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

§ 13. The Muses Elizium

Equally dainty and graceful, if not equally humorous, are other poems in this volume of 1627: The Quest of Cynthia, and The Shepheards Sirena, pastorals both. There is a marked difference between Drayton’s earlier Spenserian pastorals Idea (though these were not, as we have seen, an extreme example of their form), and these later essays in the same field. In the two poems of 1627, there is an airy grace, a frank unreality that makes no attempt either to approximate to the real world of the country from which it draws its symbols, or to proclaim its difference from the world of town and court, the thought of which used to weigh heavily on earlier singers of the golden age. What applies to The Quest of Cynthia and The Shepheards Sirena applies also, in the main, to The Muses Elizium, divided into ten Nymphalls, which form the chief part of Drayton’s last volume, published in 1630, and dedicated, part to the earl of Dorset, and part to his countess, who were the patrons of Drayton’s last years. There is a little, but a very little, sad or satirical reflection here. Throwing back in the songs, with their lightness and spontaneity and the elaborate structure of their long stanzas of short lines, to the dewy lyrics of the later Elizabethan song-books, they look forward, also, to a melody that was to be perfected later in the days of the cavaliers. Gallantry and grace have succeeded the swelling, heroic tones of the poet’s youth. But in nothing does Drayton show himself so fine a master of words and rhythm as in these late pastorals; and some of the Nymphalls of The Muses Elizium, especially the second, the seventh and the eighth, should alone have sufficed to preserve his fame more steadily than has been the case.

To return to the volume of 1627: it contained, besides the pastorals mentioned and The Moone-Calfe discussed above, some excellent work in the form of Elegies upon sundry occasions. These have an obvious interest in the biographical information they provide. The first, entitled Of his Ladies not Comming to London, is a gallant but sincere compliment to a lady living in the west, in whom it is probably permissible to find his former love and present friend, Anne Goodere, now lady Rainsford. In another, he outpours a glowing tribute of affectionate regret at the death of her husband. From another, we learn of his friendship with William Browne, the poet, of Tavistock; and lady Aston, the wife of his patron is the recipient of another. Of these Elegies, some are complimentary and sometimes show a touch of the “conceited” or metaphysical; others, like that to Browne, are satirical. All show once more Drayton’s skill in the management of the couplet. But the most interesting of all, perhaps, is the well known letter in verse To Henery Reynolds, in which Drayton tells the story of his boyish resolve to be a poet, and goes on to give an account of the development of English poetry from Chaucer to his own friends, John and Francis Beaumont and William Browne. It is full of sound sense and just criticism; and, if any of Drayton’s verdicts—his harsh judgment on the Euphuists, for instance, or his idea of the language at Chaucer’s command—have been upset, it has been by the growth of learning and the change of perspective, and not by any inherent fault.