Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his classic work, The Country and the City, literary critic Raymond Williams discusses "To Penshurst" as a country house poem in which nature itself does the work, and the creatures of the land freely offer themselves up to be killed for the pleasure of the master:

The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;
The painted partridge lies in every field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed.
Likewise, the fish:
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,

...
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land
Before the fisher, or into his hand.
The fruit is easy to harvest:
The blushing apricot and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
In sum, Penshurst itself seems to have sprung up naturally:
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan
This, says Williams, calling it Jonson's "wit" rather than his "observation," obscures or makes mysterious the actual labor that built an estate like Penshurst and keeps it running. It aligns the country house with Paradise, rather the real world of toil. Further, Williams contends, Penshurst represents a "charity of consumption" rather than of production. This is expressed in the lines
Where comes no guest but is allowed to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat;
Where 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.
Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,
A waiter doth my gluttony envy
All are invited to the great feast and nobody is denied food because of their social class. The waiter does not need to envy the upper class guest his gluttony, as a waiter would if he were underfed. Nor do the lower class guests get inferior or scanty food: at Penshurst, the simple people eat the same food as the lord. As he does in much of the poem, Jonson contrasts the beauty, plenty, and ease of Penshurst with the harsher conditions at other country estates, implicitly condemning the greed and hoarding of other rich owners. However, Raymond says, the great feast the lord and lady throw is reminiscent of the Roman days, when workers could not live on their wages, but relied on"alms" or charity to supplement their incomes. Why not pay people enough that they do not need to rely on a patrons' feast? Williams argues that poems like "To Penshurst" present the aristocratic order represented by the country house as inevitable natural, and part of God's plan. This upholds the ideology of the seventeenth century ruling class, which wanted to insist there was no other possibility for social organization--for instance, one of democracy and republicanism as the United States would later devise--but a chain of being in which most of the wealth and power resided in ruling class hands.

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