1902 Encyclopedia > Michael Drayton

Michael Drayton
English poet

MICHAEL DRAYTON, (1563-1631), English poet, was born at Hartshill, near Atherston, in Warwickshire, in 1563. Even in childhood it was his great ambition to excel in writing verses. At the age of ten he was sent as page into some great family, and a little later he is supposed to have studied for some time at Oxford. Sir Henry Goodere became his patron, and introduced him to the countess of Bedford, and for several years he was supported by Sir Walter Aston. How the early part of his life was spent, however, we possess no means of ascertaining. It has been surmised that he served in the army abroad. In 1590 he seems to have come up to London, and to have settled there. In 1591 he produced his first book, The Harmony of the Church, a volume of spiritual poems, dedicated to Lady Devereux. The best piece in this is a version of the Song of Solomon, executed with considerable richness of expression. A singular and now incomprehen-sible fate befell the book; with the exception of forty copies seized by the archbishop of Canterbury, the whole edition was destroyed by public order. It is probable that he had come up to town laden with poetic writings, for he pub-lished a vast amount within the next few years. In 1593 appeared Idea : Tlie Shepherds Garland, a collection of pastorals, in which he celebrated his own love-sorrows under the poetic name of B,owland. The circumstances of this passion appear more distinctly in the cycle of 64 sonnets, published in 1594, under the title of Idea's Mirror, by which we learn that the lady lived by the river Anker, in Warwickshire. It appears that he failed to win his "Idea," and lived and died a bachelor. The same year, 1594, saw the publication of Matilda, an epical poem in rhyme royal, the first of his studies from English history. It was about this time, too, that he brought out Endimion and Phoebe, a volume which he never republished, but which contains some interesting autobiographical matter, and acknowledgments of literary help from Lodge, if not from Spenser and Daniel also. In his Fig for Momus, Lodge has reciprocated these friendly courtesies. In 1596 Drayton published his long and important poem of Mortimeriados, which deals with the Wars of the Roses, and is a very serious production in ottava rima. He after-wards enlarged and modified this poem, and republished it in 1603 under the title of The Barons' Wars. In 1566.

also, appeared another historical poem, The Legend of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and a similar piece on Piers Gaveslon. In 1597 appeared England's Ileroical Epistles, a series of historical studies, in imitation of those of Ovid. These last poems, written in the heroic couplet, contain some of the finest passages in Drayton's writings. "With the year 1597 the first half of the poet's literary life closes. He had become famous by this rapid production of volumes, and he rested on his oars. It would seem that he was much favoured at the court of Elizabeth, and he hoped that it would be the same with her successor. But when, in 1603, he addressed a poem of compliment to James I. on his accession, it was ridiculed, and his services rudely rejected. His bitterness of spirit found expression in a satire, The Owl, which he printed in 1604, although he had no talent in this kind of composition. Not much more en-tertaining was his scriptural narrative of Moses in a Map of his Miracles, a sort of epic in heroics printed the same year. In 1605 Drayton reprinted his most important works, that is to say, his historical poems and the Idea, in a single volume, which ran vhrough eight editions during his lifetime. He also collected his smaller pieces, hitherto unedited, in a volume undated, but probably published in 1605, under the title of Poems Lyric and Pastoral ; these consisted of odes, eclogues, and a fantastic satire, called The Man in the Moon. Some of the odes are extremely spirited. He then adopted the extraordinary resolution of celebrating all the points of topographical or antiquarian interest in the island of Great Britain, and on this laborious work he was engaged for many years. At last, in 1613, the first part of this vast work was published under the title of Poly-Olbion, eighteen books being produced, to which the learned Selden supplied notes. The success of this great work, which has since become so famous, was very small at first, and not until 1622 did Drayton succeed in finding a pub-lisher willing to undertake the risk of bringing out twelve more books in a second part. This completed the survey of England, and the poet, who had hoped to " crown Scot-land with flowers," and arrive at last at the Orcades, never crossed the Tweed. In 1627 he published another of his miscellaneous volumes, and this contains some of his most characteristic and exquisite writing. It consists of the following pieces :—The Battle of Agincourt, an historical poem in ottava rima, and The Miseries of Queen Margaret, written in the same verse and manner ; Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, a most joyous and graceful little epic of fairyland ; The Quest of Cinthia and The Shepherd's Sirena, two lyrical pastorals ; and finally The Moon Calf, a sort of satire. Of these Nimphidia is perhaps the best thing Drayton ever wrote, except his famous ballad on the Battle of Agincourt ; it is quite unique of its kind, and full of rare fantastic fancy. The last of Drayton's voluminous publications was The Muses' Elizium in 1630. He died in London on the 23d of December 1631, was buried in Westminster Abbey, and had a monument placed over him by the countess of Dorset, with memorial lines attri-buted to Ben Jonson. Of the particulars of Draytbu's life we know almost nothing but what he hiLiself tells us ; he en-joyed the friendship of some of the best men of the age. He corresponded familiarly with Drummond; Jonson, Browne, Wither, and others were among his friends. In one of his poems, an " elegy " or epistle to Mr Henry Reynolds, he has left some valuable criticisms on poets whom he had known. He was even engaged in the labour of the dramatists ; at least he had a share, with Munday, Chettle, and Wilson, in writing Sir John Oldcastle, which was printed in 1600. That he was a restless and discontented, as well as a worthy man, may be gathered from his own admissions.

The works of Drayton are bulky, and, in spite of the high place that he holds in critical esteem, it cannot be pretended that he is much read. For this his ponderous style is much to blame. The Poly-Olbion, the most famous but far from the most successful of his writings, is tedious and barren in the extreme. The metre in which it is composed, a couplet of Alexandrines, like the French classical measure, is wholly unsuited to our language, and becomes excessively wearisome to the reader, who forgets the learn-ing and ingenuity of the poet in labouring through the harsh and overgrown, lines. His historical poems, which he was constantly rewriting and improving, are much more interesting, and often rise to a true poetic eloquence. His pastorals are brilliant, but overladen with colour and sweet to insipidity. He is, with one or two magnificent exceptions, an indifferent sonneteer. The poet with whom it is most natural to compare him is Daniel; he is more rough and vigorous, more varied and more daring than the latter, but Daniel surpasses him in grace, delicacy, and judgment. In their elegies and epistles, however, the two writers frequently resemble each other. Drayton, however, approaches the very first poets of the Elizabethan era in his charming Nimphidia, a poem which inspired Herrick with his sweet fairy fancies, and which stands alone of its kind in our literature; while some of his odes and lyrics are inspired by noble feeling and high imagination.

In 1748 a folio edition of Drayton's complete works was published, under the editorial supervision of Oldys, and again in 1753 there appeared an issue in four volumes. But these were very unintelligently and inaccurately prepared. An attempt is now being made to edit Drayton in a more critical spirit. Three volumes of an edition (to be completed in six or eight volumes), collected by the Rev. E. Hooper, have already appeared, comprising the Poly-Olbion and the Harmony of the Church. (E. W. G.)

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