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Michael Drayton (1563-1631), 1599. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Drayton (1563 - December 23, 1631) was an English poet who came to prominence in the Elizabethan era.



Drayton was born at Hartshill, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Almost nothing is known about his early life, beyond the fact that in 1580 he was in the service of Thomas Goodere of Collingham, Nottinghamshire. 19th- and 20th-century scholars, on the basis of scattered allusions in his poems and dedications, suggested that Drayton might have studied at the University of Oxford, and been intimate with the Polesworth branch of the Goodere family. More recent work has cast doubt on those speculations.[1]

1591 - 1602Edit

In 1591 he produced his first book, The Harmony of the Church, a volume of spiritual poems, dedicated to Lady Devereux. It is notable for a version of the Song of Solomon, executed with considerable richness of expression. However, with the exception of 40 copies seized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the whole edition was destroyed by public order. Nevertheless, Drayton published a vast amount within the next few years.

In 1593 appeared Idea: The shepherd's garland, a collection of nine pastorals, in which he celebrated his own love-sorrows under the poetic name of Rowland. The basic idea was expanded in a cycle of sixty-four sonnets, published in 1594, under the title of Idea's Mirror, by which we learn that the lady lived by the river Ankor in Warwickshire. It appears that he failed to win his "Idea," and lived and died a bachelor. In 1593 appeared the first of Drayton's historical poems, The Legend of Piers Gaveston, and the next year saw the publication of Matilda, an epic poem in rhyme royal. It was about this time, too, that he brought out Endimion and Phoebe, a volume which he never republished, but which contains some interesting autobiographical matter, and acknowledgments of literary help from Thomas Lodge, if not from Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel also. In his Fig for Momus, Lodge reciprocated these friendly courtesies.

In 1596 Drayton published his long and important poem Mortimeriados, which deals with the Wars of the Roses and is a very serious production in ottava rima. He later enlarged and modified this poem, and republished it in 1603 under the title of The Barons' Wars. In 1596 also appeared another historical poem, The Legend of Robert, Duke of Normandy, with which Piers Gaveston was reprinted. In 1597 appeared England's Heroical Epistles, a series of historical studies, in imitation of those of Ovid. These last poems, written in the heroic couplet, contain some of the finest passages in Drayton's writings.

1603 - 1631Edit

By 1597, the poet was resting on his laurels. It seems that he was much favoured at the court of Elizabeth, and he hoped that it would be the same with her successor. But when, in 1603, he addressed a poem of compliment to James I, on his accession, it was ridiculed, and his services rudely rejected. His bitterness found expression in a satire, The Owl (1604), but he had no talent in this kind of composition. Not much more entertaining was his scriptural narrative of Moses in a Map of his Miracles, a sort of epic in heroics printed the same year. In 1605 Drayton reprinted his most important works, his historical poems and the Idea, in a single volume which ran through eight editions during his lifetime. He also collected his smaller pieces, hitherto unedited, in a volume undated, but probably published in 1605, under the title of Poems Lyric and Pastoral; these consisted of odes, eclogues, and a fantastic satire called The Man in the Moon. Some of the odes are extremely spirited. In this volume he printed for the first time the famous Ballad of Agincourt.

He had adopted as early as 1598 the extraordinary resolution of celebrating all the points of topographical or antiquarian interest in the island of Great Britain, and on this laborious work he was engaged for many years. At last, in 1613, the first part of this vast work was published under the title of Poly-Olbion, eighteen books being produced, to which the learned Selden supplied notes. The success of this great work, which has since become so famous, was very small at first, and not until 1622 did Drayton succeed in finding a publisher willing to undertake the risk of bringing out twelve more books in a second part. This completed the survey of England, and the poet, who had hoped "to crown Scotland with flowers," and arrive at last at the Orcades, never crossed the Tweed.

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In 1627 he published another of his miscellaneous volumes, and this contains some of his most characteristic and exquisite writing. It consists of the following pieces: The Battle of Agincourt, an historical poem in ottava rima (not to be confused with his ballad on the same subject), and The Miseries of Queen Margaret, written in the same verse and manner; Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, a most joyous and graceful little epic of fairyland; The Quest of Cinthia and The Shepherd's Sirena, two lyrical pastorals; and finally The Moon Calf, a sort of satire. Of these Nimphidia is perhaps the best thing Drayton ever wrote, except his famous ballad on the battle of Agincourt; it is quite unique of its kind and full of rare fantastic fancy.

