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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

“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 domestic animals, wild rabbits, and birds. The abundance of animals suggests an Edenic fertility, but it is significant that the animals are all functional: The birds are “willing to be killed” for the table of the house. From the animal world, Jonson moves to the aquatic, and again the emphasis is on fecundity and the willingness of the fish to sacrifice themselves to the fisherman. He ends his catalog of the natural world with a description of the bounty of the garden and orchard.

The walls that surround the garden act as a dividing line between the first and second movements of the poem, and Jonson now addresses the human inhabitants of the lands. The emphasis on bounty, however, remains. The peasants and farmers bring offerings of food to the house to “express their love,” and their daughters are as ripe as the plums and pears they carry.

The generosity of nature and man ensures Penshurst of provision. This, in turn, guarantees hospitality, the social bond between host and guest. Jonson revels in the fact that guests at the house receive the same victuals and drink as the lord: No one will count his cups, and he is guaranteed of comfortable lodging. That this generosity is especially laudatory when lavished on a poet is emphasized by the juxtaposition of this passage with a description of an actual visit to the estate by King James I and Prince Henry.

Finally, Jonson moves to the family of the house. He praises the lady for her “housewifery,” nobility, fecundity, and chastity. The latter, Jonson emphasizes, is a quality notably missing in other contemporary noble ladies. The children of the house are properly religious and have learned the “mysteries of manners, arms, and arts” through the excellent example of their parents.

The poem ends by returning to the opening contrast between Penshurst and other country houses. Those “ambitious heaps” are built by their lords for show. Penshurst lacks that architectural pretension, but its lord “dwells”; he lives life to the fullest, in harmony with nature and humanity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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 that is described at length.

Finally, the poem is structured by means of a framing device. It begins and ends with a direct address to Penshurst itself. As the house defines the limits of the poem, so too does it define its community. Both art and society receive their forms from its example.

The dominant images of the poem are of food and birth. Penshurst is unmistakably Edenic: The abundance of animal and vegetable life, all willing to be sacrificed for the table, implies a prelapsarian world in which man does not have to labor. The descriptions of the peasants’ offerings and the guest’s dinner emphasize Penshurst’s role in sustaining life.

If Penshurst nurtures like a mother, it also breeds, and the poem suggests that Penshurst is a womb. This fecundity is emphasized by the birth images: The birth of a tree on the estate is paralleled with the birth of Sir Philip Sidney. Children reach for fruit and suckle knowledge from their parents. Prince Henry rides the land with his father, the king.

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