Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives

Reviewed by Sukanya Dasgupta

Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer (eds), Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2020) ISBN 978-1-84384-548-5. 269pp. $120 HB, $25 e-PDF

This POEME shall grow famous, And declare
What old-Things stood, where new-Things shall appeare.

(George Wither, ‘To His Noble Friend, Michael Drayton, Esquire’)

[1] Wither’s commendatory verses appended to Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion Part II  insist that this poem will survive the ravages of time because of its historical content, but also subtly suggest that landscape change lies at the heart of the text. Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives is a timely addition to early modern scholarship, not only because it is the first volume of essays to be devoted exclusively to this often underrated poem, but also because it addresses two modern critical concerns in Drayton’s ‘Herculean toyle’: concepts of nationhood in the poem’s engagement with the historical past of Britain, and the poem’s potential as a rich hinterland for ‘green studies’ in literature. As the editors Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer point out in their comprehensive introduction, the volume has been deliberately divided into three sections to offer new angles to Poly-Olbion criticism. These focus upon the generic complexity of the text, the ecological perspectives it offers, and its focus on the British past.

[2] The first part, ‘The Project of Poly-Olbion’, focuses on the generic and literary origins and the rhetorical tropes inherent in Drayton’s poem. In the opening essay Angus Vine interestingly argues for the subtle interaction of the local and the national and how what seems to be particularly local is ultimately part of a larger national perspective. Examining the catalogues and lists that constitute a large part of Poly-Olbion, Vine interlaces the humanist concept of copia with the genre of chorography, insisting convincingly enough that the long, digressive local catalogues ultimately constitute a pluralistic vision of national identity. In the other essay in this section, Sjoerd Levelt introduces a fresh and unusual element in his analysis of the visual aspects of the poem’s first edition: examining the materiality of the book, Levelt weaves a complex matrix between Drayton’s verse, Hole’s engraved maps and Selden’s observations, resulting in a metatextual reading of the poem.

[3] Comprising five essays on the environmental and ecological concerns of the text, the second section charts new territory and offers new perspectives on hitherto neglected areas. Poly-Olbion’s imaginative projection of a landscape is seen to be teeming with personified geographical features but curiously depopulated. Given the fact that most scholarly criticism has highlighted Drayton’s bitter tirades against the destruction of the pristine landscape by human hands, Andrew McRae’s succinct essay chooses to argue against the grain and focus on one of the relatively rare instances when Drayton does indicate a fundamental interaction between human beings and nature: the interaction with the nation’s soil. Concentrating on Song 23, McRae’s close reading of the text suggests ‘an ethics of human engagement with the natural world’ that may indicate a sensitivity towards a kind of environmental sustainability (p. 82). Todd Andrew Borlik’s chapter applies the modern environmental term ‘bioregion’ to Poly-Olbion, arguing that by exploring the inherent tensions between individual counties and the nation, the poem offers an example of bioregional consciousness.Reflections on sustainability are continued further in Andrew Hadfield’s innovative essay on the place of fish in Poly-Olbion. Drayton’s preoccupation with fish ranges from the description of the wild salmon’s astounding leap in Wales–untrammelled by human intervention–to fishing in the Fens and in the Stour. While sea fishing alerts one to the presence of foreign sea powers and the need to preserve national boundaries (which fish can transcend), freshwater fish were  imperative for healthy early modern diets and angling was an established, relaxing pastime. Hadfield draws attention to Drayton’s awareness that fish can be a diminishing resource that needs to be nurtured for future generations.With Drayton’s continuous awareness of Albion as an island in Poly-Olbion, it is only natural that two more essays, those by Shannon Garner and Bernhard Klein, should focus on the element of water. Garner highlights the female personification of rivers within the island and how the human and non-human engage with each other to produce a gendered effect; Bernhard Klein attempts to balance the plethora of discussions of Poly-Olbion as a chorographical poem about land and landscape by focusing on the neglected maritime dimensions of both the text and the engraved frontispiece. Klein concludes with an interesting and suggestive discussion of the figure of the sea-god Neptune as a political operator, a violent natural force and a judicial adjudicator, suggesting that for Drayton this may have been a way of expressing a subversive political stance during the reign of James I.

[4] The third section of the volume highlights Drayton’s treatment of history and the tensions generated between the author’s verse and Selden’s commentary. Daniel Cattell explores the significance of Britain’s religious past, viewing Poly-Olbion as a ‘discursive antithesis of more customary modes in the period for the dissemination of this history, such as the polemical’ (p. 186). While Cattell cites William Oldys’ description of Drayton as being held in equal regard by ‘Men of all Parties’, a slightly more nuanced reading could have been attempted by taking cognisance of Drayton’s Puritan leanings during the reign of James I. In her essay, Sara Trevisan argues that the symbol of the Welsh bard is central to Drayton’s poem and that the connection between the bards and national memory as told in genealogical form is fundamental to Poly-Olbion. Trevisan attempts to refute Helgerson’s argument about the chorographical nature of the text and concludes that Drayton borrows from Welsh royalist discourse to embrace a new British identity that reconciles the history of the land to the history of its kings: a more persuasive argument is required, however, to suggest that the gap between land and monarch is lessened by Drayton’s image of the Welsh bards as historians, since Drayton clearly invests the personified geographical features with values that are absent in the existing monarch and his court. The concluding chapter by Philip Schwyzer brilliantly identifies the ‘collegial and combative relationship’ between Drayton and Selden and reads their ‘dialogue’ as an attempt to carve out common ground in an appreciation of what in modern parlance may be called ‘Deep Time’ (p. 213).

[5] This volume of essays would perhaps have been further enriched had Poly-Olbion been seen as representative of Drayton’s unique poetic-political strategy through the presentation of the ‘country’ in its most fundamental and pristine state and the landscape as representing the ethos and ideology of the Country party. Nevertheless this collection is a valuable and scholarly addition to Drayton studies and for this often marginalized poet, a timely rescue from oblivion.

Loreto College, University of Calcutta, December 2020

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