Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

The History Never Written: Bards, Druids, and the Problem of Antiquarianism in 'Poly Olbion.'

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

The History Never Written: Bards, Druids, and the Problem of Antiquarianism in 'Poly Olbion.'

Article excerpt

My Histories notwithstanding begin at Julius Caesar.

- Edmund Bolton, Hypercritica (1618)

Into Drayton, English as he was, had sunk the Renaissance feeling of the wreck and destruction accomplished by Time upon beauty, and power, and noble visible monuments, and the glory of the great.... He now turns, in the wake of Camden, to the huge task of collecting the memories and sagas of Great Britain. He will fight with Time and save Antiquity, which men are disregarding.

- Oliver Elton, Michael Drayton: A Critical Study (1966), 110

Written some time back by the critic Oliver Elton, this statement on the intention behind Drayton's Poly Olbion touches on one of the poem's essential dilemmas, a problem with which, as Elton says, many in Drayton's age were preoccupied. As learned men became obsessed with antiquity, they formulated their obsession according to an irreconcilable paradox: they simultaneously lamented the passing of antiquity - the "wreck and destruction accomplished by Time" - and attempted to reclaim it, to "save Antiquity." Lamenting the loss of the past is as much as to admit that it is past; but "collecting the memories and sagas" of the nation presupposes that there are, in fact, materials to collect and memories that have been remembered - such a project necessarily denies that time has wrecked and destroyed everything. This paradox, as J.G.A. Pocock has shown,(1) touches on that fundamental problem of the English Renaissance, the struggle to imagine that British institutions and culture, such as the Ancient Constitution, had survived unchanged through time. As Claire McEachern has recently demonstrated, Drayton exhibits an awareness of this paradox, and an ambivalent attitude about the newly realized problem of recordlessness.(2) I will elaborate on this observation and argue that Drayton was a man divided between the sensibilities of the monumental historian and the antiquarian. Deeply conflicted about recent developments in historiography, he was dismayed at what was emerging as the truth about his nation's ancient past: that before the Romans, nothing was known, and anything after their arrival was known only because the Romans had vouchsafed to tell it. The poet was facing the awful prospect that there was nothing further to collect, and that nothing further had been remembered. My purpose here is to trace Drayton's feelings about this problem through the Poly Olbion by focusing on his love for bards and druids, creatures born from the Renaissance discovery of Roman Britain. For Drayton, bards and druids represented the preservation of ancient British culture from prehistoric times through to his own age; and yet, as I hope to show, bards and druids also represented the poet's anguished sense that this culture had not been preserved at all.

Before I proceed, I must first define "antiquarian" and "monumental historian." These terms are developed by Richard F. Hardin in his analysis of Drayton's analogy on time at the end of Song 10; Hardin uses "antiquarian" to describe pessimism about drawing upon the past as a guide for the present, and "monumental historian" to describe optimism.(3) Indebted as I am to Hardin for identifying these useful terms, they may nevertheless be put to greater use. Here, by antiquarian I mean that serious, methodical mindset we associate with William Camden and his followers, which privileges documented and documentable, verified and verifiable historical sources. The antiquarian, concerned with the tangible and findable, is willing to concede that there is a point in history beyond which he knows nothing, and, while he laments the loss of past cultures to the ravages of time, he is nevertheless able to acknowledge that such a loss has occurred, and to declare that time has won. From the point of view of the monumental historian, however, such a surrender is unacceptable. Charged with glorifying the history of their people and with conveying the memory of all their deeds to posterity so that the great may live forever, monumental historians cannot brook large gaps in their nation's history, nor can they allow a foreign history to take the place of their own; they cannot admit to a forgotten past. …

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