Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Luxury and Political Economy in Estate Poetry, 1670-1750

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Luxury and Political Economy in Estate Poetry, 1670-1750

Article excerpt

WHILE WORKING TOWARDS HIS MA AT WADHAM COLLEGE, Oxford in 1701, the future Professor of Poetry Joseph Trapp dedicated a poem to Henry Somerset, second Duke of Beaufort. Beaufort, a Tory, was a useful political connection for Trapp in the High-Church career he was planning, and his ancestral seat Badminton House was not far from Trapp's birthplace in Gloucestershire. The panegyric Trapp produced, Aedes Badmintonianae, is a portrait of Beaufort's estate, systematically describing Badminton and its grounds and connecting their beauties to the moral virtues of Beaufort and his wife. The praise Trapp gives is lavish and focuses on grandeur and material wealth: the house is described as a "stately Pile," whose "Front Majestick" "ravishes" and "confounds the Sight," while the state rooms inside are admired for their "rich Furniture" and "sumptuous Tapestry," adorned with "all the Pomp of Princely Luxury." In the gardens, Trapp admires the cultivated rows of flowers that "lavishly dispense" their odors, and the profusion of exotic plants expensively imported from abroad: "Both the Indies flourish in our Isle." (1) His ideas about the proper running of a country house center on splendor and show, and in his eyes the most praiseworthy thing about Beaufort and his wife is the way they preside over a magnificent display of wealth and fine taste. The poem is an unabashed celebration of the treasures that foreign commerce and the trade in luxury goods have supplied, and beyond these of the economic power and plenty enjoyed by Britain's landed classes during the early eighteenth century.

Poems written in praise of country estates during the early modern period were imbricated in social and economic change. Early seventeenth-century estate poems--Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" (ca. 1612), Thomas Carew's "To Saxham" (ca. 1620) and Robert Herrick's "a Panegyric to Sir Lewis Pemberton" (1648), among other pieces--articulate an apparently timeless vision of paternalist management, feudal-style hospitality, and self-sufficient housekeeping, but the genre they belong to flourished during a short historical period and did so for particular historical reasons. (2) The necessary intellectual and historical resources for an epideictic poetry of place were available for writers to draw on in the years before and after the early seventeenth century (Penshurst Place, as Heather Dubrow reminds us, had existed in some form since "around 1350"); but in the Jacobean and early Caroline period a need arose for a specific kind of legitimizing poetic tribute centered on individual houses and their lands. (3) When this need disappeared, as G. R. Hibbard has suggested it did after 1660 in accordance with developments in the social life of the great estates and the relationship between the country house and the court, there was little call for the particular kind of epideictic tribute that Jonson and his imitators were offering. (4)

In the early part of the century the need for a poetic tribute arose because pressing forces of social and economic change--changes in the kinds or classes of men who were wealthy enough to purchase land and build on it; changes in the capitalist mechanisms through which they gained and expressed their wealth--required new cultural narratives and new fictions to mediate and naturalize them. (5) The nostalgic feudal vision of housekeeping and land management articulated in early estate poems is there, as Kari Boyd McBride writes, "in the service of change": it is a piece of narrative writing designed to do real "cultural work," to give the court's new men and their new economic forms "the imprimatur of age," and to smooth the way for "the renegotiation of social and economic relationships" on a national scale. (6) The poems themselves, Don E. Wayne has shown, betray the pressures and contradictions of this ideological work by registering--if only below the surface--the radical historical changes that stand behind them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.