Tag Archives: maps

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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In the footsteps of Dante

In 1302 the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, was permanently banished from his beloved Florence, the city of his birth. Forced to spend the rest of his life in political exile, Dante travelled throughout Italy wandering from city to city, and was eventually inspired to write about his journeys in the largely autobiographical Commedia.

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Any scholar hoping to follow in Dante’s footsteps would do well to studyP1200500 these beautiful hand-coloured maps, produced in 1892 by the English artist Mary Hensman and now held in our Private Presses collection. They include all the places supposedly visited by Dante in his exile or named in his works. The first map shows the whole of Italy in the time of Dante, “Onorate L’Altissimo Poeta”, surrounded by an elaborate border made up of Guild emblems, while the other highlights Tuscany and central Italy.

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The maps were produced in London by Charles Robert Ashbee’s Guild ofP1200502 Handicraft as coloured photolithographs, printed on a single large linen-backed sheet and folded into a maroon buckram case with Hensman’s preface and gazeteer mounted on the front pastedown. The hand-colouring was apparently completed by Hensman herself with Ashbee’s assistance.