Michael Drayton Poly Olbion Map of Cambridgeshire


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Map of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely (1622) engraved by William Hole for Drayton’s Poly Olbion

London (1622) 24 x 31 cm (9 x 12 in)


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Michael Drayton (156-1631) commenced working on his epic poem, Poly Olbion in 1598. A topographical poem describing England and Wales, it was published in 1612. It consisted of 15,000 lines of verse, divided into 30 songs.

It has long been held that Drayton probably attended the University of Oxford, on account of allusions within his poetry. We know his circle included Ben Jonson, and probably Shakespeare too. In 1593 he produced the first of his historical poems, the Legend of Piers Gaveston. Poly Olbion was his enormous attempt to record all places of topographical interest in the country. Places and rivers are included anthropomorphically; Cambridge a young woman with flowing breasts, a castle on her head and carrying the sun and a cup; Ely has a cathedral on his head.  Drayton recorded a mixture of the topographical scientific and references to historic myths – druids and King Arthur amongst others. Each river has its own nymph, the rivers featuring heavily in the maps.

William Hole (?-1624) was engaged to produce the engraved maps. Little is known of Hole, it is suggested that he had a French training as an engraver. As well as engraving music by Bull, Gibbons and Byrd, he made maps; those of Poly Olbion are surely the most extraordinary.