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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Michael Drayton (1563–1631)

WHILE London still crowded to the new “Theatre” in Shoreditch, the first built in England; while Ben Jonson was still soldiering in the Low Countries; while Marlowe was working out the tragedy that was to revolutionize all stage traditions, and Shakespeare was yet but a “looker-on at greatness,”—there came up from Warwickshire a young man of good family who had served as page in a noble house, who had studied possibly at Oxford, and who in the first flush of manhood aspired to a place among those prodigies who made the later Elizabethan period immortal. This was Michael Drayton, whose gentle birth and breeding, education and talents, knowledge of the world and of men, together with a most sweet and lovable disposition, made him at once welcome in the literary Bohemia of the day. He became the “deare and bosom friend” of Beaumont and Fletcher, and his work received unquestioned honor from his illustrious contemporaries.

As a child he had demanded of his elders to know what kind of beings poets were, had spent many hours in writing childishly fantastic verses, and had begged of his tutor to make a poet of him. And although he seems to have been poor and to have lived by the gifts of wealthy patrons, he cast in his lot with literature, and cherished no other ambition than that of writing well. His first book, a volume of spiritual poems, or metrical renderings of the Bible, was published in 1590 under the title ‘The Harmony of the Church.’ It is difficult to see why this commonplace and orthodox performance should have given such umbrage that the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the entire edition to destruction. Yet this was its fate, with the exception of forty copies which Archbishop Whitgift ordered to be reserved for the ecclesiastical library at Lambeth Palace. Undiscouraged, the poet next produced a cycle of sixty-four sonnets and a collection of pastorals entitled ‘Idea: the Shepherd’s Garland,’ in which under the name “Rowland” he celebrated an early love. It is strange that the intrinsic merit of these verses, and their undoubted popularity, should not have urged Drayton to continue in the same vein. Instead, however, he set about the composition of a series of historical poems which extended over the next twenty-four years, and to which he gave the best energies of his life. Beginning with the epic ‘Matilda,’ studied from English history, the series was continued by a poem on the ‘Wars of the Roses,’ afterward enlarged into ‘The Barons’ Wars.’ This was followed by the epic ‘Robert, Duke of Normandy.’ Destitute of imagination, prolix and tedious, these verses were yet so popular in Drayton’s day that in 1612 he began the publication of a poem in thirty books, meant to include the entire chronology and topography of Great Britain, from the earliest times. This was the famous ‘Poly-Olbion,’ in which, in spite of the inspiring work of his contemporaries, Drayton harked back in spirit to the dreary monotony of the Saxon Chronicle; the detail is so minute, the matter so unimportant, and the absence of discrimination so apparent, that notwithstanding many noticeable beauties of thought and style, it is hard to realize that this poem was a favorite with that brilliant group which had known Shakespeare, and still delighted in Ben Jonson. After issuing eighteen books of ‘Poly-Olbion,’ his publishers—with whom he was always quarreling, and whom he declared that he “despised and kicked at”—refused to undertake the remaining twelve books of the second part. His friends, however, loyal in their love and praise of him, secured a more complaisant tradesman to bring out the rest of the already famous poem.

Fortunately for his fame, Drayton had in the meantime produced two other volumes of verse, which displayed the real grace and fancifulness of his charming muse. The first of these, ‘Poems Lyrical and Pastoral,’ included the satire ‘The Man in the Moon’; while in the second were printed the ‘Ballad of Agincourt,’ the most spirited of English martial lyrics, and that delightful fantasy ‘Nymphidia, or the Court of Faery,’ in which the touch is so light, the fancy so dainty, and the conceit so delicate, that the poem remains immortally fresh and young. Because everybody wrote plays, Drayton turned playwright, and is said to have collaborated with Massinger and Ford. Of his long works, the ‘Heroicall Episodes’ is perhaps the most readable. His last effort was ‘The Muses’ Elizium,’ published in 1630. A year later he died, and was buried in Westminster, where a monument was erected to him by the Countess of Dorset.

Drayton’s place in English literature is with that considerable and not unimportant band who have done somewhat, but whose repute is much more for what they were in their friends’ eyes than for what they did. In an age of great intellectual achievement, he yet managed, in spite of the stimulus of kindred minds and his own undoubted gift, to produce little that has sustained the reputation accorded him by his acquaintances. Most of his work lives chiefly to afford pleasing studies for the literary antiquary, to whom the tide of time brings nothing uninteresting. Yet in the art of living, in the unselfish devotion of his powers to his chosen calling, in the graces of affection and the offices of noble friendship, he was so excellent and exemplary that he won and kept the undying regard of the most able men of the most brilliant period of English literature—men who felt a personal and unrequitable loss when he passed away, and who spoke of him always with admiring tenderness.

In person he seems to have been small and dark. He describes himself as of “swart and melancholy face.” Yet his talk was most delightful, and a strong proof of his wide popularity appears in the fact that he is quoted not less than one hundred and fifty times in ‘England’s Parnassus,’ published as early as 1600. The tributes of his friends are innumerable, from the “good Rowland” of Barnfield to the “golden-mouthèd Drayton, musicall,” of Fitz-Geoffrey, the “man of vertuous disposition, honest conversation, and well-preserved carriage” of Meres, or the tender lines of his friend Ben Jonson:—

  • “Do, pious marble, let thy readers know
  • What they and what their children owe
  • To Drayton’s name; whose sacred dust
  • We recommend unto thy trust.
  • Protect his memory, and preserve his story,
  • Remain a lasting monument of his glory.
  • And when thy ruins shall disclaim
  • To be the treasurer of his name,
  • His name, that cannot die, shall be
  • An everlasting monument to thee.”