholson. His perpetual allusions to obsolete traditions, remote events, remarkable facts and personages, together with his curious genealogies of rivers, and h is taste for natural history, have contributed to render his work very valuable to the antiquary.
To many just objections it is most certainly liable; his verse of twelve syllables, though generally harmonious, is antiquated and unsuitable to the dignity and importance of his subject, and his continual personification of woods, mountains, and rivers, are tedious, and must be read rather for information than pleasure.
His Barons Wars are not liable to the same objections, the measure is more judiciously chosen; and though they frequently want the elevation of thought which is essential to poetry, the numbers are harmonious, and in some stanzas scarce inferior to the finest passages in Spenser.
The subject, it may be thought, is too extensive, and the province of the historian too far transgressed upon; in order to be introduced to good incident and reflection, one must toil through dry facts, listen with patience to the development of uncertain primary causes; and, at last, perhaps, be obliged to have recourse to a prose explanation in the notes.
In his Legends and Heroical Epistles, both the time and the events are properly limited; the attention is gratified, but not satiated. He is in general, however, happier in the choice than the execution of his subjects; yet some of his imitations of Ovid are more in the spirit of a poet than several of the English translations of him.
His Nymphidia: the Court of Fayrie, seems to have been the greatest effort of his imagination, and is the most generally admired of his works. It is a most pleasing effort of a sportive fancy. The charm, in particular, is ludicrously whimsical; the component parts are put together with great propriety. It is a fine prelude to the witches Cauldron in Macbeth, and only exceeded by the strong genius of Shakspeare.
His Ideas expresses much fancy and poetry.
His Sonnets possess, in a high degree, those difficulties which have been esteemed the most delicate improvements in English versification, and are scarce inferior to the best compositions of that kind in our language. His Divine Poems contain some sublime images.