British and Irish Literature Michael Drayton
Sara Trevisan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0091


Michael Drayton (b. 1563–d. 1631) was one of the most versatile of English poets: he wrote sonnets and theatrical plays, as well as historical, pastoral, and topographical poetry. He was highly praised in his own time, by Ben Jonson among others, and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. After centuries of relative obscurity, he has recently attracted the interest of scholars, as a poet influenced by Edmund Spenser and as an experimenter with literary genres. Drayton was also a strongly political poet, who aimed to be acknowledged as a bard of his nation, and who valued the wider, public circulation of his printed works more highly than coterie prestige. His majestic topographical and historical poem Poly-Olbion, an in-folio monument to the British nation decorated with maps of each county of England and Wales, epitomizes Drayton’s grand aspirations. The death of Prince Henry, whose patronage Drayton briefly enjoyed, and James I’s refusal to sponsor him, embittered Drayton and led him to abandon his public career and devote himself to pastoral poetry. In later centuries, many renowned English authors such as Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth were inspired by his works—especially by Poly-Olbion—but the development of systematic criticism only started in the early 20th century. While earlier critical works contributed to the creation of a more consistent view of Drayton’s biography, cultural context, and literary production, later criticism has focused on specific themes such as Drayton’s poetic treatment of history, politics, geography, and the natural environment, and the psychological dimension of the characters in his sonnets and historical poems. Drayton’s works have proved to be invaluable for the study of the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, and, as recent criticism has shown, also for the understanding of the Early Modern development of the concept of British nationhood.

General Overviews

There is little biographical information on Drayton, and this affects our ability to contextualize his work and career. There are, however, several critical overviews that provide general introductions. Newdigate 1961 is the essential starting point for any Drayton scholar, with its thorough discussion of Drayton in context, based on archival research carried out for Hebel 1931–1941, cited under Editions. The gradual reconsideration of Drayton as an important poet in the English canon has been advanced in Berthelot 1967, which provides general literary criticism on Drayton’s works, divided by genre. Hardin 1973 discusses Drayton’s biography and production along thematic lines. Devised as an update to Berthelot 1967, Brink 1990 applies a revisionist method to the study of Drayton’s poems, and uses the New Historicist concept of “self-fashioning” to question the mainstream interpretation of Drayton’s life and career. On a more general level, Jafri 1988 employs text-focused criticism to interpret and connect Drayton’s poetic works. Buchloh 1964 is an advanced scholarly study concerned with Drayton’s ideas on poetry, history, and politics.

  • Berthelot, Joseph A. Michael Drayton. New York: Twayne, 1967.

    A reference work for scholars approaching Drayton for the first time. It discusses his biography, literary career, poetic theories, and influence. Chapters are divided by literary genre; one is devoted to Poly-Olbion.

  • Brink, Jean R. Michael Drayton Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

    Influenced by the New Historicist critical current, it argues for a more informed interpretation of Drayton’s career and production. It discusses Drayton’s biography, search for patronage, works, poetic themes, and legacy.

  • Buchloh, Paul G. Michael Drayton, Barde und Historiker, Politiker und Prophet. Neümunster, Germany: Wachholtz, 1964.

    Provides an impressive analysis of Drayton’s treatment of history, politics, and poetry in his works, with particular attention to Poly-Olbion. A major resource for advanced scholars interested in Early Modern antiquarianism and historiography.

  • Capp, Bernard. “The Poet and the Bawdy Court: Michael Drayton and the Lodging-House World in Early Stuart London.” Seventeenth Century 10 (1995): 27–37.

    An interesting addition to Drayton’s biography. It deals with a document concerning Drayton’s sexual misconduct toward a lady at a lodging house, therefore providing additional evidence on Drayton’s social life and sexuality.

  • Hardin, Richard F. Michael Drayton and the Passing of Elizabethan England. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973.

    A detailed introduction to Drayton. It is organized by themes, such as Drayton’s view of the past, antiquarianism, and the poet’s public role. Like D’Haussy 1972 (cited under Poly-Olbion) it is informed by the idea that Drayton’s production reflected Elizabethan literary and moral values.

  • Jafri, S. Naqi Husain. Aspects of Drayton’s Poetry. Delhi: Doaba House, 1988.

    A thorough overview of Drayton’s entire production, excluding drama, divided by genre. The analysis is mostly text-focused, with little context and a bibliography. Useful as an introduction to Drayton for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Newdigate, Bernard H. Michael Drayton and His Circle. Oxford: Blackwell, 1961.

    The most exhaustive survey of Drayton’s biography and cultural background. It provides an extensive number of primary sources in footnotes and appendixes. Originally conceived as an additional volume to Hebel 1931–1941 (cited under Editions).

  • Prescott, Anne Lake. “Drayton, Michael (1563–1631).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.

    A detailed survey of Drayton’s life based on published and archival material.

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