What is the role of food in Jonson's "To Penshurst"?
Food plays a very important role in this poem. It is a sign of the abundance and generosity that exists at Penshurst, the country seat of the Sidney family. Not only is there abundance of food, there is variety, and Jonson takes some time to enumerate the various fish, fowl and fruit that are to be found at this estate. In fact, he presents the fish and fowl as eagerly offering themselves to be served up at the Penshurst dinner-table: the partridge is ‘willing to be killed’, the carp ‘run into the nets’, while hordes of fruit are eagerly brought by the peasant folk. This is a place where everyone, high or low, is welcome to eat, and there is plenty for all, and lords and peasants alike partake of the same rich fare:
Where comes no guest but is allowed to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat. (61-62)
Food is only one part of the overall fecundity and fertility of this estate: there are also trees, a river close by, and the very peasant girls are said to be as ‘ripe’ as the fruits they bring. The lord and his family, too, are presented as being wise, gracious, and dignified.
In short, Penshurst is portrayed as a perfect idyll, a place of peace, plenty, and true social harmony. As such, it is being implicitly held up by Jonson as an example of what society as a whole should really be like (but sadly is not). He is writing in the literary pastoral tradition, which harks back to Latin poets like Horace and Virgil, and which celebrates rural life and values, far from the hubbub of cities and governments. Life at Penshurst is seen to be blissfully far and free from the corruption and vices of court and urban life. Furthermore, it is favourably contrasted with other country estates which Jonson thinks are altogether too proud and ostentatious: ‘built to envious show’ (1). Unlike these other country estates, Penshurst is modest and restrained; it does not flaunt its virtues. To conclude, Penshurst appears very much as an idealized place in this poem.