Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

The themes of the poem "To Penshurst" include an extolling of the qualities of hospitality, benevolence towards those who are lower in the social order, and harmony with nature. The poem begins with a contrast between Penshurst and other estates, which are showier in nature. Jonson writes about all the...

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The themes of the poem "To Penshurst" include an extolling of the qualities of hospitality, benevolence towards those who are lower in the social order, and harmony with nature. The poem begins with a contrast between Penshurst and other estates, which are showier in nature. Jonson writes about all the things that Penhurst does not have, including "polished pillars, or a roof of gold." Instead, the estate is blessed with the bounties of nature, including ample game that winds up on the family's table. In passages that have some of the marks of pastoral odes, the poet writes about the beauty and productivity of the lands around the estate. It's clear that it is a harmonious place that is favored by nature. It's as if the moral correctness of the house is rewarded by the gods of nature, who favor the family with agricultural and animal products.

In the second half of the poem, the poet extols the moral and religious rightness of the house. The walls that fence off the estate are not symbols of exclusion but of inclusion, as people from the surrounding countryside come to the estate willingly to bear gifts. Once there, they are treated to the largesse of the house and to the generosity of the owners, who do not spare any food in hosting their guests. Even King James and his son were welcomed to the estate when they got lost while hunting nearby. Everything is physically and morally right in the house, in which the lady of the estate is an expert in running the house smoothly. In addition, the children are properly schooled in religion and morality by watching the examples of their fine parents. The house is in order physically, and is blessed by nature because it sets a moral example. The values of hospitality, benevolence, moral rectitude, and order reign in both the house and the lands surrounding it, and the poet implies that nature has bestowed its blessings on the house because the people of the house are moral exemplars.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

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 that culture has found an appropriate patron in Penshurst.

The defining opposite of the Penshurst ideal is implied in the satirical parts of the poem. Approximately one-eighth of the poem is given over to negative contrast. Perhaps the most obvious satire arises from a contrast in the description of the lady of Penshurst. She is chaste, and the lord of the manor knows that his children are indeed his own, “A fortune in this age but rarely known.” Besides satirizing the moral laxness of contemporary womanhood, Jonson is attacking the bad example set by the upper classes.

It can be argued that the poem is merely a sycophantic reiteration of Elizabethan social orthodoxy, but there is also in the poem the implication of advice. Jonson may be doing more than describing; he may be prescribing. The lord does not need ostentatious show; his lands provide all that is necessary. The smallness of the estate makes possible the harmony that Jonson celebrates. The poem may be a warning to the lord not to overreach.

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