CLIO, Wntr 1996 v25 n2 p165(16)

From common wealth to commonwealth: the alchemy of "To Penshurst." Jenkins, Hugh.

Abstract: Ben Jonson's country-house poem 'To Penshurst' (1612) resembles his comedy 'The Alchemist' (1610) in using the household to represent the state, drawing as well on an analogy between the human body and the body politic. In both of Jonson's works, the moral values of the household or state are signified by a female body, with Lady Sidney in 'To Penshurst' representing the enclosed country estate and the prostitute Dol Common in 'The Alchemist' suggesting the dangers of openness. Jonson's use of the female body has a subversive aspect, allowing transgression of boundaries between nature and culture and between inside and out.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 Indiana University, Purdue University of Fort Wayne

Despite the popular failure of his Roman tragedy Catiline in 1611, the years 1610-12 were still some of the most productive and successful of Ben Jonson's long public career. Two of Jonson's most well-remembered works serve as bookends for this period. In October of 1610 he completed The Alchemist, the archetypal and perhaps most compelling of his London comedies; before November 1612 he had completed "To Penshurst," probably the first and certainly the greatest country-house poem, his ideal archetype of English rural society.(1) These seemingly disparate texts mark what are commonly seen as the true scope and power of Jonson's work: on the one hand, his ability to expose, through lacerating satire, the abuses and follies of an emerging urban commercial capitalist culture; and, on the other, his ability to compose, through the understated elegance of his "plain style," depictions of what he saw as the timeless aristocratic and predominately rural ideals of "manners, armes, and arts" (To Penshurst" 98).

Yet the differences in form and focus between these texts should not obscure the fact that, in both of them, Jonson is working out, albeit from different angles and in different locales, what he saw as the central problem of his and all important public literature. That problem he expressed most clearly in his Discoveries:

I could never thinke the study of Wisdome confin'd only to the Philosopher: or of Piety to the Divine: or of State to the Politicke. But that he which can faine a Common-wealth (which is the Poet) can governe it with Counsels, strengthen it with Lawes, correct it with Judgements, informe it with Religion, and Morals; is all these. (1032-37)

The "fained commonwealth" of the Alchemist seems, in many ways, the inverse of that of "To Penshurst."(2) In the former, the absence of "the master of the house," Lovewit, allows for the cozening of the various representatives of urban society, from the gold-besotted Sir Epicure Mammon to the dim-witted and superstitious clerk, Dapper, by the alchemist Subtle and his allies Face and Dol Common. In the latter, the stated presence ("thy lord dwells") of the master of the house, Lord Sidney, allows for stable and hospitable relations between all ranks of society, preventing the kind of social disharmony at his estate that plagues the negatively defined estates surrounding Penshurst. What unites both works is that in each the domestic order of the household becomes an emblem for the political order of the state.

The equation of the household and the state is a political commonplace of the time. John Norden, for example, in his Surveyor's Dialogue (1607) noted that "every manor [is] a little commonwealth, whereof the tenants are the members, the land the body, and the lord the head."(3) The order of the household, the micro-common-wealth, both mirrors and supports that of the macro-commonwealth, the state. This equation draws in turn on another common political analogy, that between the body politic and the body Itself, an analogy well-known to London theater-goers of the early seventeenth century, which would receive its most famous articulation and depiction later In the century in the introduction and frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan.(4) Just as Jonson in his texts emphasizes the importance of the "master of the house," so too in these analogies, either implicitly or explicitly (as in the Leviathan), the body politic is represented as male.

But as the longevity of the analogy and the diversity of its users might suggest, this seemingly straightforward engendered representation of the body politic and its relation to the household actually marks a complex negotiation, one particularly crucial to much of Jonson's work, and to The Alchemist and "To Penshurst" in particular. One can perhaps best see what is being negotiated here by looking at how two eminent Jonson scholars have treated his use of the same analogy. L. C. Knights, in his seminal Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, remarks of this image that it represents what he calls the "inherited economic order" of Jonson's age"

status tended to be fixed and traditional - the common analogy for the state was the human body@ the various parts were members one of another, but each member had his place and his particular function - and on the whole a man's expectations in life were determined by the position in society in which he happened to be born.(5)

