Author Archives: Daniel Cattell

An Early Imitation of Poly-Olbion at St Albans Abbey

In Poly-Olbion’s Sixteenth Song, the River Ver and the Roman road known as Watling Street recall how much better things were in the old days: “we have liv’d to see / Things in farre better state then at this time they be.”  The Ver, once a mighty flood, is now a paltry brook; the soil in this part of Hertfordshire, once renowned for its fruitfulness, now “scarce repayes the seed first cast into the Land.” Such nostalgic laments are common enough in Poly-Olbion, but when Watling asks to know the reasons behind this environmental collapse, Ver offers a rather surprising explanation.

Behold that goodly Fane, which ruind now doth stand,

To holy Albon built, first Martyr of the Land;

Who in the faith of Christ from Rome to Britanne came,

And dying in this place, resign’d his glorious Name.

In memory of whom, (as more then halfe Divine)

Our English Offa rear’d a rich and sumptuous shrine

And Monastary heere: which our succeding kings,

From time to time endow’d with many goodly things.

And many a Christian Knight was buried heere, before

The Norman set his foote upon this conquered shore;


Which now devowring Time, in his so mighty waste,

Demolishing those walls, hath utterly defac’t.

So that the earth to feele the ruinous heaps of stones,

That with the burth’nous weight now presse their sacred boanes,

Forbids this wicked brood, should by her fruits be fed;

As loathing her owne womb, that such loose children bred.


Ver thus traces the impoverishment of the local soil to the downfall of St Albans Abbey. Behind the figure of “devowring Time” lurks the nemesis of the monasteries, Henry VIII.

When Drayton wrote, the Abbey Church of St Albans was indeed in a pitiful condition. Once the premier Benedictine monastery of England, it had been reduced after the Reformation to the status of a parish church. (St Albans did not become a cathedral until 1877.) Although not entirely “ruind,” the walls and roof of the church were in a poor state of repair, and its final demolition seemed a likely prospect. Yet in 1612, the year of Poly-Olbion’s publication, fortune smiled on St Albans in the form of a visit by James I. The king authorized a collection for the repair of the church, and over the next decade much necessary work was done to shore up and renovate the building.

Between 1612 and 1623, as the work of repair advanced, a number of poems were painted on the walls and pillars of St Albans, memorializing some of the lost glories of the church. The authors of these verses are unknown, and their texts mostly survive only as recorded by seventeenth-century antiquaries. On his visit to the church in 1617-18, John Weever recorded a poem on the wall beside the site of Alban’s vanished shrine. For those interested in the early reception and reputation of Drayton’s poem, the verses are of great interest.

Renowned Alban knight, first Martyr of this land,

By Dioclesian lost his life through bloudy hand,

Who made him soveraigne Lord, high Steward of this Isle,

And Prince of Britaine knights to dignifie his stile,

He veritie embrac’t, and Verulam forsooke,

And in this very place his martyrdome he tooke.

Now hath he his reward, he lives with Christ above,

Fore he above all things, Christ and his truth did love.

Here Offa, Mercians King, did Albans bones enshrine

So all things were dispos’d by providence divine.

Nought but this marble stone, of Alban’s shrine is left

The worke of all forme else, hath changing time bereft.

Someone at St Albans had been reading Poly-Olbion. Not only are the verses in Drayton’s alexandrine couplets (a relatively rare form in the period), but there are a number of close verbal echoes. (“To holy Albon built, first Martyr of the Land”/ “Renowned Alban knight, first Martyr of this land”; “Our English Offa rear’d a rich and sumptuous shrine”/ “Here Offa, Mercians King, did Albans bones enshrine”.)  Like Ver in Poly-Olbion, the St Albans poem lays the blame for the shrine’s downfall at the feet of “time.” (It does not go on, as Ver does, to castigate the “wicked brood” of “loose children” who share responsibility with Time for the Abbey’s fate.)

Who wrote the poems on the walls of St Albans? It is tempting to wonder if, in this case at least, it might have been Drayton himself. Yet this is not very likely. Although the verses closely imitate Poly-Olbion in manner as well as matter, they are not quite in Drayton’s style. The St Albans poet works consistently in half-lines broken by strong caesuras, and makes very little use of enjambment. The verses plod steadily forward, rather than flowing as Drayton’s often do. A line such as “And many a Christian Knight was buried heere, before/ The Norman set his foote upon this conquered shore” is beyond the reach of this poet.

The strong likelihood is that this text is the work of someone associated with St Albans, possibly a clergyman, who read Poly-Olbion in its 1612/13 edition and saw the possibility of adapting Ver’s lament for a local purpose. As well as ranking among the earliest poetic responses to Poly-Olbion, the poem may offer an insight into the practice of Drayton’s early readers, who would likewise have focused on the passages dealing with their own localities. How many others, who did not necessarily paint their verses on the walls of medieval buildings, also tried their hands at imitating Drayton’s style?

Ver’s lament circles back, ultimately, to the landscape and the theme of environmental degradation. The St Albans poem does not do so, but maintains its focus throughout on the saint and his lost shrine. In context this is not surprising, but it serves as a reminder of Poly-Olbion’s capaciousness and flexibility. Drayton’s poem is about architecture as well as landscape, shrines as well as soils. For at least one reader in the early seventeenth century, he was admirable as a historian of the English church.

Philip Schwyzer

Poly-Olbion and the Union Question

Along with King Lear, Poly-Olbion is the major literary work to emerge from James VI and I’s campaign for full political union between Scotland and England. Neither work is unambiguously supportive of the King and his national aspirations; both, nonetheless, represent a united Britain under a single monarch as a kind of ideal. The contemporary debate over Scottish independence carries plenty of echoes of the early-seventeenth-century debate over Anglo-Scottish union, in which Drayton was a leading literary participant. Although Poly-Olbion is unlikely to sway any voter’s choice in Thursday’s referendum, it casts an interesting light on the historical assumptions and tactics of the Yes and No campaigns.

