Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 9. Englands Heroicall Epistles

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

§ 9. Englands Heroicall Epistles

Drayton discovered the means of dispensing with those essential faults in 1597, when (having meanwhile published the Legends of Robert, Matilda and Gaveston referred to above) he produced the famous Englands Heroicall Epistles. These are a series of letters from heroic lovers, with, in every case, the answer. The amount of history is reduced to a minimum; yet Drayton is enabled to celebrate the great men and women of his country, and to fan in others that flame of patriotism which burned steadily in himself. The first edition of these Epistles was evidently soon exhausted; in 1598, they were reissued with additions; the number was again enlarged in 1599 and 1602; and, altogether, between the first issue and the poet’s death, the Heroicall Epistles were issued thirteen, possibly fourteen, times. They have been reprinted since more often than any other of Drayton’s works. Twelve couples exchange letters. Henry II and Fair Rosamond; king John and Matilda Fitzwater; queen Isabel and Mortimer; the Black Prince and the countess of Salisbury; Richard II and his wife Isabel; queen Catherine and Owen Tudor; Eleanor Cobham and her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester; William de la Pole duke of Suffolk and queen Margaret; Edward IV and Jane Shore; the queen of France and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk; Surrey and Geraldine; lady Jane Grey and lord Guilford Dudley. Two of these pairs, Drayton had already treated in other poems; to all, he gives a life and vigour for which we may look in vain in his more strictly historical poems. It cannot be said that he has a keen sense of character; but he has at least enough to avoid sameness in a work where sameness would have been easy. There is no confusing, for instance, the letter of Jane Shore with that of lady Jane Grey; and, in each case, Drayton bears carefully in mind the character as well as the circumstances. And the poems abound in pleasant features. The appeal of Mary to Suffolk is charming, for all the peculiarity of the conditions under which it was made. Geraldine describes delightfully her life in the country grange where she will await Surrey’s return; and Matilda Fitzwater’s reply to John is a noble piece of eloquence.

The form of these letters was due, it appears, to Ovid’s Heroides; and, with the form, Drayton took something, also, of his model’s versification. In Englands Heroicall Epistles, we find completed the improvement of the rimed couplet which was begun in Endimion and Phœbe. Nowhere is it better used during the Elizabethan epoch. To the smoothness and the crispness (always stopping short of epigram), which remind us of Ovid’s elegiacs, there are added other good qualities. Drayton’s years of hard work were having their effect. When not overburdened with his subject (and he was too ready to undertake subjects that would have overburdened greater poets), he moves more easily and yet more strongly than any except the supreme pair of his age, Spenser and Shakespeare. And in the work under notice he did, in 1597, what Edmund Waller has gained all the credit of doing nearly thirty years later, in the “smoothening” of English verse. Further, to this “smoothness” he adds a skill in the choice and placing of words for the effect of sonority and point which is not found again till Dryden.

After this achievement, Drayton might have been expected to forge ahead and make profitable use of the years of his prime. He was now famous and should have been prosperous; but his output for the next few years consisted only of revisions of, and additions to, his Heroicall Epistles and sonnets. He was turning his energy into other channels. For one thing, as Meres states in Palladis Tamia, 1598, he had already embarked upon that huge undertaking, Poly-Olbion; for another, he had been drawn into the net of the theatre. It may not be permissible to declare him unwise; but his work for the theatre brought him no enduring fame (and, as it appears, but little immediate reward), while Poly-Olbion was to embitter him with disappointment and vexation while he lived, and leave an easy mark for the scorn of impatient judges for centuries after his death.

It must not be supposed that the years 1598–1604 were barren. Besides so much of Poly-Olbion as they may have seen completed, they produced some of Drayton’s best sonnets and several new and good Heroicall Epistles. But they do not show the marked advance that might have been expected from a man in his prime, with such a point d’appui as he had made for himself in those Epistles.

In 1603, came “the quiet end of that long-living Queene,” Elizabeth. Drayton owed her nothing, though she owed to him one of the sweetest songs ever sung in her praise, the song to “Beta” in Idea. Within the year before her death, in the sonnets of 1602, he had already celebrated James VI of Scotland as prince and poet; and, when Elizabeth died, he turned immediately, without a word of regret for the star that had sunk, to hymn the star that was rising. His haste was considered indecent; his gratulatory poem, To the Majestie of King James, received no attention either from the public or the prince. A little later, he wrote a Paean Triumphall for the society of the Goldsmiths of London; but there can be no doubt that his disappointment was keen. Fortunately for himself, he found, about this time, a new patron, Walter Aston, of Tixall, who, on receiving knighthood from James I, made Drayton one of his esquires, an honour which the poet was careful to claim on his future title-pages.