Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The themes of the poem are largely political. Jonson uses Penshurst as an epitome of proper social order, a social order that relies on harmony and love rather than competition or coercion. This harmony is found, tellingly, in a rural, not an urban, environment and is emphasized by the animals’ willingness to be killed for the table and the fact that the pikes do not eat their own kind. The ruthlessness of court life has been left far behind.

Jonson’s diagram for an ideal community, and by extension commonwealth, requires a delicate balance of tradition and practicality. Human decency is essential to the social contract, and so it is significant that the walls of Penshurst were “reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan,” and no one would see them pulled down. In return for the bounty provided the lord, the lord and his family provided an example to the community.

One of the defining features of Penshurst that is of special interest to Jonson is its relation to the arts and culture. As the home of Sir Philip Sidney, Penshurst is historically aligned with the arts. The classical allusion that dominates the first lines of the poem implies that tradition and learning are an integral part of Penshurst. The form of the poem itself, with its use of Martial and Horace, suggests that Penshurst partakes of a tradition that extends back to antiquity. The juxtaposing of the poet’s repast at Penshurst with the king’s visit also suggests...

(The entire section is 426 words.)