But Don Wayne, in his reply to Knights's study, notes that in Jonson's time the household became the fundamental social unit of the `contract community,'" which was replacing the status community" Knights sees as inherent in Jonson's thought. Thus Wayne notes that "patriarchy in the family was the common basis of argumentation in the conflicting doctrines concerning the foundations of state and society" - basically, between, what Knights called the "anti-acquisitive attitude" of Jonson's work and what Wayne identifies as "the emerging commercial society of Jacobean England" which Jonson perforce had to live and work in. Regardless of which view one accepts, it is clear that anxieties about what exactly constitutes "home" are central to understanding the complexities of Jonson's moral and political stance, or, perhaps, stances.(6)

These stances, as we have seen, are crucial to the contrast between the London of The Alchemist and the Sidney estate in "To Penshurst." There is, however, a curious yet vital similarity between the way the two texts represent the body politic, for in both, the female body replaces the male "master of the house" as an emblem of the moral value of the household/state. David Norbrook has noted that, in The Alchemist, it is the prostitute Dol Common who represents to the two cozeners "your republique" (1.1.110) - literally, their "public thing."(7) In this emblematic sense, she represents perhaps an even greater threat to the patriarchal order than the scheming of the alchemists. Indeed, at the beginning of the play, it is she, like a queen, who holds the band together, preventing their initial falling out by threatening, in effect, civil war, when she warns that "I shall grow factious too, / And, take my part, and quit you" if the two fail to remember that "the worke / Were not begun out of equalitie . . . The venter tripartite . . . All things in common" (1.1.140-41; 133-35). That her body is "common" in the sense of open to all (for a price) illustrates the perverse notion of common-wealth at the center of the play. In this perverse commonwealth, Dol's authority is strengthened by the fact that, of all the rogues, she alone actually labors, though the labor of the prostitute is, ironically, unproductive. But the potential for Dol's "labors" to become productive, through childbirth, poses the gravest potential threat in the play. Her planned union with Sir Epicure Mammon in the chaotic fourth act threatens to produce a social as well as an elemental alchemy" a perverse new "golden age" which will "concumbere [copulate] gold," turning a prostitute into a great lady and allowing Sir Epicure to "get a nation on" her (4.1.30, 128).(8) As John Mebane has noted, such a nation would be based on what Jonson saw as the twin evils of his age: egalitarianism, on the one hand, and acquisitiveness on the other.(9) Only the final expulsion of Dol (with Subtle) at the end of the play allows for restoration of patriarchal order in the household. This order is in turn emblematized by the more socially acceptable marriage of the returning master, Lovewit, to the aptly named Dame Pliant.

It is thus Dol Common, a woman's body rather than a man's, that maps the ideological boundaries of The Alchemist's "commonwealth" of knaves.(10) Such a connection would be of no surprise in the heavily patriarchal, even misogynist court of King James I. Patriarchy, as Jonathan Goldberg has noted, formed the basis of James's political thought;(11) indeed, in his first speech to Parliament in the beginning of his reign, he made his views explicit when he spoke of his hope for a "well governed Commonwealth" in terms of the patriarchal household:

What God hath conjoyned the, let no man separate. I am the Husband, and all the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife; I am the Head, and it is my Body ... I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable as to thinke that . . . I being the Head, should have a divided and monstrous Body.(12)

Still, James's strident tone, as scholars have long noted, betrays his deep-seated anxiety about not only following the rule of Queen Elizabeth, but also the threats posed to his power by women as strong-willed as his own queen and Arbella Stuart, who herself had a claim to the throne. Thus, as Eugene Cunnar has noted, James's own misogyny "set an antifeminine tone at court that fostered, in part, the famous Swetnam controversy in which males attempted to subdue women and put them in their place." It is not surprising, then, that many of Jonson's early works for the Jacobean court "work as [an] appeal to James's patriarchal and misogynist views," views which Cunnar, and others, have related to Jonson's "own misogyny and fear of becoming effeminized."(13) Dol Common fits neatly into this atmosphere.

