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Enfers et délices à la Renaissance

 | 
Franck Lessay
, 
François Laroque

III - Enfers et délices : de Chaucer à Webster

“A school of tongues in this belly of mine”1: Gluttony and Envy in Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst”

Lynn Sermin Meskill

Résumé

Sans doute à cause de la tradition poétique dans laquelle il s’inscrit, le poème de Ben Jonson “À Penshurst” est souvent considéré comme le panégyrique idéal d'un lieu idéal. Cependant, si l'on considère les affinités profondes que ce poème possède avec une pièce comme L’alchimiste, si l’on suit ses implications logiques et que l’on dépasse les frontières génériques qui séparent le “réel” de “l’idéal” selon Jonson, on s’aperçoit qu’il prend alors tout son sens. Ce que le poème décrit, c'est un sanctuaire poétique qui met à l’abri de la jalousie des autres. Qu il s agisse du personnage de Lovewit dans L’alchimiste ou de la figure historique de Sidney (qui meurt en 1586) dans “À Penshurst”, le scénario montre un poète qui s’installe au sein de la demeure laissée vacante par le père littéraire pour y régner en héritier et en maître. L’image du poète, du “je” dans “À Penshurst”, campe un personnage qui se goinfre à la table de Sidney et que l’on doit considérer comme l’incarnation du processus de la création littéraire chez Jonson : le poète mange la nourriture des autres pères littéraires et il atteint de la sorte un volume tout fait prodigieux. Le glouton offre l’image d’un poète à la fois repu et créateur qui, en profitant de sa bonne chère, s’est approprié la magie de son père littéraire, réussissant ainsi à se protéger de la jalousie des futurs critiques de son œuvre.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV (IV.3.18), A.R. Humphreys ed„ The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1966 (...)
  • 2 See Paul M. Cubeta, “A Jonsonian Idéal: ‘To Penshurst,”’Philological Quarterly 42 (1963), 14-14-24 (...)
  • 3 See G.R.Hibbard, “The Country House Poem of the Seventeenth Century,” J.W.C.I. 19 (1956), 159-77; (...)
  • 4 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 29. In his (...)
  • 5 See Don Wayne, Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (Madison, Wisc., 1984) (...)
  • 6 Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Satiric and Ideal Economies in the Jonsonian Imagination, ELR (1988), 42- (...)

1The word modem critics most frequently use when referring to Jonson’s “To Penshurst” is ideal. Jonson’s eulogy to Penshurst, the ancestral home of the Sidney family, has been seen as Jonson’s hymn to a place where moral goodness and integrity hold sway in a corrupt world. The relationship between the ideal and the real is the subject of more than one essay on Jonson’s poem.2 “To Penshurst” is implicitly the ideal of its generic kind, since it is one of the poems serving as the foundation of a sub-genre of poetry, the “country house” poem.3 It was Raymond Williams who was among the first to see a “double-edge” to Jonson’s praise of Penshurst in the poem’s insistent negative constructions and problematic hyperboles.4 For Williams and others, such as Don Wayne, the Penshurst ideal possesses a darker social underside.5 Yet, even while acknowledging the darker imperative within Jonson’s description of Penshurst, readers have continued to measure “To Penshurst” in terms of an attainable or unattainable ideal, as when Katharine Eisaman Maus observes how “the language of the non-material ideal collapses into the language of material abundance”.6

  • 7 This conjunction is what Cubeta first referred to as the “embattling” of the ideal and the real wi (...)

2While readers continue to use the concept of the ideal to talk about “To Penshurst”, their notions of what the Penshurst ideal is range widely. It has come to mean, among other things, social justice, aesthetic proportion, natural and social harmony, and economic surplus. The term seems no longer very useful. It does not identify what precisely is being praised at Penshurst, nor does it explain the perhaps strange, but also seemingly important, conjunction between the utopian and dis-utopian elements in the poem.7

  • 8 According to Websters Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, a sanctuary is a (...)
  • 9 Richard Marienstras, Le proche et le lointain: sur Shakespeare, le drame elisabéthain et l’idéolog (...)
  • 10 As I have argued elsewhere (see my “Ben Jonson's Envious Muse", PHD, University of Virginia, 2000, (...)

