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

§ 10. His Satires and Odes

It appears significant that the first of Drayton’s satires should have been published in 1604; but, while it doubtless implies a mood of disappointment and depression, it cannot be taken for certain to refer to the king’s neglect of his advances. In the preface, Drayton states that The Owle, entered at Stationers’ Hall in February, 1604, had been “lastly finished” almost a year before; and, therefore, it is unsafe to find in it any autobiographical references. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Drayton should have included satire at all in the list of the then common forms of poetry which he seems to have considered it his duty as a poet to practise is some indication that he was not happy or content. The owl, in his satire, is the keen-eyed, disinterested observer. Nagged at by little birds, and attacked by the fear and jealousy of crows, kites, ravens and other marauders, he is rescued by the kingly eagle, to whom he describes the abuses he has seen carried on by evil birds who prey on the commonwealth of fowls. The poem is inspired, doubtless, by The Parlement of Foules; but it imitates neither the metre nor the good qualities of that work. More than once in his works, Drayton makes use of birds, of which, however, he betrays no more than common knowledge; and the opening of The Owle contains a pretty enough description of the surroundings in which the poet fell asleep to dream his satire. In the satire itself, there is not sufficient trenchancy, originality, or humour to make the poem interesting, and the rimed couplets run sluggish and dull. The Man in the Moone has already been mentioned, and it may be convenient to dismiss the subject of Drayton’s satires by saying here that, in 1627, at the age of sixty-three, he published, in a volume containing better things, The Moone-Calfe. It is pleasantest to think of this as inspired by his conscientious wish to leave no poetical stone unturned; and yet it was so long since Marston had published a satire that the attempt to follow in his steps was belated. The Moone-Calfe is a coarse, clumsy and brutal piece of work, redeemed only by the vigour of its sketches of contemporary manners.

In the same year as The Owle (1604), appeared Moyses in a Map of his Miracles, to be revised and published twenty-six years later, as Moses, his Birth and Miracles. Here Drayton once more makes a high claim for poetry,

  • That from full Jove takes her celestial birth,
  • And quick as fire, her glorious self can raise
  • Above this base abominable earth;
  • and, in the days before the Authorised Version, he may be pardoned for thinking that he could do something for the story of Moses greater than had been done for it by “that sacred and canonic writ.” He had before him, also, the example of Du Bartas and Sylvester, to whom he renders generous tribute. Unfortunately, his treatment of the story does not raise it in the eyes of modern readers; the poem throughout lacks exaltation and grandeur, and its chief interest lies in certain human moments, where the drama of the episodes is happily amplified by the poet’s sturdy humanity. But Moses is not a negligible poem in any study of Drayton. It shows here and there his progress in the management of the decasyllabic line, and now and then strangely anticipates later workmanship. Of such a line as the second of these:
  • Muse, I invoke the utmost of thy might,
  • That with an armed and auspicious wing,
  • Drayton is not the poet who would be guessed as the author by one unacquainted with its provenance.

    Of the importance of a publication of two years later, however, there can be no question. The Odes of 1606 were Drayton’s second striking effort to plough a field untilled by his contemporaries. The Pindaric ode had already been imitated by Jonson: it went on being imitated with an irregularity that Congreve was the earliest author to reprehend. Drayton’s model is the Anacreontic or Horatian ode. With these odes as with most, indeed, of the works of so stern a critic of himself and so slowly developed a genius as Drayton, we have to wait for the final edition before we can see them at their best. The Odes of 1606 were revised and issued with additions and omissions in 1619; and in that edition they are best studied.

    It was Drayton’s endeavour to revive “Th’ old Lyrick kind”—the kind, perhaps, that was sung to the harp by Hewes at Polesworth, fortified and polished by the influence of Horace and Anacreon. His odes are nearly all composed in short, decisive lines, a medium that English poetry has always found difficult. If the charge against Drayton of being merely a laborious, imitative bungler were ever revived, a sufficient answer would be a few selections, showing how unusually sensitive he was to the faults and merits of his medium. The faults of a long line are monotony and unwieldiness. Drayton is often monotonous and unwieldy. The faults of a short line are jerkiness and excessive compression. Drayton is guilty of both. But in all cases he succeeds, when he is at his best, in bringing out, perhaps in being the first to bring out, the possible merits of his metre, the smoothness and progression of the long line, the delicate, involved patterns and the range of tones, from the trumpet to the flute, that are possible with the short line. In the Odes, there is plenty of compression and some jerkiness; but they cannot be regarded as otherwise than a remarkable achievement in the creation of a new music in English poetry. Their range, in their final form, is extraordinary; and, in nearly every case, their music is an anticipation of something that was to be more perfectly achieved later.

  • As those Prophetike strings
  • Whose sounds with fiery Wings
  • Drave Feinds from their abode,
  • Touch’d by the best of Kings,
  • That sang the Holy Ode.
  • Is there any sound like that between Drayton and Milton? The ode To His Rivall contains these stanzas:
  • Therefore boast not
  • Your happy lot,
  • Be silent now you have her;
  • The time I knew
  • She slighted you,
  • When I was in her favour.
  • None stands so fast,
  • But may be cast
  • By Fortune, and disgraced:
  • Once did I weare
  • Her Garter there,
  • Where you her Glove have placed;
  • stanzas brave and playful which anticipate Suckling. And the exquisite canzonet, To His Coy Love, which begins as follows:
  • I pray thee leave, love me no more,
  • Call home the Heart you gave me,
  • I but in vain that Saint adore,
  • That can but will not save me:
  • These poor halfe Kisses kill me quite,
  • Was ever man thus served?
  • Amid an Ocean of Delight,
  • For Pleasure to be sterved:
  • have the true cavalier ring. In these later Odes, too, Drayton sometimes touches the “metaphysical” poetry of Donne and Cowley, a kind which he did not often affect.

    Two of the odes have won more fame than the others; and both reveal that sturdy Elizabethan patriotism which, in Drayton, was to be proof against the solvent influence of the reign of James I. A long and interesting essay might be founded upon the contrast between the tone of Drayton’s ode To the Virginian Voyage and Marvell’s “Where the remote Bermudas ride.” In the former, we have all the bravery of the golden days of the adventurers.

  • Britans, you stay too long,
  • Quickly aboard bestow you,
  • And with a merry Gale
  • Swell your stretch’d Sayle,
  • With Vowes as strong,
  • As the Winds that blow you.
  • And cheerfully at Sea,
  • Successe you still intice,
  • To get the Pearle and Gold,
  • And ours to hold,
  • Virginia,
  • Earth’s onely Paradise.
  • And as there Plenty growes
  • Of Lawrell every where,
  • Apollo’s Sacred tree,
  • You may it see,
  • A Poets Browes
  • To crowne, that may sing there.
  • The other of the two odes referred to is the most famous of Drayton’s poems, the swinging Ballad of Agincourt, dedicated “to the Cambro-Britans and their Harpe.” Here, more than anywhere, is heard the echo of Hewes and his like. Drayton worked upon the text of it to good purpose between 1606 and 1619, removing snags and obstructions in the course of its rhythm, and making clearer and clearer the ringing tramp of the marching army. With his stanzas of eight short, crisp lines, riming aaabcccb, it is the model for a war-poem; and the brave old song has as much power to-day to quicken the heart-beats as has the Henry V of Shakespeare, the success of which, doubtless, helped to inspire its composition.