It is paradoxical, then, that when we turn to "To Penshurst," which maps, in Paul Cubeta's phrase, "a Jonsonian ideal,"(14) we find a similar engendered displacement, Here again it is a woman's body - in this case, that of Lady Sidney - that ultimately marks the integrity of the estate Jonson praises: the arrival of King James at Penshurst draws praise not so much to the lord of the manor, but rather to its "good lady," especially for her physical attributes of fruitfulness and chastity. Jonson's connection of positive female sexual attributes with that of the household or state seems at odds with the patriarchal conceptions we have noted before. Yet this contradiction draws on another common Renaissance trope recently explored by Peter Stallybrass: that of a woman's body as a map of the Integrity of the state." Like Lady Sidney, a woman's body could be "the emblem of the perfect and Impermeable container, and hence . . . the state, like the virgin, was a hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden walled off from enemies." At the same time, however, a woman's body could also be seen, like Dol Common's, as too open, too accessible: the commonwealth becoming, like Dol herself, a common wealth.(15) Karen Newman has analyzed how Jonson's city comedies, particularly Epicoene, draw on this type of ambiguous representation, with "woman [as] the focus of cultural ambivalence toward social mobility, urbanization, and colonialism; she is the site of systems of exchange that constituted capitalism, the absolutist state, and English colonial power."(16) In The Alchemist, this ambivalence is largely played out through Dol's link with alchemy. Though Jonson clearly despised alchemists as frauds, and, worse, panderers to the acquisitive desires of his age (See, e.g., his Epigram Vl), he also recognized in alchemy a potent metaphor for the transformative powers of the poetic process: just as Dol's union with Sir Epicure could transform society into a perverse "golden age," so too could the (pro)creative powers of poetry transform "not metals, but human beings" - producing the ideal, if "fained," commonwealth.(17)

The ambiguous connotations of the female body politic and its alchemical Instability and power are carefully used in "To Penshurst" as well, for they capture precisely the problem Jonson faces in constructing his ideal "fained commonwealth." As an ideal, the estate must be a hortus conclusus, sealed off from the corruption surrounding it;, yet at the same time, it must also be open as an emblem to the "real" commonwealth, which includes those very corrupt or potentially corrupting elements. The contradictory demands of Jonson's poem can be resolved only through Dol's counterpart, the ambiguously figured, yet formally contained, Lady Sidney: at once "fertile" yet "chaste"; at once subservient to her lord yet also, in effect, taking his position at the head of the social hierarchy at the estate. In "To Penshurst," by making the estate's lady the poem's central figure, Jonson can mediate between the poem's opposing poles of inside and outside, positive and negative, nature and culture. Thus it is fitting that she, rather than her husband, greets King James at the poem's culmination.(18)

The meeting of these two figures is significant. For it is too little discussed how King James's own policies and wishes contributed not just to Jonson's Jacobean masques and plays, but also to his inauguration of the country-house genre with "To Penshurst." As evident from the speech cited above, James was greatly worried about the potentially fractious nature of his "wife," the kingdom; he was particularly concerned with the unrest in the countryside in the early years of his reign. While this unrest was partly caused by poor harvests, much of it was the result of his own policies, which, while calling for a return of traditional rural values, in fact often encouraged agrarian capitalist practices. In 1607, in fact, much of the Midlands had exploded into revolt over the increasing problems of enclosure and price-gouging. As a result, James began issuing a series of proclamations ordering the nobility back to their country estates, where their dwelling,, would help insure order - a strategy Leah Marcus has termed "repastoralization."(19) James even wrote a poem on the subject, a poem which itself mediates between the commonwealth exemplified in Dol Common and that in Lady Sidney.(20)

James ostensibly wrote his poem, as the title proclaim, as "An Elgie . . . concerning his counsell for Ladies & gentlemen to departe the City of London according to his Majesties Proclamation."(21) The "Elegie," however, makes its misogynist focus clear from the beginning: it is intended for women that doe London love so well / whom scarce a Proclamation can expell" (1-2) It is their desires, both venal and carnal, that keep their husbands in London. James links these desires to the vices of the city: the "Coach-horse," "morly," "jewels," and the like (31-38). These vices in turn convert the ladies into Dol Common-like figures, laden with the "excesse of Lustes provocatives" (22) which lead to the whore's "painted face" (38). Such "wanton pleasures . . . doe ruinate / insensibly both honour wealth & state" (43-44). But it is also through the agency of these same women that the vices of the city can become the virtues of the country. A simple change of location produces a kind of moral alchemy: the coach-horse becomes "your thriftie plough"; money becomes tangible in the form of "your sheepe your corne your cowe"; jewels become "your children" (31-39). As In The Alchemist, women alone truly labor, though their labor can be, like Dol's, unnatural and unproductive, or "chaste" and (re)productive (16). James thus uses female figures to negotiate between a wholesome, natural, useful economy, centered in the rural estate, and a degenerate, artificial, luxurious one, centered in the city. But the ease of the conversion also shows the ease with which one becomes the other; the narrow physical, but nonetheless huge moral, gap between the two. Women mediate between the two economies: through them, James can transform the primitive accumulation of London's burgeoning economy into female commodification and consumption, which in turn he figures as a kind of wantonness, a lack of chastity. In a final, telling metaphor, James elides original sin and the basis of capitalist relations, "and yet good men `tis best ye gette these hence I least honest Adam pay for Eves offence." Control your women and control your "cuntrey": James's spelling makes the obscene pun clear.(22)

