Eco-catastrophe in the Late Works of Michael Drayton: The Invention of the Disaster Epic

The late works of Michael Drayton revel in apocalyptic calamity. Irked that the public had turned a deaf ear to the warnings sounded in his Poly-Olbion, Drayton became convinced England was over-depleting its natural resources, and destined to suffer a self-inflicted disaster of Old Testament proportions. In the late 1620s Drayton penned ‘Mother Redcap’s Tale,’ in which tainted rain drives the entire population wetted by it mad, evoking King Lear; An ‘Elegy to my Noble Friend, Master William Browne, of the evil time,’  which invites his friend to ‘be silent and with patience see, / What this mad times Catastrophe will be’ (3:209); ‘The Tenth Nymphal,’ in which a homeless satyr laments a treeless Britain; Noah’s Flood, a poetic re-telling of the biblical deluge, and republished his grisly account of the Plagues of Egypt in Moses His Birth and Miracles. While some seventeenth-century thinkers such as Godfrey Goodman subscribed to Lucretian theories of nature’s senescence or cosmic decay, Drayton stands among the first writers in English literature to foresee an anthropogenic environmental disaster, and to bewail its dire consequences for other species. Sadly, critics have overlooked Drayton’s late work—misled by its ostensible religious content—or simply dismissed it as out of step with its time, in that he persisted in writing bitter satire in the style of the late Elizabethan period well into the Caroline era.

This paper reappraises Drayton’s disaster poetry by situating it in the context of plague outbreaks and recurrent dearth triggered by the meteorological turbulence of the Little Ice Age. More importantly, it reads Drayton’s late work not merely as elegies for the degraded natural world but also as literary critiques of Cavalier poetry and Stuart drama as anthropocentric and thus incapable of depicting environmental crisis or galvanizing reform, akin to Amitav Ghosh’s denigrating the realist novel as unable to tackle the enormity of climate change. Rather than a throwback to Du Bartas, Drayton’s late phase appropriates Judeo-Christian eschatology to pioneer the genre of the disaster epic that still underlies much environmental literature (especially cli-fi) to this day. Admittedly, Drayton’s catastrophilia confirms the misgivings of ecocritics such as Garrard, Goodbody, and Kerridge that apocalyptic imagery incites as much schadenfreude as concern, and, I would add, betrays the aging writer’s anxiety about the posthumous survival of his own literary works. Yet Drayton’s self-portraits of poets as doom-peddling prophets, afflicted with what psychologists now call the Cassandra Complex, bespeak his genuine fear that anthropocentric literature is powerless to avert an eco-catastrophe.

Todd Andrew Borlik, University of Huddersfield

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