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Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer, eds., Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives
by Chris Barrett

Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer, eds., Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2020. 249 pp. ISBN: 9781843845485. £75 hardback.

The thing about Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion is that it is not really a single poem, but rather a kaleidoscope. Tap the text, and its constituent thirty Songs, its gathered legends and lore, its descriptions of flora and fauna, its meditations on local practices and topographical features, all shift into new configurations, glittering and shimmering in unexpected ways. Like its subject England and Wales, the poem emerges as greater than the sum of its parts, shining and sharply brilliant in its defiance of any single critical narrative. For that reason, an ideal format for exploring Poly-Olbion is the essay collection, in which the poem’s kaleidoscopic shapes and colours can twist and coruscate in the hands of multiple scholars.

Editors Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer have assembled just such a collection, shockingly the first but hopefully not the last volume of essays on Poly-Olbion. McRae and Schwyzer begin by pointing in their introduction to the fundamentally plural nature of the text itself: the poem (complex both in its bibliographic history as in its internal logics) is, they note, a collaborative work by Michael Drayton, John Selden, and William Hole. Within the work, a multitude of personified mountains, forests, and of course rivers sing various reflections on some element of the environmental landscape or cultural-socio-historical ecology they inhabit. These diverse fictive voices, turned into the published Poly-Olbion by multiple contributors, anticipate the ten distinct treatments of the poem in the pages of Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives, a volume in the characteristically exciting series Studies in Renaissance Literature.

Part of what makes Drayton’s most ambitious work so kaleidoscopic is the ways its generic experimentation creates the conditions for improvisation and novel expression. As McRae and Schwyzer observe, Poly-Olbion offers ‘a compendium of cultural and historical lore mediated through topographical description’ (4) and works to ‘[adapt] chronicle matter to confirm to the protocols of chorography’ (5). Perhaps because of the richness of the poem’s layered endeavour, Poly-Olbion has long generated literary critical discussion. Indeed, as McRae and Schwyzer observe in their introduction, literary critical engagement with Poly-Olbion is embedded in the text itself, in the form of Selden’s notes for the 1612 edition (8). In the centuries to follow, the poem has already invited substantive and influential examination for its illumination of nation and nationhood in Elizabethan England, for its window into bibliographic and book historical practices, for its melding of textual and visual culture, and for its capacity to host both historicist and presentist ecocritical analysis (8-14). Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives happily features excellent work by both highly eminent and mid- or earlier-career scholars who add to this tradition of literary critical exploration in nuanced, perceptive, and generative ways.

Positioning this volume in the context of current critical approaches to early modern literature in general and to Poly-Olbion in particular, the editors organise the constituent chapters into three sections. The first meditates on the origin and ends of Poly-Olbion, a poem which, among its many paradoxes, was, McRae and Schwyzer note, ‘at once deeply rooted in Elizabethan literary and scholarly traditions, and entirely unprecedented in its form and scope’ (14). In ‘Drayton’s Copious Chorography’, Angus Vine persuasively recuperates the poem’s catalogues (as other recent critics have sought to do) from contributing to an over-long work’s prolixity, and looks to reinstate them rather as essential techniques of Poly-Olbion’s poetic, national project, which work to ‘[recover] a British landscape and past characterized by sundriness and diversity’ while ‘also [articulating] a vision of the nation that is plural, multifarious, and expansive’ (21). Copiousness becomes the idiom of complexity and diversity, and Vine reads anew the poem’s famous frontispiece, letterpress title, and frontmatter in light of this preoccupation: the exercise of capacious copia, as he shows, suits the accretive nature of chorography while mitigating its dangers of monotony. Parsing the classical and local valences of Drayton’s list-making, Vine situates the technique within the early modern association of the catalogue with enumeration and order, a frame that highlights the poetic ingenuity of the device in wrangling a poem whose logic of historicised terrain defies neat or rigid structuring. The result here is a play of abundance, the plenitude of which speaks to both the specifically particular and the holistically general; the essay thus offers a route through the text grounded in one of its most notable poetic features, and serves to illuminate the poem’s widely-noted rehearsal of tension between the local and national.

Sjoerd Levelt’s chapter on the 1612/13 edition of Poly-Olbion’s ordinatio (in medieval codicological terms, its internal organisation) and mise-en-page, like its companion in this first section of Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives, builds its analysis of the poem up from notable but often under-attended to elements of the work; unlike Vine, though, Levelt’s focus is on the bibliographic. Focusing on the interplay among Drayton’s, Selden’s, and Hole’s contributions to the material book published in 1612/13, Levelt resists the temptation (intensified by the antiquarian print seller’s trade in Hole’s maps, severed from their volumes) to read the illustrations and annotations to the poem separately, and instead reconstitutes, with subtlety and insight, their dynamic conversation on the physical page, beginning with that frontispiece and frontmatter, and continuing into the depths of the codex. The meticulousness of Levelt’s analysis is assisted by the generous supply of images of the book’s pages, which make visible the kinds of gestures, exchanges, and competitions carried by typographical and compositional choices, all of which jostle in a kind of generative conflict (another word for this might be ‘play’, Levelt proposes) among the poem, maps, and annotations.

