“The private space, the dark cave or rural estate, the distance of isolation, these became the places of the poet, and, paradoxically, offered the readiest means for him to recreate a politically alert audience.” (Greg Walker)
The purpose of country house poetry is clear, in the context of directly seeking to flatter a patron, but the effect on a wider audience may be less certain. The classical appeal of the quiet countryside as an aesthetically superior retreat from civilisation is not as simple as its beauty, and the political implications of isolation as a positive attribute are unavoidable when gender is involved.
Æmilia Lanyer’s poem ‘The Description of Cookeham’, the first published country house poem in English, was dedicated to Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford, and was a part of her 1611 collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. There were ten other prefatory poems to different potential patrons, which may initially seem odd for a book published with a public audience in mind, but as Erin A. McCarthy proposes, the prefatory poems had a purpose beyond attempting to ‘solicit patronage’ or ‘authorize the book’s content’. She argues that Richard Bonian (Lanyan’s publisher) included them because ‘it recommended the book to upwardly mobile, educated female readers’, the ideal audience for Bonian to try and solicit due to the image of idle educated women of the time having money to spend on worthy entertainment. Lanyer’s class position may have prohibited her from successfully appealing to patronage, as Su Fang Ng suggests in her article ‘Aemilia Lanyer and the Politics of Praise’, but her poetry had a wider audience than those direct appeals, and the existence of the wider genre means that shared tropes can exhibit this type of poetry’s draw.
If the country-house poems were not then strictly personal lyrics in praise of stately houses, their focus on gentry and these personal spaces must have served a different purpose as a public poem. The bucolic landscapes that they praised therefore were probably attractive to most at the time, rather than just catalysts for direct compliments, and the idea that they captured – that of escape from the modern world – connected to an idea of moral virtue, as Lanyer suggests in the lines ‘where Virtue then did rest, And all delights did harbour in her breast’ (7-8). In Cooke-ham’s case, the refuge was practical as well as spiritual. As Misheline White summarises, ‘One of the striking things about this country-house poem is that Cooke-ham was not the ancient family seat of the Clifford family, but a temporary refuge loaned or rented to these women by the king while they persisted in their stubborn fight to be allowed, as women, to inherit land.’ This particular utopia is an actual temporary refuge from an ongoing legal struggle, allowing the freedoms for women that Lanyer portrays like ‘beauteous Dorset’s (Anne’s) former sports’ (119) and ‘Those pleasures past, which will not turne again’ (118, here emphasising the temporary nature of this idyll). This personal freedom for women, especially of Lanyer’s slightly different class, paradoxically makes the insular, perhaps regressive culture of country-house poetry praising the lord and land through classical references into a wider call for liberation to a public audience. The fact of their gender and circumstance makes this refuge’s Edenic description an implicit endorsement of women inheriting land, a rather more practical purpose than praising beauty.
R.V. Young claims that Ben Jonson was performing a similar kind of practicality in his country-house poem ‘To Penshurst’, saying that he was ‘making a virtue of necessity in praising the Sidneys for living at home on their rural estate when they could hardly afford to do otherwise’. Both poets have romanticised the necessity of specific circumstances, but in general poets striving to make an original but flattering point often performed some kind of pardiastole. Marvell, in ‘Upon Appleton House’, explains the ‘humility’ of the house’s architecture as a compliment to its lord:
‘So honour better lowness bears,
Than that unwonted greatness wears
Height with a certain grace does bend,
But low things clownishly ascend.’ (57-60)
The small door is described as purposefully low, so men can practice as if ‘To strain themselves through Heaven’s Gate’ (32), as well. A simile invoking heaven in this way emphasises the moral values behind the house’s design, and the rhyming couplets pair together images like bending with grace and ascending clownishly, so that the wisdom espoused is as neatly-phrased as a common aphorism, therefore gaining authority through style.
Country-house poets therefore consciously created an idyll out of real life imperfections, and through their admiration of a countryside refuge, they inspired the later literature of Herrick, Dryden, Pope, and even, much later, Waugh. The concept of a peaceful closeness to nature as a retreat from the city’s business, however, was hardly original, and Young argues that the humanists’ renewed interest in classical Greek and Latin literature as well as Jonson’s personal learning meant that Virgil’s Georgics and Horace’s pastoral writing influenced poems like these. The original meaning of ‘pastoral’, the life of a shepherd, had an appeal due to the harmonic relationship with nature it suggested, as a refuge from the man-made chaos of the city for courtiers. In ‘To Penshurst’, for example, the family seem to exist in temporal unity with their grounds, as in the image of a ‘painted partrich’ (29) lying in every field, which Jonson describes in the next line as entirely compliant with the family’s wishes: ‘And for thy messe is willing to be kill’d.’ (30) The freeing isolation that this provides them is detailed in lines 13-14:
‘The taller tree which of a nut was set,
At his great birth, where all the Muses met.’
