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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the poem appears to be discursive and anecdotal, it is in fact carefully structured by means of a series of progressions. The poem is organized by the physical movement around Penshurst and by a simultaneous ascending movement from the lowly to the exalted. The poet circles the grounds, moving, in the first half of the poem, from the “lower land” to the “middle grounds” to the “tops,” while at the same time moving from the animals on the ground to the fruit in the trees for which one must reach.

In the second half, the poet, like the peasants on the Penshurst land, moves indoors. Once inside, the movement is from guest to king to family, until finally it ends with the lord of Penshurst himself. The poem as a whole, then, spirals in and up to Penshurst and its lord as the defining centers of an ideal, harmonious community.

The poem is also structured by means of time. Jonson implies a measured passing of seasons, especially in his depiction of a garden in which each fruit, from the “early cherry” to the “later plum,” ripens in its allotted time. Against this are set broader temporal structures: A tree grown tall was first planted when Sir Philip Sidney was born. Broader yet, the mythological allusions serve to place all of Penshurst in a classical pastoral world. Life on Penshurst is at once timely—everything in its proper season—and timeless. The king’s visit was unique, so it is the only historical event...

(The entire section is 430 words.)