Michael Drayton and Jacobean Court Culture

  • John M. Adrian
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The Perambulation of Kent and the chorographic genre that it helped establish came to exercise a significant influence on the poetry of Michael Drayton. Born in 1563, Drayton was a contemporary of Camden and Lambarde and was directly affiliated with the antiquarian movement.1 In other words, he was well aware of the ways in which local places were coming to be valued and described in the second half of the sixteenth century. But as a writer, Drayton was probably influenced more directly by Edmund Spenser’s poetic engagement with chorography, which Bart Van Es describes as ‘a mode that surfaces recurrently in Spenser’s prose and poetry.’2 Spenser seems especially drawn to chorography’s use of the contemporary landscape as ‘a springboard to the past.’3 In works like The Ruines of Time (1591), Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), and the Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), he appropriates this basic feature of chorographic narration to create his own mythical histories of England, Ireland, and Wales. As a young poet, Drayton seems to have been particularly inspired by the marriage of the Thames and Medway episode in Book IV of the Faerie Queene.4 But what is an occasional feature of Spenser’s verse becomes a central concern in the works of Michael Drayton. In the analysis that follows, I will explore Drayton’s engagement with the fertile link between land and history that chorography helped bring to the forefront of the English imagination.


Monumental History English Nationhood English History Heroic Action Local Negotiation 
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  1. 1.
    Helgerson places the first part of Poly-Olbion (1612) ‘firmly … in the orbit of the Society of Antiquaries, many of whose members had been among Drayton’s closest friends.’ Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 128. See also Angus Vine, In Defiance of Time: Antiquarian Writing in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 171–177.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bart Van Es, ‘“The Streame and Currant of Time”: Land, Myth, and History in the Works of Spenser,’ Spenser Studies 18 (2003): 209–229 (224).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., 212. The rest of the article traces Spenser’s engagement with chorography in the three works that appear in the next sentence.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    William B. Hunter, Jr. (ed.), The English Spenserians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1977), 1–2. For more on the poetic treatment of rivers in early modern literature, see Wyman H. Herendeen, From Landscape to Literature: The River and the Myth of Geography (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Homer Nearing, English Historical Poetry, 1599–1641 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945), 24.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See S. Naqi Husain Jafri, Aspects of Drayton’s Poetry (Delhi: Dobra House, 1988), 189.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Kathleen Tillotson, ‘Michael Drayton as a “Historian” in the “Legend of Cromwell,”’ Modern Language Review 34 (1939): 186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 9.
    Richard F. Hardin, Michael Drayton and the Passing of Elizabethan England (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973), 36.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Joan Grundy, The Spenserian Poets (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969), 109.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Michael Drayton, The Works of Michael Drayton, 5 vols., ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1931–1941). V:144. Subsequent citations are taken from this edition; volume and page numbers will be given in parentheses within the text. According to Hebel, these odes constituted a ‘striking innovation’ because Drayton approaches the genre not just as ‘a novel synonym for a song’ but as a conventional classical form. As Hebel also notes, one John Soothern actually wrote some classical odes twenty years earlier, but his poems had very little effect on English poetry and went all but unnoticed (V:144).Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    George Parfitt, English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (New York: Longman, 1985), 165–166. Alan Isler explains, ‘For the sixteenth-century English, heroic poetry was a sufficiently broad and amorphous category.’ Isler continues, ‘Epic, romance, history, pseudo-biography, geography — examples of all of these and more might be listed indiscriminately under the single genre heading of “heroic poetry” by the eclectic Elizabethans.’ ‘Heroic Poetry and Sidney’s Two “Arcadias”,’ Modern Language Association Publications 83:2 (1968): 368–379 (369, 373).Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Robert Devereux, An Apologie of the Earle of Essex against those which falsly and maliciously taxe him to be the onely hinderer of the peace, and quiet of his countrey (London: for J. Smethwick, 1600), B2v.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Ibid., B3.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–1963), VIII:398.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 274.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    R. Malcolm Smuts, Court Culture and the Origins of a Royalist Tradition in Early Stuart England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 24–25.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    See David B. Quinn, ‘James I and the Beginnings of Empire in America,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 2:2 (January 1974): 135–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 28.
    For numerical details on James I’s selling of titles, see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    Jean Brink, Michael Drayton Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 66.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    For general trends in historiography in the period, see F. Smith Fussner, Tudor History and the Historians (New York: Basic Books, 1970) and F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1967).Google Scholar
  21. 31.
    For the complexity of this commentary, however, and Selden’s own ambiguity towards myth, see Anne Lake Prescott, ‘Drayton’s Muse and Selden’s “Story”: The Interfacing of Poetry and History in Poly-Olbion,’ Studies in Philology 87:1 (1990): 128–135; and Reid Barbour, John Selden: Measures of the Holy Commonwealth in Seventeenth-Century England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), chapter 1.Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    For instance, Helgerson (Forms of Nationhood, 139–145) argues that the poem offers an anti-monarchical form of nationhood centered on the county gentry, whereas Andrew McRae sees Poly-Olbion as asserting the centrality of the land itself and ‘seek[ing] refuge in a conception of nationhood beyond the reach of “mans devouring hand”.’ God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500–1660 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 260.Google Scholar
  23. 46.
    Such an expectation may partially account for the bitter tone of the 1622 preface. In it, Drayton complains that Part I of Poly-Olbion has been largely ignored despite the fact ‘that there is scarcely any of the Nobilitie, or Gentry of this land, but that he is some way or other, by his Blood interressed therein’ (IV:391). For more on the contemporary gentry interest in local history that Drayton seems keen to encourage, see Jan Broadway, ‘No historie so meete’: Gentry Culture and the Development of Local History in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

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© John M. Adrian 2011

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