Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Michael Drayton (15631631)
[Michael Drayton was born at Hartshull in Warwickshire about the year 1563. He died on the 23rd of December, 1631, and lies buried in Westminster Abbey. In 1591 he published The Harmony of the Church, which was for some unknown reason refused a licence, and has never been reprinted till recently. It was followed by Idea and The Pastorals, 1593; Mortimeriados (the Barons Wars), 1596; The Heroical Epistles (one had been separately printed 1598); The Owl, 1604; Legends of Cromwell and others, 16071613; Polyolbion (first eighteen books 1612, whole 1622); The Battle of Agincourt, 1626; besides minor works at intervals.]
THE SENTENCE which Hazlitt allots to Drayton is perhaps one of the most felicitous examples of short metaphorical criticism. His mind, says the critic, is a rich marly soil that produces an abundant harvest and repays the husbandmans toil; but few flaunting flowers, the gardens pride, grow in it, nor any poisonous weeds. Such figurative estimates must indeed always be in some respects unsatisfactory, yet in this there is but little of inadequacy. It is exceedingly uncommon for the reader to be transported by anything that he meets with in the author of the Polyolbion. Draytons jewels five words long are of the rarest, and their sparkle when they do occur is not of the brightest or most enchanting lustre. But considering his enormous volume, he is a poet of surprisingly high merit. Although he has written some fifty or sixty thousand lines, the bulk of them on subjects not too favourable to poetical treatment, he has yet succeeded in giving to the whole an unmistakeably poetical flavour, and in maintaining that flavour throughout. The variety of his work, and at the same time the unfailing touch by which he lifts that work, not indeed into the highest regions of poetry, but far above its lower confines, are his most remarkable characteristics. The Polyolbion, the Heroical Epistles, the Odes, the Ballad of Agincourt, and the Nymphidia are strikingly unlike each other in the qualities required for successful treatment of them, yet they are all successfully treated. It is something to have written the best war song in a language, its best fantastic poem, and its only topographical poem of real value. Adverse criticism may contend that the Nymphidia and the Polyolbion were not worth the doing, but this is another matter altogether. That the Ballad of Agincourt was not worth the doing, no one who has any fondness for poetry or any appreciation of it will attempt to contend. In the lyric work of the Odes, scanty as it is, there is the same evidence of mastery and of what may be called thoroughness of workmanship. Exacting critics may indeed argue that Drayton has too much of the thoroughly accomplished and capable workman, and too little of the divinely gifted artist. It may be thought, too, that if he had written less and concentrated his efforts, the average merit of his work would have been higher. There is, at any rate, no doubt that the bulk of his productions, if it has not interfered with their value, has interfered with their popularity.
The Barons Wars, which, according to some theories, should have been Draytons best work, is perhaps his worst. The stanza, which he has chosen for good and well-expressed reasons, is an effective one, and the subject might have been made interesting. As a matter of fact it has but little interest. The somewhat kite-and-crow character of the disturbance chronicled is not relieved by any vigorous portraiture either of Mortimer or of Edward or of the Queen. The first and last of these personages are much better handled in the Heroical Epistles. The level of these latter and of the Legends is decidedly high. Not merely do they contain isolated passages of great beauty, but the general interest of them is well sustained, and the characters of the writers subtly differenced. One great qualification which Drayton had as a writer of historical and geographical verse was his possession of what has been called, in the case of M. Victor Hugo, la science des noms. No one who has an ear can fail to recognise the felicity of the stanza in Agincourt which winds up with Ferrars and Fanhope, and innumerable examples of the same kind occur elsewhere. Without this science indeed the Polyolbion would have been merely an awkward gazetteer. As it is, the strange herculean task, to borrow its authors description of it, has been very happily performed. It may safely be assumed that very few living Englishmen have read it through. But those who have will probably agree that there is a surprising interest in it, and that this interest is kept up by a very artful admixture of styles and subjects. Legends, fancy pieces such as that of the Marriage of Thame and Isis, with its unmatched floral description, accounts of rural sports and the like, ingeniously diversify the merely topographical narrative. Had the Polyolbion been its authors only work, Goldsmiths sneer would still have been most undeserved. But the variety of Draytons performance is almost as remarkable as its bulk. This variety it is impossible to represent fully either in this notice or in the extracts which accompany it. But to the foregoing remarks it may be added that Drayton was master of a very strong and at the same time musical decasyllabic line. His practice in Alexandrines and in complicated stanzas seems to have by no means injured his command of the ordinary heroic couplet. His series of Sonnets to Idea is perhaps his least successful work if we compare him with other men, just as The Barons Wars is his worst performance if his own work only be considered. The Nymphidia has received higher praise than any other of his poems, and its fantastic conception and graceful tripping metre deserve this praise well enough. The curious poems of The Owl and The Man in the Moon show, if they show nothing else, his peculiar faculty of raising almost any subject to a certain poetical dignity by dint of skilful treatment. Lastly, his prose Prefaces deserve attention here, because many of them display the secret of his workmanlike skill. It is evident from them that Drayton was as far as possible from holding the false and foolish improvisation-theory of poetry, and they testify to a most careful study of his predecessors and contemporaries, and to deliberate practice in the use of the poets tools of language and metre.