Hardin, R. Michael Drayton and the Passing of Elizabethan England. Lawrence: UP of Kansas. 1973.

(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 Church.

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 Drummond.

1630 Publishes last poetry, The Muses’ Elysium, with Divine Poems.

1631 Dies c. 23 December at London, buried in Westminster Abbey.


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 others.

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.... The 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?” Admittedly, 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

How he might compass strange monopolies.
The gaudy Goldfinch and his courtly mate,
My Madame Bunting, powerful in the State,
Quickly agreed, and but at little stick,
To share a thousand for a Bishopric,
And scramble us some feathers from the Lark,
What though a Pastor and a learned clerk? (11.377-84)



The panacea for all the problems of society in The 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,

And by their rules learn thriftily to live.
Let those weak birds that want wherewith to fight
Submit to those that are of grip and might.
Let those of power the weaker still protect,
So none shall need his safety to suspect. (11.1211-16)


For when wealth grows into a few men’s hands,

And to the Great, the poor in many bands;
The pride in Court doth make the Country lean,
The abject rich hold ancient honor mean.
Men’s wits employ’d to base and servile shifts,
And laymen taught, by learn’d men’s subtle drifts,
Ill with this State ‘t must incidentally fare. (11.1219-25)


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 nature 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 lean.”

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,

Nor of his bagpipes takes at all no keep,
But to the stern wolf and deceitful fox
Leaves the poor shepherd and his harmless sheep.



Roguish swineherds that repine

At our flock, like beastly clowns,
Swear that they will bring their swine,
And will root up all our downs. (11. 356-59)


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

And against us part doth take,
Ever since he was outgone
Off’ring rhymes with us to make. (11.368-71)



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 Gondomar.


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.

I dare not speak of the Palatinate,
Although some men make it their hourly theme,
And talk what’s done in Austria and in Beame,
I may not so; what Spinola intends,
Nor with his Dutch, which way Prince Maurice bends;
To other men, although these things be free,
Yet (George) they must be mysteries to me.


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,

As no rude foot might there presume to stand
(Now made the way of the unworthiest clowns
Dig’d and plow’d up with each unhallowed hand).



... the aging Drayton seems to have looked back to his E1izabethan days as a golden era, both for himself and for English poetry.



Satyr. I, seeing the plagues that shortly are to come

Upon this people, cleanly them forsook,
And thus am light into Elysium,
To whose strait search I wholly me betook.
Naiis. Poor silly creature, come along with us, . . .
We to the cheerful presence will thee bring
Of Jove’s dear daughters, where in shades they sit,
Where thou shalt hear those sacred sisters sing
Most heavenly hymns, the strength and life of wit. (The Muses’ Elysium, Tenth Nimphall)


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. Little 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 God.

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.