In an age when the writing of poetry was an avocation for actors, courtiers, clergymen, and landed gentlemen, Michael Drayton devoted his life to poetry. In a verse epistle to his friend Henry Reynolds, Drayton writes of how, at the age of ten, he beseeched his tutor to make him a poet. Being a man of the Renaissance, the teacher started him on eclogues, first those of “honest Mantuan,” a currently popular Italian humanist, then the great Vergil himself, after which Drayton studied the English poets, beginning, of course, with Geoffrey Chaucer and working through to contemporaries such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Daniel, and Jonson (Drayton having of course grown up in the meantime). Both the classics and the native poetical tradition continued to inspire him throughout his long career, and in his most characteristic work he adapts classical models to his own time, place, and language.
To a greater extent, perhaps, than any of his contemporaries, Drayton straddles the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and raises the question of whether he was more Elizabethan or Jacobean. As he does not fall squarely into the usual categories of Spenserian, Jonsonian, or Metaphysical, his work challenges the usefulness—certainly the inclusiveness—of these categories of English Renaissance poetry. His career may be divided into three stages, the first and last of which are short but enormously energetic and productive, while the long middle stage demonstrates the characteristic development of his art while incidentally furnishing most of the poems for which he has become best known. In the first and, paradoxically, last stages, he is most Elizabethan, or, to use a term popularized by C. S. Lewis in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954), most “golden.”
His early period begins with the publication in 1591 of a drab religious exercise called The Harmonie of the Church, but between 1593 and 1595, he brought out three works which typify and enrich that most remarkable period in English letters: Idea, the Shepheard’s Garland; Ideas Mirrour; and Endimion and Phoebe. The first of these demonstrates a young poet’s preliminary pastoral, Vergil having worked from the shepherds’ dale to epic heights—a program which the ambitious Spenser had already imitated and which many others, including John Milton, would imitate. The poems are eclogues, shepherds’ dialogues on love, death, the decline of the world, and poetry itself; they are meant to exercise a poet’s versatility in song. Drayton’s are not notable, except perhaps for their unusually frequent references to English topography; they do, however, demonstrate that the poet, at thirty, had long since learned his craft.
Ideas Mirrour is a sonnet sequence, not a classical form to be sure, but one associated with the great fourteenth century classicist, Petrarch. Since the posthumous publication of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in 1591, poets had flooded England with sonnets featuring graceful tributes to beautiful ladies with stylized and often classical names such as Celia, Delia, and Diana, along with the laments of versifying suitors frustrated by the very aloofness that attracted them so fatally. Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady,” it might be noted, is in a number of respects the exception to the rule. Ideas Mirrour, fifty-one sonnets long, is conventionally melancholy, sometimes awkward, and regularly sensuous in the well-bred Elizabethan way.
Endimion and Phoebe
Endimion and Phoebe, in 516 pentameter couplets, is Drayton’s contribution to the Ovidian love narrative, a genre that had already generated Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). Endimion is a shepherd lad who loves the fair goddess Phoebe at once passionately and chastely; she rewards him by wrapping him in a “fiery mantle” and lofting him to the empyrean, where he is shown a series of splendors both astronomical and divine. The poem is full of rich, smooth-flowing language—not so thoroughly a thing of beauty as John Keats’s Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818) but a joy nevertheless.
Myth, pastoral, and love lyrics provided only limited opportunities for another English obsession in the heady years following the defeat of the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada in 1588: the patriotism that rings forth in John of Gaunt’s “Methinks I am a prophet new inspired” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596) and so many other poems of the 1590’s. Thus, 1596 found Drayton issuing Mortimeriados, on the political struggles of the reign of Edward II. Drayton was again following the lead of other poets, this time Shakespeare and Daniel (who had published the first four books of his Civile Warres in 1595) more than Spenser and Marlowe. Mortimeriados, which can be considered the last of the poems of Drayton’s early phase, is only one of a series, begun three years earlier in his Peirs Gaveston and continuing throughout most of his life, in which he delves into the history, topography, and presumed national virtues of England.
As the childless Queen Elizabeth grew old, ambitious courtiers moved into position, and as the problem of the succession loomed, England’s mood changed. Spenser died in 1599, leaving The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) unfinished and its shadowy heroine, Gloriana, unwed to Prince Arthur. Shakespeare turned increasingly to the writing of tragedy. Drayton’s heart remained, as it always would remain, unabashedly Elizabethan. As his art matured, however, he welded his classicism and patriotism in poems of much greater originality.
Englands Heroicall Epistles
Englands Heroicall Epistles marks a turning point. Of this work can be said what surely cannot be said of anything in Drayton’s earlier poems: It is something new in English literature. His classical model, Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), had been imitated as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women (1380-1386), but instead of retaining Ovid’s subject matter—the plights of a group of legendary and historical women of the ancient world such as Dido, Medea, and Cleopatra—and forgoing Ovid’s epistolary form, as had Chaucer, Drayton wrote his poem in the form of letters to and from such women as Eleanor Cobham, Rosamond Clifford, and Alice, countess of Salisbury—that is, women involved in the political history of England, usually as royal wives or mistresses, although in the case of Lady Jane Grey, as the victim of political intrigue.
Drayton’s changes are instructive. All the letters of the Heroides are purportedly those of the women, mostly complaints by women abandoned by their consorts, with Ovid avoiding monotony through the exercise of his considerable psychological insight. Drayton, who much preferred to build situations involving the interactions of characters, hit upon the idea of an exchange of letters between the man and the woman, with sometimes hers coming first, sometimes his. Notorious royal mistresses such as Rosamond Clifford and Jane Shore had spoken in verse before, but chiefly in the moralizing vein of that stodgy Elizabethan perennial, A Mirror for Magistrates (1555, 1559, 1563), in which the ghosts of people fallen from high place appear for the purpose of lugubriously advising and admonishing the reader. Thomas Churchyard ends his account of Shore’s Wife (1563), for example: “A mirror make of my great overthrow;/ Defy this world and all his wanton ways;/ Beware by me that spent so ill her days.” Drayton’s Jane, on the other hand, concludes her letter to Edward IV: “thou art become my fate,/ And mak’st me love even in the midst of hate.” He refuses to subordinate his lovers to an abstract moral, though, to be sure, he has selected them in the first place as manifestations of the national spirit.
The Barrons Wars
Drayton’s professionalism drove him to protracted and extensive revisions, and many of the works of his middle period are reworkings of earlier poems. In The Barrons Wars, he turns the rime royal of Mortimeriados into ottava rima, explaining that although the former had “harmony,” the latter possessed “majesty, perfection, and solidity.” Drayton aspired to an epic, but he was no Vergil, and The Barrons Wars, though an improvement on Mortimeriados, was no Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). In other cases, his critics find his “improvements” made in vain, as in his Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall, which surely made his contemporary readers wonder why, twenty-seven years after Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar (1579), Drayton insisted on reworking old eclogues. As for his modern readers, they generally prefer Endimion and Phoebe to the new version, The Man in the Moon.
Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall is nevertheless important for introducing another of Drayton’s successful classical adaptations, his odes. A deservedly obscure poet named John Southern had made a few Pindaric odes in the 1580’s, but Drayton is the first Englishman to imitate the Horatian type. After acknowledging in his preface both Pindar’s triumphant and...
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