Selected Poems of Ben Jonson


Place and Patronage in Country House Poems: The Political Appeal of Retreat

July 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

“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)

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The Presentation of the Beloved in the Poem ‘To Celia’

May 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

“To Celia” is a four-stanza poem written by Ben Jonson that has been said to be centered around his fellow poet Lady Mary Wroth, who had also been the subject of his other poems such as ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth’. This poem is essentially a depiction of an exquisite woman that the speaker is romantically interested in. In the first half of the poem ‘To Celia’, the speaker describes how her smallest of actions would trigger the largest of reactions in his mental state. The speaker then continues the poem by chronicling the events in their relationship. This can be seen through the mention of his decision to send his beloved a rosy wreath, and eventually his beloved’s response towards this particular action. It is crystal clear that her every move is of utmost significance to him, and the reader gets a sense of the speaker’s transcendental love for his beloved. Therefore, the question before us is: how was the beloved presented in this poem?

First of all, ‘To Celia’, could be interpreted as the speaker addressing the poem to his beloved, and this is supported by the use of second-person pronouns, such as ‘thine’, ‘thou’, and ‘thee’ throughout the four stanzas. On the other hand, the phrase ‘To Celia’ also sounds like a toast to celebrate the existence of Celia, thus presenting Celia as a rather special human being. The title of the poem has not only provided a hint to the reader about drinking but has also begun the pedestalling of the beloved. In the first stanza of the poem, alcohol is used as a metaphor for the beloved’s intoxicating eye contact. This is suggestive of the fact that the speaker is addicted to the beloved, which explains why he would go so far as to ‘pledge’ to her. In other words, Celia is depicted as a woman who is lovely enough for the speaker to be committed and loyal to her at the drop of a hat, so long as she would merely glance at him. Her kiss is then described as a substance that exceeds wine in terms of its ability to cause infatuation. In this instance, the reader is again reminded of the beloved’s ethereal qualities, which perhaps is used by the speaker to justify his love for her. It is worth noting that the speaker’s desire for her to communicate any reciprocal feelings through actions instead of words creates an atmosphere of secrecy. The reader would now be curious about the identity of the beloved and the nature of their mysterious relationship.

In the second stanza, the analogy of his love and desire being related through wine and thirst is demonstrated through the rhyme scheme of the first two stanzas. The corresponding lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, for example the last word of the first line of the first stanza ‘eyes’, rhymes perfectly with the last word of the first line of the second stanza, ‘rise’. In the first line, thirst is used as a metaphor to express the speaker’s desires and urges as a physical need. This is done through the implied desperation by the usage of the word ‘thirst’ and it shows how the affection of the beloved is of utmost necessity for the speaker to live. The idea is further strengthened with the phrase ’from the soul doth rise’, as it gives the reader the impression that the speaker yearns for his beloved with every fibre of his being. In the following line, the speaker begins to draw a connection between Celia and the divine. Firstly, the speaker elevates the depiction of Celia by indicating that she is the ‘divine drink’ that his soul requires, and proceeds by further idealizing the beloved through hyperbolic comparisons. For example, the speaker confesses that the desirability of Jove’s nectar pales when juxtaposed against that of the divine drink of Celia’s love. Hence, it can be said that the speaker considers the divine drink to have powers even greater than that of Jove’s nectar, which is a substance that allegedly provides immortality. This mythical allusion helps cement the message that the speaker is trying to get across: that Celia’s love is so wonderful, it exceeds even the best of what the mystical realm can offer.

The poem then departs from the drinking analogy that has previously been presented. Now the focus of the poem is on a wreath, and the speaker uses this to again prove that his beloved is indeed heavenly. The depiction of the wreath as ‘rosy’ could suggest beauty and fragility, but the seemingly positive intention of sending the beloved a lovely wreath is diminished by the following line. ‘Not so much honouring thee’ would shock the reader as it is an unforeseen tonal shift from the devotee-like praise that came from the speaker in the first two stanzas. In fact, the phrase seems to insinuate a form of insult towards the beloved. The speaker then defends himself by clarifying that he considers Celia to have powers of immortality, thus his actions serve as an experiment to test the veracity of his belief. This provides evidence that the speaker thinks that his beloved is not mortal and therefore is not subject to the same mortality as the flowers in the wreath, which perfectly explains why the speaker attempts to prolong the existence of the wreath by sending it to her. The Petrarchan convention of immortality in romantic poetry, which is introduced in the previous stanza, is clearly sustained. Besides that, the enjambment in the third stanza in lines 10-12, mirror the speaker’s hope to immortalize the beauty of the wreath. The lack of a pause could also be linked to the continuation of the life of the wreath.

In the final stanza, the reader is informed on what becomes of the wreath. It is sent back by Celia, and thus can be seen as a direct rejection towards the speaker’s romantic intentions. This paints an image of the beloved as a coy and scornful woman, which fits in with the Petrarchan conventions commonly found in love poetry. Essentially, the main point of the stanza is that despite being sent back, the wreath is still alive as it still ‘breathes and smells’. Similarly, despite a rather obvious dismissal, the speaker’s affections have yet to be crushed. However, the speaker’s seemingly foolish behavior of clinging onto this potential relationship could be justified by the fact that since the rose smells of Celia, it could mean an implied acceptance. Moreover, the rose smelling of Celia is an apparent statement of power because it shows that the smell of Celia is so powerful that it overwhelms the smell of the rose, even though the rose has only been in Celia’s presence for a relatively short while. Therefore, the wreath is not only symbolic of the speaker’s hopes for the continued life of his relationship with Celia, but it is also symbolic of Celia’s quasi-divine abilities as well.

Overall, the poem presents the beloved as a woman who is above mere mortals. In the first stanza, Celia is presented as a woman so lovely that her kiss is capable of providing more intoxication than alcohol. The speaker then continues to elevate Celia’s image by comparing the desirability of Celia’s love and Jove’s nectar, and ultimately decides that he would trade off this drink of immortality in favor of Celia’s love. This again positively slants Celia and presents her as an extraordinary woman. Finally, through the revival of the wreath, the speaker makes it unquestionable that Celia is to be considered as absolutely divine. In conclusion, Celia is presented to the reader as an ethereal woman whose beauty and love is more powerful than what both earthly and supernatural worlds can offer.

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