The complete title of Michael Drayton’s long topographical poem is Poly-Olbion: Or, A Chorographicall Description of Tracts, Rivers, Mountaines, Forests, and other Parts of this renowned Isle of Great Britaine, With intermixture of the most Remarquable Stories, Antiquities, Wonders, Rarityes, Pleasures, and Commodities of the same, Digested in a Poem. Quite a bit of digesting is entailed, especially when a title page note continues, “With a Table added, for direction to those occurrences of Story and Antiquitie, whereunto the Course of the Volume easily leades not.” This table is Drayton’s extensive index to the proper names in the poem, and it is printed separately in volume 5 of the standard edition. The poem’s title derives from the Greek poly, meaning “many,” and Albion, a name for England that is related to the Greek word for “happy.”
Drayton’s opus comprises thirty songs—as he calls his poems—eighteen in part 1 and twelve in part 2, each preceded by a summary “argument” of twelve to twenty lines in rhymed iambic tetrameter. Each song celebrates the natural beauties and historic events of a particular region of Great Britain and is accompanied by an impressionistic map of that area. Although songs 22 and 24 go on for 1,638 and 1,320 lines, respectively, most of the songs are between 450 and 500 lines in length; the rhymed Alexandrines, or lines of iambic hexameter, are divided frequently by caesuras and split almost evenly between end-stopped and enjambed. Allusions to British history and classical myth abound, and personification becomes a reliable narrative device, notably in the pretense that it is Drayton’s muse who is speaking. The term “chorography,” which is no longer used, in Drayton’s time commonly specified writings about topography, and several classical models of the genre were available to Drayton. Among many influences on Drayton, the Renaissance historian and antiquarian William Camden organized his Brittania (1596) by counties, as Drayton organizes this work. Part 1 of Poly-Olbion is dedicated to Prince Henry, son of the reigning British monarch, James I.
The frontispiece to Poly-Olbion, an engraving by William Hole, presents an elaborate tangle of allegorical meanings. Great Britain is personified as a woman seated within a triumphal arch. Britain holds in her right hand a scepter that signifies her power, and in her left an overflowing cornucopia symbolizes the richness of her land. The open sea behind Britain teems with ships that suggest the sea power Great Britain enjoyed under Elizabeth I, and indeed it is hard not to see the dead queen in the personified Britain. The soft folds of Britain’s clothing are adorned with the peaks and valleys appropriate to a topographical poem. On the four corners of the arch appear statues of Great Britain’s four conquerors: Brute, or Brutus, the legendary nephew of Aeneas; Julius Caesar; the Saxon Hengist, who conquered the land in 449; and William the Conqueror, who led the Norman triumph at Hastings in 1066, and from whom King James I traced his descent. These figures form a loose historical framework for part 1 of the poem.
Summed up broadly, Drayton’s poem depicts the pre-Anglo Saxon period as the source of Great Britain’s distinctive culture. The Romans and the Saxon hordes of Hengist contributed their own unique elements—for example, the Anglo Saxons brought the Christian influence—but the Normans despoiled the land by oppressing its conquered people. It is significant that, considering that part 1 appeared in the middle of James I’s reign (from 1603 to 1625), Drayton concludes his short poem explicating the frontispiece with these lines: “Divorst from Him [the Roman], the Saxon sable Horse,/ Borne by sterne Hengist, wins her [Britain]: but through force/ Garding the Norman Leopards bath’d in Gules,/ She chang’d hir Love to Him, whose Line yet rules.”
Each song in part 1 is followed by “illustrations,” or several pages of dense notes expanding on the historical backgrounds and meanings of...
(The entire section is 1690 words.)