1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Drayton

Thomas Arnold, in A Manual of English Literature (1862; 1885) 195-97.



Michael Drayton also was no mean poet; indeed Mr. Hallam considered that he had greater reach of mind than Daniel. And this, nakedly stated, is undoubtedly true; Drayton had more variety, more energy, more knowledge of mankind, and far more liveliness than Daniel. His Baron's are not tame, or prosaic; they are full of action and strife; swords flash and helmets rattle on every page. But unfortunately, Mortimer, the hero of the poem, the guilty favourite of Edward II.'s queen, is a personage in whom we vainly endeavour to get up an interest. There is much prolixity of description in this poem, due, it would seem, to imitation of Spenser, whose influence on Drayton's mind and style is conspicuous. But it is one thing to be prolix in a work of pure imagination, when the poet detains us thereby in that magic world of unearthly beauty in which his own spirit habitually dwells, and quite another thing to be prolix in a poem founded upon and closely following historical fact. When both the close and the chief turning-points of the story are known to the reader beforehand, the introduction of fanciful episodes and digressions, unless admirably managed, is apt to strike him as laborious trifling. If Drayton had known, like Tasso, how to associate Clorindas and Erminias with his historical personages, he might have been as discursive as he pleased. But this was "a grace beyond the reach" of his art; and the Baron's Wars remain, therefore, incurably uninteresting. England's Heroical Epistles, published in 1598, have a much stronger claim to distinction. This work, which is in the heroic couplet, consists of twelve pairs of epistles, after the manner of Ovid, supposed to be exchanged between so many pairs of royal or noble lovers: among these are Henry II. and Fair Rosamond, Owen Tudor and Queen Catherine, Surrey and Geraldine, Guildford Dudley and Lady Jane Grey. The style is flowing, fiery, and energetic, and withal extremely modern; it seems to anticipate the "full resounding line" of Dryden, and to rebuke the presumption of the poets of the Stuart age, who chose, to say that had never been properly and purely written till Waller and Denham arose. The Mooncalf is a strange satire — and one of a higher order than the weak, uncouth attempts of Hall, Donne, and Marston — on the morals and manners of the time. One of the best known of Drayton's poems is the Nymphidia. This is in a common romance metre (the same which Chaucer used for his Sir Thopas), and has for its subject the amours of the Court of fairy land. It is a work of the liveliest fancy, but not of imagination. It is interesting to find Don Quixote referred to in a poem published so soon after Cervantes' death: —

Men talk of the adventures strange
Of Don Quichot and of their change.

Not long before his dead, he wrote a spirited ballad on the battle of Agincourt (1627), in dactylic stanzas. The most celebrated of our authors works stil remains to be noticed — the Polyolbion, (1613-1622). This is a poem of enormous length, written in the Alexandrine or twelve-syllable riming couplet, and aiming at a complete topographical and antiquarian delineation of England. The literary merits of this Cyclopean performance are undeniable. Mr. Hallam thinks that "there is probably no poem of this kind in any other language comparable together in extent and excellence to the Polyolbion; nor can any one read a portion of it without admiration for its learned and highly gifted author." But the historian of literature goes on to say that "perhaps no English poem, known so well by name, is so little known beyond its name;" and, on the whole, the verdict of criticism pronounces it to be a huge mistake; to be a composition possessing neither the unity of a work of art, nor the utility of a topographical dictionary.