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

Michael Drayton (1563 - December 23, 1631) was an English poet.



Drayton, born in Warwickshire, was in early life a page to a gentleman, and was possibly at Cambridge or Oxford. His earliest poem, The Harmonie of the Church, was destroyed. His next was The Shepherd's Garland (1593), afterwards reprinted as Eclogues. Three historical poems, Gaveston (1593), Matilda (1594), and Robert, Duke of Normandie (1596) followed, and he then appears to have collaborated with Dekker, Webster, and others in dramatic work. His magnum opus, however, was Polyolbion (1613?), a topographical description of England in 12-syllabled verse, full of antiquarian and historical details, so accurate as to make the work an authority on such matters. The rushing verse is full of vigour and gusto. Though often heavy, Drayton had the true poetic gift, had passages of grandeur, and sang the praises of England with the heart of a patriot.[1]


Of the particulars of Drayton’s life we know almost nothing but what he himself tells us.[2] He was born at Hartshill, near Atherstone, in Warwickshire in 1563. Even in childhood it was his great ambition to excel in writing verses. At the age of 10 he was sent as a page into some great family.[3]

Some 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.[4]

Sir Henry Goodere of Powlesworth became his patron, and introduced him to the countess of Bedford.[3] For several years he was esquire to Sir Walter Aston. How the early part of his life was spent, however, we possess no means of ascertaining. It has been surmised that he served in the army abroad. In 1590 he seems to have come up to London, and to have settled there.[2]


In 1591 Drayton produced his 1st book, The Harmony of the Church, a volume of spiritual poems, dedicated to Lady Devereux. The best piece in this is a version of the Song of Solomon, executed with considerable richness of expression. A singular and now incomprehensible fate befell the book; with the exception of 40 copies, seized by the archbishop of Canterbury, the whole edition was destroyed by public order.[2]

It is probable that Drayton had come up to town laden with poetic writings, for he published a vast amount within the next few years. In 1593 appeared Idea: The Shepherd’s Garland, a collection of 9 pastorals, in which he celebrated his own love-sorrows under the poetic name of Rowland. The circumstances of this passion appear more distinctly in the cycle of 64 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.[2]

In 1593 appeared the 1st of Drayton’s historical poems, The Legend of Piers Gaveston, and the next year saw the publication of Matilda, an epical 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 Lodge, if not from Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel also. In his Fig for Momus, Lodge reciprocated these friendly courtesies.[2]

In 1596 Drayton published his long and important poem of Mortimerades, which deals with the Wars of the Roses, and is a very serious production in ottava rima. He afterwards enlarged and modified this poem, and republished it in 1603 under the title of The Barons’ Wars.[2]

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.[2]

With the year 1597 the 1st half of the poet’s literary life closes. He had become famous by this rapid production of volumes, and he rested on his oars. It would seem that he was much favored at the court of Elizabeth.[2] He enjoyed the friendship of some of the best 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.”[2]


When in 1603 Drayton addressed a poem of compliment to James I, on his accession, it was ridiculed, and his services rudely rejected. His bitterness of spirit found expression in a satire, The Owl, which he printed in 1604, although 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.[2]

In 1605 Drayton reprinted his most important works, that is to say, his historical poems and the Idea, in a single volume which ran through 8 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."[2]

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 1st part of this vast work was published under the title of Poly-Olbion, 18 books being produced, to which the learned Selden supplied notes.[2]

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 12 more books in a 2nd 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.[2]

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 on the 23rd of December 1631, was buried in Westminster Abbey, and had a monument placed over him by the countess of Dorset, with memorial lines attributed to Ben Jonson.[2]

In an “elegy” or epistle to Mr Henry Reynolds, Drayton has left some valuable criticisms on poets whom he had known. He was even engaged in the labor of the dramatists; at least he had a share, with Munday, Chettle, and Wilson, in writing Sir John Oldcastle, which was printed in 1600. That he was a restless and discontented, as well as a worthy, man may be gathered from his own admissions.[2]


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 his ponderous style is much to blame. The Poly-Olbion, the most famous but far from the most successful of his writings, is tedious 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 meter 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.[2]

His historical poems, which he was constantly rewriting and improving, are much more interesting, and often rise to a true poetic eloquence. 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.[2]

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 2 writers frequently resemble each other.[2]

Drayton, however, approaches the very first poets of the Elizabethan era in his charming Nimphidia, a poem which inspired 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.

In 1748 a folio edition of Drayton’s complete works was published under the editorial supervision of William Oldys, and again in 1753 there appeared an issue in 4 volumes. But these were very unintelligently and inaccurately prepared. A complete edition of Drayton’s works with variant readings was projected by Richard Hooper in 1876, but was never carried to a conclusion; a volume of selections, edited by A.H. Bullen, appeared in 1883.

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.[5]


There is a monument to Drayton in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[6]

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.[7]



Elixabethan Song Cycles: Idea by Michael Drayton / Fidessa by Bartholomew Griffin / Chloris by William Smith (edited by Martha Foote Crowe). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1897. Courtesy Internet Archive.



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.[10]


  • 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.

Except where noted, play information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[8]

See alsoEdit

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

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


  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Drayton, Michael". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 567-568.  Wikisource, Web, Jan. 8, 2018.
  • F.E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.


  1. John William Cousin, "Drayton, Michael," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 121. Web, Jan. 7, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 Gosse, 558.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gosse, 557.
  4. Jean Brink, Michael Drayton Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1990 ISBN 0-8057-6989-7, pp. 1-10. Print.
  5. 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.
  6. Michel Drayton, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  7. 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.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 8.9 Michael Drayton 1563-1631, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 5, 2012.
  9. Search results = au:William Smith + Chloris, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Inc. Web, Nov. 27, 2016.
  10. Search results = au:Michael Drayton, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 22, 2015.

External linksEdit

Audio / video