3Rather than seeing Penshurst, vaguely, as an ideal world or an ideal construct, it would be more clarifying to view Jonson’s “To Penshurst” as a poem describing sanctuary. Read in terms of sanctuary, it would be clear immediately why To Penshurst is double-edged”. A description of sanctuary, the poem would necessarily give voice to both those dangers outside the sanctuary as well as those qualities of safe retreat inside the sanctuary. A sanctuary is a sacred place where fugitives were formerly entitled to immunity from arrest.8 A sanctuary, therefore, is a place of asylum, safety and refuge for the fugitive criminal. The criminal may place himself under the protection of the god of the sanctuary or within a special set of legal and juridical boundaries that create a magic space over which human law, temporarily, has no sway.9 Sanctuary, in other words, is a place where a particular danger has no power and where a particular kind of fugitive is safe. I would suggest that in “To Penshurst”, the danger is envy and the fugitive seeking protection is the “I” at the center of the poem, who finds a refuge from envy in Penshurst. Penshurst, as it has been built in the mind of the poet, may be seen as Ben Jonson’s “objective correlative” for an almost magical space within which the writer may write, sanctuarized against the ubiquitous and defacing gaze of envy.10

4It is clear from its first line that “To Penshurst” is concerned with the problem of envy. Jonson famously begins his eulogy to Philip Sidney’s house by saying that Penshurst is not an object of envy:

  • 11 References to“To Penshurst” will be from C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson’s Ben Jonson, v (...)

Thou are not, PENSHURST, built to envious show,
Of touch, or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polish’d pillars, or a roofe of gold (1-3).11

5As a guest at Penshurst, the poet claims that he too is not an object of envy, as if the freedom the house enjoys from envy extends magically to all who enter: “Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,/A waiter, doth my gluttony envy” (67-8). Even the walls surrounding Penshurst are not envied by the people who live outside of them:

And though thy walls be of the countrey stone,
They’are rear’d with no mans ruine, no mans grone,
There’s none, that dwell about them, wish them downe;
But all come in, the farmer, and the clowne (45-8).

6Penshurst’s walls, erected to separate, and it is separation and difference which engenders envy, are magically permeable even in a society founded on class divisions. At Penshurst, the clown can offer his daughter to the aristocrat: “Some...send/ By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend/This way to husbands” (52-5); and a poet may become a king:

  • 12 There is a strong element in the poem, not only of the magical, golden age topos of sponte sua, wh (...)

Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livorie: all is there;
As if thou, then, wert mine, or I raign’d here:
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King JAMES, when hunting late, this way (72-6).12

  • 13 Yet, the significance of the poem’s praise of Penshurst specifically in terms of envy has been los (...)

7The poem, “To Penshurst” is marked, therefore, by a repetitive chant of freedom from envy.13 Yet, Jonson’s negative constructions, “[H]ere no man tells my cups” (67), tend to deny and simultaneously admit envy into Penshurst. Envy is said not to exist in Penshurst, but it comes into existence in the denial of its existence. The poem seems to provide us with an image of spontesua, a veritable cornucopia of goodness, and yet perpetually introduces, like the tombstone in the Arcadian field, the image of envy and lack.

  • 14 I see the problem of “fullness” and “emptiness” as corresponding to Maus’terms “ideal” and “satiri (...)
  • 15 Arthur F. Marotti, “All About Jonson’s Poetry” ELH 39 (1972), 208-37 convincingly compares Jonson’ (...)

8It is therefore useful to note how, while the poem seems to describe the perfect hospitality of a gentleman and his wife, both are absent, and the house, “[w]here comes no guest” (61), seems eerily empty except for the poet and the potentially envious waiter who serves him. There exists in Penshurst, I would suggest, a kind of artificial, because it is problematically hyperbolic, “fullness” everywhere, which finds its aboutissement in an empty room where a poet sits, eating gluttonously.14 If the poem is viewed in terms of artificial fullness and equivalent emptiness, it becomes clear that “To Penshurst” shares many similarities with The Alchemist, a similarity which argues for a deeper connection between the two works in terms of a shared fantasy of sanctuary from envy.15

