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

§ 8. Mortimeriados

For the next few years, Drayton devoted himself to historical poetry, and, in the course of them, hit upon what his contemporaries and the two following centuries considered his best production. With his ardour for Daniel still unabated, he published, in 1596, the Mortimeriados, of which mention has been made above. It is not among his most successful efforts. The story of the wars between Edward II and the barons, down to the capture of Mortimer at Nottingham castle by Edward III, is told in rime royal, and at great length. Drayton’s struggles with history induce the faults observable, also, in Daniel. The narrative of events is not clear, and it is continually standing in the way of the dramatic interest in the characters. Nevertheless, there are admirable passages in this long and comprehensive epic, every line of which shows Drayton hard at work in his dogged, persevering way; determined to hammer out the best poetry he can, seldom slovenly, though often crabbed, and now and then meeting with the reward of his conscientious labours. Mortimer’s escape from the Tower, his meeting with queen Isabella in France, the unhappy state of England, the scene of Edward’s deposition at Kenilworth and his lament at Berkeley, are at least vigorously told; while the description of the queen’s bower at Nottingham gives Drayton an opportunity for letting his fancy run free in renascence ornament. Seven years later, Drayton rewrote the whole poem, under the new title The Barrons Wars, and in a new metre, expanding his seven-lined stanza into an eight-lined stanza. The reason for this change is set out in a preface which is interesting, not only for the excellence of its matter, but for its testimony to the conscientiousness and to the sound knowledge of poetry on which Drayton based his prolonged and determined efforts to be a poet. In the stanza of seven lines, in which there are two couplets,

  • the often harmony thereof soften’d the verse more than the majesty of the subject would permit, unless they had all been geminals, or couplets.… The Quadrin doth never double, or to use a word of Heraldry, never bringeth forth gemells: The Quinzain too soon. The Sestin hath twins in the base, but they detain not the musick nor the close, as Musicians term it, long enough for an Epic Poem.… This of eight both holds the time clean through to the base of the column, which is the couplet at the foot or bottom, and closeth not but with a full satisfaction to the ear for so long detention. Briefly, this sort of stanza hath in it majesty, perfection, and solidity, resembling the pillar which in Architecture is called the Tuscan, whose shaft is of six diameters, and base of two.
  • In spite of this, The Barrons Wars is free from none of the essential faults of Mortimeriados, and even discards some of its fresher beauties, though the careful revision of diction was not without its good effect.