(excerpted by Clifford Stetner)
Michael Drayton: Chronology
1563 Born at Hartshill, near Atherstone, in Warwickshire.
1573 Page in the household of Henry Goodere, probably
remaining with Goodere until manhood.
1591 Publishes first poetry, The Harmony of the
1597-1602 Playwright for Philip Henslowe.
1603 Sir Walter Aston is made Knight of the Bath,
with Drayton as his Esquire.
1608 With several others, takes over management of the Whitefriars Playhouse and the Children of the King’s Revels. The venture fails before the year is out.
1612 Receives a small bequest from Henry Prince of Wales, to whom he dedicates the first part of Poly-Olbion.
1616 Supposed to have taken part in a “merry meeting” with Shakespeare
and Jonson, shortly before Shakespeare’s death.
1618 Begins occasional correspondence with William
1630 Publishes last poetry, The Muses’ Elysium,
with Divine Poems.
1631 Dies c. 23 December at London, buried in Westminster
Short as they are, these few poems exemplify the Drayton
of the long historical and topographical works: the public poet who
employed his talent for the celebration of his country; the conservative
spokesman for the traditions and values of rural English gentlemen; the
Elizabethan imbued with a sense of his country’s destiny. In
each of them, the object of praise is not so much the lady or the heroes
of Agincourt and Virginia as it is England herself—the England who is chief
actor and principal object of praise in Poly-Olbion. As in
nearly all Drayton’s poems, there is in these a fundamental, radical Englishness,
for their author was the most English poet of his age, if not of all
I often disregard the distinction usually made between
the poet and the persona speaking in his poems. For the most part the two
voices are virtually one and the same, as I believe they must be in the
poetry of celebration.
Historians in Verse
Only one other poet can rival Drayton’s claim to
pre-eminence in historical poetry during his time, Samuel Daniel, whose
lengthy Civil Wars had an indisputable influence on Drayton, though as
we shall see. its effect was not always salutary.
These verse-tributes contain little to distinguish
Drayton from any of the dozens of poets who scrambled for royal patronage
in the first years of James’s reign. For evidence that he was seriously
concerned about the national government, and alive to the abuses that had
crept into the body politic over the previous decade, we must turn
to his long satire of 1604, The Owl. ... an assessment of things
as they stood in the last year of Elizabeth’s and the first of James’s
reign. Although The Owl does not show the author’s later animosity
to the King, the principles that were to spark that animosity are clearly
in evidence—the rigid moral code, respect for absolute power, ardent traditionalism.
The immense popularity of this poem in the early seventeenth century is
owing to its reception as a roman à clef, by which news-hungry
Englishmen might read gossip about the great, couched in the obscure language
that Jonson so effectively ridicules in the banter of Sir Politic Would-Be....
main question in the reader’s mind should have been, not “Who is
this?”, but “Can this be my society? How are we like birds in this fable?”
it is helpful to know that the Vulture in this poem is Secretary Cecil,
and it would be nice to know the identity of the Phoenix whom he tries
to “taint,” but this is only one of the Vulture’s many crimes, each
of which is categorically recognizable.
The whole of The Owl—its
convention, its temperament, and its very explicit message—is medieval
in the sense that it conserves values that had been dying for generations,
perhaps over a century. In an earlier chapter we saw Drayton turning
from the Marlovian “Renaissance” style of his first two legends to the
medievalism of his third, Robert Duke of Normandy. The Owl
belongs to the same period of reaction. Like Robert, it is a dream vision—perhaps
the last good poem in that long tradition. The sight of flowers
on a May afternoon reminds the dreamer of “Th’inconstant passage of all
worldly things”—among which are monarchies “That had their age to win,
their hour to lose,” and the denizens of monarchies, “wretched souls so
ignorantly blind . . . . That climb to fall.” Like the belling-the-cat
episode in Piers Plowman, The Owl gives us an entire body
politic in an animal world: the Eagle, the great birds of, prey (both
good and evil), lesser birds of every moral hue, and an owl, who is partly
the voice of wisdom, partly that of Drayton himself fulfilling what he
believed to be one of the sacred roles of the poet.
The Owl comes to terms with a wide array of contemporary
political and social ills—ambition, the neglect of ancient families, usury,
rack-renting, marital infidelity, and corruption in churches and courts
of law, to name only the principals. Almost every line is a cry against
the new directions of the seventeenth century:
The Cormorant set closely to devise
The panacea for all the problems of society in
Owl is to restore the old, clear-cut feudal order, in which the king
rules directly, not through his officers: “Let Princes view what their
poor subjects try:/ Blind is that sight that’s with another’s eye” (11.589-90).
