These complimentary poems were popular during the 17th century in England and are similar to topographical poems. Or, those that describe a specific place, building, or landscape. Country house poems served a very specific purpose, one that is more or less lost in today’s society. It would be incredibly uncommon to find a traditional country house poem, written in the same way and for the same purpose as they were in the 17th century, penned in the 21st.
Country House Poem pronunciation: cuhn-tree-hows pohm
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Definition of a Country House Poem
When an author writes a country house poem, they’re creating a poem dedicated to a wealthy patron, or a friend, that describes a property they own. They would spend the lines of the piece complimenting and praising the person’s country house in an effort to garner favor.
Sometimes, in these poems, writers would contrast the subject with a previous style of architecture or way of managing a property. The poet would draw conclusions that were favorable to the owner of the house and painted them in the best possible light.
Examples of Country House Poems
To Penshurst by Ben Jonson
‘To Penshurst’ is the best and most commonly cited example of a country house poem. It is commonly described as the “model” for a country house poem. Later authors, including some of those described below, were seen to imitate Jonson’s verse. This piece was published in 1616 and dedicated to Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester. He was the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and the owner of Penshurst Place.
Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
The poet spends the lines comparing Penshurst to more contemporary homes and deciding that it is far more desirable. Among the house-related imagery are allusions to classical authors like Horace and Epiphanius.
Read more Ben Jonson poems.
Description of Cookham by Emilia Lanier
‘Description of Cookham’ by Emilia Lanier, also sometimes spelled Æmilia Lanyer and “Cooke-ham,” is another well-known country house poem. It was, despite its lesser prominence, written before ‘To Penshurst.’ The poem was published in 1611 in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and penned in order to say goodbye to the estate and the lady, Countess Cumberland, who lived there. The poem considers the house as well as its lady and the effect she had on her surroundings. Here are the first lines:
Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content;
Where princely palace willed me to indite,
The sacred story of the soul’s delight.
Farewell (sweet place) where virtue then did rest,
And all delights did harbor in her breast;
Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.
To Richard Cotton, Esq. by Geoffrey Whitney
‘To Richard Cotton, Esq.’ was written even earlier than the previous two examples. It was composed in 1586 and is dedicated to Combermere Abbey. Some scholars consider this piece to be the earliest example of a country house poem. The Abbey is located between Nantwich and Whitchurch in Cheshire, England, and was a former monastery, made into a country house. The poem, very originally, uses a beehive as a metaphor to describe the property.
Upon Appleton by Andrew Marvell
‘Upon Appleton’ or ‘Upon Appleton House,’ was written in 1651. It was composed while Marvell was living in the house, working as a tutor for the Lord Of Fairfax’s daughter. It describes the estate while also alluding to the broader social and political climate. Thomas Fairfax is the dedicatee of the poem. Here is an excerpt from the piece:
Within this sober frame expect
Work of no foreign architect;
That unto caves the quarries drew,
And forests did to pastures hew;
Who of his great design in pain
Did for a model vault his brain;
Whose columns should so high be rais’d
To arch the brows that on them gaz’d.
The poem is an incredible 97 stanzas long and written in sets of eight lines. These are octosyllabic and structured in iambic tetrameter. There are also six different sections of the poem. They deal with everything from the architecture, the gardens, the meadows, rivers, woods, and more.
Explore more Andrew Marvell poems.
Poets wrote country house poems when they wanted to spend lines discussing a property that was in some way meaningful to them. They were usually dedicated to a wealthy patron, such as Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton,’ and dealt with various elements of the house and grounds.
As will all traditional poetic forms, this one has fallen out of favor. Despite this, it’s still possible to find poems devoted to building and homes. Country house poems, with their specific influences and intentions, are far less common than they used to be though.
The characteristics are praise for a home, dedication to a friend or wealthy patron, an interest in the history of the house, and allusions to the broader contemporary moment. This might be the social, political, or religious climate.
Country house poems can use any structure. Examples could be a few lines long or many stanzas. For example, ‘To Appleton,’ which is 92 stanzas long.
Related Literary Terms
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it normally much longer.
- Elizabethan Era: a literary period that lasted through the years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, from 1558 to 1603.
- Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.