331. (Ben Jonson)

Jonson’s “To Penshurst” is an extraordinary achievement of technique: a poem that feels relaxed, and at ease, and yet is somehow persistently a whole; as is the case with the house that he praises, Jonson’s poem unites the refinement of art with the dictates of nature, which here means the poet’s flights of fancy and forthright, unadorned praise. Like the house, it is a work of excess within the bounds of sobriety, and also like the house its bounds themselves are the true achievement, it being something that joins together, that moves as a whole, despite the variety of its parts, and without the unity coming at the expense of variety, or at the cost of ostentation. That is its technical appeal, and Jonson is a poet’s poet because his poems consistently yield their riches with an attention to their techniques, rather than disclosing their riches to the eye so as to provoke an investigation of technique. It requires, that is to say, some initial willingness to look into their techniques, and formal designs, and some experience with how to do so, before the abundance of riches is apparent; or, it could be said again with “To Penshurst” in mind, Jonson’s poetry requires the taste and judgment of a connoisseur, as does Penshurst itself.

Rather than draw any general conclusions, I’ll go through the poem, with an eye especially to those sinews that bind, but also noting how Jonson clears space for the continual expansions of the poetic structure, which build atop of each other variously, without betraying what has come before. The poem is about property, an estate that will be inherited, and not just any estate, but one where Jonson’s forebear Philip Sidney originated; but within its own scope too, the poem, as it grows, gives the appearance of building off the inheritance of the lines already on the page; it is both a construction and organic, possessing something of a Burkean constitution.

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.

The opening lines clear space for both house and poem; it is not any of these things, but they must be invoked since they are the thicket of expectations, architectural and poetic, from which the poem emerges. The word “built” will return in the final line, where it is again negated, and the point is not only that the house itself lacks some of the splendors of other houses, but that the house itself is less the focus of the poem than the estate and the set of social relations that the house permits and centers. The epigrammatic closure of the opening is striking, “but” through to “while.” “Stands’t” is the first verb without a negative, and it relates curiously to what has come before, all of which concern what is not possessed, what cannot be boasted; but it does not, as “but” suggests, create a valorized opposition in terms of what the house does have: lacking all of these, it stands as an old house. “But” then is suggesting that “stand’st” possesses a dignity we might otherwise neglect: just being, rather than boasting; what is here an implicit praise of existence rather than action is felt in the final line where “dwells” is prized against “built.”

And the passivity of the house is felt even in the following line, where the two verbs are likewise passive; that has several effects, one of which is to make Penshurst itself master, since it is served by others, rather than made subject to them; another is to place further pressure on the verb “stands’t,” making it seem stronger still; another is to create ambiguity and vagueness. “Grudged” is ambiguous: it might be the house that resents and somewhat envies (the connotation rubs against the opening line where we are told Penshurst itself is not built to “envious show”), or it might be that a visitor or owner. If a visitor, the poem anticipates the first impression that the house makes; if the owner, it accommodates, in what I find to be a characteristic touch of Jonson, the potential for pettiness and resentment even within pride and reverence. “Reverenced” is not so much ambiguous as vague, since we don’t know who is doing the reverencing, visitor or owner or a sort of impersonal “public” record of the nation; but in any case, the verb plays off against “grudged,” both in register (Germanic/Old English v. Latinate) and in the elevation of their gaze, the human skirmish of “grudge” alongside the piety of “reverenced.” “The while” is beautifully light, the recognition of simultaneity, and also lending a suggestion of time passing in the poem itself, as the poet stops to take in the scene; “the while” is the duration of the poem that follows. The subsequent lines:

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.

