Michael Drayton: Biography, Poems & Sonnets

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Michael Drayton was a distinguished writer and poet in Elizabethan England. He was a contemporary of many literary giants in his era, and he wrote one of the longest poems in English history.

Early Background

Michael Drayton was a literary giant in an age of literary giants. Given his distinguished peers in Elizabethan England, it was difficult to stand out, but Drayton left a body of literature that was inspired, as much in his time as ours. Detailed biographical material on Drayton is somewhat sketchy at best. Drayton was born 1563 in Hartshill, Warwickshire. His father was a tradesman and his socio-economic status was modest at best. His social stock rose when he worked as a page for the wealthy nobleman Sir Henry Goodere in Polesworth who sponsored and promoted the theater and literary works. He fell in love with Goodere's daughter Anne, and some of his literary characters were patterned after her. Sadly for Drayton, she married someone else and Drayton himself never married.

Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton

Early Writings

Drayton's first writing appeared in the 1590s. His first work, The Harmony of the Church (1591) was a work of religious poems that paraphrased much of the Bible. His Idea, the Shepherd's Garland consisted of nine pastoral poems set in rural settings. Drayton produced a wide variety of genres, but he was especially drawn to pastoral, rural, and idyllic historical themes. His several historical works include The Legend of Piers Gaveston, which was about an English nobleman and confidant of King Edward II. Another was a poem on civil unrest titled The Barons' Wars, though originally published under the title Mortimeriades before being revised. His Robert, Duke of Normandy was another historical work as was his Matilda, about the royal House of Sussex. These chivalry-tinged romances were of the genre that made great Hollywood films in later times, much like the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

Queen Elizabeth I of England
Queen Elizabeth 1 of England

Political Changes

Drayton lived in an age of transition. In 1603, James I succeeded the long-running monarch Elizabeth I as king. Drayton favored Elizabeth who had presided over an era of enormous creativity in the arts with the likes of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Philip Sidney, Philip Spenser, and Ben Johnson. Customary for his era, poets welcomed the incoming monarch with song and verse in hopes of attainting key appointments. Drayton heaped praise on James I in his poem To the Majestie of King James, but received nothing in return, and for a brief spell wrote bitter satire such as The Owle which was an attack on a corrupt royal court. Nevertheless, he was a prodigious writer. In 1594, he published the first of fifty-three sonnets and by 1619 he had a total of sixty-three which survive today. Some have speculated that Shakespeare himself borrowed material from Drayton, but it seems more likely that the two contemporaries worked independent of each other.

Other Major Works

Drayton abandoned his biting satire and produced more celebrated works. His England's Heroical Epistles was a series of literary exchanges between well-known romances in English history. This work was also meant as a tribute piece to the Roman poet Ovid who wrote the Heroides. He wrote a number of short works, such as the epic Battle of Agincourt about the infamous battle between English and French military forces, and his Ode to the Virginian Voyage which was another tribute piece that celebrated the English colonization of the Americas and the New World. One of his later works is Nymphidia which was a fairytale-like story full of memorable characters and story lines. His much-celebrated Poly-Olbion was dedicated to Prince Henry, the son of James I, and is one of the longest poems in the English language. Over the years, it proved to be an inspiration for later writers to emulate. It is an incredible 15,000 lines and it is a nostalgic poem on the Elizabethan era punctuated through with idyllic pastoral settings in England and Wales.

King James I of England
King James I of England

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