The Opening (1.1–42)

Poly-Olbion is not an epic poem, but in the opening of Song 1 Drayton signals his epic influences and ambitions. Like the classical poets Homer and Virgil before him (and like Milton after him), Drayton begins with a reference to his Muse, one of a group of goddesses seen as the source of inspiration. But where other poets call on the Muse for aid, Drayton instead calls for someone to “aid my Muse,” and this second person is the “Genius of the Place” (in Latin, genius loci). Drayton is calling on the age-old spirit of the island, which has inhabited the place since long before the English, the Welsh, or any other race. Like the frontispiece, the opening of Song 1 insists on the primacy of the place itself rather than its rulers or inhabitants. In the final lines of this excerpt, Drayton calls on a second source of inspiration, the “sacred bards” of ancient Britain.

f Albion’s glorious isle the wonders whilst I write,
The sundry varying soiles, the pleasures infinite
(Where heat kills not the cold, nor cold expels the heat,
The calms too mildly small, nor winds too roughly great,
Nor night doth hinder day, nor day the night doth wrong,
The Summer not too short, the winter not too long)
What help shall I invoke to aid my Muse the while?
Thou Genius of the place (this most renowned isle)
Which livedst long before the all-earth-drowning Flood,
Whilst yet the world did swarm with her gigantic brood;
Go thou before me still thy circling shores about,
And in this wandering maze help to conduct me out:
Direct my course so right, as with thy hand to show
Which way thy forests range, which way thy rivers flow;
Genius, by thy help that so I may descry
How thy faire mountains stand, and how thy valleys lie;
From those clear pearly cliffs which see the morning’s pride,
And check the surly imps of Neptune when they chide,
Unto the big-swollen waves in the a Iberian stream,
Where Titan still unyokes his fiery-hoofed team,
And oft his flaming locks in luscious nectar steeps,
When from Olympus top he plungeth in the deeps:
a The Western or
Spanish Ocean
That from b th’Armoric sands, on surging Neptune’s leas
Through the Hibernic gulf (those rough Vergivian seas)
My verse with wings of skill may fly a lofty gate,
As Amphitrite clips this island fortunate,
b The coast of little
in France.
Till through the sleepy main to c Thuly I have gone,
And seen the frozen isles, the cold d Ducalidon,
c The furthest isle in
the British Ocean.
Amongst whose iron rocks grim Saturn yet remains,
Bound in those gloomy caves with adamantine chains.
d The sea upon the
north of Scotland.
Yee sacred e bards, that to your harps’ melodious strings
Sung th’ancient heroes’ deeds (the monuments of kings)
And in your dreadful verse engrav’d the prophecies,
The aged world’s descents, and genealogies;
e The old British
If, as those f Druids taught, which kept the British rites,
And dwelt in darksome groves, there counselling with sprites
(But their opinions failed, by error led awry,
As since clear truth hath showed to their posterity)
When these our souls by death our bodies do forsake,
They instantly again doe other bodies take;
I could have wished your spirits redoubled in my breast,
To give my verse applause, to time’s eternal rest.
f Priests amongst the
ancient Britons.