Similarities and Differences of Jonson’s “To Penshurst” and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”
Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” and Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” share similarities characteristic of the English “Country House” poem, but they also contain notable differences from each other. Both “To Penshurst” and “Upon Appleton House” describe the respective estates and family life of the poets’ patrons in idyllic terms. An admiration for the aristocracy also serves to reveal artistic dependence on patronage at this time period, as well as the need to uphold their high station so as to preserve the social hierarchy. The poets differ in portrayal of perfection, however. Marvell’s drawn-out work, more complicated in its praise, focuses primarily on the superiority of the Fairfaxes, and also makes a broader reference to issues relating to politics and religion that Jonson either ignores entirely or merely glances over. Jonson, in a more straightforward manner, obsequiously describes the Sidneys as having a beautiful and luxurious lifestyle, but is especially interested in their generosity, which he claims is reflected in the external features of their palatial district. Both poets paint their patrons as the apex of perfection in all matters, made manifest in the homes that they depict in detail. Although there are major contrasts, these poems are alike regarding most of the typical “Country House” respects, attempting to discuss a particular abode while alluding to larger cultural attitudes regarding the nature, art, and society of the seventeenth-century era.
Writing “To Penshurst,” Jonson describes the bucolic environs of Penshurst as the ideal natural paradise to inhabit. Jonson acknowledges it to be less gaudy than other palatial abodes, say the temple of Solomon, but claims “art (still is there) reverenced the while.” (Jonson 6) The residence may not be Mount Olympus in terms of architectural brilliance, but this exquisite country charm only adds to the glory of Penshurst as a pastoral wood fit for nymphs to frolic in and gods to roam around. In typical country house terminology, he claims the forested landscape is full of all manner of wondrous things. Even the pheasants and partridges love the place so much that they are “willing to be killed” for food, “thy ponds…pay thee tribute fish…that run into thy net”, and “Bright eels, that emulate them, leap on land”; these references may seem absurd to our modern ears but would have been a quite familiar Arcadian theme to the classical scholar’s. (Jonson 30, 32-33, 37) Jonson continues in his panegyric fashion to laud the beauteous bounty offered by Penshurst. He characterizes it as overflowing with “thy garden flowers” and full of fruit trees whose luscious “early cherry, with later plum, / Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come / The blushing apricot and wooly peach / Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach”, particularly nice imagery. (Jonson 39,41-44)
But the poem is not merely an ode to idyllic scenery, having much more depth beneath the surface. The more forceful social commentary begins to emerge here: And though thy walls be of the country stone. They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan; There’s none that dwell about them wish them down, But all come in, the farmer and the clown, And no one empty-handed to salute Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit. (Jonson 45-50) The patrons are loved by all for their own sake, not for selfish motives. This reveals the pleasant place Penshurst has in the surrounding community, not an object of scorn for the working classes. It’s worth noting that the building was, in this fantastical scenario, not constructed through the pains of labor. Serving as an oasis from work, Penshurst welcomes members of all levels of society to come within its gates and jubilantly bring their harvest to the feasts. Unfortunately, though, not all are treated equally in the poem: the objectification women faced in the seventeenth century is apparent when ladies are listed amongst the “ripe” fruits proffered. Nevertheless, the dwelling is still painted as the ideal idyllic abode for all, “But what can this (more than express their love) / Add to thy free provisions, far above / The need of such? whose liberal board doth flow / With all that hospitality doth know!”(Jonson 54,57-60) Partaking of “the lord’s own meat”, no one is turned away from the libidinous banquet, for what “is his lordship’s shall be also mine.”(Jonson 62 ,64) Idealistically, no turmoil exists between the noblemen or servants, as the height of virtue and caring for the downtrodden is represented in the work. Christian symbolism is present, since Penshurst resembles a paradise where no one is unhappy or overburdened by work; biblical references imbue the piece, such as illusions to the magnanimous master feeding poor, lowly sinners along with wealthy, invited guests.
