Thoughts on “To Penshurst” by Ben Jonson

Yesterday I talked about Aemilia Lanyer’s country house poem “The Description of Cookeham” and how it related to my college life. That poem is often viewed as the other side of a coin with “To Penshurst” by Ben Jonson.

Ben Jonson is a riot. He took the “h” out of his last name so it would stand out more. Where Lanyer tried to play the patronage game, Jonson excelled at it.

Now, I should have mentioned this yesterday, but working backwards for a minute, patronage poems. Patronage poetry is all about subordinates and superiors. Poets are pretty low on the social ladder but with a patronage poem, a poet can praise a more famous or otherwise important person in order to (1) earn money and (2) let some of that patron’s prestige rub off on the poet.

Country house poems, meanwhile, are generally patronage poems that praise dedicatees via praise of the family estate. (Because it would be impossible for an estate to have so many virtues if the owner did not possess similar merits.)

Being forced to walk this line between creativity and praise, between poetic freedom and service, deeply affected the poetry that both produced.

Where Lanyer played the game of patronage, Jonson would win it. He masterfully blended elements to praise his patrons with writing that highlights Jonson’s own importance.

Here’s one of my favorite passages which highlights how, by hanging out with important patrons, Jonson gets to look better too (and thereby eat his fill and actually have his own subordinate in the form of a waiter):

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.

You can read  the full text of “To Penshurst” online thanks to the Poetry Foundation.

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