Description Of Cookeham

Ameilia Lanyer (1611) This poem predates "To Penshurst" (1616) by Ben Jonson, long credited as the first country house poem. Drawing on classical generic features, Lanyer expresses the virtue of Margaret, countess of Cumberland, by creating imagery that includes her honoring by the plants and animals of the estate. Feminist critics find the poem of great interest in its focus on the custom that did not allow women to inherit property. Rather than featuring the countess and her daughter, Anne Clifford, enjoying the estate, Lanyer describes their taking leave of their home. Its ownership remained in doubt after the death of the earl, George Clifford, as Anne and her mother entered a lengthy legal battle with Clifford's brother and nephew, who sought to deny Anne Clifford's claim to her own father's estates. The preferred manner for existence of women of Lanyer's day depended on the largesse of male heirs. As with other of Lanyer's works, "The Description of Cooke-ham" offers a vision of an allfemale community with little need for traditional male authority. Her challenge of the gender hierarchy foreshadowed her own later legal battles with her dead husband's brothers as she fought for an income from his former business promised to her by her in-laws.

While Lanyer's country poem is often compared to that of Jonson, they did not work with the same assumptions regarding inheritance of property. The critic Marshall Grossman suggests that Jonson may have been credited improperly for the first country house poem because males received preference in matters of ownership. He theorizes that the country-house genre itself "was gendered at its inception," and he sees Jonson as suggesting a relationship between the order of nature and man, rather than between nature and all of humankind. Lanyer's 210 lines of rhyming couplets paint an elegant picture of a female paradise that grays and withers upon the forced removal of its inhabitants. The poem also informs readers that Lanyer may have begun her career as a poet through the influence of the Countess of Cumberland.

The speaker opens with praise, bidding farewell to "sweet Cooke-ham" and acknowledging she "first obtained / Grace from the grace where perfect grace remained," suggesting that she gained favor from the perfectly virtuous Margaret, countess of Cumberland, who inhabited Cooke-ham. The voice makes clear that the grounds of Cooke-ham shone in response to the countess's presence, "From whose desires did spring this work of grace." Grace, or conferred merit, becomes a theme of the poem, as that term is repeated multiple times.

Lanyer employs the figurative language (figure of speech) of personification in line after line to make her point that Cooke-ham is nothing without the presence of the countess. For instance, she writes in lines 35-45,

The very hills right humbly did descend,

When you to tread upon them did intend.

And as you set your feet, they still did rise,

Glad that they could receive so rich a prize.

The gentle winds did take delight to be

Among those woods that were so graced by thee. And in sad murmur uttered pleasing sound, That pleasure in that place might more abound: The swelling banks delivered all their pride, When such a Phoenix once they had espied.

Lanyer also adds imagery of the countess's studying her Bible among the friendly elements, further emphasizing her pious purity:

In these sweet woods how often did you walk, With Christ and his Apostles there to talk; Placing his holy writ in some fair tree, To meditate what you therein did see. (82-85)

The countess converses with Moses, David, and Joseph, seeking heavenly counsel. Lanyer next references the countess's daughter, Anne Clifford, whose account of her legal wranglings with her family proved invaluable to later feminist critics. She refers to Clifford as a "sweet lady," "noble," "honorable," with a "fair breast" that housed "true virtue."

After establishing the natural elements as reacting to the countess, Lanyer can express their reaction upon learning she would have to leave. The trees, previously "so glorious," "Forsook both flowers and fruit, when once they knew / of your depart, their very leaves did wither." (134-135). All vegetation pleads that the countess and her daughter remain, but finding their pleas in vain, "they cast their leaves away" (141). The nightingale, "Fair Philomela," which previously sang joyfully, "leaves her mournful ditty, / Drowned in dead sleep, yet can procure no pity" (189-190), while trees turn "bare and desolate" and even "The sun grew weak, his beams no comfort gave." (195).

As Lanyer closes, she hopes, "When I am dead thy name in this may live" (206), expressing the traditional desire for immortality for her subject that literature could afford. While the influence of the countess on her estate proved great, that on the poet proved even greater, as Lanyer concludes about her subject, "Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast, / And ever shall, so long as life remains, / Tying my heart to her by those rich chains" (208-210).

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