9The descriptions of golden age plenty found in “To Penshurst” may be usefully compared with the alchemical dreaming of Epicure Mammon in Jonson’s The Alchemist. Mammon enters the “alchemical” chamber of Subtle and Face, but it is his poetic imagination that engineers whatever alchemy will take place in that room:

My meat shall all come in Indian shells,
Dishes of agate, set in gold, and studded,
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boiled i’ the spirit of Sol, and dissolved pearl
(Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy)
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calvered salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys. (The Alchemist, II.2.72-81)

10Many of Mammon’s delicacies are “edibles” (Marotti, 217)) and, disturbingly, pieces of whole objects and things (Maus, 50), creating a picture of a torturing gourmandise, as in “the tongues of carp” and later in his monologue, the “swelling unctuous paps/Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off” (II.2.83-84). Mammon sees himself within a “New World” of exotic pleasure:

...set your foot on shore
In Novo Orbe; here’s the rich Peru,
And there within, sir, are the golden mines,
Great Solomon’s Ophir!

11Mammon moves through India, where his meat will come in “Indian shells”, Egypt, where the “dissolved pearl” may also refer to Cleopatra’s pearl, which she supposedly gave to Antony to drink, to the New World with its riches of “emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies”.

12Now, the world of Penshurst is the “Old World” and the house is described specifically as an “ancient pile” (5). Yet, the superabundance of Penshurst and its problematic excess presents a similarly disturbing picture of tortured plenty as Epicure Mammon’s:

The purpled pheasant, with the speckled side:
The painted partrich lyes in every field,
And, for thy messe, is willing to be kill’d.
And if the high-swolne Medway faile thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat, aged carps, that runne into thy net.
And pikes, now weary of their owne kinde to eat,
As loth, the second draught, or cast to stay,
Officiously, at First, themselves betray.
Bright eels, that emulate them, and leape on land,
Before the fisher, or into his hand. (“To Penshurst”, 29-38)

13In this passage, the golden world has a seamy underside to it, most visible in its adjectives. The “pheasant” is not “purple”, but “purpled”, as if it has been “bloodied” like the empurpled nail of Donne’s mistress in “The Flea”. The Medway, described as “high swolne” is an image of fullness that could be the positive swelling of a womb and linked with fertility. However, the fact that the Medway may “faile” turns the word “swolne” into a description of negative excess with overtones of disease and even sterility. While the Medway may “faile” to produce, the “tribute” paying ponds, like so many colonies, will only give up “fat, aged carps”, hardly the greatest delicacy on earth. The “willingness” of the partrich to be “kill’d”, is, as Williams rightly points out, hardly an innocent statement of plenty. The world weariness of that fowl and the pikes is contrasted with the slightly sickening image of “bright eels” that “leape” too eagerly into the fisher’s hand. Like Epicure Mammon’s problematic list of lusts, the supposedly ideal cornucopia of Penshurst has a fairly disturbing and even disgusting ring to it.

14“To Penshurst”, perhaps even more tellingly, shares the bawdy, sexualized references of the generically “comic” theatre of The Alchemist. Such gross sexual innuendoes are not purged from the landscape of Penshurst. In fact, the country people who live on the Penshurst estate obviously agree with Epicure Mammon that mothers and fathers make the best “bawds”. Mammon assures Face in The Alchemist that:

...I’ll ha’ no bawds
But fathers and mothers. They will do it best.
Best of all others. (II.2.58-61).

15In “To Penshurst”, the country folk, after finding easy entrance into the country-house are described as thinking in a very similar manner:

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 (51-55)

16The farmers on the estate of Penshurst, within the carnival atmosphere where the “clowne” may offer the aristocrat his daughter, do not hesitate to pimp their own daughters.