“Thou” again, and here the positive vision begins, the house coming to live with “joys’t,” a verb that is perfectly able to stand with “stands’t” and that suggests what is passive may also be actively receptive—one of the great lessons of poetry across time, a part of an ethos of care. The “marks” may be the signs of nature upon the house, or else may suggest the manifestations of these four common elements of nature, if Jonson had theories of the Ancient Greeks in mind. In that case, he substitutes “fire” for “wood,” though “flames” appears later, associated with Sidney’s poetry; a suggestion perhaps that the poetic act feeds upon the wood, and also completes the harmony of elements, forming as it were the perfect fourth alongside soil, air, and water. It feels right, at any rate, that Jonson does not give us so direct a reference to the Ancient Greeks; Penshurst is its own place, on British ground, and to be respected for its own humble terms and matters: “soil” is more particular, particulate, and earthy than “earth,” and as the leading item in the list it frames the others as elements of the landscape, rather than philosophical theories of the natural world. All of the rhymes in the poem are natural, but none moreso (if others equally as) “of air” and “art fair,” since the “f” in “of” makes it almost a rich rhyme “of-air” and “fair” chiming perfectly, and simply, as the judgment “therein thou art fair” feels simple and fitting.

“Thou art” makes its return here, re-establishing its sway from the opening line, albeit without triumph or proclamation of any sort, though the claim is as massive as the earth and elements themselves: in its marks of what is most natural, rather than in the artifice and ornamentation of other great homes, Penshurst is fair.  “Fair” is made, somewhat like “stands’t” before it, to feel weightier than it might: it suggests a vista, or an attractive face, and suggests also a beauty that does not invigorate or raise the spirits to a flummox of excitement. It is also a word that could be applied to none of the architectural features enumerated earlier; no gold roof or lantern or set of pillars is “fair.” Jonson brings home the distinct goodness of this word of praise. It exemplifies the poem’s commitment to arguing, quietly, for the abundance contained within sobriety since the word itself is shown to be weightier and deeper than it otherwise might seem. The sober spirit carries into and carries the prosaic simplicity of the next line: “thou hast” here redeems the “thou hast no” of the opening passage: what Penshurst has is an expanse of nature attached it, the “walks” across its grounds features of civilization and its blossoms, “health” on the one hand and “sport” on the other; again, Jonson argues on behalf of humble words, neither to be taken for granted, both supporting the epicurean goodness of life, and neither to be complacently confused with luxury or privilege itself; they are not to be found at every house;  naming them is easy but possessing them is rare.

In what follows, we find the first bold transition of the poem, where Jonson’s fancy takes flight; he has given us a whiff of the Classical world, if we have nostrils for it, in the listing of the elements, and “sport” allows not only the fun and games of hunts and picnics, but also the sport of the poet’s imagination, which he will here indulge. “Thy mount” becomes, though not Parnassus, a vantage point for some inspiration, as “dryads” cut across the view. But even here, the divinity of Pan and Bacchus is tempered; they may have their “high feasts” but they hold them “beneath” the chestnut and beech trees, and the word “high” which promises elegance and refinement is itself lowered by the suggestion, though only that, that they feast upon humble nuts; beech nuts, incidentally, contain toxins that come off in cooking, and the thought that they feast on both chestnuts and beech nuts humbles them and also sets off the bounty that is otherwise taken for granted. The “taller tree” is an oak, grown from an “acorn,” here a “nut.” We are moving now from the gods themselves to the stuff of their feast, though acorns are the fodder for pigs and boars, so that the deities are woodland creatures as well as gods. But the point of “from a nut was set” is to connect, as the entire poem does, the small to the large, and “set” gives a sense of intention, and testifies to how sturdy the foundations of nature’s cast-offs might be. Since Jonson celebrates the celebrator of Arcadia, Philip Sidney, in the next lines, we look back differently upon what has come before; a tree planted upon Sidney’s birth endows the landscape with the Classical inheritance by virtue of the poet himself; he lives on in the tree, whose bark is “writhed” because it is old and twisted, but also perhaps because it writhes in some pain at having been cut into by sylvan lovers enflamed by Sidney’s sonnets;  but “writhed” also suggests an Ovidian transformation in reverse, the tree an embodiment of the dead Sidney, or else writhing in pain at that poet’s early death. From Sidney’s Oak, the fauns are chased by ruddy satyrs to the Lady’s Oak, at which point mythology yields to family history in the poem’s design:

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;