This sort of transformation - an almost alchemical process - is precisely what Jonson must perform in "To Penshurst," concocting the ideal estate from the dross of its negatively defined surroundings. One of Jonson's crucial Innovations in the poem is to replace the country/city contrast that forms the basis of James's poem as well as most classical pastoral (including the companion piece of "To Penshurst," "To Sir Robert Wroth") with a contrast between two forms of country. The first, negatively defined, imports the vices of the city into the country. These vices invert the stated desire of James's repastoralization policy, undoing the magical transformation James has posited by reifying nature, and turning the natural elements into ostentatious monuments of touch, or marble," "polish'd pillars, or a roofe of gold" (1-3). This perversion of nature turns man against man, marking separation rather than community; enclosing walls are "rear'd with . . . mans ruine [and] mans grone" (46). The other form of country living, celebrated and symbolized by Penshurst itself, Jonson describes positively, in sections that move up a natural "chain of being," from the lower forms of animals (inhabiting, naturally, the "lower land"), to the "farmer, and the clowne," and ultimately to the pinnacle of earthly society, King James himself.(23) These sections appropriately realize James's desires, (re)turning man-made artifice to its natural state, the "better markes, of soyle, of ayre, / Of wood, of water" (7-8), while uniting all levels of society at the lord's "liberall boord" (59).

This much - the ideological distinction between forms of country living - is standard, and rightly forms the basis of almost all discussions of the poem.(24) Yet equally worthy of notice is the formal device that Jonson uses to make, and at the same time call into question, this distinction. The negative definitions in the poem do not merely set off the positive descriptions of Penshurst; they also form a frame that literally surrounds these descriptions. Thus the positive description of nature at Penshurst (lines 7-44) is framed by two negative passages describing a perversion of nature: the "prodigy houses" of lines 1-6, and the enclosing walls and disgruntled (or rebellious) tenants of lines 45-50. Similarly, the positive description of the unifying feast (lines 51-60)is surrounded by the aforementioned negative passage in 45-50, and the long negative condemnation of stingy hospitality ("Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by, / A waiter, doth my gluttony envy") in lines 61-75. Based on this double framing, one would expect the poem to end negatively, an expectation heightened by the return to the negative in the penultimate line: "Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else" (101). Yet Jonson ends with a positive assertion - "thy lord dwells" (102) - which which in effect breaks the negative frame and opens the estate up to the world outside. At the same time, though, this formal deviation upsets the careful symmetry of the poem, the basis of the poem's positive Ideology. How can it be justified?

To answer this question, one must first look at the most stringent critique of "To Penshurst": Raymond Williams's ruthless demystification of the poem and the entire country-house genre in The Country and the City. Williams pointed out that the natural and social harmony at the celebrated estate can exist only because of the "magical extraction of the curse of labour."(25) That is, the "golden age economy" at Penshurst can be achieved only by the magic of natural self-sacrifice, the fish that "runne into thy net," the "painted partrich . . .willing to be kill'd" (29-38). The poem depends on a kind of inverse alchemy, as the "golden age" is produced by imparting human elements into the natural world. Nature can serve man only by taking on distinctly human attributes: the river "pay[s] tribute," fish become officious and emulative, partridges have wills (29-38). In a sense, then, the poem depends upon a reversal of "the great chain of being" in order to justify the accepted order.

Clearly, such an "alchemy" is as dangerous as that of The Alchemist: it threatens to undo the very distinctions it supports. If labor is extracted, what supports the social distinctions that labor traditionally upheld? To return to the analogy between the estate and the body, what keeps the head in place if the members are missing, or have themselves assumed the head's position? Natural conversion slides too easily into human perversion, just as in The Alchemist the commonwealth becomes, for a time, the common wealth of Dol Common's body. In order to reestablish social order, Jonson must reintroduce the "natural" distinction labor provides. Thus at the two critical formal junctures of tile poem - the movement from nature to human culture in the center of the poem, and the movement from inside the estate to outsides at the end of the poem - Jonson introduces female figures which. as in James's poem, perform an alchemy of their own. That alchemy to reintroduce labor, in a naturalized, non-exploitative form. Through this naturalization Jonson can reinstitute the hierarchies that have threatened to collapse under the weight of their ideological contradictions.

