Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Michael Drayton and the Writing of Jacobean Britain

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Michael Drayton and the Writing of Jacobean Britain

Article excerpt

Michael Drayton is a poet whose chief critical notoriety... lies in having missed his moment; he was a Spenserian, a son of Edmund, a Bronze Age echo of Golden voices, a study in nostalgia and belatedness.1

In a rare moment of absolute consensus between the disciplines of literature and history, there exists a state of concord when dealing with Michael Drayton. Born in 1563 he lived through the majority of Elizabeth's years on the throne, witnessed all of James's reign in England and took in the first years of Charles's rule before his death in 1631. Author of such pieces of patriotic literature as Englands Heroicall Epistles (1597) and The Barrons Wars (1603), his most celebrated work, Poly-Olbion (1612), a journey round England and Wales rendered in verse, has been seized upon recently by both literary critics and historians as an example of 'oppositional' writing at its most eloquent. Drayton's comparative silences regarding the achievements and majesty of James VI & I are depicted as cutting critiques of the Jacobean monarchy's failure to live up to its Elizabethan antecedent.

Within the secondary literature Drayton is most emphatically an Elizabethan, a quaint anachronism living out of his time in Jacobean England, his work a hollow canon lamenting that past, a man, as it were, for no seasons. As Thomas Cogswell has reminded us, 'Drayton remains one of the most elusive poets of the early seventeenth century' though while his later work in respect of Caroline politics has had a greater degree of attention paid to it, recent interest in his early Jacobean writing has been less than favourable.2 Joan Rees writes of Drayton that 'for all his love of country, he contributes nothing on social and political topics which is likely to make him read for the quality of his thought' while Curtis Perry writes of Drayton's 'increasingly oppositional politics' and cites his penchant for eulogising Elizabeth to the exclusion of James.3 This kind of oppositional thesis is also present in an essay by Jane Tylus in which she writes of the 'nebulous status of a community which has only the possible fictiveness of history with which to unite itself against an unsympathetic king'.4 That community, however, articulated a vision of Britain that used much the same imagery as the supposedly 'unsympathetic' James Stuart. The difference was rather in the manner in which this British material was interpreted.

The most recent work looking at Poly-Olbion has made further significant charges. Clare McEachern writes 'certainly, the nation for which the poem is written no longer exists (if, indeed, it ever did)' and that 'however disingeniously, Drayton collaborates in its demise'.5 A degree of caution is required with such an analysis. McEachern is indeed correct to view the poem as one which sought to 'reconcile polarities' but seeing the poem in the context of a middling path during the Union period, as she does, might in fact be pinning the poem to the wrong donkey.6 This assertion rides to a significant extent on one very important claim, that the opinions of Henry, Prince of Wales were far more diffuse within contemporary discourse than has hitherto been accepted and that they briefly outlived his death on 6 November 1612. Henry's opinions are significant for this particular study, not only because of the glowing dedication Drayton makes to the Prince in the frontispiece of Poly-Olbion, but because the differing depiction of Great Britain being proffered at this time (c.1609-14) had him as its figurehead.7

Another important premise upon which a challenge to orthodox opinion rests is that the nature of Drayton's particular antiquarian study does not fall into the historiographical raison d'être as expressed by Ivo Kamps, that 'it was the antiquarian's primary purpose to resuscitate and preserve the past in order to learn about the past itself, not about its relevance to the present'.8 Drayton's work certainly sought to celebrate the past but with the express purpose of adding to the literature of Henry's coterie and consequently providing an ideological model for future glory. …

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