The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Michael Drayton

§ 1. Drayton’s Boyhood

THE POET of whom this chapter treats was much admired by his contemporaries. The title “golden-mouthed,” first given him by Fitzgeffry, clung to him, and Meres praises him for “the purity and preciousness of his style and phrase.” After more than a century of neglect, he was reprinted and read in the middle of the eighteenth century; but, though he again acquired some vogue in the Elizabethan revival of the early part of the nineteenth century, it is only in recent years that his poetry has begun to receive the recognition it deserves.

Michael Drayton, as we learn from the portrait by William Hole which forms the frontispiece to the Poems of 1619, was born at Hartshill, in the county of Warwick, in 1563. He died, probably in London, near the end of 1631. Born within a year before Shakespeare, and dying when Milton was already twenty-three, he worked hard at poetry during nearly sixty years of his long life, and was successful in keeping in touch with the poetical progress of a crowded and swiftly-moving period. His earliest published work tastes of Tottel’s Miscellany: before he dies, he suggests Carew and Suckling, and even anticipates Dryden. This quality of forming, as it were, a map or mirror of his age gives him a special interest to the student of poetry, which is quite distinct from his peculiar merits as a poet.

Drayton himself has left us, besides other scraps of autobiography scattered among his works, an account of the genesis of the great passion of his life. His family appears to have been of the same grade as Shakespeare’s, that of well-to-do trades-people; and, in early boyhood, Michael Drayton, one of a large family, was taken to be page, or something of the kind—at any rate, to occupy a position of confidence and intimacy—in the family of Sir Henry Goodere of Powlsworth (now Polesworth), on the river Ancor, not far from Tamworth. His gratitude to Sir Henry Goodere, “the first cherisher of his muse,” he expressed more than once: in the dedications of the Heroicall Epistles (1597) of queen Isabel to king Richard II, of lady Jane Grey to lord Guilford Dudley and of queen Margaret to the duke of Suffolk. And, in his sixty-fourth year, Drayton looked back and gave his friend Henry Reynolds, in a letter in verse, an account of his education at Polesworth, and the birth in him of the desire to be a poet.

  • For from my cradle, (you must know that) I,
  • Was still inclin’d to noble Poesie,
  • And when that once Pueriles I had read,
  • And newly had my Cato construed,
  • In my small selfe I greatly marveil’d then,
  • Amonst all other, what strange kinde of men
  • These Poets were; And pleased with the name,
  • To my milde Tutor merrily I came,
  • (For I was then a proper goodly page,
  • Much like a Pigmy, scarse ten yeares of age)
  • Clasping my slender armes about his thigh.
  • O my deare master! cannot you (quoth I)
  • Make me a Poet, doe it if you can,
  • And you shall see, Ile quickly bee a man,
  • Who me thus answered smiling, boy quoth he,
  • If you’le not play the wag, but I may see
  • You ply your learning, I will shortly read
  • Some Poets to you; Phœbus be my speed,
  • Too’t hard went I, when shortly he began,
  • And first read to me honest Mantuan,
  • Then Virgils Eglogues, being entred thus,
  • Me thought I straight had mounted Pegasus,
  • And in his full Careere could make him stop,
  • And bound upon Parnassus’ by-clift top.
  • I scornd your ballet then though it were done
  • And had for Finis, William Elderton.
  • The account forms an interesting comment on Drayton’s muse, which was always sensitive to the influence of other poets, and was largely inspired from without.

    However he may have “scornd your ballet” and William Elderton, there was another influence, and one less pedantic than Mantuan or Vergil, at work upon him during those boyish years at Polesworth. In 1619 when dedicating his Odes to Donne’s friend, Sir Henry Goodere the younger, he recalled to the memory of his old playmate

  • John Hewes his lyre
  • Which oft at Powlsworth by the fire
  • Hath made us gravely merry.
  • John Hewes, presumably, was the minstrel attached to the Goodere household, and, from his name, presumably also Welsh; and it has been suggested that on Hewes’s lips the boy may have heard “those rough dactyls of the old folk-ballad Agincourt, Agincourt, which gallop through Drayton’s own monumental war-chant,” the Ballad of Agincourt, dedicated “To the Cambro-Britans and their Harpe.”

    It is not known whether Drayton went to a university. Our first news of him is that in February, 1591, he was in London. The sixth eclogue in the 1606 edition of his Idea, the Shepheard’s Garland, contains a passage which, perhaps, may obscurely hint at some irregularity of life after he had left his native county; but nothing can be built upon it, and any supposition of debauchery would be contrary to other evidence of Drayton’s character.