17I would argue that these verbal echoes between Jonson's play about an alchemical confidence game and the golden age world of Penshurst may help to break down the generic imperatives which have so long kept readings of “To Penshurst” enthralled. Far from being an ideal landscape befitting the genre of the encomium, “To Penshurst” powerfully stages an authorial phantasmagoria very similar to that found in The Alchemist, written in all probability within a year or two of the poem. Both the poem and the play construct a sanctuary from the gaze of envy in the emptied house of the literary father. In The Alchemist, Face’s ability to move himself up the social ladder from lowly butler to alchemical con-man is contingent upon his having use of Lovewit’s house in the master’s absence. The promotion of Ben Jonson, poet, from starving writer to king, is also dependent upon the free use of Penshurst in the absence of its owner: “As if thou, then, wert mine, or I raign’d here” (74). Both the poet and Face (the poet-avatar, the alchemical apprentice in search of identity) lodge themselves in the house of the absent father and “raign” there, even if only for a little while. The house becomes a kind of sanctuarized, alchemical limbeck, within which the poet may transform himself, successively, from poet to owner to king and dwell in “To Penshurst”, as such, for posterity.

  • 16 I believe that critics have focused too exclusively on the “owner” of Penshurst at the time Jonson (...)

18It is crucial to understand that within this Jonsonian fantasy, Penshurst is not just a beautiful, hospitable country house, but, foremost, the house of the literary “father”, Philip Sidney.16 The poet, the “I” of “To Penshurst”, becomes, for a time, the dweller and thus the inheritor of the house, which symbolizes the literary tradition represented by Sidney. By placing himself at the Sidney table in his poem, eating without fear of envy, the poet represents himself sancturized in the literary tradition established by Philip Sidney and the Muses, who “met” on the Penshurst estate, at the time of Sidney’s “birth” (14). At the center of the poem and house, we find the poet, sitting alone, glutting himself:

Where no guest, but is allow’d to eate,
Without his feare, and of thy lords’ owne meate:
Where the same beere, and bread, and self-same wine,
That is his Lordships, shall be also mine.
And I not faine to sit (as some, this day,
At great mens tables) and yet dine away.
Here no man tells my cups; not, standing by, A waiter, doth my gluttony envy:
But gives me what I call, and lets me eate,
He knows, below, he shall find plentie of meate (61-70).

  • 17 Line references to the preface of Hymenaei are from C.H.Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson’ Ben (...)

19The scene of the poet at the table is not simply a scene of satisfied hunger, as most people have read it, because “meate” within the Jonsonian imaginary System is not just “food”. It is, specifically, another word for learned invention and good poetry. In the preface to his masque Hymenaei,17 Jonson takes pains to distinguish the light and frivolous “shew” (13) of the masque from the substantial literary invention of the poet’s own “meates” (28):

I am contented, these fastidious stomachs should leave my full tables,
and enjoy at home, their cleane emptie trenchers, fittest for such ayrie
tasts: where perhaps a few Italian herbs, pick’d up, and made into a sal
lade, may find sweeter acceptance, than all, the most nourishing and
Sound meates of the world.
For these mens palates, let not me answere, O Muses.. It is not my
fault, if I fill them out Nectar, and they runne to Metheglin (23-31).

20Meat within Jonson’s System is learned invention, good poetry, and not frivolous “ayrie” things, such as Inigo Jones’ masque sets, serving a moment’s fashion. I would suggest that Jonson is making the same comparison between the nourishing estate of Penshurst and the mansions of the nouveaux riches, the “emptie trenchers” of those with “ayrie tasts”. The poet places himself in the center of the house of Philip Sidney and eats the meat of the lord of the house. In a sense, the poet sits down to eat at the table of another poet, eating his meat and his “hearty invention”. Part of the process of literary sanctuarization for Jonson may be metaphorically described as eating the meat of former authors, borrowing or even stealing from them to enwomb his own text in citation and fill it with those antique and contemporary poets’ words. The poet fortifies himself and his own creation by eating another’s food, food that has already been consumed by the public and thus charmed against envy. In other words, critical opinion has already named Sidney a great poet and so will be prevented from bringing down judgment upon an author who sanctuarizes himself in the house of Philip Sidney and eats his meat.

  • 18 I thank Genevieve Lheureux for the felicitous phrase “coumpound”.

