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THE LIFE OF DRAYTON.
MICHAEL DRAYTON, one of the most diftinguished names in the poetical age of Elizabeth, was of an ancient family, originally defcended from the town of Drayton in Leicestershire; but his parents removing into Warwickshire, he was born at Atherston in that county, as it is conjectured, about 1563.
Aubrey's MSS. call him the son of a butcher; but his biographers, whether from ignorance, or disbelief of the fact, or from a ridiculous delicacy, take no notice of this circunftance.
While he was extremely young, he discovered a remarkable propensity to learning; and, it appears from his Epifle to Henry Reynold, Efq., that, even at ten years of age, he had made a considerable proficiency in the Latin, and was a page to a perfon of quality.
Sir Afton Cokayne, in his " Choice Poems," mentions his having been for fome time à student at Oxford; but as he is not taken notice of by Wood, it is most probable that he completed his edu cation at the other University.
His propensity to poetry was extremely ftrong, even from his infancy; and he appears to have been distinguished as a poet about nine or ten years before the death of Queen Elizabeth ; but at what time he began to publish cannot be exactly ascertained.
All who have written of him, however, affirm that most of his principal pieces were published by the time he was about thirty years of age.
It appears from his poem of Mofes's Birth and Miracles, that he was a fpectator at Dover of the famous Spanish Armada; and it is not improbable that he was engaged in fome military employment there.
It is certain that he was then highly efteemed and ftrongly patronized by feveral persons of confequence; particularly by Sir Henry Goodere, Sir Walter Afton, and the Countess of Bedford; to the first of whom he owns himfelf indebted for great part of his education, and for recommending him to the Countess; and by the fecond he was for many years fupported, as he himself gratefully acknowledges in the dedication of his Barons' Wars, " in the fpring of their acquaintance," and in many other dedications.
In 1693, he published a collection of pastorals under the title of Idea: The Shepherd's Garland, faftioned in nine Eclogues, 4to: and His Baron's Wars, England's Heroical Epifilès, and Legends, not long
In 1603, he welcomed King James to his British dominions with a " congratulatory poem," 4to. The fame year, he was chofen by Sir Walter Afton one of the Efquires who attended him at his creation of knight of the bath.
It has been alleged, that during King James's minority, he was inftrumental in a correfpondence carried on between that Prince and Queen Elizabeth; but this affertion is not confirmed by any favourable notice he received from that monarch after his acceffion; for, though he had teftified an early attachment to his intereft, and had written fome Sonnets in his praife as à poet, he certainly met. with no preferment: and even his poems themfelves met with a very cool and unfavourable reception. It does not appear that he ever printed those poems, in which he unquestionably ftooped to grofs flattery, in praife of a monarch who was as devoid of poetry as courage.
It is probable, however, that he had indulged himself in forming expectations on James's coming to the throne, but was disappointed; for, in the preface to his Poly-Olbion, and his Epiftles to Browne and Sandys, he moralizes on the times, with the peevish diffatisfaction of one who thinks himself neglected or ill-treated.
In 1612, he published the first part of his Poly-Olbion, in eighteen books, or fongs, in folio, addressed to Prince Henry, by whofe encouragement it was undertaken, but who died before it was finished.
It is a topographical poem, containing a description of the several parts of England and Wales, in twelve foot verfe, interwoven with epifodes of the Roman conqueft, the arrival of the Saxons, Danes, and Normans, &c.
It was illuftrated with notes by Selden, who, at the age of thirty-three, was fo highly diftinguished as a philologist, antiquary, herald, and linguift, that he was actually then, what he was afterwards usually styled "the great dictator of learning to the English nation."
It was also embellished with maps, representing the cities, mountains, forests, rivers, &c. by the figures of men and women.
In 1619, he published the first volume of his poems in folio; and in 1622, came out the fecond part of his Pely-Olbion, making in all thirty books, or fongs; dedicated to Prince Charles, to whom he gives hopes of a continuation,-upon Scotland.
In 1626, the addition of Poet Laureat is affixed to his name, in a copy of recommendatory verses prefixed to "Holland's poems;" probably as a mark of his excellency in the art of poetry; for that appellation was not formerly restricted, as it is now, to his majesty's fervant, known by that title, who, at that time, is prefumed to have been Jonfon.
In 1627, he published the second volume of his poems in folio; containing his Battle of Agincourt, Miferics of Queen Margaret, Nymphidia, the Court of Fayrie, Queft of Cynthia, Shepberd's Sirena, Elegies, and the Moon-Calf.
In 1630, he published another volume of poems in 4to, entitled The Mafes Elyfium, dedicated to Edward Sackville Earl of Dorfet, who, it seems, had now made him one of his family; with three divine poems, Neab's Flood, Mofes's Birth and Miracles, and David and Goliah, dedicated to the Countess of Dorfet, the juftly celebrated Lady Anne Clifford, afterwards Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery.
He died in 1631, in the fixty-eighth year of his age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey among the poets. A handsome table monument of blue marble was raised over his grave the fame year, adorned with his effigies in bufto, laureated.
The MSS. abovementioned fay, that his monument was given by the high-fpirited and magnis ficent Countess of Dorset, who gave monuments to Spenfer and Daniel; and that his epitaph was written by Quarles, and not by Jonfon, to whom it is commonly attributed.
The epitaph, which was written in letters of gold, runs as follows.
