There was a stage during my orals planning last spring when I was trying to put together a minor list on the Country House in early modern England. This list eventually moved away from the country house as its centralizing locus, but the country house poem and the pastoral mode which it takes part in remain among my Interests. Recent products of this interest are (1) My first playlist! (2) An argument-in-progress about George Herbert.

Taking inspiration from [personal profile] oliviacirce 's tragedy playlist from first semester, I've put together the following as a mix-tape of the Political Pastoral:

The songs are rather 60s/70s heavy, in part because I got most of my music collection off of my father (who actually has quite expansive taste), but largely because the whole era is so very pastoral, both in terms of "back to nature" hippie-ness and in terms of the occasional naivety of its political outlook ("Imagine! ... It's easy if you try). The pastoral has no inherent ideology, as demonstrated by the poetry of the English Civil War, in which both the Royalists and various revolutionary writers claimed the pastoral as theirs. For this reason, some of my favorite moments on the list are those that play up the liberal/conservative ambiguity of the pastoral mode's--think the Kink's song's "Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you." "Village Green" is a nostalgic love song to an English country life that is well aware of the flaws, political and otherwise, of that idealized vision. Part of what fascinates me about the pastoral is that it predates "liberal" and "conservative" as a political mode, thereby opening up alternative ways of organizing politics.

I don't know how to put a zip file of the songs online (I'm new to this), but if someone can help me out, I will.

On to Herbert. For a while now I've been thinking that Herbert's The Temple works in dialogue with the Country House poem, a pastoral-y mode most famously instantiated by Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst." Lets look at some evidence:
--The main section of The Temple opens with "The Altar," a poem which itself features description by negation, "No workman's tools hath touched the same." Similarly, Jonson's poem opens "Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show"; there is an even closer echo in Jonson's line that Penshurst's walls "are reared with no man's ruin, no man's groan." Thomas Carew's "To Saxham" opens by addressing the house and commenting on how, because of the winter, "I might not all thy pleasures know"; and Andrew Marvell writes in "Upon Appleton House" that one ought "expect / Work of no foreign architect."
--"To Penshurst" is concerned with managing groups of people who approach the house, moving from the tenants of the land ("all come in, the farmer and the clown") to more official visitors ("Where is no guest, but is allowed to eat / Without his fear, and of thy lord's own meat"). Similarly, The Temple draws subtle distinctions between different sorts of people entering the space, e.g., in "Superliminare": "come not here: / Nothing but holy, pure, and cleare, / Or that which groaneth to be so / May at his perill further go." The difference between "come not" unless you are pure and the "groaneth to be so" is crucial: The first stanza of the poem has invited the reader to come in, then the second stanza first turns them back, then invites them again, in a modified way. The slippery categories here--the pure, the trying, and those facing "perill"--seems akin to the way Jonson subtly slides between the peasants bringing tribute and the guests receiving hospitality; it's easy to think that the two are the same in reading "To Penshurst."
--Jonson praises Penshurst for its beauty, for the virtue of its lord, and for its role as a place of learning, all themes in various poems in The Temple.
--Most important, in my opinion, is the culminating poem of The Temple, "Love" (III), an invitation to a meal (Eucharist). Jonson, unsurprisingly, cares a lot about food and hospitality.

I could go on and in more detail but I've been sitting on this post for a while and I want to get it done.

So I have some generic ties between Herbert's book and the Country House genre. I also have plenty of evidence that Herbert cared about country politics: his prose work, The Country Parson discusses the parson's duty to chastise the gentry for their poor behavior and presents the parson as a major figure in the locale: showing hospitality (including detailed advise on how to use dinner invitations as encouragement to improve the locals' behavior), educating the people, and healing the sick and wounded (compare Margaret Hoby, a gentlewoman whose diary records her work as a healer?).

What I'm not sure about is, what can I make of this? Some possibilities:
--A highly contextual, local-politics reading of some of the poems, particularly those in which Herbert uses the God-as-landlord, covenant-as-rent metaphor (e.g., "Redemption"). Is Herbert arguing something about the rent policies of the landed gentry? Were there particular conflicts in play in the late 1620s in Bemerton?
--A new way of looking at Herbert's multiple voices in many of the poems. The priest, after all, is in some senses a lord of the church, in charge of the space in important respects (e.g., his efforts at repairing the church buildings), while in other ways, he is another guest, there by the grace of the true Lord of the temple. The politics of The Temple are not (pace Schoenfeldt) modeled on the relationship of courtier to king, but of country gentry to guests (of various ranks) or members of their household staff (perhaps secretaries, issuing invitations at the Lord's request).
--Genre: In invoking the country house mode, Herbert continues his thinking about the pastoral (in "Jordan" (I) and elsewhere). Is the redeemed pastoral centered not on the fields, but on the house, here truly redeemed from worldly ambitions, where Penshurst could only pretend to be truly a paradise on earth?




January 2013



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