Poet's Pick April 25
Ben Jonson:
"To Penshurst"

Selected by Richie Hofmann
National Poetry Month 2013

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Richie Hofmann for today's Poet's Pick!

We are bringing you a special poem and commentary each weekday in April as part of our annual fund-raising campaign and in celebration of National Poetry Month. Please help us to continue our service to you and to poetry by making a tax-deductible contribution to Poetry Daily! Click here to find out how you can contribute online or by mailing a check or money order.

Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!

Warmest regards,

Don Selby & Diane Boller
Editors


Richie Hofmann's Poetry Month Pick, April 25, 2013

"To Penshurst"
by Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set
At his great birth where all the Muses met.
There in the writhèd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.
Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.
The lower land, that to the river bends,
Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;
The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.
Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,
Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,
To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;
The painted partridge lies in every field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed.
And if the high-swollen Medway fail thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loath the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray;
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land
Before the fisher, or into his hand.
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;
The blushing apricot and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan;
There’s none that dwell about them wish them down;
But all come in, the farmer and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples; some that think they make
The better cheeses bring them, or else send
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend
This way to husbands, and whose baskets bear
An emblem of themselves in plum or pear.
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such? whose liberal board doth flow
With all that hospitality doth know;
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,
But gives me what I call, and lets me eat;
He knows below he shall find plenty of meat.
The tables hoard not up for the next day;
Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livery; all is there,
As if thou then wert mine, or I reigned here:
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King James when, hunting late this way
With his brave son, the prince, they saw thy fires
Shine bright on every hearth, as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame
To entertain them; or the country came
With all their zeal to warm their welcome here.
What (great I will not say, but) sudden cheer
Didst thou then make ’em! and what praise was heaped
On thy good lady then, who therein reaped
The just reward of her high housewifery;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far; and not a room but dressed
As if it had expected such a guest!
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all.
Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal.
His children thy great lord may call his own,
A fortune in this age but rarely known.
They are, and have been, taught religion; thence
Their gentler spirits have sucked innocence.
Each morn and even they are taught to pray,
With the whole household, and may, every day,
Read in their virtuous parents’ noble parts
The mysteries of manners, arms, and arts.
Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

 

* Richie Hofmann Comments:
Though I don’t have an English country house, and though I’ve never been to Penshurst, I have always loved Ben Jonson’s poem of praise for the vitality, and the labor, of its description.  It can seem a labor to read this lengthy poetic tribute, and it must have been quite a labor for Jonson to write it—by the time the poet had put the final couplet in place, he had nearly reconstructed the entire estate—furniture, feasts, gardens, and all.

But for all the work of the poem, it is leisure and delight that Jonson emphasizes throughout: the orchards, which bear delicious fruit always in reach, the sumptuous pleasures of the table.  And everyone is welcome.

And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan;
There’s none that dwell about them wish them down;
But all come in, the farmer and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.

“To Penshurst” honors Penshurst Palace, a remarkable and literary place, the Kent estate of Robert Sidney, the brother of the poet Sir Philip Sidney and the father of poet Lady Mary Roth.  Literary historians celebrate “To Penshurst” as a significant moment in the tradition of the country house poem, verse tributes to patrons and their houses, which flourished in seventeenth-century England.

It is interesting that Jonson begins the poem by describing precisely what Penshurst is not.

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while

Who wouldn’t want to live in an ancient pile?  The opening reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, in which his “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and, in that reverentially irreverent way, are better for it.  In its unpretentiousness, the house’s glories shine.  I often wonder if Jonson hoped to achieve that same sprezzatura, that same casual, graceful effortlessness, in his poem, as well.  The same hospitality.

For everything the house is not, it still provides quite enough for Jonson to praise and, of course, to use to dazzle us with.  Jonson’s Penshurst is a place of abundance and of stability.  In one of the most memorable lines, the animals of Penshurst willingly sacrifice themselves to the rituals and traditions of the great house: “The painted partridge lies in every field, / And for thy mess is willing to be killed.”

In addition to being fairly long, “To Penshurst” is one of the most inhabitable poems—the downward movement of its heroic couplets is driven by the details of physical place.  Poetry itself is architecture.  The stanza, we are reminded, translates from Italian, as room.  As in so many ambitious poems, the particular and the general are brought into contact and reconciled in these very rooms.  How else to fascinate us about a country house we’ve never been to?  Time blurs in Jonson’s ecstatic description of this enchanted place.  The real-life, historical characters—not only the Sidney family but King James, as well—inhabit the same mythical space as timeless beings: the dryads, Pan, and Bacchus.  Even the Muses gather here—for the poet’s birth, yes, but also, I think, for the poem’s.  We inhabit the place, too, as we read.  After many visits to the poem, I still feel there are rooms to explore, more morsels to savor, so many more mysteries to untangle.

In the end, I am happy that Jonson built the poem, and also that we can dwell in it.



About Richie Hofmann:
Richie Hofmann is the recipient of a 2012 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.  His poems appear or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poetry, and the New Yorker,among others.  His poetic sequence, “Old World Elegy,” winner of the Memorious Art Song Contest, is being set by composer Brian Baxter and will premiere at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago in May 2013.  This summer, he will be Peter Taylor Fellow in Poetry at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. More information is available at www.richiehofmann.com


Don't forget! If you enjoy our regular features and special events like this one, please join Richie Hofmann in supporting Poetry Daily by making a tax-deductible contribution.