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Voice of the Country-House Poem

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Voice of the Country-House Poem There exists a small genre of poetry, dating from the early seventeenth century, known as the country-house poem. Ostensibly the impulse of these poems was to praise and please a wealthy patron, thereby gaining favour, status and wealth. A less apparent facet also existed within these poems, and that was the poet's embedded observations with regard to social values of the time that subtly and effectively criticized and praised the existing system. The dexterity with which a poet combined these opposing purposes, while avoiding implicating the intended patron in the criticism ultimately ensured continuation of the crucial patronage, which pervaded all aspects of the period's social system. Ben Jonson's To Penhurst, often touted as the prototype of the country-house poem, extols the Sydney estate as the archetype of the country estate that is both bounteous and cultured, while subtle irony reveals the innate criticism of the system of which Penhurst is a part without endangering the indispensable patronage. In Jonson's time patronage was the cornerstone of the social system that permeated all elements of existence and was therefore vital to anyone who wished to succeed in building a secure place for himself within that system. ...read more.


This negative beginning accomplishes two things in that it reveals a pleasing reticence in Penhurst that suggests that she has no need to put herself forward with ostentatious show and sets up a stark contrast between the modesty of her appearance and the bountiful paradise the house itself is surrounded by. By extension this indicates that her owner's, the Sydneys, are also secure enough within their sphere that they have no need to push themselves forward to prove their worth. Having set the stage with this unpretentious vision of the house Jonson proceeds to render an account of the lavish bounty that Penhurst abounds with whether it is animal, bird, fish or plant and assures that there exists an abundance for all, great and humble to partake of. Jonson emphasizes this largesse when he declares "A waiter, doth my gluttony envy. But gives me what I call, and lets me eat; He knows below he shall find plenty meat," (68-70) He enhances the idyllic picture with a description of the relatively equal treatment meted out to all who grace the estate, no matter what their place in the social hierarchy. ...read more.


Perhaps it is this subtle blend of flattery and almost undetectable criticism that places this poem as the prototype of the country-house poem rather than the now defunct idea that it was the first of its type. As a form of literature the country-house poem in the hands of the skillful poet provided much more than a domestic design to praise and flatter a wealthy patron. As an instrument to garner the patronage so vital to the well being of anyone who wished to be successful and keep his place in the social system of the time the county-house poem became a two bladed sword. If wielded proficiently one blade sliced cleanly to the heart of the matter, using the vision of the ideal family and the ideal house and grounds to effectively elevate the family and elicit the patronage the poet sought raising him above those of his own circle just as the poem does the patron. The counterpart of this was that the other blade was free to strike at the ways in which the other households did not measure up to the same mark thereby providing a channel for critical commentary based on the very same social values used to praise. This skillful convergence of the two emerged as vitally important in defining the country-house poem. ...read more.

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