The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Penshurst” is a 102-line poetic letter written in heroic couplets. It is primarily descriptive and discursive and mimics the pastoral poems of Horace (65-8 b.c.e.) and the invitational poems of Martial (40-103 c.e.). The poem is addressed to Penshurst, the estate home of the Sidney family located in Kent. At the time when the poem was written, Sir Robert Sidney was the head of the Penshurst household; Sir Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier, had died in 1586. While rooted in the physical reality of the actual Penshurst estate, the poem also uses myth and satire.

The poem begins with a negative statement: Penshurst is not, like other country houses, dependent for its reputation upon “polished pillars” or “a roof of gold.” It is admired, but the basis for its stature is the natural and social systems it epitomizes, not its physical structure. The poem divides in half at line 46: The first half concentrates on the natural bounty of the Penshurst lands; the second half details the social constructs that revolve around the house.

The details of the grounds that Ben Jonson provides blend the English countryside with classical mythology and the history of the Sidney family. Lovers are fauns and satyrs; a particular tree is remembered because Lady Leicester went into labor under it. Having established a pastoral world, Jonson begins a realistic catalog of the grounds with...

(The entire section is 575 words.)