Ben Jonson: To Penshurst (1612)
Thomas Carew: To Saxham (1640)
Robert Herrick: A Panegyrick to Sir Lewis Pemberton (1613–1634)
Downton Abbey and its nonfictional counterpart Highclere Castle have inspired a new rush of interest in the elegance and beauty of the English manor house. These aristocratic country homes have been subjects of fascination from the first, and there is even an entire genre of poetry dedicated to describing them and the way of life that centers on them. It will come as no surprise to fans of Downton Abbey or Manor House or any of Jane Austen’s novels that, alongside all the pastoral beauty, there are some interesting economic issues at play in these poems. When we read them we are taken right into a debate about charity, responsibility, and disparities in wealth.
When G. R. Hibbard defined the country house poem genre in his 1956 article, “The Country House Poem of the Seventeenth Century,” he argued that the idea of sponte sua was central to these poems. Sponte sua, as he put it, means that “The things of nature … find their proper end and pleasure in being put to use.” In the country house poems, this trope is evidenced by the (often literal) voluntary self-sacrifice of fish, birds, and beasts in order to serve as food for the residents of the country house. While the sponte sua trope is sometimes subtly portrayed with images of endlessly fruitful trees, ever-full roasting spits, or horns of plenty, it is never absent. And it is, I think, at its most economically interesting when it is at its most explicit, as it is in Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” and Thomas Carew’s “To Saxham.”
The painted partridge lies in ev'ry field,
And for thy mess is willing to be kill'd.
And if the high-swoln Medway fail thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loth the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray.
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land,
Before the fisher, or into his hand.
And Carew, emulating him, gives us:
The pheasant, partridge, and the lark
Flew to thy house, as to the Ark.
The willing ox of himself came
Home to the slaughter with the lamb,
And every beast did thither bring
Himself, to be an offering.
The scaly herd more pleasure took,
Bathed in thy dish than in the brook.
Many critics have seen the sponte sua trope as a way of preserving order. Nature is here to serve man. But I want to suggest another function for these passages. They give the country house poet yet another way to engage in the apparently endless early modern debate over Aristotle’s comments about money in the Politics.
The most hated sort [of money-making], and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term usury [τ?κος], which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of making money this is the most unnatural.
Regardless of whether Aristotle is “right” about money, early modern poets seized on the vivid imagery of breeding and birth offered in the passage and replicated it throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aristotle is speaking specifically of money and of the unnaturalness of increasing it, as it is not—like animals or plants—naturally given to increase itself. The natural things—birds, fish, plants, etc.—that are so productive and self-sacrificing in the country house poems should not be, speaking strictly logically, open to this Aristotelian charge of unnatural reproduction. But one of the most pressing concerns of the country house poem is finding ways to praise the wealthy in a time of great economic instability and inequality. In times such as those, possession of even the most “natural” forms of wealth can leave one open to severe critique, no matter how irrational.
Nervousness over this kind of critique of wealth certainly explains the country house poem’s focus on the comparative modesty of the country houses that are being praised. From Jonson’s “Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,” to Carew’s “the architect/Did not with curious skill a pile erect/Of carved marble, touch, or porphyry/But built a house for hospitality,” the country house poem is laden with assertions that these houses, though large, are not grand or showy. They are built in the proper fashion and of the proper size to fulfill the duties of hospitality that their owners are obligated to perform.
Piled on top of these assertions about the appropriately modest use of wealth in the country house are reassurances that the constructing of these houses causes harm to no one. Penshurst is reared with “no man’s ruin, no man’s groan/There’s none that dwell about them wish them down.” And when Herrick writes his Panegyrick to Sir Lewis Pemberton, he carefully notes, “No widow’s tenement was rack’d to gild/ or fret thy ceiling, or to build.…” This is wealth and beauty that is consciously separated by the poet from concerns about inequity.
But the country houses do much more than simply fail to cause distress. In an attempt to alleviate (not eliminate) the inequalities of wealth for which they are so explicitly not responsible, they actively nourish those around them through continual acts of charity. Penshurst is laden with “free provisions, far above/The need of such whose liberal board doth flow/With all that hospitality doth know!” Saxham, in winter, would have been surrounded by starving neighbors “If not by these preserved/Whose prayers have made thy table blest/With plenty, far above the rest.” Pemberton’s home welcomes “the lank stranger and the sour swain/Where both may feed and come again.”
All of this sounds really great. But there are problems.
These poetic statements about modest display of wealth, about labor-free and cost-free construction, about effortless and continual charity are made amid the context—nicely outlined by critics like Hugh Jenkins and Kari Boyd McBride—of great social and economic disruption as well as an increasing willingness and need for the landed gentry to engage in that most shocking of occupations, trade. This means that possessing the kind of superfluity detailed in these poems, the kind of superfluity necessary to engage in a near-continual outpouring of charity, is suspect. To have so much one must have been hoarding, or grinding the faces of the poor, or participating in shameful commerce. There has been—and here comes Aristotle again—simply too much increase, too much muchness, for everything to be quite natural and honest.
And it is here that we return to sponte sua. Because in this troubling context what sponte sua does is to make superfluity entirely natural. The fish, birds, game, and plants not only reproduce entirely of their own free will, they give themselves up to be used charitably in the same way. This means that, while the owners of the country houses can still retain spiritual and moral credit for acting charitably—they did not, after all, keep all this excess to themselves—they are simultaneously excused from any taint of work or trade or Aristotelian unnaturalness that might otherwise lurk behind the level of wealth required for this level of hospitality. If the fish leap into the net, the birds fly into the house, and the ox and lamb offer themselves for slaughter, the owners of these houses serve merely as a conduit for this natural outpouring. They have not undertaken to produce it.
What is going on here, I think, is a poetic attempt to address concerns about the unnaturalness of wealth, excess, and profit—and possibly even trade and commerce in general—by creating an aggressively natural image of them as a response. The irony is that the hypernatural images of sponte sua aren’t natural at all. It is entirely against nature for an animal to sacrifice itself willingly in order to provide humans with food. These are the contorted positions produced by valuing charity in a time when it could be seen as morally suspect to try to create the superfluity of money and goods that are necessary in order to perform charity.