Held in high esteem by his contemporaries, Michael Drayton was one of the first professional poets whose entire life was devoted to his muse. He was thought to have been with Shakespeare during the last merry evening of the playwright’s life, or so legend has it. Drayton is almost as elusive a figure for the biographer. According to his own word, he turned to poetry at the age of ten, when he was a page in the service of Sir Henry Goodere—a connection he maintained by worshipful devotion to Goodere’s youngest daughter Anne throughout his bachelor lifetime.
His first published work, THE HARMONIE OF THE CHURCH, is seldom read now even by scholars, so much like the weaker works of his contemporaries is this collection of Biblical studies in verse. But some of the prayers, the songs of thanksgiving, and especially his rendition of the Song of Solomon give indications of his latent talent. His admiration for Spenser led to the writing of a pseudo-SHEPHEARDES CALENDER, pastoral eclogues called IDEA, THE SHEPHERD’S GARLAND. This work is not to be confused, however, with Drayton’s fine sonnet sequence of a later period. In 1605 or 1606 Drayton brought out a collection of old and new work, POEMS LYRIC AND PASTORAL, which contained “The Ballad of Agincourt,” a celebration of Henry V’s great victory, and “Ode to the Virginian Voyage,” a patriotic poem commemorating Raleigh’s conquests in the New World. This latter is among the first to present America as the new Garden of Eden (“Earth’s only paradise”):
Where nature hath in storeFowl, venison, and fish,And the fruitful soil—Without your toil,Three harvests more,All greater than you wish.
Among Drayton’s other odes are two often anthologized because they are among the most graceful, felicitous verses in the language. “To His Coy Love”—a canzonet, as Drayton calls it, but meant to be sung, like his other odes—calls back the poet’s heart from a half love, starved for pleasure “amidst an ocean of delight.” Rejecting many of the lady’s physical charms, he pleads:
Come nice thing, let thy heart alone,I cannot live without thee.
About this same time Drayton published a number of historical verses titled MORTIMERIADOS (republished as THE BARON’S WARS in 1603), a criticism of civil strife in which he presented the disturbed career of Edward II. He produced a more interesting work of poetic history in ENGLAND’S HEROICAL EPISTLES, an imaginary exchange of the love letters supposedly written by twelve English lovers such as James and Mary Suffolk, Edward IV and Jane Shore, Henry II and the fair Rosamond. Along with ENDIMION AND PHOEBE, verses in imitation of Marlowe, and a miscellany of conventional verses such as his FIG FOR MOMUS, Drayton during this period seems to have given more time to dramatic productions and social life than to the diligence in writing which characterizes his later life.
After Queen Elizabeth...
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