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Time to sing a new song

Time to sing a new song

This month as we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Picture this… we are saying a big THANK YOU and a fond farewell to Dr Jayne Wackett. Jayne has edited almost sixty articles for Picture this… as well as writing twelve.

Happy reading!

Karen Brayshaw


Time to sing a new song: a journey from the first to the last song of Poly-Olbion 

Michael Drayton’s huge topographical poem, Poly-Olbion, is an exploration of the whole of England and Wales, and boasts a particularly lovely frontispiece in both the 1613 and 1622 editions. Although Poly-Olbion is generally considered to be poet laureate Michael Drayton’s (1563-1631) most famous poem, I first came across the poet through his poignant poem, ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,’ which was in my faithful version of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poems. That this was my first encounter with him seems particularly fitting as this article is my last as editor of ‘Picture this…’. Even more apt, is that the Poly-Olbion tracks a journey in eighteen songs from Cornwall (song one) all the way up and then down again to Kent (song eighteen). Some of you know that I now live and work in Cornwall and that, in great part, is the reason that I can no longer be editor to something that essentially takes place in Kent…as Michael Drayton would tell you, it’s a long way! I am delighted to pass over editorship to Dr Stuart Palmer (MEMS, University of Kent) who will be assisted by Dr Diane Heath (Canterbury Christ Church University).

The name Poly-Olbion is significant, with two cross-cutting references; poly is Greek for many, while olbion might refer to the Greek for blessing, but also pointedly mimics the word Albion, which is an ancient term for Britain. So, in essence, through this new word we have many-blessed Albion, with her multi-faceted nature.

The frontispiece shows a queen-like nymph/maiden enthroned, who holds a rich cornucopia and a sceptre of power, topped with a fleur-de-lis; two cherubs are in the act of crowning her with a laurel wreath, the sign of victory. Her robe is covered with images of rivers, forests and cities in a loose representation of the topography of Great Britain, which also sits as a phrase beneath her feet. She is framed in an arch and in the background is the sea meeting the sky in a high horizon at her shoulder-level. The allusion is fairly obvious, Britannia rules the waves, and her lands are bountiful, as shown by the profusion of fruits spouting from the cornucopia she cradles.

It would seem that the sea and the land hold equal importance, as do the things that come from them: while the cornucopia holds fruits from the land, the architecture surrounding Albion is swathed is swags made of shells, crabs and lobsters, showing the abundance of the sea surrounding the fertile land. There are also ships which allude to the trade and travel which help to make Great Britain a powerful nation.

The fair-haired beauty is not alone in this image, and has four men, one at each corner, to accompany her. These men are identified in the text opposite the frontispiece and all have importance in Great Britain’s history. Top left shows Brutus (Aeneas of Troy’s nephew) who was believed to have fled Troy and voyaged to England, where he defeated the giants of Albion who had ruled there before him. The famous medieval Brut Chronicle is a history of England which takes the coming of Brutus of Troy as the beginning of Britain’s history – hence its name.

Across from Brutus is Caesar, who invaded in 55BC, which began a new period of British history. Bottom left shows Hengist, who, with his brother Horsa, led the Saxon invasion of England, via Kent. The last figure is William the Conqueror, who in 1066 changed the face of British history, and was the last invader to conquer Britain before the writing of the Poly-Olbion. These men are ambiguously both Albion’s lovers and conquerors; they have helped to make her what she is.

Michael Drayton published the poem just ten years into the reign of King James I of England, Wales and Scotland, and the text is rich with the possibilities of the unification of Albion through this new king.

I am delighted to have been editor and co-founder (with Karen Brayshaw, Cathedral Librarian) and over exactly five years I have worked with wonderful people and had such kindness and support from readers. It’s a testimony to all involved that ‘Picture this…’ is still going strong, and a good thing too as the library and archives still have so many treasures to explore and there are many other scholars whose words will be worth reading, I look forward to it.

Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett, University of Kent, and Collections and Exhibitions Manager at the Royal Cornwall Museum


Further reading

A chorographicall description of all the tracts, rivers, mountains, forests, and other parts … of Great Britain, : diuided into two bookes; the latter containing twelve songs, neuer before imprinted. Digested into a poem by Michael Drayton, London, Printed for Iohn Marriott, Iohn Grismand and Thomas Dewe, 1622 W/L-7-19

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