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

§ 5. Legends

In 1594, still following the poetical fashion, Drayton published a historical “legend.” Readers of Elizabethan literature have no need to be reminded how ardently, in the last twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, the newly awakened patriotism of England turned to the history of past achievements. The form which Drayton chose for the expression of this sentiment was still the popular form, although it dated from the days of A Mirror for Magistrates and was beginning to be shaken from its hold on the public by the success of the chronicle play. Perhaps a discerning admiration for Samuel Daniel’s Complaynt of Rosamond, published in 1592, may have helped to incline Drayton towards this form, for Daniel was one of his three chief poetical masters.

The legend of Peirs Gaveston Earle of Cornwall was followed, in 1594, by that of Matilda, the faire and chaste daughter of the Lord Robert Fitzwater; in 1596, both were revised and issued together with a third, The Tragicall Legend of Robert Duke of Normandy; and, in 1607, Drayton, for some reason, turned back to the old form, and published The Legend of Great Cromwel. On these legends, there is little need to dwell. They suffer from the faults common to all their kind: monotony, and an incomplete assimilation of the historical and poetical matter, whereby the facts, as they occur in the careful record, let the poetry down with a thud. One or two points, however, may be noticed. Perhaps the best passage in any of the four legends is the charming description of the poet’s betaking himself on a summer morning to the banks of Thames, there to fall asleep and dream the quaint, old-fashioned estrif between Fortune and Fame over Robert of Normandy. It gives a foretaste of that love for the glory and beauty of his own land which was later to inspire and enrich Poly-Olbion. The legend of Matilda shows a warm humanity and some real pathos; and it is not too much to say that, when all allowance is made for Drayton’s incorrigible clumsiness in grammar and construction, certain passages in Great Cromwel are the most remarkable example of the use of poetry for reasoning that occurs before Dryden. The versification is seldom attractive. Robert, Duke of Normandy and Matilda are in rime royal; Peirs Gaveston in stanzas of six; and Great Cromwel in stanzas of eight; but in none does Drayton use the decasyllabic line with much individuality or beauty.