November 10


Art and Nature:
Three Poets Shape Three Landscapes

First Thoughts

See Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy (p. 483) on the poet's power to remake nature in a more "golden" form. The myth of the Golden Age has great imaginative force in the English Renaissance (see extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses, p. 989). This age of innocence predates all the problematic aspects of "civilized" life:

The classical vision of the Golden Age is often collapsed into Christian notions of the earthly Paradise before the Fall (the fusion of these two ideas is an example of Renaissance SYNCRETISM).

17th century poetry variously locates the shaping I/eye of the poet within natural landscapes that are as much constructed as described by the art of the writer. The natural world is appropriated as a kind of text which is reshaped and reordered in accordance with the particular agendas of each artist.

Ben Jonson, "To Penshurst" (c. 1616)

Penshurst was the estate of the Sidneys, at the time of writing the property of Robert Sidney, brother of the dead Philip Sidney, father of Mary (Sidney) Wroth.

Jonson draws on various classical models:

The "natural" beauties of Penshurst compared favorably to the ostentatious artifice of mansions built by newly ennobled lords. But note paradox: the estate and country house are THEMSELVES products of human labor and art.

Some characteristics of the poem:

(But NB: the supposed "natural order" of things is in fact a historically and culturally specific ideal‹which is here represented by way of the conscious and formal art of the poet).

The "estate poem" describing a landscape attached to a noble house & making it the starting point for a meditation upon the relationships between nature & culture, the social order & the natural world, the individual & the community, becomes something of a minor fashion in the 17th century. "To Penshurst" is usually pointed to as the beginning of this fashion, but Aemilia Lanyer's "The Description of Cooke-ham" may have been written even earlier.

Aemilia Lanyer, "The Description of Cooke-ham"

This is the final poem in Lanyer's collection of religious poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). Lanyer seems to have spent some time in the service of Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Ann (later Countess of Dorset), who often spent time at this estate in Kent. At the time Lanyer writes, however, Clifford had been widowed and had retired to her own lands in the north of England, and her daughter had been newly married and had left to attend her new responsibilities.

This poem, like "To Penshurst," has its roots in classical antiquity--the "farewell to a place" in which a speaker nostalgically praises a locus from which s/he is being exiled. (Cf Virgil's first Eclogue). Lanyer foregrounds women's voices in her religious meditations on the death of Christ, and also dedicates her volume to 13 different aristocratic female readers. Her account of Cooke-ham focuses upon the women who "grace" the estate (and who graced AL with their favor and apparently encouraged her writing).

Cooke-ham's landscape is depicted and read in terms of the presence or absence of its mistress; it is also endowed with various scriptural resonances (see lines 75-93).

The estate becomes an earthly paradise containing three Eves and no Adam and from which all the women are ultimately expelled through no fault of their own (compare this with Jonson's emphasis on Robert Sidney's "dwelling" at Penshurst).

Note in particular:

Andrew Marvell, "The Garden" (c. early 1650s)

(NB: Marvell also wrote a famous "estate poem" called "Upon Appleton House".)

In contrast to Jonson's emphasis on the harmonious and orderly microcosm of Penshurst, or Lanyer's celebration of the female Eden of Cooke-ham, Marvell (1621-78) fantasizes in this poem a retirement of the imagination into a natural setting predicated on an absolute solitariness.

Stanza five offers us a Golden Age plenitude reminiscent of "To Penshurst," but Marvell has no interest in the gendered bodies that play an important role in Jonson's poem: this is an earthly paradise garden without an Eve, a paradise where one only "stumbles" upon melons, one is only "insnared" with flowers, one only "falls" on the grass. He fantasizes a space in which the forbidden fruit is never eaten and humanity never falls into the linear time of mortality and the world of hard labor...But tone here?

The vision of living "in Paradise alone" has its own tongue in cheek absurdity--this solitude, after all, is what has to be ended so that history can begin, so that the process can be started which will culminate in somebody writing a poem like "The Garden."

The garden in which Marvell locates the "I"/eye of the lyric could be anywhere or nowhere; if Jonson and Lanyer reshape actual natural settings in accordance with their particular artistic agendas, Marvell's garden seems to be entirely a product of his art; it metamorphoses into all sorts of different things, working emblematically according to his needs.

This isn't a formal praise poem but rather a playful meditation--a series of variations on a theme. It unfolds by way of the kind of quasi-logical, wide ranging, free assertion of the kind associated with the "Metaphysical" poets.

 


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