Jonson’s patron, Robert, 1st Earl of Leicester and brother of that brilliant Renaissance man, Sir Phillip Sidney, is meant to be this kind lord who treats the people exquisitely well. Emphasis on highlighting the object of a poet’s gratitude, the patron who affords him the ability to keep writing, is emphasized here. According to the Broadview Anthology, “We see in his many commissioned occasional pieces the cultivation of aristocratic patronage on which he depended—as in ‘To Penshurst’, his eloquent tribute to the Sidney family.” (Black) Jonson also pays homage to the lady of his house, a woman of “high housewifery” with several lines expressing the loveliness of her domestic accoutrement and explaining how the bowers are always prepared for visitors. (Jonson 85) Jonson ends by completing the portrait, telling a personified Penshurst, “Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal; / His children thy great lord may call his own, / A fortune in this age rarely known” and claiming the children’s “gentler spirits have sucked innocence”, having been taught to pray and study theology from “virtuous parents’ noble parts” and learned “The mysteries of manners, arms, and arts” in this pure, charming intellectual atmosphere. (Jonson 90-92, 94, 97, 98) Jonson echoes a classical sentiment in an English country setting, by portraying how living a tranquil life, secluded from the strife politics and warfare, is not an idle or useless waste of a family’s time, but the most desirable state of being, for “Now, Penshurst, they will proportion thee / With other edifices, when they see / Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else, / May say, their lords have built, but thy lord dwelt.” (Jonson 99-102) Harmony of art and nature in 17th century society culminates at this rural palace, befitting a rustic king, or a poet’s patron.
Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” draws upon similar themes as “To Penshurst”, but there is a great deal of disparity in the body of the poem. At the very beginning, Marvell immediately poses a hypothetical question and promptly answers his own posited query: if we look to Nature as a guide, why does Lord Fairfax require such a grand, opulent home when it hardly suits the size he needs? Rather than talking about the magnanimous nature of the master towards the rest of the community, as Jonson did over and over again, Marvell, as if anticipating envious or judgmental backlash from others in awe of Fairfax’s residence, paints his patron as a sort of saintly personage higher above others and thus more deserving of Appleton House. He points out, first: But all things are composed here Like Nature, orderly and near: In which we the Dimensions find Of that more sober Age and Mind, When larger sized Men did stoop To enter at a narrow loop; As practising, in doors so strait, To strain themselves through Heavens Gate. (Marvell 25-32) Already, he is willing to expand the reasoning behind the architecture’s erection. Rather than taking into account many superficial elements, as Jonson was playfully wont to do, Marvell focuses primarily on the patron family’s moral integrity and heroism. With typical flourishes, he maintains that Fairfax deserves an elaborate dwelling, formerly on convent grounds, because of his noble merits and argues that men will flock in pilgrimage to his palace, “to adore…where Fairfax trod before.” (Marvell 36) Marvell actually reckons it too small for Fairfax’s metaphorical stature, and, in parodoxical words, writes, “ungirt and unconstrain’d, / Things greater are contain’d.” (Marvell 43-44) Often, in describing the property’s physicality, Marvell makes geometric references: in doing so, he attributes the brilliant house to human handiwork but, in a metaphysical fashion, rationalizes its magnificence as evidence of the owner’s spiritual worth.
In describing the grounds of his house, Marvell presents a larger than life characterization of Lord Fairfax. Both “Upon Appleton House” and “To Penshurst” offer abundant bases for the existence of the residences and shed light on their individual patrons’ virtue, though in varying ways: Marvell’s tactic is to cast his patron as a passionate romantic and spiritual hero. Marvell repeatedly talks of Fairfax’s honor above that of other lowly men: Yet thus the laden House does sweat, And scarce indures the Master great: But where he comes the swelling Hall So Honour better Lowness bears… Then That unwonted Greatness wears Height with a certain Grace does bend, But low Things clownishly ascend. (Marvell 49-56) He continues to claim that no excuse is warranted, however, because everything at Appleton “does answer Use”, saying it is prideful, a vice absent in Penshurst, to “contemn” “Where neatness nothing can condemn”. (Marvell 62, 64, 63) This concept of order being a high priority for a household, and in life in general, echoes Jonson’s sentiments, as well. For Marvell, Fairfax’s house stands as a beacon of order and goodness.
