Discuss the mixture of realism and fantasy in Ben Jonson's country house poem 'To Penshurst'

Authors Avatar by crazykay131992 (student)


Discuss the mixture of realism and fantasy in Ben Jonson's country house poem 'To Penshurst'

     ‘To Penshurst’ is an example of a genre of poetry known as the ‘country house’ poem, dating from the early seventeenth century. It is what’s known as a bid for patronage, of which the aim is to praise a wealthy patron and their estate in order to earn money and social status. However, another reason for these poems was for the poet to express his opinions of the social values of the time, and as a result either criticizing or praising the current system in place. As the purpose of Jonson’s country-house poem is to idealize the country estate and give praise to the Lord and Lady, it may seem only natural that some elements of fantasy occur due to exaggeration. However, realism does occur in the sense that the poet accurately describes the nature of the landowners and the estate. On a different note however, realism occurs through Jonson subtly criticizing the system of which he is a part of, revealing his true opinion of society.

     In Jonson’s time, a patronage was essential for anyone wishing to secure a place in the social system, and power therefore resided with the landowners who decided who they felt could deliver the best. Due to his poetic style, Jonson was easily able to secure his place as a respected patronage poet. Robert Evans comments ‘Ben Jonson became perhaps the most successful patronage poet of his era. House-guest of well-connected nobles, perennial author of holiday masques, and recipient of royal grants of money and sack, Jonson by middle age had become a fixture at the Jacobean court.’ It was extremely important for patronage poets to flatter the country estate of the landowner, as the country estate somewhat established the landowner’s status, and even in a sense defined what others thought of him within the class system. Mary Anne C. McGuire states ‘The estate was thought to reflect its owners efforts as local governor and thus his effectiveness as a member of the ruling class’; as farming generally provided the landowner with his primary source of income, the estate was essential to aristocratic wealth’ and that ‘the country house served as a dynastic symbol’. Therefore, the main intention of the patronage poem is to praise, and Jonson exceeds this expectation by using extreme flattery, which may be regarded as ‘fantasy’ and completely unrealistic. The Lord of Penshurst was Sir Robert Sidney, so it belonged to a family of brilliant literary patrons, another reason for Jonson to deliver exceptional praise.  An example of how extreme flattery is used to a point where it seems completely unrealistic is where Jonson describes the creatures desire that surround the country house, such as the fish, to be killed and eaten. He writes

Join now!

‘And for thy mess is willing to be killed.

And if the high-swollen Medway fail they dish,

Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish:

Fat aged Carps that run into thy net’

The idea of fish dutifully running into the net willing to be killed is ridiculous, and although he is trying to be flattering to the landowner’s hospitality, it ridicules the flattery and comes across as a mere fantasy.

      It is arguable fantasy also occurs where the property is idealized through the comparison to the Garden of Eden in the ...

This is a preview of the whole essay