Renaissance 'country house' poetry as social criticism. With special reference to Ben Jonson's 'To Penshurst' and Aemilia Lanyer's 'The Description of Cooke-ham'by Emma Jones
|Country house poetry is a sub-genre of Renaissance poetry and was first written during the seventeenth century. It was closely linked to patronage poetry, in which poets (sometimes outrageously) flattered patrons in order to gain sponsorship and status. At this time, many houses were built in the countryside as a display of wealth, and as a retreat for the courtier when overwhelmed by the court and city life. Country houses were not, originally, just large houses in the country in which rich people lived. Essentially they were power houses - the houses of a ruling class. As such they could work at the local level of a manor house, the house of a squire who was a little king in his village and ran the county. They could work at a local and national level as the seat of a landowner who was also a member of parliament. Basically, people did not live in country houses unless they either possessed power, or, by setting up in a country house, were making a bid to possess it. Country house poems generally consisted of complimentary descriptions of the said country house and its surrounding area which often contained pastoral detail, and praised cultivated nature. The purpose of the central part of this essay is to assess the effectiveness of Renaissance 'country house' poetry as social criticism.|
Country house poems were written to flatter and please the owner of the country house. Why did poets do this? Until the nineteenth century the wealth and population of England lay in the country rather than the towns; landowners rather than merchants were the dominating class. Even when the economic balance began to change, they were so thoroughly in control of patronage and legislation, so strong through their inherited patronage and expertise that their political and social supremacy continued. As a result, from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century anyone who had made money by any means, and was ambitious for himself and his family, automatically invested in a country estate. Poets tried to gain the favour and patronage of these landowners through praise of their homes.
Ben Jonson's country house poem To Penshurst was written to celebrate the Kent estate of Sir Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle, later earl of Leister (father of Mary Wroth). The poem idealises country life and sets up an opposition between the city and the country. The title To Penshurst indicates that the poem is a gift, in praise of Penshurst. Jonson begins by telling us what Penshurst is not:
This tells us that Penshurst was not built to show off the wealth of its owners, and is far from ostentatious. The qualities that cannot be found at Penshurst are listed to make it seem humble and down-to-earth compared to the average country house. Perhaps this is done to prevent peasants' resentment of lavish spending on luxuries by the wealthy. A more likely explanation, however, is that it is subtle criticism of other, more flamboyant residences. Jonson seems to take a Christian standpoint in his encouragement of modesty and his veiled criticism of the vanity of the owners of more showy edifices. Or perhaps it is a frustrated stab at the inequalities of capitalism. Penshurst is said to boast natural attractions:
The idea that nature is beautiful and does not need decoration is emphasised. The opening lines of the poem may lead the reader into thinking that Penshurst is a dull place, so the employment of classical allusions serves to seize the reader's attention, and also adds an air of mystery and uncertainty. This also gives the impression of a Pagan society, and reinforces mythological stereotypes about the countryside, although we are told towards the end of the poem that "His children...have been taught religion". This may be an illustration of popular pre-conceptions of country life by townsfolk, i.e. that it is Pagan and uncivilised, whereas, in reality (we are told), country living is Christian. It is significant that the poem mentions the poet Philip Sidney: "At his great birth, where all the Muses met."  We are told that Penshurst was the birthplace of Sidney, and this serves to disperse the stereotype that country folk were unintelligent:
Philip Sidney was seen as the model of a Renaissance man. He was a courtier, talented poet, advisor and Cupbearer to the Queen, and soldier. His whole family were patrons of the arts, so the connection made between Penshurst and the Sidney family gives the impression that Penshurst was the epitome of an educated, cultured household.
In the central part of the poem, Jonson makes Penshurst sound like a countryside Utopia. The copse "never failes to serve thee season'd deere" , "each banke doth yield thee coneyes (rabbits)" , "the painted partrich lyes in every field . . . willing to be kill'd."  This kind of submission sounds too good to be true - animals are biologically programmed to survive, there is no way any creature would give its life "for thy messe" .
It is likely that Jonson's portrayal of country life has a satirical edge. He says that "fat, aged carps runne into thy net"  and that when eels detect a fisherman, they "leape . . . into his hand." This irony may be directed towards those who boast that country life is trouble-free. The theme of capitalism runs through this poem - we see the final product e.g. the food at the table, but we are not told about the killing process or the toiling that must have taken place in the construction of Penshurst. Instead, we are told that "thy walls....are rear'd with no man's ruine, no mans grone." No man died, or even groaned in the building of the walls. A modern comparison would be a pair of Nike trainers - we only see the final, shiny, commercially advertised product, not the assembly of the trainers by grossly under-paid 'workers' of the Far East.
The picture of this perfect world is ominously underscored by the biblical allusion in lines 39-44: "The Earely cherry...fig, grape and quince....hang on thy walls, that every child may each." This could be reference to the Christian story of the Creation, because fig leaves were used by Adam and Eve to cover their naked bodies, and Eden was surrounded by a wall. The allusion implies that although this world may seem flawless at the moment, it is inevitable that the perfection will have to end at some point in the near future.
