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

§ 11. Poly-Olbion

To The Legend of Great Cromwel, Drayton’s solitary publication in 1607, reference has been made above. During the next six years he published nothing but two reprints, with slight changes, of a collected edition of his poems which he had brought out in 1605. There was a reason for this. He was now steadily engaged on what he hoped was to be his real title to fame, his Poly-Olbion. Of this “Herculean labour,” the first eighteen “Songs” were published in 1613. The necessary leisure had been secured to Drayton partly by the patronage of Sir William Aston, partly by a pension of £10 a year paid him by prince Henry, and continued, for a period not yet determined, after the death of that prince in November, 1612.

The magnum opus fell flat. In his preface, the author complains that,

  • Verses are wholly deduced to chambers, and nothing esteemed in this lunatic age, but what is kept in cabinets and must pass only by transcription.… The idle humorous world must hear of nothing that either savours of antiquity, or may awake it to seek after more than dull and slothful ignorance may easily reach unto: these, I say, make much against me.
  • This, doubtless, was true, in part; nevertheless, it was not wise of the poet to fling his work at the head of the public in so contemptuous a fashion, with such outspoken remarks on the prevalent “stupidity and dulness.” But Drayton had not yet recovered the serenity which he had lost by reason of his “distressed fortunes” and his disappointment of instant recognition by James at his accession, to which he refers in the same preface. The public, partly, no doubt, through its “stupidity and dulness,” and partly, perhaps, frightened away by this mode of introduction, paid little heed to the book. The author’s grief, however stoutly he may have prepared himself for failure, must have been great. This was the work upon which he had been engaged since his thirty-fifth year at the latest. He was now fifty, overtaken by times which he, with all other Elizabethans, felt and knew to be evil; and, therefore, he was all the more anxious, like a true Elizabethan, to rescue from oblivion the glories of his beloved country by the only means which he recognised as secure, that is by poetry. Into Poly-Olbion, he poured all his not inconsiderable learning and observation, all his patriotism and his fancy. The poem was his darling, his
  • Tempe and fields of the Muses, where, through most delightful groves, the angelic harmony of birds shall steal thee to the top of an easy hill, where in artificial caves, cut out of the most natural rock, thou shalt see the ancient people of this isle delivered thee in their lively images; from whose height thou may’st behold both the old and later times, as in thy prospect, lying far under thee; then conveying thee down by a soul-pleasing descent through delicate embroidered meadows, often veined with gentle-gliding brooks, in which thou may’st fully view the dainty nymphs in their simple naked beauties, bathing them in crystalline streams; which shall lead thee to most pleasant downs, where harmless shepherds are, some exercising their pipes, some singing roundelays to their gazing flocks.
  • Thus, with a voice as of an earlier age, he spake to the age of James, which would not hear him. Worse than that: it seems to have scoffed.
  • Some of our outlandish, unnatural, English, (I know not how otherwise to express them) stick not to say that there is nothing in this Island worth studying for, and take a great pride to be ignorant in anything thereof; for these, since they delight in their folly, I wish it may be hereditary from them to their posterity, that their children may be begg’d for fools to the fifth generation until it may be beyond the memory of man to know that there was ever other of their families.
  • He wishes them oblivion—the heaviest lot that a man of his time and temper could imagine. And so, with a round curse on the degenerate age, the sturdy old pilgrim grasps his staff, and sets out again on his high mission. The reception of the first eighteen “Songs” could not deter him from carrying on what he held to be his duty to his country and his great calling. In spite of all odds, including the very serious difficulty of finding a publisher, he brought out twelve more “Songs” in 1622, with a reprint of the first eighteen, and the statement that the public’s neglect and folly could not “deter me from going on with Scotland, if means and time do not hinder me, to perform as much as I have promised in my First Song.” Means and time were not forthcoming, and Poly-Olbion “stumbles to rest” with its thirtieth “Song.”

    The course of the itinerary, on the whole, is fairly regular. From the Channel islands, the pilgrim comes to Cornwall, and thence, by Devon and part of Somerset, down through the New Forest to Southampton and Wight. Thence, he goes north-west to Salisbury, and more or less straight on to the Avon and the Severn. Round the Severn and in Wales—a country whose inhabitants he always regarded kindly as the remains of the original Britons—he lingers long, with a little excursion to Hereford and Malvern; gradually working his way north to Chester, where he turns south-east past the Wrekin to the midlands, to celebrate Warwick, Coventry and his beloved Ancor. With a circuit through the vale of Evesham and the Cotswolds, hallowed to him, as were the spots he had just left, by their association with Anne Goodere, he follows the river from Oxford to London. Thence, he starts afresh south-east, down the Medway, through Surrey and Sussex into Kent, there to turn and work by degrees up the eastern counties, through Cambridge and Ely, to Lincolnshire and the fens, Trent and the forest of Sherwood. From there, he crosses England to Lancashire and Man, thence to work back to Yorkshire, and so to Northumberland, to end his pilgrimage in Westmoreland.