Female figures enter the poem at its exact center, in the list of gifts the estate's tenants bring to the lord's table:

Some bring a capon, some a rurall cake, Some nuts, some apples; some that thinke they make The better cheeses bring'hem, or else send By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend This way to husbands; and whose baskets An embleme of themselves, in plum, or peare.

This list brings the natural bounty of the estate into its human center, where it will form the basis of the "hospitality" that serves as rural society's social glue. What nature provides, the lord of the estate distributes at his "liberal boord" (59). But nature and culture do not simply come together in provision and consumption; nature literally merges with human society through the women, whose "emblems" are the very, fruits they bear. This naturalization vitally contains the disruptive elements introduced by the negatively defined walls that separate the first half of the poem (nature) from the second (human culture). The walls at Penshurst support the very fruits the women are bringing in: the "blushing apricot, and woolly peach / Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach" (43-44). The women, in their emblematic function, dissolve these walls; they undo the boundaries that at other estates prove so disruptive, turning what is potentially a separating element of the estate into a social element. At the same time, again through their emblematic function, they themselves become part of the natural bounty of the estate, to be distributed, in the rural marriage market (a naturalized form of prostitution), by the lord as part of his beneficence. Thus labor is introduced to the poem in its most natural form: the production of

Common threatens, but IS children through marriage - what Dol Common threatens, but is ultimately unable to do.

By naturalizing the estate's female tenants, Jonson has thus smoothed the difficult passage from nature to culture, containing the potentially disruptive elements of one inn the other. Human labor has not then been mystified, but instead naturalized as an organic process; this naturalization in turn dissolves the poem's interior negative frame. Jonson uses the same process when he opens the micro-commonwealth of the estate to macro-commonwealth of the state at the end of the poem. Here again, Jonson must confront the very negatives against which he has defined his ldeal estate. That is, Penshurst, defined by its uniqueness, must be made to serve as a model to the very estates it defines Itself against.

Jonson confronts this problem in a typically head-on way. "To Penshurst" has been celebrated for its artistic symmetry and carefully laid out hierarchies, yet it is not the arrival of King James - the pinnacle of both the social and natural "chain of being" - that caps the poem's progressions. Rather, it is the description of the estate's "good lady," who greets the king and reaps the poem's highest praise for her "high huswifery" (lines 84-90). Don Wayne has noted a pointed ideological contradiction here: in a poem ostensibly celebrating an aristocratic, feudal ethos, it is the very bourgeois virtues of a well-kept private house that are most celebrated. At the same time that the lady transmits aristocratic values to her children, the poem seemingly also transmits the "bourgeois" values of prudence, thrift, and industry, at least to its modern readers.(27)

But what has happened here is as much a formal inversion as an ideological one; and indeed, the formal inversion seems a deliberate attempt to reconcile the contradictions Wayne has noted. If previously Jonson has naturalized labor in the peasant women, here he cultivates it in the estate's lady. Thus it is that she is figured, paradoxically, as both "fruitful" and "chaste" (90). Her fruitfulness clearly relates her to both the fecundity of the estate's grounds and their human representation in the women bearing fruits as "emblem[s] of themselves." Her welcome of James completes the elemental hierarchy of nature at the estate, by bringing into the estate the one natural element - the welcoming fire (77) - left out of the earlier catalogue of Penshurst's "better markes" of "soyle . . . ayre /. . . [and] water." Fire is, of course, the transformative element, the key to alchemical conversion, and the "fires" which guide James to the house transform the negative, exclusionary hospitality Jonson so resents at other estates (61-75) into the "sodayne cheare" (82) of Lady Sidney's welcome. In masque-like fashion, then, James's arrival dispels the threat of disorder and brings court and country together into the unity that comprises a true "commonwealth."

