Friend or Food? Reading Animals in Country House Poems of Early Modern England

Anna Beskin, Fordham University


Country house poems have traditionally been understood as yielding ecosystems in which animals affirm human dominion and establish the head of an estate as a generous host and virtuous landlord. Friend or Food? Reading Animals in Country House Poems of Early Modern England challenges this human-centric approach and argues that the animals’ various roles—as compliant foodstuff, mythical symbols, or exclusively meat matter—speak to the country house poem’s engagement in early modern ecological discourse as a form of social critique. By attending to the animal, my dissertation exposes fissures within the very hierarchy that country house poems seemingly work to construct and traces interspecies relationships that serve as a commentary on gender, patronage, hospitality, moderation, and sustainability. The first chapter focuses on Aemilia Lanyer’s “Description of Cooke-Ham”, which entertains an avian community that contains recognizable class distinctions endorsing the kind of hierarchies dividing Lanyer from the subject of the poem, Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland. The second chapter moves away from an ecosystem unconcerned with food to those that highlight its importance—Thomas Carew’s “To Saxham” and Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst”—and argues that the climatological realities influencing the two poems separate their presentation of human dominion and animal choice. The third chapter explores Robert Herrick’s “A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton” and Thomas Carew’s “To My Friend G.N. from Wrest”. In these two poems that avoid the pathetic fallacy of sacrificing animals altogether and show a world post-slaughter where readers do not hear of animals in pastures or ponds but only in the form of abundant meaty matter for the feast. And the fourth chapter considers Andrew Marvell’s expansive “Upon Appleton House”, in which Marvell depicts nature in contradictory terms in order to underscore the shared vulnerability of all creatures in the face of ecological dangers, thereby flattening early modern ideals of a hierarchical taxonomy.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Beskin, Anna, "Friend or Food? Reading Animals in Country House Poems of Early Modern England" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10125240.