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Interview with Professor Richard Dutton

Read written introduction online
Watch interview with Professor Richard Dutton about the poem.
It’s my great pleasure to introduce Professor Richard Dutton, Professor of English at Queen’s University Belfast and an editor of the Cambridge Jonson. Richard, tell me about Jonson’s connection to the Sidneys, and in particular, “To Penshurst.” “To Penshurst” is a central poem in a range of poems that Jonson wrote in celebration of members of the Sidney family. Penshurst itself, at this time, as you’ve heard, is owned by Robert Sidney, brother of Philip. And the poem is essentially a celebration of Robert Sidney and his family and his estate, as it were.
The next poem is to Lord Wroth, who is Robert Sidney’s son-in-law, married to Mary Wroth– she is now Mary Sidney, or she had been– to whom Jonson dedicated his great play, The Alchemist. Also within the collection of poems The Forest, in which this poem appears, are other poems that relate to Philip Sidney’s daughter, by now, the Countess of Rutland, to Sir William Sidney, who is the son of Robert. So what we see is this pattern of poems collecting together in wider celebration of the Sidneys, and also of the Herbert family, to whom they’re related, who, by this time, are very significant political figures in England, most notably, William the Third Earl of Pembroke.
So we need, really, to look at the poem in the wider context. It’s both a personal compliment to a man who had hosted Jonson, who, by this time, is a great poet, probably the most famous living poet in England at the time.
So it’s personal to that degree. But it’s also, as it were, very well aware of the wider political and social context that the Sidneys operate in. Given what you just said, then, if we were to interview Jonson, and we asked him why he wrote the poem, what do you think he would say? Well, I think he would be– he might want to say something about the fact that this is a very new kind of poem. Poems written to places were not common. Depending on exactly when he wrote it, Jonson– it might have been the very first one of the kind. Emilia Lanier actually published one in 1611. Now, we don’t know which came first.
But this idea of talking about landscape or community, as it were, and the way that people relate to the places in which they live, it’s a new mode, a new tone in poetry at this time. Jonson, I think, would have been very proud of that. And he would also have wanted to paint this picture of Robert Sidney and his estate with himself in it because that’s an important element of the way that the poem works, to emphasise the relationship between the poet and the great political man, as it were. And in those kinds of ways, Jonson is always talking about the state of England at the time.
Now, if we then ask what’s so important about Penshurst as to why he writes this poem in that kind of way, it is very much because Penshurst is not a brand-new house. It’s not been built on the site of another one that’s been knocked down and erected on top of it. It is a site of antiquity and continuity, and, in some respects, reflects simpler times, times that are closer to the Earth, closer to a pastoral rhythm of life, which still persists here when, as Jonson sees it, it’s disappearing. The big contrast, implicitly– it’s not stated as such.
But he’s talking about this is not London, and this is not the court at Whitehall, which are big, busy, modern places, where Jonson is now finding respite in Penshurst. The tone of the poem then, do you think it’s kind of nostalgic on Jonson’s part? Or is there something else going on as well? It’s– there’s certainly nostalgia in it, isn’t there? I mean, there’s very obvious sort of literary nostalgia. It’s evoking tropes from the classical past. It’s evoking tropes from the Bible. And it’s looking back. It’s looking back to Philip Sidney. But it’s looking back even beyond that into the– yeah, to the later Middle Ages. And in those kinds of ways, it is nostalgic.
But it’s important that what Jonson’s saying, that’s not dead. It is actually still alive. And we can see it here. And I’ve experienced it. That, I think, is a very important sort of feature of the poem to get across. Even when he’s being, if we like to call it nostalgic, he’s often being so jokily. This image of the fish jumping out of the pond, ready to be– willing to be eaten, yeah, which is– it’s an allusion to Eden in its way, where men don’t have to work for the food that they eat, and the animals are conveniently subservient to them, provide what they need. Yeah, obviously, it’s jokey. It’s not meant literally.
But what it’s meant to do in its jokiness is to represent an underlying truth about the ways in which this lifestyle on this estate gets us close to those biblical truths, if you like, classical truths, as anywhere alive today can do. That’s fascinating. Thank you very much, Richard. Pleasure.

This step introduces Jonson’s poem in an interview with Professor Richard Dutton.

Listen to Richard speaking and then read the poem which you will find in the downloads section below, along with a short critical introduction.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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