What is the poem "To Penhurst" about? 

What is the poem "To Penshurst" about?

 

Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"To Penshurst" is a country house poem, a genre that emerged in the seventeenth century to praise country estates. This poem describes the natural beauty and bounty, the hospitality  and the moral order of Penshurst, the home of the Sidneys, a literary and aristocratic family. 

In the poem, nature, which reflects God's order, is preferred to the artifice of a grand house. The Sidney house is not "built to envious show," nor does it boast "marble," "polished pillars," or a "roof of gold." Instead, Jonson celebrates the estate for its "better marks" or higher attributes:

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air, 
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair. 

Nature here is rich, beautiful and bountiful, and as critic Raymond Williams describes in The Country and the City, "To Penshurst" reflects a ruling class ideology that obscures the real labor of the rural life, replacing it with a fantasy that the work is easy because fish jump out of the water in their eagerness to be caught and "every child" can reach the fruit to pick it:

Fat aged carps that run into thy net, 
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat, 
As loath the second draught or cast to stay, 
Officiously at first themselves betray; 
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land 
Before the fisher, or into his hand. 
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers, 
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours. 
The early cherry, with the later plum, 
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come; 
The blushing apricot and woolly peach 
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach. 
 
In this paradise, hospitality overflows. Jonson praises the liberality of the Sidneys, and contrasts their generosity to his experiences at other houses:
 
the same beer and bread, and selfsame wine, 
This is his lordship’s shall be also mine, 
And I not fain to sit (as some this day 
At great men’s tables), and yet dine away. 
 
In other words, the poet is invited to eat, not just sit at the Sidney table. In other houses, a guest might be given inferior food to the lord's or sent to "dine away," meaning to find dinner at an inn. At Penhurst, everyone is welcomed and treated generously. 
 
The poet moves to dwell on the moral order reflected in the family. Jonson writes of Robert Sidney
Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal. 
His children thy great lord may call his own, 
A fortune in this age but rarely known. 
 
The family, we learns, prays and the children are taught to be gentle. The poem ends by praising this moral order, reflected in the natural order of Penshurst, as more important than "proud, ambitious" homes that others might occupy. 
 

 

rowanrt7 | Student
 
"To Penhurst," a poem by Ben Jonson, is both an ode to the glories of the house of Penhurst, and a condemnation of the other houses of its time.
 
The narrator begins by saying Penhurst is not as impressive as other houses; however, it is considered beautiful by the narrator for its proximity to nature, its ability to provide for its inhabitants, and the equality guests experience eating at the lord's table. 
"Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair."
This quote, referencing the traditional elements of nature, says that while the house may not be much to look at, for it is not built to "envious show," it is still beautiful when using nature as a measure.
"To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side"
The grounds of Penhurst feed those who inhabit it. Meat was very expensive in the early seventeenth century, so having pheasant was a luxury.
"Where comes no guest but is allowed to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat"
On top of having an abundance of food, whoever came to visit was allowed to eat his fill, and even eat like the lord of the house, who got the best food.
 
The poem "To Penhurst" also reflects one of the commonly held beliefs that, whenever or wherever you live, you have just missed living in a golden era. Penhurst is a respite from the material wealth and low values that other, supposedly better houses, embody. It is an idyllic place, where religion is practiced, nature near, and the lady of the house faithful to her husband.
 
The last lines of the poem indicate that while the other houses are considered grander, the important thing is that Penhurst creates a life for those who live there, instead of being empty facades for admiration purposes only.
"With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells."

Unlock This Answer Now

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question