Contradictorily, the poem displays aspects of Communism as well as Capitalism. For example, all of the people from the surrounding area make their own specific contribution to the feast that takes place. Everyone is allowed to eat "thy lords owne meat" , beer, wine and bread. Nobody makes a note of how much is consumed by individuals, "Here no man tells my cups" , and there is a strong sense of altruistic sharing and togetherness: "That is his Lordships, shall also be mine."  There does not seem to be any kind of hierarchy present (even when the king visits), all persons are treated as equals, all are equally important. Perhaps the inclusion of the biblical reference is a pre-emptive suggestion that Communism can only fail (due to Man's greedy nature). Once society began to reorganise on class basis, the victory ultimately lay with the largest class. The centre of power began to move down the social scale. First the gentry, then the middle classes, and ultimately the working classes grew in power and independence. This posed the upper classes with a dilemma. Should they fight the movement or accept it? The most successful families were those who accepted it, and, on the basis of their inherited status and expertise, set out to lead the classes below them rather than to fight them. But leadership of this kind involved association; as a result, first the gentry and then the middle classes disappeared from great households as employees or subordinates, and reappeared as guests. Medieval dukes were unwilling to sit at table with anyone of lower rank than a baron; Victorian dukes were prepared to meet even journalists at dinner. Jonson shows that Penshurst is the kind of place that embraces the lower classes, and allows them to eat at the same table as the king of the country.
The generosity of the people is greatly emphasised in this poem. No one comes "empty-handed" to the feast. The guest is offered more than enough food and drink. Every provision imaginable is in plenty, from the beer to the meat, from the fire to the clean linen. This implies that unlike some country houses at this time which were grandiose but unwelcoming, Penshurst is a place of hospitality and modesty. The king made an impromptu visit to Penshurst, and the house was neat and tidy, "as if it had expected such a guest" . The king often visited the houses of those he least favoured because the cost of the event often led to the bankruptcy of the proprietor. The poem shows that Penshurst can withstand this threat, and was even in an immaculate condition when the king arrived unexpectedly. The portrayal of the king as humble enough to dine at Penshurst with all classes of people flatters the crown, and is likely to gain Jonson favour with the king.
Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645) was of Italian Jewish descent. She may have served in the Duchess of Kent's household. Her volume of poems Salve deus rex Judoeorum, 1611, was in part a bid for support from a number of prominent women patrons. Her country house poem The Description of Cooke-ham gives us an account of the residence of Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, in the absence of Lady Clifford, who is depicted as the ideal Renaissance woman - graceful, virtuous, honourable and beautiful. Lanyer describes the house and its surroundings while Lady Margaret is present, and while she is absent. While Lady Margaret was around, the flowers and trees:
It seems as if nature is there for the sole purpose of pleasing Lady Margaret. The birds come to attend her, and the banks, trees and hills feel honoured to receive her. Nature is personified throughout the poem, and, when Lady Margaret leaves, appears to go through a process of mourning: "Every thing retaind a sad dismay," . Many poems emphasise the strength of nature and the weakness of humans (for example, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley), but in this poem, nature seems to be at the mercy of a human, and a woman at that. This unrealistic notion of Lady Margaret's control over the elements greatly flatters her, and the poem is therefore likely to gain Lanyer's favour with the Countess. A far more rational explanation would be that Lady Margaret resided at Cooke-ham during the summer months, and just after she left, autumn came upon the countryside. In order to flatter Lady Margaret, Lanyer implies that the countryside is mourning her departure, but in actual fact she sees the turn of the season, which is not affected by Lady Margaret. Just as in To Penshurst the lifestyle seemed too good to be true, in A Description of Cook-ham, the Lady of the house seems to be too close to perfection to be real. Perhaps Lanyer's poem is a satirical take on the relationship between the poet and the patron. She appears to be saying that poets will write anything to flatter patrons in order to gain their favour - even something as ridiculous as the idea that nature is emotionally sensitive ("the grasse did weep for woe" , and mourns the departure of a human being.
The social criticism contained in these two poems is subtle, and shrouded. Society is never criticised directly by the poets, and irony was their most valuable tool. Nature behaves in strange, abnormal ways in both of the poems. In To Penshurst, animals seem unrealistically submissive towards the wills of the people, provisions are acquired with the minimum of effort. The timber crisis of the seventeenth century illustrates the extent to which poets grappled with contradictory images of nature: "Nature, on the one hand, is the fallen, postlapsarian realm of scarcity and labour and, on the other, the divinely ordered handiwork of a beneficent God that can be made to yield infinite profits." 
The social criticism present in To Penhurst is very effective because it is so unexpected. The role of country house poems was to praise and flatter, yet it is possible to detect a strong sense of irony in the descriptions, and we see the criticism present if we read between the lines.
Similarly, love poetry is sometimes used as a way for poets to discuss other things. The poem Who so list to hount I knowe where is an hynde, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt, at first appears to be a love poem, but it could also be interpreted as criticism of patronage, hunting and politics. The hunter and the hunted are compared to the patron and the poet. At this time, poets were afraid to be direct in their criticism of the world they lived in, because they could incur the wrath of the monarch, which was never beneficial if the poet wanted to gain patronage.
The poems are effective as social criticism because the criticism is not obvious, but if one looks closely, it becomes apparent. However, it was unlikely that people read country house poetry to be provided with political or social insights, so it is likely that many of the allusions were lost on the majority of readers.