MICHAEL DRAYTON, ESQUIRE.
A memorable poet of his age,
Protect his memory, and preferve his story:
To be the treasurer of his name,
An imperfect edition of his collected works was printed in folio 1748; and a more complete one in 4 vol. 8vo, 1753. They are now for the first time received into a collection of claffical English poetry.
The character of Drayton among his contemporaries was that of an elegant poet, and a modeft and amiable man. The teftimonies of Jonson, Drummond, Selden, Sir William Alexander, Browne and Sandys, are unquestionable authorities in his favour.
Jonfon in his " converfation with Drummond" fays, that Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion, had he performed what he promised, to write the deeds of all the worthies, had been excellent. Drummond fays "his Poly-Olbion is one of the smootheft poems I have seen in English; poetical and well profecuted. There are some pieces in him I dare compare with the best tranfmarine poems; the 7th fong pleaseth me much; the 12th is excellent; the 13th alfo; the discourse of bunting passeth with any poet." Meres, in his " Wit's Treasury, pronounces the following eulogium upon him. "As Aulus Perfius Flaccus is reputed among all writers to be of an honeft life and upright conver fation; so Michael Drayton (quem totics bonoris & amoris caufa nomino) among schollers, fouldeers, poets, and all forts of people, is helde for a man of vertuous difpofition, honeft conversation, and well governed carriage, which is almoft miraculous among good wits in these declining and corrupt times, when there is nothing but rogery in villanous man; and when cheating and craftiness is counted the cleaneft wit and the foundeft wisdome." Winstanley is very lavish in difplaying the great extent of his fame: "He had drunk as deep a draught at Helicon as any in his time: for fame and renown in poetry he is not much inferior, if not equal to Spenfer his England's Heroical Epiftles, generally liked and received, entitling him unto the appellation of the English Ovid."
His reputation in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. ftood on much the fame level with that of Cowley in the two fucceeding reigns; but it has declined confiderably fince that period.
The modern teftimonies to his merit are few, when compared with those of the last century, and by no means equal to his defert. Most readers, either discouraged at his voluminousness, or from an unlucky perverseness or fastidiousness of taste, content themselves with fuperficially skimming him over, without going deep enough to be real judges of his excellence.
The Poly-Olbion, his greatest performance, is one of the moft fingular and original works this country has produced. The information contained in it is in general so accurate, that it is quoted as an authority by Hearne, Wood, and Nicholfon. His perpetual allufions to obfolete traditions, remote events, remarkable facts and perfonages, together with his curious genealogies of rivers, and his tafte for natural history, have contributed to render his work very valuable to the antiquary.
To many just objections it is most certainly liable; his verse of twelve fyllables, though generally harmonious, is antiquated and unfuitable to the dignity and importance of his fubject, and his continual perfonification of woods, mountains, and rivers, are tedious, and must be read rather for information than pleasure.
His Barons Wars are not liable to the fame objections, the measure is more judiciously chofen; and though they frequently want the elevation of thought which is effential to poetry, the numbers are harmonious, and in some stanzas fcarce inferior to the finest passages in Spenfer.
The subject, it may be thought, is too extensive, and the province of the hiftorian too far tranfgreffed upon; in order to be introduced to good incident and reflection, one must toil through dry facts, liften with patience to the developement of uncertain primary caufes; and, at last, perhaps, be obliged to have recourfe to a profe explanation in the notes.
In his Legends and Heroical Epifles, both the time and the events are properly limited; the attention is gratified, but not fatiated. He is in general, however, happier in the choice than the execution of his fubjects; yet fome of his imitations of Ovid are more in the spirit of a poet than several of the English translations of him.
His Nymphidia: the Court of Fayrie, seems to have been the greatest effort of his imagination, and is the most generally admired of his works. It is a moft pleafing effort of a sportive fancy. The charm, in particular, is ludicrously whimsical; the component parts are put together with great propriety. It is a fine prelude to the witches Cauldron in Macbeth, and only exceeded by the stronger genius of Shakspeare.
His Ideas expreffes much fancy and poetry.
His Sonnets poffefs, in a high degree, those distinctions which have been esteemed the most delicate improvements in English verfification, and are scarce inferior to the best compofitions of that kind in our language. His Divine Poems contain some fublime images.
"He poffeffed" fays Mr. Headley," a very confiderable fertility of mind, which enabled him to distinguish himself in almost every species of poetry, from a trifling fonnet to a long topographical poem. If he any where finks below himself, it is in his attempt at Satire. The goodness of his heart feems to have produced in him that confused kind of honeft indignation which deprived him of the powers of difcrimination; he therefore loft the opportunities of feizing on those nice allusions, situations and traits of character, by which vice and folly are rendered odious and contemptible."
"He wanted neither fire nor imagination, and poffeffed great command of his abilities. He has written no mafques; his perfonifications of the paffions are few; and that allegorical vein which the popularity of Spenfer's works may fairly be supposed to have rendered fashionable, and which overruns our earlier poetry, but seldom occurs in him. While his contemporary Jonson peopled his pages with the heathen mythology, and gave our language new idioms, by the introduction of Latinisms, Drayton adopted a style, that with a few exceptions, the prefent age may perufe without difficulty, and not unfrequently mistake for its own offspring. In a most pedantic æra he was unaffected, and feldom exhibits his learning at the expence of his judgment."