The final admonition of the Eagle is a classic statement of the reciprocal
obligations of governor and governed as they were understood in this older
form of state:
Let your wise Fathers an example give,
For when wealth grows into a few men’s hands,
Two important assumptions
lie behind this view of the state— the same ones so often implicit
in Shakespeare’s plays, especially King Lear: one is that
must be the ordering principle in any, stable society; the other, that
the root of all injustice in the body politic is the violation of this
natural order. Just as “th’ all seeing Sovereign did disperse Each to his
place upon the universe,” and thereby maintains control over the rival
elements, “So in confusion members are enclos’d, / To frame a State if
orderly dispos’d” (11.579-80). Orderly disposition is not only required
of the monarch, the gentry and the commons; at a time when the City was
coming more and more to dominate English culture, men must recognize the
needs of the neglected rural people.
In the Owl’s second sojourn (11.747-1058), we leave
the Court for the Country, where Drayton expatiates on two much-lamented
social evils of his time, the neglect of disabled veterans and the exploiting
of the poor by greedy landlords.
The Crane represents those
thousands of “aged men at arms” who had served in Elizabeth’s army,
and who, in spite of national legislation on their behalf, never received
compensation for their services. Retiring to the countryside, the Crane
tells how he waited in vain for relief from poverty in old age
The plight of the Crane and the Rook only lends further
weight to the Eagle’s maxim that “Pride in Court doth make the Country
The City is the third area
of erosion in the body politic. There the Pheasant, or prosperous townsman,
loses wealth and freedom to the crooked nobility. Our old friend the Court-hungry
Castrel, thinking to marry his heir into an affluent family, becomes hopelessly
entangled with usurers. At the same time religion, of whatever kind, is
almost extinguished: the Catholic Goose, who “humbly doth appeal” goes
unheard; the puritan Daw is driven out of church, and the Dove, or true
religion, “is left forsaken, and contemn’d of all.”
Drayton and Olcon
At some time during the year or two after publication
of The Owl, Drayton, and a good many other Englishmen, began
to think of King James as more than a little implicated in these abuses
of state. Of course royal neglect may have intensified his resentment of
the King, but I feel we can place too much weight on suspected personal
grievances. As I hope to show in this chapter, Drayton represents a
large number of his countrymen in his growing aversion to Elizabeth’s successor.
The first traces of ill feeling appear in the Poems
Lyric and Pastoral of 1606. Here, in the refurbished sixth pastoral
of The Shepherd’s Garland, is the first cryptic reference to a recurring
nemesis in Drayton’s Jacobean poems, “great Olcon.” Drayton’s editors
have shown this figure to be King James, and I do not think it necessary
to review their evidence here. Olcon, says Drayton, “seem’d” a Phoebus
to the shepherds at first:
But he forsakes the herd-grooms and his flocks,
Roguish swineherds that repine
These are the popular London hacks and ballad writers
at whom Drayton so often rails; more generally they signify the encroachment
of a whole set of “beastly” values of London and the Court upon rural England.
At their head is the greatest hack of the realm:
Angry Olcon sets them on
Yet for all his supposed difficulty with Elizabeth,
Drayton, like the rest of his generation, has nothing but praise for
the Queen (see Poly-Olbion XV11341-52). If he was the sort of
person to spite anyone who did not pay him attention, why didn’t he treat
Elizabeth as he did James? The answer can only lie in the character
of the King himself—or in the abuses of his Court, which he both tolerated
and actively fostered: the cheapening of titles, the extravagant waste
of public funds, his cultivation of worthless favorites or “minions,” his
refusal to prosecute the war against popery, especially abroad, and his
obsequious conduct (as it appeared) toward the Spanish ambassador Count
On 17 November 1620, the anniversary of Elizabeth’s
accession, John Chamberlain commemorated “the happiest day that ever England
had,” thereby expressing the sentiments of a good part of his generation,
who looked back with nostalgia to an earlier time when there were no
minions, when the nation was happily at war with the Catholics, and when
knighthood and the peerage were honored, conserved, and undiluted. Often
the apparent object of this nostalgia was the Queen herself, but
even then we can see the thinly disguised idealism, venerating a golden
past, viewed hazily and uncritically through the eyes of men living in
a crisis that they felt helpless to resolve.
...revising The Owl... the reigning Eagle
is seen as the dupe..
...a poem which explains why Drayton published
no overt political criticism after 1619, until the King’s death:
I fear as I do stabbing this word State.
Some have seen in these lines a reference to the royal
proclamation of 1620, forbidding public discussion of state affairs. The
last couplet, however, can only mean that Drayton was personally silenced,
otherwise there would be no reason to contrast himself with “other men.”