21The poet takes pains to assure the reader that not only the lord of the manor, but even his servant, does not envy or begrudge the poet food. What the poet over-eats at the table will not be food that the servant would have had. Penshurst is not governed by the rules of the zero-sum game in which one man’s overindulgence means another man’s lack. Yet, the question remains as to why the poet describes his eating as “gluttony”: “No man will my gluttony envy” (68). Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins like envy, does not immediately strike as a description with a very positive valence. It implies overindulgence, grossness, and excessiveness. Jonson’s (typically) convoluted word order, in fact, emphasizes the strange compound sin of gluttony combined with envy, the poet’s unique sin of gluttony envy, whose punishment is to fill only to empty, empty out only to fill again, in a kind of Sisyphean attempt to write.18

  • 19 See “My Picture Left in Scotland” and the poet’s “mountain belly”; “My Answer. The Poet to the Pai (...)

22Yet Jonson’s references to his large girth and his weight throughout his corpus, are ultimately very positively valenced.19 The glutton may also be seen as one who devours, who enjoys and who wants as much out of life as possible. The waiter might envy the poet, not just how much food he is allowed to have, but also, how much food he is capable of taking in and consuming. The possibly envious feelings the waiter might have for the poet, then, lie not only in the more obvious rivalry for food, but in the waiter’s awe in the face of the absolute and enviable prodigiousness of the poet.

  • 20 See “Prodigious Hannibal” (line 3) in “To the Immortal Memory, and Friendship of that Noble Pair, (...)

23It seems no accident that prodigious is the way Jonson often describes himself, as well the way in which he describes the amazing greatness of Hannibal, Jonson’s favourite hero.20 Gluttony, like prodigiousness, may be seen to imply overreaching and ambition here in Penshurst. It is the mark of the superman. It may be exactly the quality that makes the poet able to claim that he, like King James, “raigns”. The glutton sits at the table of Philip Sidney, not only ready, but willing and very much able, to partake in unusually huge quantities of whatever “meate” is placed before him from Sidney’s literary larder.

24At the same time, symmetrically, the glutton is also proportionally prodigious in his emptiness, both physically and even spiritually. The one gaping hole inside Penshurst, the one thing not filled to excess, is the belly of the poet. His is the emptiness in need of being filled at another table with another’s food. One could argue that the whole description of the Sidney estate in the first 65 fines empties itself into the belly of the poet who fills his own lack of literary invention and then, not unaccountably, feels that it is he who “raigns” in Penshurst. The poet has, in effect, consumed Penshurst, having moved Penshurst, in terms of the trajectory of the poem, from its exterior walls, into his own belly. He has placed the sanctuary, where he hides from the envious gaze of literary posterity, inside his own belly and womb. The poem is indeed “emblematic” as critics have wished to see it, but not of some kind of ideal golden age world or perfect social utopia. It is rather emblematic of Jonsons literary method, in which he gives birth to his own literary posterity through the consumption of the literary father’s hoard.

25It is revealing that after the poet has effectively consumed Penshurst and claims to reign there the poem should move to a fairly in-depth description of Barbara Gamage’s fruitful womb and the vast number of children to whom she has given birth. The father of these children and the “lord” (102) of the house is never named for the lord who “dwells” is none other than the poet himself, the only person who has, in the course of the whole poem, actually inhabited the house, except for the waiter who attends to him.

26Penshurst then may be seen as Jonson’s sanctuary from the judging and envious gaze of posterity, which will pass judgment on the poet’s literary greatness. Penshurst is the ultimate sanctuary for the criminal (plagiarizing) poet and fugitive from literary justice, because he is given the invaluable Sidneyan “meate” without any debt to pay. No one counts his cups, no one sees how much he eats and pours down his throat or reckons up the tab in authorial debt to the literary father. Being lord of Penshurst means attaining perfect sanctuary from envy, both the envy of the reader and the envy of the father, his host. The dead poet does not begrudge him meat because there is a surplus on the “estate”. The Penshurst estate is where the poet may drink deep from the spring where the “Muses met” and feel momentarily refreshed and complete.

27The servant will go below for his meat, leaving the poet free to fill his belly and womb. Like Face in the house of Lovewit, Jonson becomes, at least in his own fantasy, inheritor of the house where he played an alchemical confidence game. Without rival, without envy, the poet makes Penshurst an everlasting monument to poetry and “dwells” in it as in a sanctuary, its lord for all eternity.

Notes

1 Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV (IV.3.18), A.R. Humphreys ed„ The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1966).

