When Michael Drayton began work on Poly-Olbion, his vast poetic description of England and Wales, he committed himself to a course of action which was seriously to endanger his career. Drayton's reputation as a poet was injured by his faith in that strange, unfashionable poem, and he found himself increasingly out of touch with the main literary developments of his time. In his old age, fortunately, it led him to compose much of his most original and delicately beautiful poetry. The significance of Poly-Olbion in Drayton's life and art, however, has seldom been understood by the poet's biographers and critics, who have usually regarded it either as a charming eccentricity or as an unfortunate deviation from his true line of development. To Drayton, however, Poly-Olbion was his major work, innovating, he believed, a major new genre. When the first part was published in 1612, he boasted “My Poeme is genuine, and first in this kinde”; ten years later, bitter and depressed at its failure but determined to press on, he still proudly proclaimed that “it was a new cleere way, never before gone by any.” On its fortunes he was prepared to stake his literary reputation, and, as events were to prove, his commitment to “this strange Herculean toyle” (PO, 30:342) lasted well over thirty years.
Northop Frye has written that the epic, as Renaissance critics understood it, “is not a poem by a poet, but that poet's poem: he can never complete a second epic unless he is the equal of Homer, and hence the moment at which the epic poet chooses his subject is the crisis of his life. To decide to write an epic … is an act of considerable courage, because if one fails, one fails on a colossal scale.” The decision to write a poem on the scale of Poly-Olbion, whether “epic” in the strict sense of the word or not, involved Drayton in a similar risk. The spectres of ridicule and detraction haunted him for the rest of his life, and only his growing conviction of the political and literary importance of his magnum opus enabled him to continue writing.