The question of British union is addressed most directly in Song 5, where Severn is called upon to arbitrate in a dispute between the rivers of Wales and England. She counsels them that their struggle over the island of Lundy is moot, since all of Britain will soon be united under one monarch:

By whom three sever’d realms in one shall firmly stand
As Britain-founding Brute first monarchiz’d the land…
Why strive ye then for that, in little time that shall
(As you are all made one) be one unto you all?

song 4 map

Severn refers here to the historical tradition, associated with Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the realm of Britain had been founded in ancient times by the Trojan Brutus. In the later Middle Ages, English kings had invoked this tradition to claim suzerainty over Scotland. After 1603, supporters of James’s union ambitions hailed him as “a second Brute” who would restore the island to its original, unified state. Britain’s first condition, the argument went, must be its right condition. Severn’s prophecy, though ostensibly addressing Anglo-Welsh relations, has unmistakable implications for Scotland as well.

The contemporary contest between Yes Scotland and Better Together presents a mirror image of the Jacobean union debate – a true mirror image, in that the positions of the prior era are both replicated and reversed. Today it is the advocates of Scottish independence, not of British union, who present themselves as striving to restore the nation to its original condition. King James thought a united Britain came before Scotland; Alex Salmond thinks the reverse: “it had 1,000 years as an independent nation before the union.” Celebrating the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in June 2014, Salmond observed that “Every nation has its iconic touchstones from which it draws its sense of self, and Bannockburn is the wellspring from which modern Scottish nationhood emerged.” By contrast, the Better Together campaign has had little to say about history. That Alastair Darling has refrained from invoking the name of Brutus is understandable; but the paucity of reference to events in the shared British past (at least further back than World War II) is striking. Better Together’s arguments have focused instead on the legal and economic dangers of constitutional change – much like those English and Scottish jurists and MPs who put the brakes on the campaign for closer union four centuries ago.

Better Together has been criticized for its lack of passion, for appealing to Scottish heads rather than Scottish hearts. In short, the unionist campaign has been deemed to lack poetry. If Darling and his allies decide at this late stage that a shot of poetry is needed, they should probably think twice before settling on Poly-Olbion. The poem that sets out to celebrate a united island never quite makes it over the Scottish border. Moreover, Severn’s prophecy aside, Poly-Olbion is remarkably short on images that crystallize the attractions of a united Britain. Rather, as is often remarked, the poem celebrates regional difference and particularity. This, indeed, is part of its timeliness. Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, the coming years will almost certainly see a movement toward more widespread devolution and regional autonomy in England as well as Scotland and Wales. Poly-Olbion was written for times like these.

Of course, if Better Together is looking for a stirring piece of verse that celebrates a united island, there is an Elizabethan text that does the job better than any poem before or since. I refer to John of Gaunt’s well-known speech in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm….

But then he goes and spoils it all by adding, “this England.”


Philip Schwyzer

The Watery World of Seventeenth-Century Somerset

Drayton’s representation of Somerset in Song 3 of Poly-Olbion takes us back to a time when water was an accepted part of the regional environment. Schemes to drain the Somerset Levels did not begin in earnest until later in the seventeenth century. While we know that locals in Drayton’s time pursued more rudimentary ways of managing water, Poly-Olbion is notable for its appreciation of this watery landscape as not only richly fertile but also beautiful. The poem acknowledges no alternative to traditional ways of managing this land, for the simple reason that no alternatives had yet been proposed. Yet it makes very clear, and serves as an interesting historical reminder, that sodden land is not necessarily useless land.

SomersetSomerset, as William Hole’s map also demonstrates, is a land dominated by water. The village of Muchelney, a key site of flooding in 2014, was then ‘the Isle of Muchelney’. Similarly, Glastonbury, surrounded as it was by rivers and ‘Marshie grounds’, was known as ‘the Isle of Avalon’, the rivers surrounding it lending weight to a contemporary desire to locate Arthurian legend in the English countryside. Drayton was only too pleased to endorse this mythology. Now, while it is still possible to stay at the Isle of Avalon Caravan Park, inundating waters are seen as aberrant, and there is little reminder of what made the Arthurian identification plausible for the early modern mind.

Drayton’s emphasis on fertility is perhaps more arresting. In his poem, the manifold rivers of this landscape are not only beautiful in themselves; they underpin a richly productive rural economy. The River Bry is thus beset by ‘many a plump-thigh’d moore, & ful-flanck’t marsh’. Wiltshire, by contrast, is represented as wasted, its land overly devoted to hunting and other gentlemanly exercises. But Somerset ‘her selfe to profit doth apply, / As given all to gaine, and thriving huswifrie’:

This liketh moorie plots, delights in sedgie Bowres,
The grassy garlands loves, and oft attyr’d with flowres
Of ranke and mellow gleabe; a sward as soft as wooll,
With her complexion strong, a belly plumpe and full.

1607There are many criticisms, from a practical point of view, that one might make of Drayton’s depiction of the Levels. In particular, these passages lack the rich detail of regional farming practices that he devotes to the fens in East Anglia (see esp. Song 25), nor do they acknowledge calamitous floods such as those of 1607, an event so disturbing that it attracted attention as far afield as the Netherlands. There is perhaps, as many Somerset residents might complain today, more than a touch of metropolitan fantasy to the whole thing. Yet Song 3 remains striking nonetheless as a representation of a landscape which has not yet learned, as Drayton sees things, that water needs to be tamed, and that marshes need to be drained. And he presents it as a place both of abundance and beauty.

Andrew McRae

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