2 See Paul M. Cubeta, “A Jonsonian Idéal: ‘To Penshurst,”’Philological Quarterly 42 (1963), 14-14-24; Gayle Edward Wilson, “Jonson’s Use of the Bible and the Great Chain of Being in ‘To Penshurst,”’SEL 8(1968), 77-89; Alastair Fowler, “The ‘Better Marks’of Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst,”’R.E.S. New Series 24, 95 (1973), 266-82.

3 See G.R.Hibbard, “The Country House Poem of the Seventeenth Century,” J.W.C.I. 19 (1956), 159-77; C. Molesworth, “Property and Virtue: The Genre of the Country House Poem in the Seventeenth Century,” Genre 1 (1968), 141-57; and the full-length study by William Alexander McClung, The Country House in English Renaissance Poetry (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1977).

4 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 29. In his commentary on the problematic nature of Jonson s praise, Williams focuses on the poem s hyperboles: “What kind of wit is it exactly—for it must be wit; the most ardent traditionalists will hardly claim it for observation—which has the birds and other creatures offering themselves to be eaten? The estate of Penshurst, as Jonson sees it: To crowne thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side:
The painted partrich lyes in every field
And, for thy messe, is willing to be kill’d” (Williams, 29).

5 See Don Wayne, Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (Madison, Wisc., 1984) for the best examination of Jonson’s poem in the (Marxist) terms first suggested by Wiliams’ reading of the poem.

6 Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Satiric and Ideal Economies in the Jonsonian Imagination, ELR (1988), 42-64.

7 This conjunction is what Cubeta first referred to as the “embattling” of the ideal and the real within the poem, a notion transformed into Maus’ argument that the Jonsonian ideal is nevertheless coined in the ubiquitous Jonsonian currency of the material. “Embattling” is an interesting word for Cubeta to have used, referring to the creation of a strong wall through the mixing of disparate elements.

8 According to Websters Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, a sanctuary is a “[H]oly place, such as a Biblical tabernacle or a part of a temple or a church, near the altar».

9 Richard Marienstras, Le proche et le lointain: sur Shakespeare, le drame elisabéthain et l’idéologie anglaise aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Paris: Les editions des minuit, 1981) quotes from John Manwood’s treatise on the laws of the forest (1592) who describes a sanctuary as a “silva sacrosancta (a privileged wood for wild beasts to be sate in)” (36). It is perhaps worth noting in passing that “To Penshurst” is the second poem in Jonson’s book of poetry entitled The Forrest.

10 As I have argued elsewhere (see my “Ben Jonson's Envious Muse", PHD, University of Virginia, 2000, and article Jonson and the Alchemical Economy of Desire: Creation, Defacement and Castration in The Alchemisf in Cahiers Elisabéthains 62 (Oct. 2002), 47-63), Jonson’s obsession with the envious gaze of the future reader, who would deface and misread the writer’s Works, leads the poet to sanctuarize his work by enwombing (and entombing) it in a cushion of prefaces, inductions, prologues, marginal notes, footnotes, commenting spectators, asides, critical characters, narrations and explanatory digressions. This rhetoric of discontinuity is both incorporated into and generative of the text itself and serves to control the reception of the work to the greatest degree possible by sanctuarizing original creation in a womb of authority or by anticipating and apotropaically fending off criticism. This process of sanctuarization within Jonson’s Works is mirrored in the poetic obsession with specific locales (buildings, court-rooms, theatres) which may be seen as sanctuarized spaces for the poetic imaginary: The “Staple” of news, Lovewit’s house in The Alchemist, the (sexless) puppet theatre in Bartholomew Fair, and the hyper-sanctuarized space of the masque (where, more often than not, envious forces are given free play, but always contained within a magical space where they can never have complete sway) are just a few examples. I would suggest that the interior of Penshurst is one of these spaces, and probablyone of the most powerful within Jonson’s oeuvre. The nature of Penshurst as “sanctuary”, with all the implications of satety for the criminal, may perhaps help to explain the critical fascination with the “house” itself even today, revealed most tellingly in Don Wayne’s study of the “house” as well as the poem.

11 References to“To Penshurst” will be from C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson’s Ben Jonson, vol. VIII, “The Poems” (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1947), 93-96.