The last of Drayton's voluminous publications was The Muses' Elizium in 1630. He died in London, was buried in Westminster Abbey, and had a monument placed over him by the Countess of Dorset,[2] with memorial lines attributed to Ben Jonson.


Like other poets of his era, Drayton was active in writing for the theatre; but unlike Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, or Samuel Daniel, he invested little of his art in the genre. For a period of only five years, from 1597 to 1602, Drayton was a member of the stable of playwrights who supplied material for the theatrical syndicate of Philip Henslowe. Henslowe's Diary links Drayton's name with 23 plays from that period, and shows that Drayton almost always worked in collaboration with other Henslowe regulars, like Thomas Dekker, Anthony Munday, and Henry Chettle, among others.[3] Of these 23 plays, only one has survived, that being Part 1 of Sir John Oldcastle, which Drayton composed in collaboration with Munday, Robert Wilson, and Richard Hathwaye. The text of Oldcastle shows no clear signs of Drayton's hand; traits of style consistent through the entire corpus of his poetry (the rich vocabulary of plant names, star names, and other unusual words; the frequent use of original contractional forms, sometimes with double apostrophes, like "th'adult'rers" or "pois'ned'st") are wholly absent from the text, suggesting that his contribution to the collaborative effort was not substantial. William Longsword, the one play that Henslowe's Diary suggests was a solo Drayton effort, was never completed.

Drayton may have preferred the role of impresario to that of playwright; he was one of the lessees of the Whitefriars Theatre when it was started in 1608. Around 1606, Drayton was also part of a syndicate that chartered a company of child actors, the Children of the King's Revels. These may or may not have been the Children of Paul's under a new name, since the latter group appears to have gone out of existence at about this time. The venture was not a success, dissolving in litigation in 1609.


Drayton was a friend of some of the most famous men of the age. He corresponded familiarly with Drummond; Ben Jonson, William Browne, George Wither, and others were among his friends. There is a tradition that he was a friend of Shakespeare, supported by a statement of John Ward, once vicar of Stratford-on-Avon, that "Shakespear, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted." In one of his poems, an elegy or epistle to Henry Reynolds, he has left some valuable criticisms on poets whom he had known. That he was a restless and discontented, as well as a worthy, man may be gathered from his own admissions.


File:Portrait of Michael Drayton by Sylvester Harding.jpg

The works of Drayton are bulky, and, in spite of the high place that he holds in critical esteem, it cannot be pretended that he is much read. For this, according to literary scholars, his ponderous style is much to blame. The Poly-Olbion, the most famous but far from the most successful of his writings, is difficult and barren in the extreme. It was, he tells us, a "Herculean toil" to him to compose it, and we are conscious of the effort. The metre in which it is composed, a couplet of alexandrines, like the French classical measure, is wholly unsuited to the English language, and becomes excessively wearisome to the reader, who forgets the learning and ingenuity of the poet in labouring through the harsh and overgrown lines. His historical poems, which he was constantly rewriting and improving, are believed by many to be much more interesting, and often rise to a true poetic eloquence.

Most literary scholars believe that his pastorals are brilliant, but overladen with colour and sweet to insipidity. He is, with the one magnificent exception of "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part," which was first printed in 1619, an indifferent sonneteer. The poet with whom it is most natural to compare him is Daniel; he is more rough and vigorous, more varied and more daring than the latter, but Daniel surpasses him in grace, delicacy and judgment. In their elegies and epistles, however, the two writers frequently resemble each other. Drayton, however, approaches the very first poets of the Elizabethan era in his charming Nimphidia, a poem which inspired Robert Herrick with his sweet fairy fancies and stands alone of its kind in English literature; while some of his odes and lyrics are inspired by noble feeling and virile imagination.