“Thou hast there” is nonchalant, a gesture indicating one among many possessions; no more a need to assert the estate and house against what others have that it lacks, but a phrase that is at ease in taking stock at leisure. The poem arrives at Gamage by the filaments of kin, but “That never fails to serve” ushers in the next great arc: that the house, standing and stationary, is receptive to what nature brings it, as tribute. “Seasoned” is a telling touch of wit: the deer are hunt in season, but also seasoned, as if spiced, by nature; it is not, as in other houses, human artifice that subdues nature so much as nature that rises to an art of its own at Penshurst. A natural art, rather than an artificial nature: an ideal, also, of Jonson’s verse. From “the lower land” to “copse,” the poem is at its most prosaic, but also orderly in response to the well-ordered lands. It is a method of the poem to repeatedly return to a lucid expository syntax, bereft of metaphor, enumerating what is present from a surveyor’s or manager’s perspective, and to grow from there (we saw it before with the “walks”) into something more exorbitant; it is a demonstration of Jonson’s patience with his material, his refusal to over-till what will bear fruit on its own terms. “To crown” quickens the poem’s into more overt figural language, with the royalty of “crown” drawn into the “purpled” pheasant, where “purple” is the color of royalty. But it is not only figuration that moves the poem here; “purpled” and “speckled” strike against one another, a spark of vivid detail after the generic animal kinds that have preceded.  When we read “painted partridge,” it is both Jonson who is doing the painting, in a phrase translated from Martial, and acknowledging the poet’s artistry in purpling the pheasant by description (and “lies” is perhaps a pun on the poet’s feigning); and it is nature that has painted the creatures for the poet and house. It is also perhaps that the birds are purpled and painted by their blood when hunted and killed. It’s hardly the inscape of Hopkins, but it is an affirmation of generative bounty and particular identity, and it comes with the recognition that the animals are to be killed for food. “Willing to be killed” is hyperbole, but it avoids euphemism, and it raises the generous thought that a partridge might not be willing to be killed for any other table; it cares, even if it is a fiction about when care is not required.

I will skip now over the lines about the fish (an imitation of Juvenal), which enlarge the fancy further yet, as the fish surpass the partridge in their acts of self-sacrifice; all is duty and tribute in the dominion of the domicile. Jonson has genuine fun here, especially with “fat aged carps”; it is an exemplary play of self-conscious fancy as opposed to transfiguring imagination, and such pleasure of the mind and poet’s whim is of a piece with the leisure afforded by Penshurst. The trouble with a flight of fancy is landing, and though it might seem that Jonson does so by merely changing the scene, moving to the orchard, the means of transition is more subtle than that and establishes what becomes a persistent minor motif in a stretch of the poem that follows: “or into his hand” is preposterous, something of a reach itself, but also provides the essential link, since the hand of the fisher is the same hand that would reach and pluck flowers and fruit, which leads us into the orchard. “New as are the hours” feels as if it might have been a cliché of the times, but I suspect it is in fact an instance of sprezzatura, since it contains within its spritely turn of mind a metaphorical mine that Jonson leaves unquarried: the hours are perpetually new when they come into being, and bring on most accounts the encroaching decay that is seen in the small flies of Dutch still-life floral paintings; here though the flowers are as new as the hours, not withered with them, but renewed with their rotation; the seasons even are compressed into an afternoon, each hour bringing with it a newness of blooming and ripening, as the next lines make clear.