He views Fairfax as a Protestant hero having taken over a morally disordered Catholic stronghold. A large portion of the poem’s passages describe “Discoursing with the Suttle Nuns” who are held in contempt by Marvell as cunning and corrupt, nothing like his Lord Fairfax. Fairfax, in taking his bride from the sisters’ supposed snares and replacing their grounds with his “holy” house, is depicted as the restorer of order, in both a physical and spiritual sense. Before becoming Fairfax’s wife, Isabella was a naïve virgin girl, first lured to the convent lands by (what he believed to be) the “false” rituals of superstitious papal “folly”. According to Marvell, Fairfax would later come to transform it from a place of harm into a righteous, law-abiding area, “’Twas no Religious-House till now.” (Marvell 94, 218, 280)
Marvell describes how, with bribery, the women within the “Gloomy Cloyster Gates” claimed they led a life of prayerful contemplation, holy leisure, and fair obedience as innocent, chaste warriors for God. They reside in a bastion of religious seclusion, away from “those wild Creatures, called Men”, including Fairfax. (Marvell 89, 102) With homoerotic undertones, the condescending Mother Superior notes the beauty of the virgin’s face, comparing it to a statue of Mary (devotion which Anglicans lack and most Protestants view as idolatry), praises her industrious hands, and lauds her lovely voice lilting up to heaven, but Marvell believes her words are all part of the cunning plan to entrap girls within the “evil” convent. Marvell’s deliberate renunciation of any value resting in the Catholic Faith, lumping these nuns in with the whole of Catholicism, is shown in the hypocritical duplicity, from an Anglo-Protestant perspective, of the mother’s speech. Presenting a warped depiction of the religion, her woman-worshipping rhetoric leaves no room for a man such as Fairfax or of Christ; there would be no place for men at Appleton House unless he swooped in to save the day. The mighty protagonist, Fairfax, believes the nuns claims of finding piety in pleasure to be false when he rescues the virgin, “weeping at the Altar” from these liars with “smooth” tongues. (Marvell 264, 200) Valorous Fairfax is portrayed as freer of the so-called dungeons of imprisoning nunhood as a true man of God. Marvell uses natural analogy to express how “with his utmost Skill. / Ambition weed but conscience till. / Conscience, that Heaven-nursed Plant, / Which most our Earthly Gardens want / A prickling leaf it bears.” (Marvell 353-357) A redeemer of edifices ruled by folly, Fairfax as lauded a sort of savior of mankind against women who deem it “Sacriledge a Man t’admit / To holy things, for Heaven fit.”(Marvell 139-140) Jonson certainly heaps praise upon his patron, as well, but hardly with the same level of hero-worship that Marvell exhibits.
Ironically, considering the poem was created by an artist, art in “Upon Appleton House”, more specifically seamstress work, is presented in an unflattering light as part of the clever ploy to trap the Virgin of Thwaites in a vow, “Art by which you finly’r cheat.” (Marvell, 204) This mistrust of art is albeit mitigated, later, in his description of the wonders nature yields, like unto “Mexique-Paintings, all the Plumes” that “Rome, Greece, Palestine, ere said / I in this light Mosaick read…(not mistaken) in Natures mystick Book.” (Marvell 580-584) This shows that artistic beauty and the loveliness of Nature, which Appleton House is built upon, is not in itself dangerous, but that the spiritually sterile, barren nuns are unworthy of such beautiful grounds. The writer implies that these women sully the purity of Nature and abuse art, merely using them as illusions to trap the virgin. Likewise, before Fairfax inspired the “true” art of Marvell’s piece, Marvell posits that the beauty of art was employed only as a tool of corruption. Jonson portrays the beauty of art, architecture, and Nature in only a positive light, but Marvell exposes the dark underside of these things that his patron must destroy in order to recreate the pastoral paradise of Appleton House.
This prejudiced portrayal of the convent and disdain of the (in Marvell’s mind) insidious, Rosary-wielding nuns reflects the castigation of the Roman Catholic church in general, which was an abhorrence rife in England at this time. Such bias cannot be found anywhere in “To Penshurst” even if the author shared this repugnance. “To Penshurst” touches on Christian moral and spiritual themes, indeed, but never engages in this culturally relevant battle between religious sects. It is as if the blissful environs of Penshurst are protected from such spiritual strife. However, much like Jonson’s Sidneys, the Fairfax family is against completely retiring from the rest of the world and closing themselves in their private palisade, which is exactly what the nuns did according to Marvell. In his poem, the calculating nuns try to convince girls to join into an oasis of delight devoid of distress, where strict rules will bend for the borders of liberty. In Marvell’s actual esteem, their Catholic precepts are cage-like “Bars (that) inclose the wider Den…shuts its Gates / And, from us, locks on them the Grates.” (Marvell 101-104) Both Jonson’s and Marvell’s patrons advocate entering the gate of Heaven through generosity and openness to the broader, surrounding community, unlike the closed-up cloister. Thus, locking oneself away to a life of prayer and meditation is viewed by the poet as a lesser way of connecting with God and helping humanity, inferior to action and physical interaction with others. Fairfax saved the good lady from her purported reclusive torment, but along the way he exiles the cultish nuns and takes their lands, a morally dubious act. However, it is justified in Marvell’s mind, as he writes, “Ill-counsell’d Women, do you know / Whom you resist or what you do?” (Marvell 239-240) In both Marvell’s and Jonson’s poems, neither patron can do any wrong from the poets’ perspective, but, in Fairfax’s case, this includes casting out an entire group of people, ostracizing/slandering a religious order, and taking over their home, suggesting he may not be the perfect saint the poet portrays him to be, no matter how much rationalization Marvell offers.
