The country house genre: put simply, this literary genre places the country house within the main narrative as an essential piece of subject matter. Its varied history is as old as the country house itself. Based on G. R. Hibbard’s article (see references below), the scholarly view is that the country house poem (or country estate poem) of the seventeenth century which praised the houses and estates of the landed elite was the early form of this genre. By the end of the eighteenth century, the genre had taken on different characteristics, and the house itself became the focus. It was no longer the subject of direct admiration and instead became a symbol of the ‘other’; of foreignness and the gothic. Throughout the nineteenth century the genre evolved further and has since become recognisable in recent decades in works of historical fiction.
The genre’s ability to adapt is a consequence of contested views about town and country, about wealth or the lack of it, and about active and passive ownership. The literary country house is then either a part of a nostalgic vision surrounding an imaginary stable society or a symbol of England’s imperial past. No matter how simplified, these constructions are ever present throughout the genre right up to the present day.
The country house has therefore been cast in different literary interpretations, but themes of social and political hierarchies, the roles and responsibilities of man, and notions of spatial definitions have always provided continuity. This post is one of three which offers an overview of the country house genre from its early incarnation in the seventeenth century to its development into mainstream literature today.
Thou hast no porter at thy doore
T’examine or keep back the poore;
Nor lock nor bolts: thy gates have bin
Made onely to let strangers in;…
Thomas Carew (1595-1640), ‘To Saxham’ (ll. 49-52)
Country house poetry is a form of ‘courtly compliment’ which idealised particular elite estates and patronage, but also celebrated man’s participation in the natural world. Classed as country house panegyrics, works like Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Thomas Carew’s ‘To Saxham’ (1640) or Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681) act as descriptions of elite splendour as well as philosophical statements upon natural and artificial social constructions. Indicative of their early education, writers were much influenced by Horace, Martial and Statius and themes of man as a moral being and landownership as a metaphor for the state are heavily embedded in the country house poem.
The seventeenth-century country house poem is both commemorative and quixotic, and academic criticism of the genre’s tradition and longevity is divided. What is certain is that its poetic version was founded upon a heritage of patronage poetry and pastoral discourse. How the genre has survived since has much to do with perception of the country house at any given time, but especially in the context of wider economic developments.
Such theorising makes the genre appear fusty and somehow exclusive. Yet, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of great social and political upheaval in England. The country house poem in this instance provided a snapshot of a time when the rural landscape, the seasons and nature’s bounty were the vision of an English idyll. The country house poem made its subject a real-life Arcadia which was simultaneously idealistic and tangible. This was the nostalgic vision.
No forraigne gums, nor essence fetcht from farre,
No volatile spirits, nor compounds that are
Adulterate; but, at Nature’s cheap expence,
With farre more genuine sweetes refresh the sense.
Such pure and uncompounded beauties blesse
This mansion with an usefull comelinesse,
Devoide of art, for here the architect
Did not with curious skill a pile erect
Of carved marble, touch, or porpherie,
But built a house for hospitalitie…
‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640?), Thomas Carew (ll. 15-24)
The hospitality of the country house is what connects the dweller to the wider world. For the poet, the dweller (the landlord) represents the fertility of nature. By sharing and dividing their wealth and the abundance of nature, the dweller fulfils their moral obligations. The country house estate is part of a hierarchy which therefore relies upon the co-operation of many in order to succeed – like a quasi-commonwealth, ‘They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan’ (‘To Penshurst’, l. 46). If the landlord is not wasteful, then he is celebrated, if he hankers after ostentation and conspicuous consumption, then he is to be reminded of his natural role and responsibilities. Either way, the pastoral ideal is the platform for persuasion and the model to which man must adhere. Appreciation of life and the correct use of possessions have Classical resonance. Assimilation with the natural order of things underlines most Biblical teachings.
At least this is the stylistic formula of the country house poem. To a great extent it is the landscape which is the main focus; a mythical Arcadian world where lasting relationships are formed. The house itself is the accumulation of this natural order and substance;
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set
At his great birth where all the Muses met.
‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Ben Jonson, (ll. 7-14).
All is green and ripe, plump and rosy; pike, partridge, cherries, figs, pears, ‘The blushing apricot and woolly peach.’ Such hospitality is the product of civility and gentility, but also of a virtuous life. This metaphor is also something Milton utilises in Paradise Lost in which Eden represents the very first ‘landed’ estate. The sensuality of nature’s bounty is further alluded to, particularly by Jonson, in the context of patrilineal inheritance with the family itself a representation of the fruit of the virtuous lord and lady.
