An ode to ancient customs
Country Life UK|October 28, 2020
The genre of country-house poetry in the 17th century is preoccupied by the ideas of hospitality and retirement. Clive Aslet considers the significance of these themes
Clive Aslet

THIS has been the most frustrating of years for those of us wanting to visit country houses. A magnificent spring coincided with lockdown, compelling would-be tourists to stay in their own homes rather than visit other people’s. We have been forced for part of the year into a state of ‘retirement’, as the 17th and 18th centuries would have had it.

Retirement came in many forms during that period. Grottoes and hermitages were places to mope, perhaps with a specially employed hermit to mope for you (at Selborne in Hampshire, visitors found that the hermit was Gilbert White’s brother in fancy dress). During the Regency, cottage ornés made retirement even more of a game, offering an air of simplicity that was patently sophisticated and perfectly genteel.

Retirement, however, had been celebrated two centuries before this, in a vein of poetry praising the country house. To Penshurst by Ben Jonson (Fig 1) is the first poem in English to be addressed not to a patron, but to his home. Penshurst in Kent (Fig 2) was then owned by Sir Robert Sidney, who, at the time of writing, 1612, had become Viscount Lisle and was on his way to being 1st Earl of Leicester, a dignity to which he was elevated in 1618. Penshurst had been granted to Lisle’s grandfather, Sir William Sidney, by Edward VI; Sir William had enlarged the house, adding a very early Classical loggia in 1579, if a dated rainwater head is to be believed, and the President’s Tower, reflecting his position as Lord President of Wales.

Sir William never received the recognition from Elizabeth I that his actions in Ireland and elsewhere might have justified. He was too strapped for cash to accept a barony and Lord Lisle’s circumstances were no better. Although he did continue the campaign of improvement begun by his father, he was at his wits’ end how to fund it. In 1594, he did not have the money to pay his workmen. In 1607, he wrote a sorry letter to his wife Barbara regretting that he had no money to meet the interest on his debts, ‘nor to buy necessary clothes for this winter... Christmas is likewise coming on, which to one that lives in the place that I doe brings on a necessary extraordinary charge.’

Lack of money could not, however, stand in the way of a project that drove Lord Lisle’s agent Golding to an even greater state of exasperation with the finances than himself. In 1611, he wrote to his master wondering how he could enlarge the deer park when ‘already you live in so great and continual wants’. The countryside was neither ‘pleasant nor sportely’ and unlikely to be visited by grandees for hunting; he had been reduced to a ‘ruinous estate’. This dismal reality contrasts with Jonson’s cheerful vision of a copse ‘That never fails to serve the seasoned deer/When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends’.

The irony is painful. On the other hand, it helps to explain Jonson’s eulogy. Although addressed to Penshurst, Jonson really uses the poem to celebrate a concept that was already old-fashioned, hospitality. He deplores more up-to-date, but unwelcoming establishments. Lord Lisle may have wanted to make the house more of a prodigy, but he was prevented from doing so. Jonson makes a virtue out of a necessity.

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