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'A happy rural seat': Milton's Paradise Lost and the English country house poem A foundation essay on one kind of poetry from the seventeenth century begins with the statement that 'Through the poetry of the early seventeenth century there runs a thin but clearly defined tradition of poems in praise of the EngUsh country house and of the whole way of life of which the country house was the centre'. The essay is by G.R. Hibbard and is entided 'The Country House Poem of the Seventeenth Century'.1 Hibbard correctly identifies the country house as a physical reality that becomes a symbolic focus in poetry celebrating life on the country estate, though there is in his approach a certain literal-mindedness that unnecessarily delimits the area of his discussion. Just as somefinehouses are metonymically evoked as representing ethical and aesthetic values in the poems allowed by Hibbard as constituting the tradition, so too there are other poems that express very simdar concerns without concentrating on architecture. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the specific kind of poem Hibbard identifies as a discrete genre within a much wider tradition. There are many poems and passages in longer poems that share significandy in the characteristics of the English country house poem as identified by Hibbard without expressly evoking a Penshurst, a Saxham, a Wrest Park, or an Appleton House. One such additional instance, I shall argue, is Milton's account of Eden in Paradise Lost. The country house poem, in its strictest form, congratulates a family drawn from the rural aristocracy or landed gentry on its way of life. From the Sidneys of Jonson's 'To Penshurst' to the Fairfaxes of Marvell's 'Upon Appleton House', this famtiy of the poem is eulogized as being the last exemplar of right living in a corrupt world. Living well, in the sense of being well-off and enjoying creature comforts, the family and its dependents live the vita beata of the golden world; living well, in the sense of practising ethical values, this close-knit community embodies the vita bona. The happy life of the vita beata and the honest life of the vita bona have been identified respectively with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies.2 The blend of Stoic and Epicurean is 1 Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 19 (1956), 159-74. For further discussions since Hibbard, see Charles Molesworth, 'Property and Virtue: The Genre of the Country house Poem in the Seventeenth Century', Genre 1 (1968), 141-57; Mary Anne C. McGuire, 'The Cavalier Country-House Poem: Mutations on a Jonsonian Tradition', Studies in English Literature 19 (1979), 93-108; and William A. McClung's two books, The Country House in English Renaissance Poetry, Berkeley, 1977, and The Architecture of Paradise, Berkeley, 1983. 2 The concepts of the vita bona and the vita beata as discussed in this context are enunciated by Earl Miner in The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton, Princeton, 1971, pp. 43-99. 138 C. Wortham characteristic of Renaissance humanism, but it may be directiy attributed also to Horace, who is the prime classical source for the English country house poem. These Horatian values are invariably accommodated to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and so the golden world of classical mythology and the garden of Eden are seen to meet on this blessed estate. The term 'country house' evokes the house itself, but it subsumes, of course, the lawns and flower gardens, the vegetable gardens and orchards, and the surrounding demesne oftenantfarms. Politically, the country house poem is conservative. The litde world it celebrates is seen as the brave remnant of a feudal order that has passed away: significantly, the medieval custom of 'house-keeping' or hospitality is a central motif in this poetry.3 All who come to the great house—whether strangers from afar or tenants of the manor—are treated with equal courtesy and generosity. All are treated as equals at the generous board, for where hierarchy is unquestioningly acknowledged there is no need to insist upon rank. The very emergence of the country house poem as a genre in the early seventeenth century is an indication that the way...


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