The Poly-Olbion: an epic poem of England and Wales

IMG_0101 The Poly-Olbion is a vast poem by Michael Drayton (1563-1631) describing the topography, history and legends of England and Wales. The text is accompanied by a series of wonderfully unique maps engraved by William Hole on which towns, rivers and other topographical features are all depicted anthropomorphically.

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Cities appear as maidens crowned with cathedrals, caves come complete with hermits and forests are shown as huntresses armed with bows. A bearded shepherd holding a staff sits on every hill and each river has its very own nymph!

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Constructed as a tour of the kingdom, the poem consists of almost 15,000 lines IMG_0099of iambic hexameter verse divided into 30 songs, each describing one or more counties of England and Wales. The 1612 edition contains the first 18 songs with commentary by the renowned polymath, John Selden; our edition was reprinted in 1622 with the remaining songs added. Drayton originally intended to compose a third part covering Scotland, but this was sadly never completed.

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A prolific poet and playwright and a contemporary of Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare, Drayton is now best remembered for his sonnet Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part. The Poly-Olbion, this unique and ambitious work of national description, has largely been forgotten.

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3 responses to “The Poly-Olbion: an epic poem of England and Wales

  1. Thanks for this post on this charming, but as you say, almost forgotten book. The maps are delightful: I particularly like the banners in favour of St George for England and St David for Wales, facing each other across the Bristol Channel. In Warwickshire the Forest of Arden is depicted as a lady who has seen better days! And Michael Drayton wrote a poem about the first Olympic Games at Dover’s Hill: see The Shakespeare blog for more details!

  2. Pingback: The Poly-Olbion: an epic poem of England and Wales | Special Collections Librarianship | Scoop.it

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