1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Drayton

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:229-30.



The author of Polyolbion, was born in the parish of Atherston, in Warwickshire, about the year 1583. He was the son of a butcher, but displayed such precocity that several persons of quality, such as Sir Walter Aston and the Countess of Bedford, patronised him. In his childhood he was eager to know what strange kind of beings poets were; and on coming to Oxford, (if, indeed, he did study there,) is said to have importuned his tutor to make him, if possible, a poet. He was supported chiefly, through his life, by the Lady Bedford. He paid court, without success, to King James. In 1593 (having long ere, this become that "strange thing a poet") he published a collection of his Pastorals, and afterwards his Barons' Wars, and England's Heroical Epistles, which are both rhymed histories. In 1612-13 he published the first part of Polyolbion, and in 1622 completed the work. In 1626 we hear of him being styled Poet Laureate, but the title then implied neither royal appointment, nor fee, nor, we presume, duty. In 1627 he published The Battle of Agincourt, The Court of Faerie, and other poems; and, three years later, a book called The Muses' Elysium. He had at last found an asylum in the family of the Earl of Dorset; whose noble lady, Lady Anne Clifford, subsequently Countess of Pembroke, and who had been, we saw, Daniel's pupil, after Drayton's death in 1631, erected him a monument, with a gold-lettered inscription, in Westminster Abbey.

The main pillar of Drayton's fame is Polyolbion, which forms a poetical description of England, in thirty songs or books, to which the learned Camden appended notes. The learning and knowledge of this poem are extensive, and many of the descriptions are true and spirited, but the space of ground traversed is too large, and the form of versification is too heavy, for so long a flight. Campbell justly remarks, — "On a general survey, the mass of his poetry has no strength or sustaining spirit equal to its bulk. There is a perpetual play of fancy on its surface; but the impulses of passion, and the guidance of judgment, give it no strong movements or consistent course."

Drayton eminently suits a Selection such as ours, since his parts are better than his whole.