    He has covered practically the whole of England, and little has escaped him on the way. Perfunctorily, but conscientiously, he has described the fauna, and especially the flora, the river-systems and mountain-ranges, making free use of the then old-fashioned device of personification in order to beguile and lure on his reader. But the present interests him little compared with the past. His real object is to preserve whatever history or legend (both are of equal importance in his eyes, and he draws no clear distinction between the two) has recorded of great deeds, and great men, be they heroes of myth like Guy of Warwick, Corineus of Cornwall, or Elidure the Just, saints like those in the roll he celebrates at Ely, or historic kings and captains. Leaning chiefly on Camden’s Britannia, he has ransacked also the chroniclers and poets, the songs of the harpers and minstrels, every source that he knew of information on that precious past which must be preserved against time’s proud hand. And, to fortify what he records in rime, he has secured from the learned John Selden a set of notes or “illustrations” to each song, in which, though the antiquary’s science sometimes smiles at the poet’s faith, the general tenor of the poem is buttressed by a brave show of erudition and authority.

    How much of the ground Drayton had covered in person, it is impossible to tell from the poem itself. Of the places which it is certain that he knew, he sings no otherwise than of some which it is very unlikely that he had ever seen. And, in fact, the point is unimportant. The purpose of his narrative was not, as was that of the narratives collected by the “industrious Hackluit” whom he celebrates in one of his odes, to make known the unknown present, but to eternise the known past; and vividness and authenticity of description are not among the essentials of such a work as his. Industry was the chief requisite, and of industry Drayton had as much as Hakluyt himself.

    More industry, it must be admitted, than inspiration went to the making of Poly-Olbion. Drayton must have worked, like Wordsworth on The Excursion, in season and out of season, trusting to the importance of what he had to say to make his verses worthy of his subject. But Poly-Olbion is at least no nearer to being dull than is The Excursion. Drayton, in fact, took more pains than Wordsworth to diversify his poem. His rivers dispute, relate, or wed; his mountains and plains take on character and personality; criticism, as of the poetry of the Welsh bards; argument, as in the spirited and remarkably philosophic protest against historical scepticism in song VI; description, which, if sometimes lifeless, is sometimes bravely vivid, as in the view from his boat as it drops down from Windsor to London in song XVII; and admirable story-telling, as in the account of Guy of Warwick in song XIII; all take their turn in variegating the prospect. There are stretches, it must be confessed, of dulness—long catalogues of princes and events where the desire to record has clearly been stronger than the power to sing; but the “historian in verse” (to use Drayton’s own words of Daniel) seldom leaves us long without the reward of the “dainty nymphs in their simple naked beauties” or some other of the delights promised in his first epistle of 1613.

    Drayton, whom we have seen from the preface to The Barrons Wars to have had a philosophy of metre, doubtless chose the metre of Poly-Olbion with care. It is written in riming couplets of twelve-syllabled lines: a sober, jogging motion, as easy to maintain and as comfortable as the canter of a quiet hack. But it is not exciting; it has no surprises; and the inevitable beat on the sixth and twelfth syllable, which Drayton spares us scarcely twice in a “Song,” is apt to become soporific. Yet it may well be doubted whether Poly-Olbion would not have been far less readable than it is had Drayton adopted the rimed couplet of decasyllabic lines, or taken a hint from the dramatists and employed blank verse. No known form of stanza certainly could have carried the reader on as does this amiable ambling pace, never very fast, but never very slow. To quote a delightful phrase, “it has a kind of heavy dignity like a Lord Mayor’s coach.” At its best, it is livelier than that; at its worst, it covers the ground without jolting.

    The modern reader with a taste for the antique will constantly meet little touches to interest and charm him. “The wayless woods of Cardiff”—a phrase chosen at random as we turn the pages—is eloquent, especially when taken in conjunction with the poet’s repeated complaint that the iron works (the very symbol to an Elizabethan of the passing of that golden age when metals were unknown, and men rifled not the womb of their mother Earth) were leading to the destruction of all the forests which had been England’s pride. The very importance given to the river-systems is a reminder that the poem was written in an England that was all but roadless. But, as the book is laid down, its chief attraction, after all, is seen to be the pathetic bravery of the whole scheme—the voice of the dogged old Elizabethan raised amid an alien world, to sing the old song in the old way, to proclaim and preserve the glories of his beloved country in the face of a frivolous, forgetful age.

    While Poly-Olbion was being completed, Drayton did little else. In 1618, a volume of collected Elegies was published, two of them being the work of Drayton; but, when the weight of his “Herculean labour” was lifted from his shoulders, he revealed, in the poetry of his old age, a playfulness, a lightness and delicacy, which are as charming as they are surprising. This comment does not apply to all the contents of the new volume of 1627. That volume opened with one of Drayton’s mistakes—a translation into epic form of the brave Ballad of Agincourt. The new version of the story, called The Battaile of Agincourt, is written in the metre which the preface to The Barrons Wars had justified for poems of this kind. Its faithfulness to Holinshed brings it frequently into touch with Shakespeare’s King Henry V; and the comparison is all to Drayton’s disadvantage. The work lacks genuine fire and eloquence, and belongs to that part of Drayton’s labours in which conscience was stronger than inspiration. The same metre and the same characteristics are found in the last of his historical poems, The Miseries of Queene Margarite, wife of Henry VI.