The middle section of the volume, and really the heart of the collection, features five essays tracking the poem’s complicated relationship to the environment and the ecological. The first of these is McRae’s exploration ‘Of Albion’s “Sundry Varying Soyles”: The Land and Its Human Occupants in Poly-Olbion’. Examining the variety of meanings that attached to ‘soil’ in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, McRae explores the ways soil and its discourses (for example, of agricultural ‘improvement’) inflect the chorographic project of the poem. Noting how the dynamic quality of soil practices—the seeking of farmers to enhance production by manuring and tending to immensely various soil types—exists in tension with the descriptive effort of chorography, McRae focuses on Song 23. As he observes, Helidon Hill’s survey of the soils of England subordinates administrative borders like county boundaries to the continuity of natural phenomena, which are then explored without reference to such discontinuities. The result, McRae proposes, is the situation of human and natural interaction (including the cultivation of a shared future) at the site of the soil, which resists compartmentalisation into property or by government.

Todd Andrew Borlik’s ‘Bioregional Visions in Poly-Olbion’ considers the poem’s proto-bioregionalist bent, and its tendency to represent England and Wales as ‘a mosaic of distinctive places defined as much by their natural history as human history’ (90): an impulse to loco-descriptive diversity that operates alongside the poem’s aspirational striving for coherence in its nationalistic scope. Attending in particular to Drayton’s treatment of ironworks in Wealdon and the Worcestershire salt trade, Borlik foregrounds the poem’s use of allusions to the Iron Age as a vehicle for critiquing the way early industries depleted forests to feed furnaces. The result, Borlik demonstrates, is a poem sensitive to the need for preserving and conserving local resources, even if its important historical contextualisation belies the ease with which its commitments might be assimilated into the modern ecological theory of bioregionalism (a movement, Borlik points out in a welcome passage on 93, in which the humanities play a key role, alongside economics and life sciences).

In the collection’s fifth essay, Andrew Hadfield addresses ‘Drayton’s Fish’ by getting at, like Borlik, Poly-Olbion’s interest in sustainability, in the context of a national diet that saw fish as both plentiful and essential. Hadfield situates Drayton’s poetic treatments of fish – in literal and allegorical registers – among the many early modern texts centred on fish and fishing, including works of economics, husbandry manuals, poetry, and more. The conversation between Drayton and his contemporary writers proves robust, and Hadfield traces the ways Drayton both absorbed the works of and in turn exerted influence on this corpus. Focusing especially on freshwater fishing, Hadfield examines Poly-Olbion’s representation of fish, including in the spectacular account of the salmon in the River Teifi in the Sixth Song, to show how the poem evinces a commitment not only to consuming the bounties of fish, but also to sustaining their numbers for the future of a humanity reliant on intimate transactions with the natural world.

Shannon Garner’s stand-out chapter, ‘Curls to Curled Waves: Romance and Ecomaterial assemblages in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion’, takes seriously the poem’s literalisation of the ‘matter of Britain’. Thinking about matter as material, Garner approaches the text in light of new materialist theories of distributed agency and the agency of the non-human, aware of how ‘the stories of physical properties and movements [are] interlaced with stories that are culturally constructed’ (133). Garner explores the way the romance and history of the poem’s subject of Britain is entangled by its watery matter – watery matter that is overwhelmingly figured as women. Substantively attending to that gendering, Garner’s ecomaterialist analysis persuasively reveals how the rivers’ femininity shapes the text’s narratives, and how – especially in the case of Severn – the poem dramatises the entangling of human and non-human in powerful co-participation. This reading of Poly-Olbion’s use of ‘romance and a multidirectional allegorical system that highlights the material’ (144) enmeshes research in both genre/mode and environment in ways that make the poem do fresh critical work. The chapter might indeed be among the newest and most thrilling of the New Perspectives in the volume.

In ‘Maritime Olbion: or, “Th’Oceans Island”’, Bernhard Klein begins by remarking on the absence of the island-defining sea in a topographical poem that rehearses long catalogues of topographical features, from hills to rivers, and that includes representations of sea coasts on nineteen of its thirty maps. Klein explores the curious marginalisation of the sea in Drayton’s poem about a British exceptionalism grounded (literally) in a bounded island and without the connectivity and trade supplied by the maritime. The essay’s welcome focus on this under-remarked quality of the poem allows the reader, first, to hear, for all Poly-Olbion’s nationalistic verse, the nervousness throughout the text about the integrity of Britain’s borders; and, second, to perceive in the figure of Neptune, a voice sceptical of the pre-eminence of England and Wales among the ocean-linked internationality in which the poem ostensibly situates Britain. That scepticism is uncannily resonant in the age of Brexit, the essay quietly hints at its conclusion, and points to just one more way this poem unfolds all sorts of new readings.

