I need not go so far back as the Elizabethan age to illustrate a calamity, which will excite the sympathy of every man of letters; but the great work of a man of no ordinary genius presents itself on this occasion.
This great work is The Polyolbion of MICHAEL DRAYTON; a poem unrivalled for its magnitude and its character. The genealogy of poetry is always suspicious; yet I think it owed its birth to Leland's magnificent view of his intended work on Britain, and was probably nourished by the Britannia of Camden, who inherited the mighty industry, without the poetical spirit, of Leland; Drayton embraced both. This singular combination of topographical erudition and poetical fancy constitutes a national work — a union that some may conceive not fortunate, no more than "the slow length" of its Alexandrine metre, for the purposes of mere delight. Yet what theme can be more elevating than a bard chanting to his "Fatherland," as the Hollanders called their country? Our tales of ancient glory, our worthies who must not die, our towns, our rivers, and our mountains, all glancing before, the picturesque eye of the naturalist and the poet It is, indeed, a labour of Hercules; but it was not unaccompanied by the lyre of Apollo.
This national work was ill received; and the great author dejected, never pardoned his contemporaries, and even lost his temper. Drayton and his poetical friends beheld indignantly the trifles of the hour overpowering the neglected Polyolbion.
One poet tells us that
The fawning lines of every pamphleter.
And a contemporary records the utter neglect of this great poet:—
Why lives Drayton when the times refuse
Both means to live, and matter for a muse,
Only without excuse to leave us quite,
And tell us, durst we act, he durst to write?
Drayton published his Polyolbion first in eighteen parts; and the second portion afterwards. In this interval we have a letter to Drummond, dated in 1619:—
"I thank you, my dear sweet Drummond, for your good opinion of Polyolbion. I have done twelve books more, that is, from the 18th book, which was Kent (if you note it), all the east parts and north to the river of Tweed; but it lieth by me, for the booksellers and I are in terms; they are a company of base knaves, whom I scorn and kick at."
The vengeance of the poet had been more justly wreaked on the buyers of books than on the sellers, who, though knavery has a strong connexion with trade, yet, were they knaves, they would be true to their own interests. Far from impeding a successful author, booksellers are apt to hurry his labours; for they prefer the crude to the mature fruit, whenever the public taste can be appeased even by an unripened dessert.
These "knaves," however, seem to have succeeded in forcing poor Drayton to observe an abstinence from the press, which must have convulsed all the feelings of authorship. The second part was not published till three years after this letter was written; and then without maps. Its preface is remarkable enough; it is pathetic, till Drayton loses the dignity of genius in its asperity. In is inscribed, in no good humour—
"TO ANY THAT WILL READ IT!
"When I first undertook this poem, or, as some have, pleased to term it, this Herculean labour, I was by some virtuous friends persuaded that I should receive much comfort and encouragement; and for these reasons: First, it was a new clear way, never before gone by any; that it contained all the delicacies, delights, and rarities of this renowned isle, interwoven with the histories of the Britons, Saxons, Normans, and the later English. And further, that there is scarcely any of the nobility or gentry of this land, but that lie is some way or other interested therein.
"But it hath fallen out otherwise; for instead of that comfort which my noble friends proposed as my due, I have met with barbarous ignorance and base detraction; such a cloud hath the devil drawn over the world's judgment. Some of the stationers that had the selling of the first part of this poem, because it went not so fast away in the selling as some of their beastly and abominable trash (a shame both to our language and our nation), have despightfully left out the epistles to the readers, and so have cousened the buyers with imperfected books, which those that have undertaken the second part have been forced to amend in the first, for the small number that are yet remaining in their hands.
"And some of our outlandish, unnatural English (I know not how otherwise to express them) stick not to say that there is nothing in this island worth studying for, and take a great pride to be ignorant in anything thereof. As for these cattle, 'odi profanum vulgus, et arceo;' of which I account them, be they never so great."
Yet, as a true poet, whose impulse, like fate, overturns all opposition, Drayton is not to be thrown out of his avocation; but intrepidly closes by promising "they shall not deter me from going on with Scotland, if means and time do not hinder me to perform as much as I have promised in my first song." Who could have imagined that such bitterness of style, and such angry emotions, could have been raised in the breast of a poet of pastoral elegance and fancy?
Whose bounding muse o'er ev'ry mountain rode,
And every river warbled as it flow'd.
It is melancholy to reflect that some of the greatest works in our language have involved their authors in distress and anxiety: and that many have gone down to their grave insensible of that glory which soon covered it.