Poly-Olbion by Michaell Drayton Esqr. [Part I]

Michael Drayton

The first installment of Michael Drayton's long topographical and antiquarian poem, written in weighty alexandrines, appeared in 1612. The topographical structure is organized around rivers, the river passages variously recalling Spenser's poetry.

Robert Aubin describes the character of Drayton's vast poem: "The interest is fairly closely divided between history and 'chorography'; there is an epic opening with a statement of the subject and an invocation to the Genius of Albion, there are genre sketches of people at work and play, and tales for the reader's relief or enlightenment; fairly often occur didactic passages, political panegyric, catalogues of all manner of things from shellfish to saints and from vegetables to military heroes, touches of satire, prophecies, and the Renaissance 'mutability' theme; the personal note (one of the happier and later important features of the kind) rural sports such as stag-hunting, falconry, and country games and dances, praise of the local 'fair' (always a favorite topic with place-poets) scientific disquisitions, Horatian retirement, descriptions of palaces and mansions, thanks included; in short, the Poly-Olbion is a museum of topics proper to topographic poetry of all ages and especially of those wearisome features of nature poetry that resulted from an aping of the classics: personification, excessive reference to Pagan divinities, otiose epithets, generic nouns, Homeric similes, and the Nature-and Art logomachy" Topographical Poetry in XVIIIth-Century England (1936) 20-21.

William Drummond of Hawthornden: "Your Works make you ever present to me; than which there is not any book I am more familiar with, nor any by which I esteem myself more happy by familiarity contracted with the author. I long to see the rest of your Polyoblion come forth; which is the only epic poem England, in my judgment, hath to be proud of; to be the author of which I had rather have the praise than, as Aquinas said of one of the Fathers' commentaries, to have the seignory of Paris" 1618; in David Masson, Drummond (1873) 84.

John Campbell: "I am never weary of reading it, such a happy mixture do I find therein, of the profitable and the Pleasant. How grand a Design this was, to eternize every Rivulet, and to add the Graces of Poesy, to a Geographical Description? Well did Drayton deserve the Laureat's Wreath, since this Work shows him both a Patriot and a Poet. But alas! how few have trode in his Steps, nay, how little is his Poem known, and of those who know it, how few esteem it as they ought?" The Rational Amusement (1741) 278.

Alexander Pope to William Warburton: "I have a particular reason to make you interest yourself in me and my writings. It will cause both them and me to make the better figure figure to posterity. A very mediocre poet, one Drayton, is yet taken some notice of, because Selden write a [very] few notes on one of his poems" 27 November 1742; Works of Pope, ed. Elwin and Courthope (1871-1889) 9:225.

1748 editor: "The true Way of judging of the Merit of this Book, is to compare it with Cambden's celebrated Work in Prose, from whence it will appear how little Mr. Drayton borrowed from others, and what infinite variety of curious Facts he inserted from our old Manuscript History, and how judiciously they are applied. We need not therefore be surprized that not only the Writers next in Point of Time, such as Weever and Fuller, borrow from his so largely, or that later Antiquaries, such as Musgrove, Kennet, Wood, and Hearne, cite him as a most authentick Author" Works of Drayton (1748) 7.

European Magazine: "The curious and important geographical descriptions that the Poly-Olbion abounds with, will furnish much information to every antiquary who has a regard for his country; nor are there wanting poetical beauties of every kind" 10 (September 1786) 153.

Joseph Warton: "Drayton deserves a much higher character. He abounds in many beautiful and natural descriptions, and some very harmonious lines. And Selden's notes are full of curious antiquarian researches. Pope was as much superior to Drayton, as Selden was to Warburton" in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Warton (1797) 9:364n.

William Hazlitt: "Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion is a work of great length and of unabated freshness and vigour in itself, though the monotony of the subject tires the reader. He describes each place with the accuracy of a topographer, and the enthusiasm of a poet, as if his muse were the very genus loci" Age of Elizabeth (1820; 1845) 155-56.

Henry Hallam: "Next to Daniel in time, and much above him in reach of mind, we place Michael Drayton, whose Barons' Wars have been mentioned under the preceding period, but whose more famous work was published partly in 1613, and partly in 1622. Drayton's Polyolbion is a poem of about 30,000 lines in length, written in Alexandrine couplets; a measure, from its monotony, and perhaps from its frequency in doggerel ballads, not at all pleasing to the ear. It contains a topographical description of England, illustrated with a prodigality of historical and legendary erudition. Such a poem is essentially designed to instruct, and speaks to the understanding more than to the fancy. The powers displayed in it are, however, of a high cast. It has generally been a difficulty with poets to deal with a necessary enumeration of proper names. The catalogue of ships is not the most delightful part of the Iliad; and Ariosto never encountered such a roll of persons or places without sinking into the tamest insipidity. Virgil is splendidly beautiful upon similar occasions; but his decorative elegance could not be preserved, nor would continue to please, in a poem that kept up, through a great length, the effort to furnish instruction. The style of Drayton is sustained, with extraordinary ability, on an equable line, from which he seldom much deviates, neither brilliant nor prosaic: few or no passages could be marked as impressive, but few are languid or mean. The language is clear, strong, various, and sufficiently figurative; the stories and fictions interspersed, as well as the general spirit and liveliness, relieve the heaviness incident to topographical description. 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. Yet perhaps no English poem, known as well by name, is so little known beyond its name; for, while its immense length deters the common reader, it affords, as has just been hinted, no great harvest for selection, and would be judged very unfairly by partial extracts. It must be owned also, that geography and antiquities may, in modern times, be taught better in prose than in verse; yet whoever consults the Polyolbion for such objects will probably be repaid by petty knowledge which he may not have found anywhere else" Literature of Europe (1837-39, 1882) 3:250-51.

Samuel Austin Allibone: "None but a great poet could have made such a subject attractive, and none but a thorough philologist could have forced poetry to perform so well the office of prose" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 1:520.

Oliver Elton: "To hill and stream he applies the same half-humanizing, half abstracting process, made by Spenser delightful in variety, but becoming a little worn in the hands of the masque-makers and their stage artists. Once more Spenser asserts his influence: the meeting of the Thames and Isis in the fifteenth Song of Poly-Olbion is a lavish imitation of the marriage of the Thames and Medway in the Faerie Queene" Michael Drayton, a Critical Study (1905) 117-18.

The Second Part of Poly-Olbion was belatedly issued in 1622. Several of Drayton's prose references to Spenser are collected in R. M. Cummings, Critical Heritage (1971) 79-80.

To grace his goodly Queen, Tames presently proclaims,
That all the Kentish Floods, resigning him their names,
Should presently repaire unto his mighty Hall,
And by the posting Tides, towards London sends to call
Cleere Ravensburne (though small, remembred them among)
At Detford entring. Whence as down she comes along,
She Darent thither warnes: who calles her sister Cray,
Which hasten to the Court with all the speed they may.
And but that Medway then of Tames obtain'd such grace,
Except her country Nymphes, that none should be in place,
More Rivers from each part, had instantly been there,
Then at their Marriage, first, by Spenser numbered were.

[p. 285 (Song XVIII, ll. 97-108)]