The Poly-Olbion, started by Michael Drayton in 1598, was originally published in two parts: the first in 1612 which was subsequently reprinted in 1622 together with the second part which completed it. The title itself reflects the Greek for “Many Blessings”, but also hints at the multiple origins of Britain as it was at the time of writing.
It was otherwise known as “A chorographicall description of all the tracts, rivers, mountaines, forests, and other parts of this renowned isle of Great Britaine” and is an extraordinary poetic journey through the landscape, history, traditions and customs of early modern England and Wales. Drayton intended to compose a further part to cover Scotland, but no part of this work is known to have survived.
In its entirety it is an amazing example of collaboration comprising as it does Michael Drayton’s 15,000-line poem complemented by William Hole’s thirty exquisite engraved county maps, and accompanied for its first eighteen ‘songs’ by the young John Selden’s prose ‘Illustrations’.
Because of its length and its author’s conflicting goals the Poly-Olbion was almost never read as a whole, but is nevertheless an important source for the period. Drayton endeavoured to balance correct scientific information about Britain (mostly contained in Selden’s commentary) with his desire to provide as many historical links as possible to the ancient Britons, Druids, Bards, and King Arthur.
It is divided into thirty songs written in alexandrine couplets. Each song covers between one and three counties, describing their topography with legends, historical fragments and anecdotes of various kinds thrown in for good measure.
William Hole’s title page for the Poly-Olbion often attracts attention for its portrayal of an enthroned lady Albion, with her beautiful robes, a faint smirk on her face, and positioned so as to give her the same shape as her nation. The pattern of the robes reflects Hole’s maps contained in the Poly-Olbion and depicts the various rivers and cities of the nation. It is also notable for its portrayal of British history. The four men, each in period costume, who frame Albion’s portrait are her four lovers and conquerors: Brutus (top left), the original ancestor of the Britons; Julius Caesar (top right), the first Roman to rule Britain; Hengest (bottom left), leader of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Britain; and William the Conqueror (bottom right), the most recent conqueror of Britain (the final, Dutch, conquest of Britain was still to happen).
There has been a reviving interest in the Poly-Olbion through the Poly-Olbion Project, based at the University of Exeter and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The core purpose of this project is to produce a new scholarly edition of the text, available on-line. In addition, it aims to create some fresh critical work, building on a successful conference at the Royal Geographical Society in September 2015, and culminating in the publication of an edited volume of critical essays. The pilot project started with the first Song which coincidentally describes the counties of Cornwall and Devon.
The above information has been extracted from a number of sources including: