Aemilia Lanyer – “The Description of Cookham”

Ah, English stately country houses. They inspired countless poems, novels and TV series. But Lanyer’s poem has the honour to be the very first country house poem published. (Ben Jonson’s “Penshurst” may have been written at the same time or earlier, but it was published later.) So Lanyer is in a sense the mother of the genre which gave us Downton Abbey. But her poem is not about the love lives of the daughters of an earl. Instead, it is a rather bitter-sweet nostalgic look back at Cookham, where Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, spent some time and it seems it was a very important period for Lanyer too. We do not know how she came to stay there and in what capacity, but she indicates she dates the reception of her “grace” – meaning both her religious conversion and her poetical talent – from “Her Grace”, i.e. Clifford. Now the lease is over and they are leaving. The poet is reminiscing about how they came first here in spring and how the whole house and the surrounding countryside seemed to dress itself up in its finery to celebrate the Countess. The only grating note to a modern reader is the observation that the little animals come to frolic, but when they see the bow in the Countess’ hands, they run away. The most beautiful place in the whole estate is a big oak on a hill, which Lanyer compares to cedars or palms, trying perhaps to evoke biblical echoes. The simile is not a successful one, since the oak is portrayed as spreading its great arms, desirous to hide the lady from the sun, while palms are notoriously bad for giving shade. Apparently you can see thirteen shires from the summit of this hill. This is the area where the Countess liked to wander, and the beauty of nature around her inspired her to meditate upon its Creator. She also read often the Bible there.

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