12 There is a strong element in the poem, not only of the magical, golden age topos of sponte sua, which so many readers have focused upon, but also of carnival, where the world is turned momentarily upside-down and within which framework the poet in the dining room may also turn the tables on class, rank and power. William E. Gain, “The Place of the Poet in Jonson s To Penshurst’ and ‘To My Muse,’” Criticism 21 (1979), 34-48 is the only critic to try and focus on the “dining-room” scene and the place of the poet at the center of the poem. He addresses what he sees as “Jonson’s ambivalence about the poet’s place in society” (35) and concludes that we should “accept the poem itself as emblematic of what the poet contributes to his community (40). While McCain is right to focus on the poet (and not just the house or the Sidneys’hospitality) he does not go far enough in seeing the radical and far-reaching ambition couched in the poetic fantasy of becoming “king” and overreaching his station and place in the “community”.

13 Yet, the significance of the poem’s praise of Penshurst specifically in terms of envy has been lost on most readers. To understand, not only “To Penshurst”, but also poems such as Jonson’s panegyric to Shakespeare, beginning with envy: “To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name”, one must understand the larger authorial phantasmagoria constructed around envy in Jonson’s works.

14 I see the problem of “fullness” and “emptiness” as corresponding to Maus’terms “ideal” and “satiric” in her discussion of the two “economics” in the Jonsonian corpus. My own reading describe a Jonsonian process of literary creation, which shuttles, in simplest terms, between lack, “envy” and “plenitude”, sanctuary.

15 Arthur F. Marotti, “All About Jonson’s Poetry” ELH 39 (1972), 208-37 convincingly compares Jonson’s description of the “edible world” (217) in “To Penshurst” and similar food fantasies in Volpone and The Alchemist. Marotti, however, hesitates at the final “genre-crossing” his comparisons imply: “It would be misleading, of course, to place “To Penshurst” in the same category as Sir Epicure Mammon’s surrealistic gluttony...” (218) This is exactly my intention in the following paragraphs, for it is precisely when one does place them in the same category that the subterranean links within the poetic phantasmagoria between “sanctuary” in “To Penshurst” and The Alchemist become evident.

16 I believe that critics have focused too exclusively on the “owner” of Penshurst at the time Jonson was writing the poem, Lord Lisle, whereas it seems that the key to Lisle’s importance is very simply his connection with the all important figure of Philip Sidney for Jonson. Lisle’s daughter, Mary Wroth, to whom, interestingly, The Alchemist is dedicated, derives her own importance explicitly in Jonson’s dedication from her connection to the Sidney name, “This, yet safe in your judgment (which is a Sidney’s)...”

17 Line references to the preface of Hymenaei are from C.H.Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson’ Ben Jonson, “The Masques” (Oxford: The Clarendon Press).The preface may be found on pages 209-10.

18 I thank Genevieve Lheureux for the felicitous phrase “coumpound”.

19 See “My Picture Left in Scotland” and the poet’s “mountain belly”; “My Answer. The Poet to the Painter” beginning: Why? Though I seeme of a prodigious wast,
I am not so voluminous, and vast,
But there are lines, wherewith I might be embrac’d
’Tis true, as my wombe swells, so my back stoupes,
And the whole lumpe growes round, deform’d, and droupes,
But yet the Tun at Heidelberg had houpes (1-6).
Here the poet makes a direct comparison between prodigiousness of body and of book and sees in his swelling “wombe” the promise of fertility and plenty; in “Epistle: To Mr. Arthur Squib” the poet writes of being “weighed” and it is clear that he will not be found “wanting”.

20 See “Prodigious Hannibal” (line 3) in “To the Immortal Memory, and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary, and Sir H. Morison”.

Auteur

Université Paris XIII-IUT
ATER à l’Université de Paris XIII. Sa thèse intitulée “La muse envieuse de Ben Jonson” a été soutenue sous la direction de Katherine Maus à l’Université de Virginie. Elle a publié dans Cahiers Élisabéthains 62 (octobre 2002) un article intitulé “Jonson and the Alchemical Economy of Desire : Creation, Defacement and Castration in The Alchemist”.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2003

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