“Doth come” of course means grow into ripeness, but here too there is a sense of arrival, so that the house is itself a destination—for the tribute of animals in the section preceding and for the local rustics in the section that will follow. “Blushing apricot” fits in with the thought of Eve and Adam, naked and ashamed in the garden, which will be more strongly evoked by “no man’s ruin, no man’s groan” and by the walls of Penshurst, which seem the walls of an Eden from which none has been barred. But “woolly peach” seems to intentionally thwart what might have been an otherwise excessively worked allusion; too much to claim, too much for the poem or house to sustain. “Woolly” instead suggests a pastoral, with the fruit as sheep. “Hang on thy walls” is a votive offering, perhaps with Horace’s Ode 1.5 in distantly mind; they are a votive offering. “Thy walls” now becomes the subject; in a reach of a reading, I wonder whether Jonson, whose zest for the mildly scurrilous is not absent later in the poem when he jokes about illegitimate child, I wonder whether “country stone” is a bawdy pun on “country,” since the stone gives birth to the walls, without the groans of childbirth, and without the ruin of a profligate (or illegitimate) heir. The child-rearing of “reared” supports the reading. I said that the hands are crucial for the entire passage, and they are, both because of the initial thought of plucking fruit and flowers, and then because of the inversion of Eden, where the fruits on the walls can be reached by every child, whose innocence is perhaps contrasted to sinning man’s, and so can and should pluck the fruit without consequence, without any ruin or groan; at the same time, the walls themselves were built by the hands of laborers without groan or ruin, and are not to be pulled down by violence at those same hands. The word “dwell” makes its first appearance here, to describe those that live in the area surrounding the walls of Penshurst; in the final line, it will be the lord of Penshurst who dwells, and so we are invited to see in his nobility a common dignity found in rustics. Hands are not dropped:

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;

The suit would be a legal or personal matter requiring the adjudication of the lord and lady  of Penshurst. In these lines we are back to the pattern of prosaic accounting, which flourishes into something more than itself; the first five lines are sprightly but not remarkable; nor are they asking to be. They do not strain after meter or metaphor, but possess a cadence of relaxed reception. The matter changes somewhat at “some that think they make” as if Jonson doubts that they do make “the better cheeses,” and the suggestion is also one of competition and social jostling, and the pride in cheese becomes a pride in daughters (very much a paternalistic and patriarchal world), who are sent by. I cannot decide how to read “send by”: it might be taken that the daughters are ablative, so that the rustic adult men and women either send the fare along on their own, or else that they send it by means of their ripe daughters; or it might be that they send their ripe daughters by the house, not sending the daughters as tribute, but sending them on errands to capture the attention of those young swains making other deliveries. The latter would explain why they carry not cheeses or cakes but pears or plums, emblems of their own ripeness, perhaps with a sensual overtone intended by the parents of the daughters and the poet.  

Jonson, who has swept away the fall from Eden in the earlier lines, here can celebrate the lusty amours of the neighboring rustics; it removes too solemn a dignity or pompous condescension from the scene and feels like a scene Herrick would enjoy. Jonson does not tread onto blasphemous grounds but the logic of the following lines is not far removed from the religious query: why pray to, or praise, God? “Free provisions” recalls “free grace,” not least because “far above” suggests a heaven above, until the syntax swerves around the line ending into “the need of such.” Here too are the first of three parentheses in the poem; parentheses both diminish and expand. They diminish what is contained within, setting it apart from the rest of the text; they also clear out space within a text, expanding what it can accommodate. Here, the expression of the rustics’ love for Penshurst and its lord and lady is contained; love matters, but this is not a poem about affective bounty, but instead about the bounty of the senses and appetites; it is a sobered appraisal of love’s expression; at the same time, it clears out space for their love, making room for what is an emotional tribute in a poem that is about an estate. But it is perhaps the acknowledgement of feeling in the rustics that opens the way for Jonson to talk about himself:

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.

“Without his fear” is a second acknowledgement of what those who eat there feel. Unsurprisingly for mountain-bellied Jonson, the focus is on food. “Fain” is peculiar since the sense of “pleased” was alive at the time, but cannot be primary here; instead it must mean “obliged,” with perhaps a pun on “feign.” The commensal scene is one of genuine commonality, with also a reminder of a communion in a holy mass, with the constellation of “lord,” “bread,” and “wine” invoking a Christian service; but it is not that, just as the “free provisions” are not Grace; just as the house is not susceptible to an Edenic fall; the scene is decidedly worldly and natural, and “shall” is a future tense without willing or intention; it is in the course of things. The parentheses here is beside the point, but also very much the point: the great men’s tables are squeezed within its confines, so much less are they than Penshurst, but they also need to be given space at the table in the poem, since Jonson wants to be clear that he is praising Penshurst at the expense of others, who judge his gluttony.