Rather briefly, Marvell covers another controversial topic, defending Fairfax’s choice to retire away from Cromwell after the Glorious Revolution, another politically charged topic absent from the peace of Penshurst. Fairfax took a break from war in soft defiance, and Marvell has lost nothing of his admiration for his bravery or dependence on him financially after this incident. According to Ashley Randolph Griffith’s dissertation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “information about the career and retirement of Thomas Fairfax–who in 1650 was nominally Interregnum England’s highest-ranking leader–partially demystifies both Fairfax’s retirement motives and Marvell’s poem.” (Griffith) But regardless of whether it really was the best course of life for Fairfax, Marvell explores an age-old conflict between pacifism and the honor of nobly fighting for one’s country, of contemplation versus action. Marvell qualifies his patron’s decision by saying that Fairfax’s status as a military man cannot be extricated, that his love for warfare has not dissipated even though he abandoned a vita activa for the contemplative life. In warlike imagery, Marvell maintains that Fairfax merely replaced actual warfare, absurdly enough, with the exaggerated intrigue of an imaginary domestic war zone, “The Gardiner had the Souldiers place, / And his more gentle Forts did trace. / The nursery of all things green. / Was then the only magazeen.” (Marvell 337-340) Almost ridiculous, Marvell often combines Nature and architecture with fighting imagery by discussing terms such as an “invisible Artillery,” armies of flower petals, “vigilant patrol,” language of encampment, the “Bee”-“sentinel”’s “Huts,” guards storming and conquering castles, “bloody” “Massacre”, shots well-fired, mini “Garrisons”; he even depicts the men mowing the grass of Appleton House as victors commanding the grassy field. (Marvell 362, 313, 317-318, 394, 397, 332) While Jonson holds more a high regard for a life devoid of work and embraces the passivity of a country lifestyle, Marvell maintains that, even off the battlefield, Fairfax is a man of action, not of contemplation and cunning like the nuns who owned the land before him.
Just as there are difference between how the poets view their respective patrons and how they characterize the ideal country life, there is disparity between Marvell’s fervent, active perception of nature and Jonson’s more serene, pacifistic embrace of it; however, their mutual interest in the natural surroundings of a country house is worth emphasizing. Indeed, in a striking parallel to the Penshurst poem, references to the beauty of Nature abound throughout “Appleton House.” The Mother Earth worship, so to speak, is less blind than Jonson’s, though, for he acknowledges negative aspects of it, as we touched up on earlier. Marvell focuses especially on the dying, falling, and overgrowing of plants, philosophically compared to the battle of temptation against blighting sin. Although it’s important to note that, just as Jonson had a deep, intimate connection to Penshurst, Marvell felt similarly fond and deeply proud of his patron’s house. Having lived at Appleton and spent many a lazy day amongst its foliage, cherishing the air that cooled his brow upon the mossy banks, the poet’s affection is personal. He never desires to escape the hold Appleton has on him, “Bind me ye Woodbines in your ‘twines, / Curle me about ye gadding Vines, / And Oh so close your Circles lace, / That I may never leave this Place” yet “lest your Fetters prove too weak, / Ere I your Silken Bondage break, / Do, you, O Brambles chain me too, / And courteous Briars nail me though.” (Marvell 609-616) Even this language, though laudatory, speaks to sinister, violent undertones, as if he has been mesmerized by Nature’s wiles and could not leave if he tried.