Yet such transformations, like alchemy itself, are potentially dangerous: if they can go one way, they can go the other as well. Thus Jonson ends the poem not here, but with a long (twenty lines, from 83-102) encomium to the moral virtues of Lady Sidney. This encomium transforms the transformation. By positing Lady Sidney as the emblem of the estate, Jonson can cultivate and contain both the "natural" desires of golden age - laborless - communality and the privatized desires that stand in formal opposition to them. In effect, Lady Sidney alchemizes the vices of Dol Common - private gain, on the one hand, and egalitarian public consumption on the other - into the virtues of "chastity" and fruitfulness. Her labor is thus for both the common good-the virtues of hospitality, not the vices of prostitution - and the private good of the estate and her lord. "His children thy great lord may call his owne, / A fortune, is this age, but rarely knowne" (91-92). "Fortune" is carefully chosen: rather than presenting a reified valuation of the estate's worth, it marks the very human element that makes it "naturally" rich. Through her "labor" she passes on the ultimate aristocratic achievement, the "mysteries of manners, armes, and arts" (98).

By emblematizing such human values in Lady Sidney, Jonson is able to break the negative frame of the poem. Lady Sidney as emblem Is a metonymical substitution for Lord Sidney, who was frequently away on government service at the time the poem was written.(28) This metonymy allows Jonson to conclude with a positive assertion:

Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee With other edifices, when they see Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else, May say, their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

(99-102)

In this way, Lady Sidney also becomes an emblem for James's repastoralization policies. Her presence not only allows for the welcome the estate can offer the king; it also allows Penshurst to become a positive force in the countryside, a stable rural symbol of the ordered household. Penshurst's positive virtues become a formal and ideological anodyne for the negative ones framing the other sections of the poem. Jonson is thus able both to assert Penshurst, through its "chaste" emblem, as a social model, and insert it safely Into an Infected world.

But it is also perhaps true that Lady Sidney as metonymical emblem reveals as much as she contains. Again, as Don Wayne has convincingly argued, Jonson's culminating praise of "her high huswifery" posits "her as a paragon of the role of wife and mother by the standards of a concept of family that is relatively recent historically" - that is, at an "early stage in the formation of an ideology in which the nuclear, conjugal family is represented as the institutional foundation of morality and social order."(29) This ideology is of course opposed to the aristocratic "mysteries" mentioned above. Yet persuasive as Wayne's arguments are, the end of the poem reveals another anxiety, one with deeper subversive possibilities, and which again shows the poem's relationship to The Alchemist. That play, like so many of Jonson's urban comedies, ends with an unconvincing reassertion of authority.(30) When the master of the house, Lovewit, returns, he does so not to punish the malefactors but rather to marvel at and profit by their scheming. He brings the devious Face back into his service, marries Dame Pliant, and cheerfully allows Dol and Subtle to escape. None of the dupes receives any restitution; instead, Lovewit appropriates the profits of the schemers for himself. His restoration of authority is remarkably like Dol's notion of the "common-wealth" that opens the play he profits for the common good. One could even read Lovewit's house as a kind of metonymy for Dol herself. As David Riggs has noted, the alchemist's house in Blackfriars is itself a stand-in for the actual theater in which the play was originally performed.(31) So at the end of the play Face can reassert the original rogue's "commonwealth" in his epilogue to the audience:

I put my selfe On you, that are my countrey; and this pelfe, Which I have got, if you doe quit me, rests To feast you often, and invite new ghests.

The ill-gotten gains of prostitution and alchemy thus become the basis of the hospitality the house and the play offer to their guests.

One can ask if something similar is not going on in "To Penshurst." The potentially subversive link in The Alchemist between Lovewit and Dol, between beginning and end, producer and consumer, even poet and his creation, is briefly reflected in the way "To Penshurst" constitutes its ideal community. Both of the poem's celebrated hierarchies, both nature and culture, end with a gender inversion: women on top. In each case, the female body allows the poem to transgress the boundaries the poem establishes: between nature and culture, and between inside and out. So while the female body contains (in the sense of controls) the subversive qualities of such transgressions, it also contains (in the sense of holds within) these very transgressive qualities. There is a leveling effect here: Lady Sidney essentially performs the same ideological, if not domestic, function as her tenants. The poem, that is, can only re-establish hierarchy by momentarily inverting it: turning the world upside down.(32)

We have seen this sort of ambivalence played out in Jonson's use of alchemy as both a metaphor for social perversion and poetic creation: centering each on the "res publica" of the female body, Jonson's works, even at the height of his powers and fame, continually interrogate the paradoxical connections between the two. In "To Penshurst" this connection reaches a potentially subversive moment when, in celebrating the hospitality of the estate, Jonson claims that "all is there; / As if thou, then, wert mine, or I raign'd here" (73-74). Jonson's carnivalesque "gluttony" (68) here for a moment almost overwhelms the poem's careful structures. His "as if" pushes the powers of poetic transformation as far as they can possibly go, to the point of alchemical transgression: turning the son of a bricklayer into a reigning estate owner, or even monarch. It is no surprise that, at this moment, Jonson introduces both the actual monarch Into the poem ("That found King james, when hunting late, this way" [76]), and Lady Sidney, whose "high huswifery" adds a containing element of decorum.