Critical introductionEdit

by George Saintsbury

The sentence which Hazlitt allots to Drayton is perhaps one of the most felicitous examples of short metaphorical criticism. ‘His mind,’ says the critic, "is a rich marly soil that produces an abundant harvest and repays the husbandman’s toil; but few flaunting flowers, the garden’s pride, grow in it, nor any poisonous weeds." Such figurative estimates must indeed always be in some respects unsatisfactory, yet in this there is but little of inadequacy. It is exceedingly uncommon for the reader to be transported by anything that he meets with in the author of the Polyolbion. Drayton’s jewels five words long are of the rarest, and their sparkle when they do occur is not of the brightest or most enchanting lustre. But considering his enormous volume, he is a poet of surprisingly high merit. Although he has written some fifty or sixty thousand lines, the bulk of them on subjects not too favourable to poetical treatment, he has yet succeeded in giving to the whole an unmistakeably poetical flavour, and in maintaining that flavour throughout.

The variety of his work, and at the same time the unfailing touch by which he lifts that work, not indeed into the highest regions of poetry, but far above its lower confines, are his most remarkable characteristics. The Polyolbion, the Heroical Epistles, the Odes, the Ballad of Agincourt, and the Nymphidia are strikingly unlike each other in the qualities required for successful treatment of them, yet they are all successfully treated. It is something to have written the best war song in a language, its best fantastic poem, and its only topographical poem of real value.

Adverse criticism may contend that the Nymphidia and the Polyolbion were not worth the doing, but this is another matter altogether. That the Ballad of Agincourt was not worth the doing, no one who has any fondness for poetry or any appreciation of it will attempt to contend.

In the lyric work of the Odes, scanty as it is, there is the same evidence of mastery and of what may be called thoroughness of workmanship. Exacting critics may indeed argue that Drayton has too much of the thoroughly accomplished and capable workman, and too little of the divinely gifted artist. It may be thought, too, that if he had written less and concentrated his efforts, the average merit of his work would have been higher. There is, at any rate, no doubt that the bulk of his productions, if it has not interfered with their value, has interfered with their popularity.

The Barons’ Wars, which, according to some theories, should have been Drayton’s best work, is perhaps his worst. The stanza, which he has chosen for good and well-expressed reasons, is an effective one, and the subject might have been made interesting. As a matter of fact it has but little interest. The somewhat ‘kite-and-crow’ character of the disturbance chronicled is not relieved by any vigorous portraiture either of Mortimer or of Edward or of the Queen. The first and last of these personages are much better handled in the Heroical Epistles. The level of these latter and of the Legends is decidedly high. Not merely do they contain isolated passages of great beauty, but the general interest of them is well sustained, and the characters of the writers subtly differenced.

One great qualification which Drayton had as a writer of historical and geographical verse was his possession of what has been called, in the case of M. Victor Hugo, la science des noms. No one who has an ear can fail to recognise the felicity of the stanza in Agincourt which winds up with ‘Ferrars and Fanhope,’ and innumerable examples of the same kind occur elsewhere. Without this science indeed the Polyolbion would have been merely an awkward gazetteer. As it is, the ‘strange herculean task,’ to borrow its author’s description of it, has been very happily performed. It may safely be assumed that very few living Englishmen have read it through. But those who have will probably agree that there is a surprising interest in it, and that this interest is kept up by a very artful admixture of styles and subjects. Legends, fancy pieces such as that of the Marriage of Thame and Isis, with its unmatched floral description, accounts of rural sports and the like, ingeniously diversify the merely topographical narrative. Had the Polyolbion been its author’s only work, Goldsmith’s sneer would still have been most undeserved. But the variety of Drayton’s performance is almost as remarkable as its bulk. This variety it is impossible to represent fully either in this notice or in the extracts which accompany it.

But to the foregoing remarks it may be added that Drayton was master of a very strong and at the same time musical decasyllabic line. His practice in Alexandrines and in complicated stanzas seems to have by no means injured his command of the ordinary heroic couplet. His series of Sonnets to Idea is perhaps his least successful work if we compare him with other men, just as The Barons’ Wars is his worst performance if his own work only be considered. The Nymphidia has received higher praise than any other of his poems, and its fantastic conception and graceful tripping metre deserve this praise well enough. The curious poems of "The Owl" and "The Man in the Moon" show, if they show nothing else, his peculiar faculty of raising almost any subject to a certain poetical dignity by dint of skilful treatment. Lastly, his prose Prefaces deserve attention here, because many of them display the secret of his workmanlike skill. It is evident from them that Drayton was as far as possible from holding the false and foolish improvisation-theory of poetry, and they testify to a most careful study of his predecessors and contemporaries, and to deliberate practice in the use of the poet’s tools of language and metre.[4]