Marvell’s focus is less on Jonson’s fish and fruits and more on the birds of the fresh air and the colorful and redolent flowers, the bees flying about the air or insects flitting in and out of the humble grass, all of which he discusses multiple times. With religious imagery, Marvell compares the Mowers who forge ahead in the garden to “Israelites” parting “a green Sea”, once again, proving himself to use explicit religious imagery like Jonson, perhaps even a bit more often. (Marvell 389-390) Throughout, he refers to biblical sites, discussing taking shelter from the flood, and ancient foreign cities like Rome and Greece, the birthplaces of democracy, blending Nature with politics. In making allusions to great learning of classical times, he employs an epic style not unlike the exaggerated, idealistic elements of Jonsonian poetics. However, as we saw earlier, Jonson humbly acknowledges that Penshurst may not be quite as beautiful as the Temple of Solomon, Mount Olympus, etc. Marvell’s work paints the architecture of Appleton House and its natural surroundings as having historical import, hearkening back to luscious porticoes or palaces, writing “Arching Boughs unite between / The Columnes of the Temple Green.” (Marvell 509-510)
For Marvell, like Jonson, trees and water, especially the river, are main objects of pastoral affection because they have deeper significance, drawing a connection between Nature and his patrons. As we have seen, Jonson places a great deal of focus on water as an almost-magical source of life giving food and water and lets the contents of the river shed light on the bounty and generosity of his patrons, but Marvell uses it to illumine the beauty of his patron’s family. He compares the river to “a calm Sea”, but claims Maria surpasses its appeal, as every poem needs a young heroine. (Marvell 434) Marvell’s protégé, Fairfax’s daughter Maria, serves that role as the prancing Edenic woodland fairy for Appleton’s own “Elysian Fields.” (Marvell 759) Not to accuse the poet of having underhanded, avaricious motives, but it makes sense to lavish such praise on the girl tutored by the poet and to claim she takes after her father, considering her father pays for his living. Again utilizing nature to convey his point, he says Maria is worthy fruit of Fairfax’s loins and will one day make his line proud when she leaves them, “a sprig of Mistleto, / On the Fairfacian Oak does grow; / Whence for some universal good / The Priest shall cut the sacred bud; / While her glad parents must rejoice.” (Marvell 739-744) Like the Sidney children, her upbringing is under “the Discipline severe, / Of Fairfax,” but she’s also destined to be divine, incorruptible, and graceful, as the tutor compares her to the awesome River: To Her the Meadow sweetness owes; Nothing could make the River be So Chrystal-pure but only She; She yet more Pure, Sweet, Streight, and Fair, Than Gardens, Woods, Meads, Rivers are. (Marvell 723, 692-696) Like Lady Sidney, Maria completes the “Beauty, aiming at the heart” as the wise, blessed maiden “rais’d” of the household, whose boughs from the varied orchards are her fashionable accessories. (Marvell 705,603)
Both homesteads are blissful, British Arcadias with high regard for nature and order as seen from a classical perspective: a fixture of “Country House” poetry. Marvell, arguably, goes into more depth discussing his patron’s life and provides narrative details of the family whereas Jonson focuses more on poetic idealism and setting the scene in a fanciful way, creating a bucolic mood. Marvell only halfheartedly sets up vita completiva as the paragon of pleasure and joy, preferring action to a sedentary existence, unlike Jonson, who holds up humble relaxation as a way of life. For Marvell, even the retiring nature of Appleton House must be shoehorned into a life of public action; in order to justify its existence he uses warlike language that never shows up in “To Penshurst.” Thus, the poets disagree on the ideal lifestyle devoid of labor or tension, but both agree that happiness can be found in a country house. Jonson and Marvell have disparate ideas of what constitutes pastoral goodness and which matters are most important to discuss, but, at their cores, the poems convey the same message that the beauty and goodness of their patrons’ estates mirror the beauty and goodness of their patrons. Each poet concurs that a Country House is one of the most marvelous, peaceful places in the world to be.
Jonson, Ben. “To Penshurst.” Ed. Joseph Black, et.al. The Renaissance and the Seventeenth Century. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.
Black, Joseph, et.al, eds. The Renaissance and the Seventeenth Century. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2010. page 584. Print.
Marvell, Andrew. “Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax.” Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. 3 July 2012. Web accessed March 13, 2013
Asheley Randolph Griffith, “Four approaches to Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”: Poetic patterns, estate lands, retirement of a hero, and education of a young woman” (January 1, 1996). Electronic Doctoral Dissertations for UMass Amherst. Paper AAI9709600.
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Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” and Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” share similarities characteristic of the English “Country House” poem, but they also contain notable differences from each other. Both “To […]