A strong likelihood is that he was freer in his
vocal than in his written criticism of the government, and was informed
upon by one of the Council’s many spies.
...uncle Hugh “reviled the King in his drink,” according
to an informer, for failing to pay his military pension of sixteen pounds.
The old man was arrested and flogged...
The Neglect of the Muses
Drayton’s comments on the moral and political decline
of England under James are almost always joined with complaints on the
sad state of poetry and learning: indeed, his social criticism often
seems merely a convenient opening for a diatribe against the new poetry
and the new ignorance of the seventeenth century. His idea of the poet’s
office was no less lofty than Milton’s, and like Milton he assumed
as inevitable the dependence of sound poetry on sound learning. Once again,
what emerges from all his views on the state of poetry and learning is
the portrait of a man steeped in the traditions of the feudal past and
unwilling to see them change.
Repeatedly his Jacobean
poetry laments the defiling of the poetic tradition by men of the new “iron
age.” In a passage added to the eighth eclogue of the 1606 Pastorals
his shepherds complain that “the rude times their ord’rous matter fling
/ Into the sacred and once hallowed spring.” Some fifteen years later he
tells Jeffreys in almost the same language that the sacred springs have
been defiled by “a sort of swine.” The image of defiling is again used
in the prefatory verses to Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals, when
Drayton urges the younger poet to redeem
Those, to the Muses once so sacred, downs,
... the aging Drayton seems to have looked back
to his E1izabethan days as a golden era, both for himself and for English
ELYSIUM AND AFTER
Satyr. I, seeing the plagues that shortly are to come
The Future of England
As a young man Drayton had seen in his country’s
history a prophecy of her greatness: England had been purged through civil
discord and had purified her church; in war, politics, and poetry she had
competed successfully with other nations. But in later years the ruling
society that succeeded Elizabeth’s seemed to betray that early promise.
wonder that in both the historical and satiric writing of the 1620’s
Drayton so often broods on the disparity between past and present. This
contrast between the great promise and the grim realization accounts for
his ambivalence in forecasting his country’s future. On the one hand he
maintains hope for a regeneration of the old spirit, if not in England,
then at least in the new colonies abroad; yet he is also haunted by the
pessimistic reminder, the one common legacy of all history, sacred and
profane, that wicked societies bring down upon themselves the wrath of
The warning voice prevails
in two of the biblical narratives published with The Muses’
Elysium in 1630, for both Moses and Noah’s Flood
are concerned with God’s care for a righteous minority while scourging
an unjust society; in them Drayton assumes certain parallels between
the biblical societies and his own.
The two poems reflect
a way of interpreting Scripture that had become common in England during
the sixteenth century, especially among Protestants, whereby the reader
of the Bible sees his own struggles and the events of his day as reenacting
those of biblical times. Medieval men had used biblical stories as exempla,
of course, or had seen Old Testament characters as “types” of the New,
but in the Reformation for the first time since early Christianity we find
readers attempting to assess modern in the light of scriptural history—a
usage of Scripture that has been called “postfiguration.” By this means
reformers like John Knox could compare Mary Tudor with Jezebel; John Bale
could represent the Pharisees and Sadducees as foreshadowing the medieval
monastic orders. Whereas in early church typology the conflict between
Jacob and Esau had signified the struggle of early Christians against the
pharisaical Jews, in Nicholas Udall’s Jacob and Esau (1558) the two brothers
are the Protestant and the impious Catholic, respectively.
5. Newdigate errs, I think, in placing the cause of
Drayton’s hostility in “Drayton’s discontent at failing to receive due
recognition for his poetry” (p. 132); he does not entertain the possibility
that Drayton is representative of a reactionary trend.
13. Cf. Chamberlain on the possibility of Charles’
marriage to the Catholic Infanta: “Some spare not to say that all goes
backward since this connivance in religion came in, both in our wealth,
valor, honor, and reputation, and that it is visibly seen that God blesses
nothing we take in hand, whereas in Queen Elizabeth’s time, who stood firm
in God’s cause, all things did flourish” (The Chamberlain Letters, p. 355).
This nostalgia continues well into the period of the rebellion. Osborne
saw Elizabeth’s rule as an era “the felicity of which was never since matched,
nor have we had yet any cause to hope it will be” (Historical Memoirs,
p. 360). Cf. above, Chap. 1, n. 24.
14. The Owl, 11. 695-746. Also see the newly added lines 1059-64, in which the Eagle inexplicably vanishes, leaving the Owl to govern things “for the great good of the public Weal.” Here the Owl represents the wisdom of commons, the power of men (at least some men) to govern themselves, a notion often defended by Selden. Drayton, the feudal-+minded monarchist, may have been groping toward some form of republicanism in his later years, but none is ever fully formulated.