There is a monument to Drayton in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[5]

5 of his poems ("To His Coy Love", "The Parting", "Sirena", "Agincourt", and "To the Virginian Voyage") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[6]




Collected editionsEdit

  • The Works of Michael Drayton. (4 volumes), London: J. Hazard, L. Gilliver & J. Clarke, & R. Dodsley, 1737.
  • The Works of Michael Drayton. (1 volume), London: J. Hughes, 1748.
  • The Complete Works] (edited by Richard Hooper). London: John Russell Smith, 1876. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III
  • The Works of Michael Drayton (edited by J. William Hebel, Kathleen Mary Tillotson, & Bernard H Newdigate). (5 volumes), Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, & Oxford, UK: Shakespeare Head Press / Basil Blackwell, 1931.
    • revised edition, 1961.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]


  • The Famous Wars of Henry I and the Prince of Wales (also known as The Welshman's Prize), by Drayton, Henry Chettle, and Thomas Dekker. London, Rose theater, March 1598.
  • Earl Goodwin and his Three Sons, parts 1 and 2, by Drayton, Chettle, Dekker, and Robert Wilson. London, Rose theater, spring 1598.
  • The Funeral of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, by Drayton, Chettle, Anthony Munday, and Wilson, London, Rose theater, June 1598.
  • Hannibal and Hermes, part 1 (also known as Worse Afeard than Hurt), by Drayton, Dekker, and Wilson. London, Rose theater, July 1598.
  • The Madman's Morris, by Drayton, Dekker, and Wilson. London, Rose theater, July 1598.
  • Pierce of Winchester, by Drayton, Dekker, and Wilson. London, Rose theater, July-August 1598.
  • Worse Afeard than Hurt (presumably part 2 of Hannibal and Hermes), by Drayton and Dekker. London, Rose theater, September 1598.
  • The Civil Wars of France, parts 1, 2, and 3, by Drayton and Dekker. London, Rose theater, autumn 1598.
  • Connan Prince of Cornwall, by Drayton and Dekker. London, Rose theater, October 1598.
  • Chance Medley, by Drayton, Chettle or Dekker, Munday, and Wilson. unknown theater, circa 1598.
  • Mother Redcap, by Drayton and Munday. London, Rose theater, circa 1598.
  • Pierce of Exton, by Drayton, Chettle, Dekker, and Wilson. unknown theater, circa 1598.
  • The first part of the true and honorable historie, of the life of Sir John Old-castle, the good Lord Cobham, by Drayton, Richard Hathway, Munday, and Wilson. London, unknown theater, Company of Earl of Nottingham, Lord High Admiral of England, 1599.
  • William Longsword, by Drayton and others. unknown theater, circa 1599.
  • Fair Constance of Rome, part 1, by Drayton, Dekker, Hathway, Munday, and Wilson. London, Rose theater, June 1600.
  • Fair Constance of Rome, part 2, by Drayton, Hathway, and others. unknown theater, 1600-1601.
  • Sir John Oldcastle, part 2, by Drayton, Hathway, Munday, and Wilson. unknown theater, 1600-1601.
  • Owen Tudor, by Drayton, Hathway, Munday, and Wilson. unknown theater, 1600-1601.
  • The Life and Rising of Cardinal Wolsey, by Drayton, Chettle, Munday, and Wentworth Smith. London, Fortune theater, August-November 1601.
  • Caesar's Fall, or the Two Shapes, by Drayton, Dekker, Thomas Middleton, Munday, and John Webster. London, Fortune theater, May 1602.
"Since There's No Help" by Michael Drayton (read by Tom O'Bedlam)01:03

"Since There's No Help" by Michael Drayton (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

Except where noted, play information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[7]

See alsoEdit


  • F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.


  1. Jean Brink, Michael Drayton Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1990 ISBN 0-8057-6989-7, pp. 1-10. Print.
  2. Drabble, Margaret, ed. (1985) The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press; p. 292
  3. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; pp. 306-8.
  4. from George Saintsbury, "Critical Introduction: Michael Drayton (1563-1631)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Jan. 5, 2016.
  5. Michel Drayton, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  6. Alphabetical list of authors: Daniel, Samuel to Hyde, Douglas. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 Michael Drayton 1563-1631, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 5, 2012.
  8. Search results = au:Michael Drayton, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 22, 2015.

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