Mikhail Bakhtin has demonstrated famously the potentially subversive qualities of this sort of "grotesque" body in medieval and Renaissance literature.(33) Peter Stallybrass has noted how this transgressive aspect was largely transferred to the female body throughout the literature of the English Renaissance. As he puts it, "the female grotesque could, indeed, interrogate class and gender hierarchies alike, subverting the enclosed body in the name of a body that is [quoting Bakhtin] `unfinished, outgrows itself, [and] transgresses Its own limits.'" This seems precisely what Jonson himself almost does, and the female figures in "To Penshurst" must do, in order for the poem to assert the hicrarchies upon which it is built. Stallybrass ends his essay with a list of actions of such "unruly women" in the early seventeenth century: tearing down enclosures, rioting against high grain prices, and conducting unruly "skimmingtons."(34) He could perhaps have added one more: the women who, also in 1607, lead a series of riots against food exportation at a time of famine. They did so just a few miles up the Medway from a small, unostentatious estate in Kent - Penshurst Place.(35) They might, in fact, be the very women who enter the lord's hall bearing "emblem[s] of themselves," bringing into it and the poem as well a subversive potential too long unrecognized.


(1.). On the dating of "To Penshurst," see Ben Jonson 11 vols., ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (oxford: Clarendon, 1952), 11:33, which establishes a terminus ad quem for the poem as November 1612, when Prince Henry (mentioned in line 77) died. All subsequent citations of Jonson's prose and poetry are from this work, and will hereafter be cited parenthetically by line number(s).

(2.) David Norbrook has also noted Jonson's intent to "fain a commonwealth" in "To Penshurst." See Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). 188.

(3.) Cited by R. H. Tawney, in The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (London: Longmans, 1912). 350.

(4.) For theatrical representations of this analogy, see, e.g, Menenius's speech to the rebellious citizens in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, 1.196-155.

(5.) L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson: (New York: Norton, 1968), 18.

(6.) Donald Wayne, "Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson: An Alternative View," in Renaissance Drama n.s. XIII (1982): 126, 128. Wayne later developed this view of the complexity of representations of "home" in more detail in Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984).

(7.) David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, 180.

(8.) Dol's mad "fit of talking" to Sir Epicure in 4.4 furthers the political implications of their union: Ian Donaldson has noted that it draws on the commentary on Daniel in Hugh Broughton's A Concent of Scripture (1590), which concerns "the progressive degeneration of kingdoms." See Ian Donaldson, "Jonson's Magic Houses," Essays and Studies 39 (1986):53 n. 16.

(9.) John Mebane, "Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: Utopianism and Religious Enthusiasm in The Alchemist Renaissance Drama 10 (1979). Alchemy can be a "metaphor for nascent capitalism," yet also plays on lower-class egalitarian impulses; see Jonathan Haynes, "The Alchemist and the Underworld," Studies in Philology 86 (1989):18-41.

(10.) Jonson's use of a woman's body in such a manner is not restricted to the texts under consideration here. For example, in Bartholomew Fair, the "pig-woman" Ursla symbolizes the gross and potentially subversive vitality of the Fair, representing to authority figures "the very wombe and bedde of enormitie" (2.2.106)

(11.) See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983).

(12.) "A Speach, As It Was Delivered in the Upper House of the Parliament to the Lords Spiritual and Temporall, and the Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses There Assembled, on Munday the XIX Day of March 1603. Being the First Day of the First Parliament," in C. H. McIlwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918), 272.

(13.) Eugene R. Cunnar, "(En)gendering Architectural Poetics in Jonson's Masque of the Queens," Lit: Literature, interpretation, theory 4:2 (1993):145. On James's misogyny and its effect on literary discourses, see also Jonathan Goldberg, 24-26, and Stephen Orgel, "Jonson and the Amazons," in Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds., Soliciting Interpretations: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990), 119-39. For a discussion of male poets, anxieties about becoming "effeminized" through poetry, see Katherine Maus, "A Womb of His Own: Male Renaissance Poets in the Female Body," in James Grantham Turner, ed., Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern: Institutions, Texts, Images (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 266-88.

