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

§ 6. Ideas Mirrour

His next work, in its first form, showed once more the influence of Daniel. In 1594, sonnet sequences were in the height of fashion. Astrophel and Stella had found its way into print in 1591; but it was not till some years later that Drayton’s sonnets were to show the influence of Sidney. When he published Ideas Mirrour, in 1594, his model was rather Daniel, of whose Delia three editions had appeared in 1592. In 1594, Ideas Mirrour consisted of fifty-one sonnets, which, as we learn from the additional dedicatory sonnet to Anthony Cooke, had “long slept in sable night.” The form of sonnet which Drayton principally affects is the typically Elizabethan form of three quatrains and a final couplet, not the strict Petrarchian form. Of these fifty-one sonnets, however, two consist of four quatrains with a final couplet, two are written mainly in alexandrines, which are also scattered through certain other sonnets, and, in eighteen, each quatrain is rimed not abab, but on the rarer principle of abba.

Any independence which these and a few other variations may be thought to show can find little counterpart in the material of the sonnets of Ideas Mirrour. In this earliest edition, it is very seldom that the poet shakes himself free of the conventions of the day, or so uses them as to convey an impression of the sincerity with which, of course, their use is never incompatible. Of two sonnets which connect Idea with the river Ancor, the first (Amour XIII) has a personal touch, the second (Amour XXIV) displays the knowledge of the streams of England which was to stand Drayton in good stead in the future; but Amour XXXVIII is alone among these early efforts in its simple, convincing force and directness.

  • If chaste and pure devotion of my youth,
  • Or glorie of my Aprill-springing yeares,
  • Unfained love in naked simple truth,
  • A thousand vowes, a thousand sighes and teares;
  • Or if a world of faithful service done,
  • Words, thoughts, and deeds devoted to her honor,
  • Or eyes that have beheld her as theyr sunne,
  • With admiration ever looking on her:
  • A lyfe that never joyed but in her love,
  • A soule that ever hath ador’d her name,
  • A fayth that time nor fortune could not move,
  • A Muse that unto heaven hath raised her fame.
  • Though these, nor these deserve to be imbraced,
  • Yet faire unkinde, too good to be disgraced.
  • The fact that the couplet shows Drayton’s weakness in grammar cannot undo the effect of the quatrains. It is, however, in scattered lines and passages rather than in any complete sonnet that the value of the earliest Amours will be found to lie. Into the vexed question of the genuineness of the sentiments expressed in these and other Elizabethan sonnets, this is not the place to enter. It is, perhaps, generally recognised that the adoption of a poetic convention does not necessarily denote insincerity in the poet; and the question is not whether or whence he borrowed his conventions, but whether he has subdued them to his own genius. The fact that Drayton borrowed, as it appears, the title of Idea (and, as it also appears, little, if anything, else) from a French poet, and his material and machinery from the poetical stores of his day, does not prove that these Amours of 1594 are a mere literary exercise. Nor does the mention of the river Ancor in two of the sonnets prove them sincere outpourings of his heart. The workmanship proves that Drayton was not yet poet enough to subdue the conventions of form to the matter of his own thoughts and emotions; and it is therefore that his earliest sonnets stumble and leave us cold.

    Ideas Mirrour was much admired. Eleven new issues were called for between its first publication and the author’s death in 1631. On none of his productions did Drayton spend so much care in revision. The issues of 1599, 1600, 1602, 1605 and 1619, are all new editions, in which new sonnets are constantly included and old ones rearranged, omitted altogether, or polished, sometimes almost beyond recognition. It is not always possible to agree with Drayton’s own ideas of improvement; but the general result of all this care is that, as time goes on, the character of the collection changes. The rather heavy, elaborate model provided by Daniel gives place to the simpler and more direct style of Sidney. Conventions disappear, or are turned to good account; and, though there is, in the general opinion, only one masterpiece among all Drayton’s sonnets, the edition of 1619 includes few sonnets that have not something masterly in them. The masterpiece referred to is the well-known sonnet: “Since there’s no helpe, Come let us kisse and part.” It suggests, irresistibly, a record of a definite moment in the actual relations between the poet and some woman; and, in general, it may be said that the sonnets, as time goes on, bear less and less the mark of the literary exercise and more and more that of the expression of geniune feeling. It is true that, in the editions of 1599, 1602 and 1605, Drayton introduced two sonnets: “Into these loves who but for passion looks,” and “Many there be excelling in this kind,” in which the reader is warned that

  • My verse is the true image of my mind,
  • Ever in motion, still desiring change,
  • To choyce of all varietie inclin’d,
  • And in all humours sportively I range;
  • and that
  • My wanton verse nere keepes one certain stay,
  • But now, at hand; then, seekes invention far,
  • And with each little motion runnes astray,
  • Wilde, madding, jocond, and irreguler;
  • but such statements, it may be submitted, mean nothing more than that love is not the only subject of which he intends to treat; while such sonnets as “Since there’s no helpe”; “How many paltry, foolish, painted things”; “An evill spirit your beauty haunts me still”; “Whilst thus my pen strives to eternize thee,” compel a belief in their sincerity.

    Much has been written, and much more, doubtless, will be written, on the relation of Drayton’s sonnets to Shakespeare’s. It has been well said that

  • the question which of the two was the lender is insoluble, so long as we only know that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were in private circulation in 1598, while two were printed by Jaggard in 1599, and the rest not till ten years later.