The final section of Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives considers the poem’s representation of history, both within the poem proper and in the intricate dance between Drayton’s text and Selden’s annotations. Daniel Cattell’s ‘Locating Continuity: The Early Religion of Albion in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion’ probes the tonal and imagistic shifts between the start and end of the poem over the thirty-year process of its writing and publication, noting in particular the ways the text tracks the religious life of Britain from pre-Christianity through its series of ‘conversions’. Positing in Poly-Olbion an interest in representing ‘continuity between distinct and potentially antagonistic religious traditions’ (171), Cattell combines analysis of the text itself, Selden’s annotations, and the visual materials of the work to show how the poem’s treatment of episodes in religious history reveal the historiographical work of the poem itself – work grounded in eschewing certainty. For Cattell, the way ‘Drayton’s ventriloquized geographical features consistently resist acts of conclusive interpretation’ (185) suggests a fundamentally inclusive quality in the poem, made possible by evincing continuity in the face of diverse, and often partisan, narratives. I find this to be a humane and attractive reading of Poly-Olbion for twenty-first-century readers wearied by intolerance of multiple ways of living, loving, and being in the world.

Sara Trevisan’s chapter on ‘Michael Drayton: National Bard and Genealogist’ builds on research about Drayton’s interest in Welsh bards as historians, exploring the poet’s interest in the ways Welsh bards served as genealogists. That genealogical principle in poetry has historiographical implications, in its blending of the historical and the prophetic, and Trevisan’s essay examines these threads as they twine together into what becomes the knotted, complicated concept of ‘history’ in Drayton’s poem – a concept invested in ‘blood, lineage, and land’ (205). The teleological dynamic of genealogy, amplified by the prophetic quality of Welsh bardic poetry, allows Drayton to conceptualize a history bridging territorial identity and the royal figures celebrated in the first part of the poem.

The volume concludes with Schwyzer’s reflections on ‘“The Wonders of the Deep”: Drayton, Selden, and Deep Time’, which considers the stories the poem – and by extension everyone else living in a present moment – all tell about the past. Closely reading the back-and-forth between Drayton and Selden, and outlining reasons for understanding both writers as having had the chance to respond to one another before the printing of the 1612 edition of the poem’s first eighteen songs, Schwyzer traces the searching for shared ground undertaken by the poet and annotator amid their debates over episodes in British history (their positions prove remarkably similar, for example, on the matter of Roman history). In the course of this dialogue, Schwyzer proposes, Drayton meditates on the nature of time, ‘as what passes, or as what is passed through’ (224), and eventually arrives at a kind of perspectival theory of time, one that urges readers to consider the vast expanses of pre-history and history, and to sit with a commitment to sustaining and stewarding a world persisting, eon after eon, in time.

Poly-Olbion can and, I hope, will sustain more convocations of essays like this one. This volume creates space for such shorter-form work that has the potential to broker new conversations about the text – and new conversations are certainly justified by this poem that has, with important exceptions, largely convened discussions so far in only a few major areas (including nation/hood, book history, and environmental writing), but could easily provide specimen material for far more. Five of the volume’s ten contributors are themselves founders (McRae and Schwyzer), research associates (Levelt and Cattell), or project board member (Hadfield) of the marvellously useful Poly-Olbion Project (, based at the University of Exeter and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and their commitment to this project surely reflects a dedication to making this poem accessible to, and vitally exciting for a broad audience. This collection of essays itself developed from the project (which also hosted a 2015 conference at the Royal Geographical Society), and as such invites further scholarship built on asking new questions of this old text.

Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives skews toward men in its list of contributors (eight out of ten); the future explorations of the poem it makes possible are likely to include a broader cross-section of scholars reflecting the gender and racial diversity of academia. Also welcome would be  more treatments of the poem in dialogue with current conversations (many of them ecocritical or adjacent) on gender and sexuality; race, ethnicity, and empire; pedagogy; disability; literature and law; affect studies; or any of the numerous critical and methodological approaches to reading early modern materials that Poly-Olbion can easily sustain. My wish is that, having been given this springboard, more scholars will pick up Drayton’s kaleidoscope, tilt it to the light of their insight, and, readying themselves for the serendipitous wonder of it, tap the text just so.

Chris Barrett



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Cite as:

Chris Barrett, "Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer, eds., Poly-Olbion: New Perspectives," Spenser Review 52.1.6 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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