On Rereading Poly-Olbion

Over the past summer I read Poly-Olbion for the first time in twenty-five years. That’s not to say I hadn’t opened it through all those years; in fact, I’ve dipped into it on many occasions, and written about it several times. If the Exeter University library copy hasn’t been on Philip Schwyzer’s shelves at any moment over the past ten years, that’s because it’s been on mine. But we tend to be selective with Poly-Olbion; the challenge of reading it in full, line by line, is perhaps not one frequently embraced.

My first experience with Poly-Olbion came in 1988. I was ostensibly starting a PhD at Monash University under the supervision of Geoff Hiller, but in reality I was filling in some time before coming to the UK to re-start my doctoral work. I learned some Latin, did a bit of teaching, and read some great works: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Drayton.

Although my dissertation, and the subsequent book, veered away from a focus on individual authors, Poly-Olbion was arguably the foundational text for me. It got me thinking about the ways in which early modern writers were understanding their nation, and the processes of change that were transforming it. And Drayton’s struggles seemed somehow as interesting as his achievements. So many of the questions facing him – generic questions, structural challenges, matters of voice and tone, and above all the basic matter of fitting so much stuff into a poem – were new ones for him and his time. There can’t be many better books to hand to a fresh Renaissance graduate student.

Over the past summer, after hearing that The Poly-Olbion Project would be funded, I went back to the beginning. I aimed to read a song a day, although that didn’t always work: sometimes, like my daughter’s piano practice, a task left to the end of the day gets bumped forward to the next one. I packed the hefty Hebel edition into my suitcase to Australia when my mother died suddenly; but, sensibly I think, I didn’t open it while I was there. (As my mum would have said herself, there is a time and a place for everything.) I took an electronic copy on holiday to Greece, and battled with the glare of the sun on the ipad screen. I had some moments as a reader that reminded me what an extraordinary achievement this poem is, and also what a fine poet Drayton was. And then I had some struggles of my own.

Reflecting on my experiences with Poly-Olbion over a quarter of a century, I’m left with a couple of questions that might be worth sharing.

Firstly, how are we meant to read this poem? I wonder, in other words, whether Drayton himself understood that readers would only rarely read through the book from beginning to end. I suspect even that there were parts of it of which he wasn’t particularly proud, though he couldn’t find a way of not writing them. He seems rather apologetic, for instance, about the catalogue of saints in ‘Song 24’: but once he’s started down a particular path, he somehow needs to see it through to the end. So have I lost anything, over the years, by looking so closely at the passages on forests and roads, for instance, and so little at those on civil wars and saints? Obviously, as someone embarking on the task of editing the whole thing, I need to have a grasp of it all; however, I think I’d defend a general reader’s right to select and skim. However unusual this may seem for such a major work, I think selectivity is simply a reality of the Poly-Olbion reading experience.

Secondly, shifting focus to the author, how did Drayton’s writing practices change over the many years of composition? This is a question that will linger with us as we work our way through the poem as editors, and I think it will repay further thought. The second part of the poem, published ten years after the first part (1622, after 1612), feels different to me, but I’m not yet sure how to articulate that sense of difference. How might the non-involvement of Selden have affected him? Of course, including Selden the first time around appears to have been a late decision, so logically Selden really shouldn’t have affected the poetry; however, might his absence from the second half of the project reflect Drayton’s fading pretensions to antiquarian scholarship? Perhaps he saw Poly-Olbion, by the time he was working on its second part, as a slightly different kind of poem. I feel, more acutely, that some of the territory in the second part took Drayton out of his own comfort zone: that there’s a big difference between Drayton slavishly following Camden, and Drayton adding value to his sources when he knows the landscape. And I wonder, finally, whether he started to lose patience with the method to which he had committed himself. Reading his rather slavish versifying of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations in ‘Song 19’, for instance, one wonders about his level of motivation. He was a better poet than this.

Andrew McRae