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

§ 3. Idea

For something over two years, Drayton was silent. Then, in April, 1593, there was entered at Stationers’ Hall a book which showed a different influence from that revealed in The Harmonie of the Church, and one which proved its author’s title to the name of poet. Throughout his life, Drayton maintained a fervent admiration for Spenser, and Spenser was the model whom he followed in his second publication. In 1579, the voice of what was then the new poetry had spoken for the first time in Spenser’s Shepheards Calender. In 1593, Drayton’s Idea, the Shepheard’s Garland, carried on the same form, though not entirely with the same end in view. In 1619, when he issued a third edition of Idea under a new title, Drayton prefixed to it a brief discourse on pastoral in general, which contains this characteristically ungrammatical sentence:

  • The subject of Pastorals, as the language of it ought to be poor, silly, and of the coarsest woof in appearance; nevertheless, the most high, and most noble matters of the world may be shadowed in them, and for certain sometimes are.
  • Notably so, of course, in Spenser’s Shepheards Calender. But Drayton, much as he owes to his great forerunner’s work, shows two points of difference. His language is not “poor, silly, and of the coarsest woof.” It almost entirely avoids the archaisms in which Spenser rejoiced, and it rises, when occasion demands, to a nobility which makes these eclogues one of his finest achievements. Secondly, he almost entirely discards the tradition which, starting in England, perhaps, from the study of Mantuan, had forcibly affected all the writers of pastoral from Googe to Watson, and was to reappear in Lycidas. Idea moralises but little, and includes few complaints of the decay of nobility, misgovernment in church and state and so forth. There is, in other words, little trace upon the work of that change from the decayed order of chivalry to a newly organised social scheme, which is the real topic of much previous pastoral. The “high and noble matters” of which it treats comprise only love, panegyric and poetry. In these eclogues as they first appeared, there is, it must be admitted, a good deal that is old-fashioned. In the first, Drayton, under his pastoral name Rowland, laments his sins and his misery; and there is small promise of a new poet in such lines as:
  • My sorrowes waxe, my joyes are in the wayning,
  • My hope decayes, and my despayre is springing,
  • My love hath losse, and my disgrace hath gayning,
  • Wrong rules, desert with teares her hands sits wringing:
  • Sorrow, despayre, disgrace, and wrong, doe thwart
  • My Joy, my love, my hope, and my desert.
  • The second eclogue gives us a debate between age and youth—in the persons of Wynken and Motto—about love; the third is in praise of Beta—that is, queen Elizabeth; the fourth is a lament for Elphin, Sir Philip Sidney; and the fifth sings the praises of Idea. Of the identity of the person intended by this name more must be said later. In the sixth eclogue, the departed worthies of England are touched upon; but the main theme of the poem is the panegyric of Pandora, who, probably, stands for the countess of Pembroke. In the seventh, we have another contest between an old man and a young about love; the eighth describes the pastoral golden age; and the ninth and last is another lament from Rowland, this time for unrequited love.

    In 1606, Drayton, who spent much labour in the revision of his previously published poems, issued a new edition of Idea, the Shepheard’s Garland, in his volume of Poemes Lyrick and Pastoral. The differences from the first edition are many. The title is changed to Eglogs, the dedication to Robert Dudley is omitted, a new eclogue is added, the order is rearranged and the text is much altered and much improved. The few archaisms have disappeared, and so have all such outworn tricks as that exemplified in the stanza quoted above. We find a fresher, sweeter and stronger music, a rejection of the conventional in image and scenery, and a greater freedom from that clumsiness of grammar and construction which was Drayton’s besetting poetical sin all his life.

    To the modern reader, nothing is more enjoyable in the Idea of 1593 than the songs introduced into the dialogue. In the Eglogs of 1606, these are even better; of the old songs, five have disappeared, four of them to be replaced by others much less “conceited,” much fresher and more purely lyrical and showing something of the light and dainty music, the secret of which Drayton was to master later in life. The two which remain are polished, to their great benefit. One of these is the peculiarly brave and swinging song in praise of Beta, which uses the old “sixes and eights” (with shorter lines between each pair) with a skill and movement of which the author of The Harmonie of the Church would never be supposed capable; the other is a delightful ballad, in the metre of Chaucer’s Sir Thopas, concerning Dowsabell and her shepherd boy, in which archaic terms are introduced to the best and quaintest effect. The new eclogue, the ninth, contains three songs, all among Drayton’s best. It may be noted, too, that, in these pastorals, Drayton first makes the high claim for poets and poetry which he had learned from Spenser, and which he maintained throughout his life.

    The pastorals of 1606 are of considerable interest on the biographical side. In the first place, the poet speaks more directly from the heart and more particularly of himself. It is only necessary to compare the two versions of the last eclogue (IX in 1593, X in 1606), to see the difference. The one is a vague, purely poetical and conventional complaint; the other, the very voice of the man who had passed through disappointment and sorrow. The references to other persons need further examination. A few, about which there is no difficulty, have been mentioned above; and to these may be added the reference in eclogue VIII to a certain Sylvia, who may well be supposed to be a lady of the family of Sir William Aston, by 1606 Drayton’s patron. But who is Idea, who Panape, who the “great Olcon,” that has deserted Rowland and the sheepfold, and who Selena, who is roundly cursed by the poet for jilting Rowland in favour of “deceitful Cerberon”?