We are very pleased to announce a major new edition of Michael Drayton's poem England's Heroical Epistles, edited by Juan Manuel Camacho Ramos. Drayton has one of those names which is vaguely familiar by association, but no major edition of his works has appeared since the 1960s, and this new edition is therefore a milestone.
Those who find it suspect that we know so little about Shakespeare — where he was living on any more than half a dozen days; what he was doing between the ages of 15 and 25; where he lived, and who with — might be reassured to know how little survives of his contemporaries either. With Shakespeare, at least, we have the plays: had the First Folio (and a few abridged or corrupt individual texts) not survived, Shakespeare would now be known to us as the poet of Venus and Adonis, the Sonnets, and so forth. A poet of greatness, to be sure, but with some sort of theatrical side to him which we could never make out through the shadows.
And so it seems to be for Michael Drayton, born one year before Shakespeare and not far away. Drayton may have attended university, but then again he may not. It is at least known that he found his way into Philip Henslowe's syndicate of playwrights, whose payment ledgers provide much of what we concretely know about a whole crowd of literary figures, Drayton included. None made serious money from the writing itself: like Shakespeare, Drayton got involved on the business side of the profession, where money and respectability might be won, but he was evidently less of a success at it. Drayton was a known figure at Court, but, again unlike Will, did not jump happily from Elizabeth's outer circle to James's. He contributed pieces to at least 23 plays, but 22 are gone, and he wrote little of the 23rd. All in all, as a playwright, he is lost to us. We should count ourselves lucky that Shakespeare did not go the same way.
On the other hand, where Shakespeare was a playwright who had also written some poems, Drayton was foremost a poet. His works were nothing if not substantial: there are 15,000 lines of the Poly-Olbion alone, a deeply odd topographical epic containing "all the Delicacies, Delights, and Rarities of this renowned Isle, interwoven with the Histories of the Britons, Saxons, Normans, and the later English". In the second edition, Drayton complained that "such a cloud hath the Devil drawn over the world's judgment, whose opinion is in few years fallen so far below all ballatry, that the lethargy is incurable: nay, some of the Stationers, that had the selling of the First Part of this Poem, because it went not so fast away in the sale, as some of their beastly and abominable trash, (a shame both to our language and nation), ..." and so on.
The public like their beastly and abomnable trash. But there again, it was also a new golden age of poetry publishing when the gentry, at least, could afford printed books of verse, and Drayton was widely agreed to be a major if eccentric figure. He made a major success of the Heroical Epistles of 1597, "written in imitation of the stile and manner of Ovid", and he is buried in Westminster Abbey. Ben Jonson, always ready with the memorial quill, wrote his epitaph.