Saturday, November 9, 2013

Michael Drayton's Idea - time calls me to relate \ My tedious travels

Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Samuel Daniel, skipped the anagram.  He did not hide the Ideal behind Delia or the idea behind Délie, but addressed his sonnet sequence directly to “Idea.”  Oddly, or perhaps this is the ironic point, Drayton’s sonnets often feel more like they could be addressed to an actual woman than the poems of Daniel or Scève.  He is best known – I think this is true – for the sonnet “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” (1619), which I glanced at almost six years ago.  It’s a stunner.  As good as Shakespeare.  And even with the turn to allegorical figures in the last six lines, it has the erotic charge of a great love poem.

Unlike this one, also from the 1619 Idea:

Like an adventurous seafarer am I,
Who hath some long and dang’rous voyage been,
And called to tell of his discovery,
How far he sailed, what countries he had seen,
Proceeding from the port whence he put forth,
Shows by his compass how his course he steered,
When east, when west, when south, and when by north,
As how the pole to ev’ry place was reared;
What capes he doubled, of what continent,
The gulfs and straits that strangely he had passed,
Where most becalmed, where with foul weather spent,
And on what rocks in peril to be cast.
Thus in my love, time calls me to relate
My tedious travels, and oft varying fate.

The conceit completely takes over.  Taking the “I” as something real, we see in the first line that he is life a seafarer, after which the next the next eleven lines describe not the real “I” but the purely metaphorical seafarer.  Since “I” is like the seafarer, by logic the poem is simultaneously describing “I,” but who does not lose that thread by the twelfth line?

Drayton is more direct than Daniel, but the elaborate, playful extension of the metaphor is the purpose of the poem, which in the closing couplet turns out to be not a love poem but a poem about writing love poems.

Look at the seventh line, “When east,” etc.  As prose, as argument, it is filler – we know how a compass works – but it is pleasant to say aloud and pleasant to read in its surroundings, where ordinary ideas become poetry.

Drayton thinks, and therefore is.  One cannot have an Idea without “I”:

Nothing but No and I, and I and No,
How fals it out so strangely you reply?
I tell yee (Faire) ile not be answered so,
With this affronting No, denying I.
I say, I Love, you sleightly answere I:
I say, You Love, you peule me out a No:
I say, I Die, you Eccho me with I:
Save mee I Crie, you sigh me out a No;
Must Woe and I, have naught but No and I?
No I, am I, if I no more can have;
Answere no more, with Silence make reply,
And let me take my selfe what I doe crave,
    Let No and I, with I and you be so:
    Then answere No and I, and I and No.

This, from 1594, is an unusually rapid sonnet, mostly monosyllables, when read aloud verging on nonsense.  Adding quotation marks helps sort it out.  The poem is as usual more learned than it looks – the “Eccho” line refers to Philip Sidney’s echo poem “Fair rocks, goodly rivers, sweet woods…” at the very least.  But at heart it is a joyful manipulation of words, poetry as pure play.


  1. I like the "no and I" sonnet; the play with homonyms is great, and it has a fine rhythm. I'll have to see if any of the collections we have at home contains Drayton.

  2. Drayton also wrote - coincidence given the new Aira post - an omnibook, Poly-Olbion, a poem meant to contain all of England, which is completely nuts in practice, yet every excerpt I have read from it is outstanding.

  3. Also coincidentally, Scève wrote a 1000-line "Microcosme." I haven't read it (not yet, that is), but it looks similarly omnibookish.

  4. That's right, I forgot about that. No real idea what is in that poem. It may have unconsciously influenced my wandering from Daniel to Drayton. The move from Délie to Delia, now that was conscious.

  5. A similar, universal, 'Aleph and Tav' kind of poem is Carlos Argentino Daneri's The Earth, with its famous lines:
    Mine eyes, and the Greek's, know men's towns, fame,
    The works, the days in light that fades to amber;
    I do not change a fact or even falsify a name --
    The voyage I set down is... autour de ma chambre.

  6. Eh, "sprawling, lifeless hexameters," I say, although his description of "a gasworks to the north of Veracruz" has some interest.

    Carlos Argentino, an exemplary figure of Argentinean Doom, appeared at Wuthering Expectations back in 2008, alongside Drayton's British beavers, and is alluded to via link in the Aira post.