(14.) "A Jonsonian Ideal: "To Penshurst,'" Philological Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1963):14-24.

(15.). Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Margaret Ferguson, et al., eds., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986), 123-42. See also John Rogers, "The Enclosure of Virginity: The Poetics of Sexual Abstinence in the English Revolution," in Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, eds., Enclosure Acts: Sexualily, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994), 229-50. Much of what Rogers sees Milton and Marvell working out seems applicable to Jonson's work as well.

(16.) Karen Newman, "City Talk: Women and Commodification in Jonson's Epicoene, ELH 56, no. 3 (1989):510.

(17.) Anne Barton, Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), 137. See also Robert Schuler, "Jonson's Alchemists, Epicures, and Puritans," in J. Leeds Barroll III, ed., Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. An Annual Gathering of Research Criticism and Reviews 2 (1985):171-208.

(18.) Several commentators, particularly Don Wayne in Penshurst, have also noted the importance on Lady Sidney in the poem. My argument is indebted throughout to Wayne's fine and subtle analysis, yet differs in ways that will become apparent as it develops.

(19.) See Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986). On the contradictions of James's "repastoralization" strategy, see, e.g., Joan Thirsk, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. IV: 1500-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967), 213, 232-38. For a detailed account of the Midlands Revolt, see Edwin Gay, "The Midlands Revolt and the Inquisition of Depopulation of 1607," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, n.s. 18 (1904):195-244.

(20.) James's poem actually post-dates "To Penshurst," but, as we have seen, his concern about rural problems stems from the beginning of his reign. Moreover, as Jonathan Goldberg has noted, "the last stage of [James's poetic] career was shaped by the model of Ben Jonson" (James I and the Politics of Literature, 20).

(21.) The text of James's elegy can be found in James Craigie, ed., The Poems of King James VI of Scotland, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London: 1955-58) 2:178.

(22.) James's proclamations also show a similar and its corrupting effect: see Marcus, 69-70. For the full text of the proclamations, see James Larkin and Paul Hughes, eds., Stuart Royal Proclamations, Volume I: Royal Proclamations of King James I, 1603-1625 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973).

(23.) On the "great chain of being" in "To Penshurst," see Gayle Wilson, "Jonson's Use of the Bible and the Great Chain of Being in To Penshurst,'" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 7, no. 1 (1968):77-89.

(24.) The seminal discussion of the poem remains G. R. Hibbard's "The Country-House Poem of the Seventeenth-Century," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 19 (1956):159-74. See also Heather Dubrow, "The Country-House Poem: A Study in Generic Development," Genre 12 (1979):153-79; Alastair Fowler, "Country-House Poems: The Politics of a Genre," Seventeenth Century 1 (1986):1-14; William McClung, The Country House in English Renaissance Poetry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1977); Charles Molesworth, "Property and Virtue: The Genre of the Country House Poem in the Seventeenth Century," Genre 1 (1968):141-57; and the works by Cubeta and Wilson, cited above. See also Williams, below.

(25.) Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford UP, 1973), 32.

(26.) This passage redacts Sir Epicure Mammon's "golden age" plans for his wealth in The Alchemist: see 2.2.72-87; 4.1.155-69.

(27.) Wayne, Penshurst, chap. 3.

(28.) On Lord Sidney's frequent absences from his estate, see J. C. A. Rathmell, "Jonson, Lord Lisle, and Penshurst," English Literry Renaissance 1, no. 3 (1971):252.

(29.) Wayne, Penshurst, 72, 23.

(30.) On the problematic endings of Jonson's comedies, see, e.g., Mebane, 137, and Wayne, "Drama and Society," 112-14.

(31.) David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), 171. For more on the self-reflexive theatricality of the ending of the play and its implications, see Ian Donaldson, "Jonson's Magic Houses," 55-56, and Wayne, "Drama and Society," 113.

(32.) On the potency of this image in the turbulent seventeenth century, see, of course, Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

(33.) Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) particularly chapter 5.

(34.) Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories," 124, 142.

(35.) See Peter Clark, "Popular Protest and Disturbance in Kent, 1558-1640," Economic History Review, 29, no. 3 (1976):368. On the role of women in rural disturbances, see also Natalie Zeman Davis, "Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modem Europe," in Barbara Bocock, ed., The Reversible World (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978) 154-155 (cited by Stallybrass 142).




   
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