Current critical opinion now credits Aemilia Lanyer with the first country-house poem printed in England, "The Description of Cooke-ham", which preceded the almost canonical "To Penshurst"by Ben Jonson. It would be my effort to study the treatment of nature in the country-house poems by using these two particular examples, and to establish the nature of the relationship that has been depicted between the human and natural world in the each of these poem's individual universe.
The comparison between the two country-house poems is intriguing not the least because when we see the body of critical literature dedicated to the two poets, writing about Lanyer is conspicuous by its absence, whereas much ink has been spilt over Jonson's "To Penshurst". Another interesting fact is the striking similarity of some of the parts of both. "And no one empty-handed, to salute/Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit" and "They had appeard, your honour to salute,/Or to preferre some strange vnlook'd for sute:" seem to have common undercurrents of paying homage to the estate owner in residence, whether it it is nature that pays it in the case of Cooke-ham, or the tenants, who seem to form a part of the natural landscape in Penshurst.
It would be crucial to understand the collections within which these poems were printed, the popular literary conventions of the time and the individual backgrounds of the poets themselves, including the circumstances in which the poems were written. To look at the place of nature in the scheme of things in these two poems, we would analyze the descriptions of nature in the two poems, and how they are presented in relationship to human existence, the references made, as well as the explicit and implicit meanings conveyed. Also useful would be a perusal of the patriarchal connotations in Jonson, and the feminist influences in Lanyer.
"To Penshurst" was first published in the "Epigrammes" and "Forrest" sections of Jonson's Workes in 1616, almost five years after his contemporary Lanyer published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum which finished with "The Description of Cooke-ham". Both collections consisted of poems dedicated to patrons.
"To Penshurst" was written for Robert Sidney, Lord Lisle and his wife, Barbara Sidney, who were an established part of the nobility and were living in the house since the 1550s, and tactfully presents a dedication to them through a projection of nature into the persona of the lord and the lady of the country house. It would also be pertinent to mention here that Jonson had well-documented aspirations of belonging to and becoming one of the nobility and did whatever possible towards this end, this poem was one of such efforts to please his high-born patrons through a positive association with nature.
"The Description of Cooke-ham", on the other hand, centers around Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset and later to be Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery in the background of Cooke-ham which was their temporary refuge for a while where Aemilia accompanied them.
In the poem, nature appears to celebrate Anne Clifford, and mourns her loss when she is married off. Lanyer wrote this poem when she was forty, at a time when her situation was not half as secure as Jonson's, which could have very well have shaped the subversion she shows in the Cooke-ham poem, in her depiction of the relationship between human and nature. "It is really impossible to emphasize strongly enough how marginal, how unusual her position was