I take these lines to be the center of the poem’s gravity, since they are a staunch and even stubborn affirmation of the poet’s appetites; “if you are a great house, then don’t complain when I want to eat and drink a lot”; not everyone can afford such generosity or excess, but appetite should not be a source of embarrassment for guests when they are hosted by those that can; the genuine greatness of a great house lies in its feeling like the property of more than its owner; its promise is the promise of something shared in common and sufficient for all; an inheritance that exceeds any single owner. Others might prefer pillars and gold roofs, but Jonson wants a good meal, without any limits on how much he can consume, and the comfort in which he can rest with fire, lights, or livery. The poem is not about Jonson, but no poem praising a house or estate can ignore the question of what the person doing the praising values most; where they stand in relation to pleasure. Jonson stands on the side of the animal and epicurean. The passage closes with the wit of “there’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay,” where “stay” means both “visit and stay at the house” and also “refrain.” Jonson is alive to the paradox that riot is restrained by abundance, rather than provoked by it.  And not Jonson only, but the highest in the land:

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!

Jonson has written two lines above that the house was welcoming as if he reigned in it, and the conceit has been realized: the king does reign here. Most peculiar in this line is “desires,” since it involves a few figurative leaps: the Penates are the Roman household gods (Aeneas carried his from burning Troy; Brutus presumably did the same when, as the legend had it, he came to found Britain), and yet they are not aflame themselves with desire, but presented as if the flames glowing on every hearth were burning on the Penates’ desires: so much did they wish for James to pass that way and stay, that their desires were set on fire. Or else, descending from the heights of fancy, the hearths blazed as if the neighboring gentry and aristocracy (“the country”) came to a feast to welcome the King and the prince. We are given, then, the suggestion of a spiritual and secular welcome, the house welcoming the King with the magnificence of the mythological and symbolic magnificence of the land; but it is only the sharp blaze that sets off the effect (perhaps this scene could be the excerpt from Jonson for my imagined “light in poetry” series), like the illusion of a masque; the lady of the house is absent, the lord likely absent too, and what lies within the house is “linen, plate” and sundry household goods. Jonson feels obliged to acknowledge that it is not “great” cheer; in this third and final parentheses, Jonson makes a point of containing his praise, of showing the temperance of his judgment, but also of praising the house on terms properly its own: not great cheer, but sudden cheer, since everything was in a state of readiness, “new as the hours,” immediately at hand. Jonson is perfectly comfortable seeing the splendor of domestic comforts. The next section strikes me as the most hurried of the poem, but perhaps that is because I am feeling in something of a hurry myself as I near the end:

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.

Here we find the joke about cheating wives and illegitimate children, followed by the picture of religion suckling the legitimate heirs. Jonson, it seems, is more taken with the sensual satisfactions of the larder than the exercises in virtue that he acknowledges here, as if under compulsion. But it might be that they are not lax but perfunctory in the recognition that it is a poem chiefly about the house; they do not praise too much, and their praise is itself quite narrow, limited as it is to noting that the children are legitimate,  that they are innocent youths taught about religion, and that they join the household in prayers and have good examples in their parents. Perhaps the praise for the inhabitants is abbreviated since they are only stewards of Penshurst’s excellence. “Mysteries” could be thought to acknowledge that human mores and behaviors—though Jonson illuminates them elsewhere—are of another substance, alien and strange in relation to the poem’s topic, which is the house itself. “Arts” rhymes with “parts” preparing us for a return to the house, with its parts and proportions, its artistry a function and feature of nature, rather than an imposition on it. “Mysteries of manners, arms, and arts” takes us, at any rate, to the border of Penshurst the place; to write about such mysteries would be another poem, and so Jonson can conclude, announcing, with the word “Now,” his tribute to be complete:

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.

Does “and nothing else” hedge? Does it return us to the “mysteries of manners, arms, and arts” that may nonetheless thrive elsewhere, in houses that are more splendid but less natural? The phrase seems to me to set a limit on what Jonson has written, and also to stake out clearly what he has accomplished: a rectifying of judgment such that we can recognize the difference of active efforts that supersede the order of nature and receptive efforts that live within it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s