The style of country house poetry changed over the seventeenth century, and developed what have been identified as sub-genres. Poems of appreciation, as an example, suit Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst,’ and what is known as the retirement poem best describes ‘Upon Appleton House’. The latter was probably penned in the 1650s when Andrew Marvell stayed at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire, to tutor Mary Fairfax, the daughter of parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax. Here the country house and estate are places of retreat from a disruptive world. For Fairfax, his Yorkshire home was the private sphere from to which he could escape the chaos of the English Civil War.
Crucially, emphasis upon the right use of life and possessions morphed into an exploration of man’s role in life. Rather than being purely didactic pieces, themes of experience and the impact of surroundings played a larger part in the country house poem of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Of men Recorded or who then Exceed
To urdge their Virtue and exalt their Fame
Whilest their own Weymouth stands their noblest Aime.
But we Presume, and ne’re must hope to trace
His Worth profound, his Daughters matchlesse Grace
Or draw paternall Witt deriv’d into her Face
Though from his Presence and her Charms did grow
The Joys Ardelia att Long-leat did know.
‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690) Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (ll. 91-98)
Themes of virtuosity remained strong but with emphasis on more give and take. Writers were sure to allow their protagonist thoughts of resourcefulness and pragmatism but also stated the benefits of retreat upon such a mind, body and soul. In many secondary sources it has been suggested that this literary device stemmed from the changing economic landscape; a shift from a feudal system to that based on capital and monetary values. The country house was an administrative base for the estate, but its owner had shifted his attention to the city with its attractive financial and parliamentary offices. The old halls were being replaced with ‘carved marble’ and filled with foreign goods from the East India Company, land was enclosed and smooth uninterrupted parkland rolled over acres of fertile soil.
Land was an exchangeable commodity and the country house was now a decorative item in the distance. The dweller used it as an alternative site for conducting business, but it was no longer perceived as the tangible vision of Arcadian mythology. It was now the retreat of the few, to be admired from afar and provide respite for those locked in matters of national importance. Virtue was the outcome of an individual’s own experience and quality of life from which he was to influence those less fortunate. The literary country house was a private domain, and one which symbolised the contested views of town and country, of private ownership and public office. If the pastoral was the seventeenth-century fantasy, then the mysterious other was to be the eighteenth-century fantasy.
Geoffrey Whitney, ‘To R. Cotton Esq.’ and To Richard Cotton Esq.’ (1586)
Aemilia Lanyer, ‘The Description of Cookham’ (1611)
Ben Jonson, ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ (1616)
Thomas Carew, ‘To Saxham’ and ‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640)
Robert Herrick ‘A Panegyric to Sir Lewis Pemberton’ (1648)
Richard Lovelace ‘Amyntor’s Grove’ (1649)
Andrew Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681)
Charles Cotton ‘Wonders of the Peak’ (c.1681)
Anne Finch ‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690)
Mildmay Fane, ‘To Sir John Wentworth’ (unknown ?)
Alastair Fowler. The Country House Poem: a Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems and Related Items . Edinburgh (1994)
Richard Gill. Happy Rural Seat; the English Country House and the Literary Imagination. New Haven (1972)
G. R. Hibbard: ‘The Country House Poem in the Seventeenth Century’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XIX (1956), 159-74.
Malcolm Miles Kelsall. The Great Good Place: the Country House and English literature. New York (1993)
Malcolm Miles Kelsall. Literary Representations of the Irish Country House: civilisation and savagery under the Union. New York (2003)
Gervase Jackson-Stops et al. The Fashioning and Functioining of the British Country House (1989)
Hugh Jenkins. Feigned Commonwealths: The Country-House Poem and the Fashioning of the Ideal Community. Pittsburgh (1998)
Virginia C. Kenny. The Country-House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: themes of personal retreat and national expansion. New York (1984)
Kari Boyd McBride: Country House Discourse in Early Modern England (2001)
D. M. Rosenberg. ‘Paradise Lost and the Country Estate poem’ (no year given) http://tiny.cc/4gb7tw
Don E. Wayne, Penshurst: the Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (1984)
Raymond Williams: The Country and the City (1973)
Literary links to Penshurst http://www.penshurstplace.com/page/3053/Literary-Links-to-Penshurst-Place
Bibliographies for the nineteenth-century country house and related themes http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/bibliography4.html
Tom Lockwood (2008) ‘All Hayle to Hatfeild’: a New series of country house poems from Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6757.2008.00124.x/full
Judith Dundas ‘The Country House Poem Revisited’ http://www.connotations.uni-tuebingen.de/dundas00801.htm
University of Sheffield, School of English course Literature of the English Country House http://soeblog.group.shef.ac.uk/mooc/