As Young explains, oaks were not planted at a son’s birth unless there was great hope for the family’s longevity; the tradition being fulfilled here places the son’s fate parallel to the natural world from birth, and the mention of ‘the Muses’ strengthens the image of a rite from a classical society more immediately connected to nature than Jonson’s contemporaries. The rite could even be seen as in opposition to the christening tradition, adopting the more secular humanist movement’s tenants and isolating the family from the wider societally-mandated institution of the Church.
The ways in which these poets represent a pastoral idyll indicate their expected reader’s desires at the time, rather than specifically the potential patrons, but that expected reader was influenced by ideas of gender. Furey claims that ‘Description of Cooke-ham’ reflects a ‘religiously influenced utopian vision of desire’ specifically, which is different to those utopias typically written by men’ (like the possibly more secular Jonson) ‘which focus on political systems, as cultural issues of control and freedom are prioritised instead.’ Religion’s representation in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is admittedly linked to female longing; in the opening poem she calls Christ ‘all that Ladies can desire’ (85) and wishes ‘those sweet desires’ (103) upon her reader, who, as previously stated, would be ideally an educated woman of high rank. Due to the real women’s circumstances, however, the utopia in ‘Description of Cooke-ham does still seem more politically-motivated in its idyllic isolation than religiously, especially if, as Michael Morgan Holmes suggests, the religious elements here disguise homoerotic implications between the women. The idea of Christ as ‘the locus of triangulated eroticism between women themselves’ makes sense with lines where Margaret Russell becomes the location for Lanyer’s image of Christ, such as 1325-28, where the other woman’s body itself is ‘holy’:
‘In your heart I leave
His perfect picture, where it still shall stand,
Deepely engraved in that holy shrine,
Environed with Love and Thoughts divine.’
Religious overtones do not nullify the political implications of an all-female refuge from the world in relation to the all-male lines of succession at the time, especially with the added controversy of possible homo-eroticism, as there conceivably is here.
Jenkins argues that Jonson focuses on the Lady of Penshurst (‘Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal’, 90) and that the presence of her female body plays a central role in the characterisation of the house and grounds, such as with the word ‘fruitful’: through this, supposedly, he advocates for a more egalitarian society in general, through myopic focus on a highly-vaulted utopia. The primary political value of the poem can probably be found, however, in lines like 54-55:
‘They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan;
There’s none that dwell about them wish them down;’
The focus on the fruits of the estate being raised ‘with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan’ connects to the larger transferred epithet of the entire poem’s conceit, as Jonson is really referring to the gentry living blameless lives. A kind of triadic structure is created by the negative statements here, reinforcing the idea that the family treats the lower classes who live around them fairly through contrast to the hypothetical other households. In Ben Jonson: Public Poet and Private Man, George Parfitt describes this poem as Jonson’s ‘vision of how the gentry should live, stressing their responsibility to the country and people around their houses,’ and that certainly seems to be the main political message.
Although the motivation behind many early country-house poetry in relation to the potential patrons may have been practical considerations and romanticism of necessities, the ideas of isolation and retreat connected with a wider audience, particularly because these humanist ideas of ‘utopia’ tend towards egalitarianism and freedom through a refuge in nature. In the context of women claiming property or showing homoerotic affection towards each other, or of good treatment of the lower classes living around the grand country houses being endorsed as a primary trait of a good lord, the freedom afforded by a ‘distance of isolation’ creates a political utopia like those created by Thomas More and Plato. The liberty and beauty of pastoral retreat, which gender or circumstance might inherently politicise, is the public appeal of this genre.
1. Aemilia Lanyer, ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’, Ben Jonson, ‘To Penshurst’, and Andrew Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax’ in: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook and Henry Woudhuysen
2. Erin A. McCarthy, ‘Speculation and Multiple Dedications in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 55.1 (2015)
3. Micheline White, Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550-1700: Volume 3: Anne Lock, Isabella Whitney and Aemilia Lanyer, Routledge, (15 May 2017)
4. R.V. Young, ‘ Ben Jonson and Learning’, in: The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson, ed. Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart, Cambridge University Press (2000)
5. Constance M. Furey, ‘The Real and Ideal in Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex
Judaeorum’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36 (2006): 561-84.
6. Michael Morgan Holmes, ‘The Love of Other Women’ in: Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, ed. Marshall Grossman, University Press of Kentucky, 13 Jan 2015
7. Hugh Jenkins, Feigned Commonwealths: the country-house poem and the fashioning
of the ideal community, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press (1998)