Book Review

Jenkins, Hugh. Feigned Commonwealths: The Country House Poem and the Fashioning of Ideal Community. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1998.

Reviewed by Tassie Gniady | March 23, 2003

In his 1998 book Hugh Jenkins helpfully identifies the major divides that characterize the critical history of the country house poem. Beginning with G.R. Hibbard’s 1956 article, scholars focused on the social aspects of the “great house” before taking a major turn with Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City which squarely locates the poem and its houses in the “social and economic history of the countryside” (3). Jenkins places himself in opposition to Don Wayne who emphasizes the individual’s role in the genre and its construction. By seeking to interpolate and rework these views, Jenkins arrives at a theory of “commonwealth” with the country poem at its center. His re-fashioning is a more realistic incorporation of the ‘positive aspects of the utopian image – unity, agreement, communality – [which] are thus implicated in their negative opposites – disorder, disagreement, and radical self-interest” (9). By acknowledging the “negative opposites,” Jenkins echoes other scholars who have described the role of nostalgia inherent in country house poems.

Instead Jenkins’s definition of the genre revolves around the words “estate” and “fain” so that his treatment hinges upon multiple definitions of key terms. While it is no surprise that William McClung’s 1977 treatment of country house poems does not even mention Lanyer, it is disheartening that Hugh Jenkins deals with Lanyer’s poem only as a foil to what he considers to be “seven central poems” that are “representatives of this master trope” (31) in his 1998 Feigned Commonwealths. After a smart dissection of the word “estate” and its evolving definition in the 17th century as “an order or class regarded as part of the body politic” to “property, possession, fortune, or capital” (OED def. in Jenkins 10), and the multiple valences of “fane” posited by Jonson himself in his Discoveries. “Fane” wanders from ” the political absolutism of the prince that can be matched by the absolutism of the poet’s ‘faining’” to ” ‘nothing is lasting that is fain’d’ ” to “faining” as “not identical with but neither inimical to the truth” (5-6). While Jonson clearly deserves his place in the country house trope, Jenkins only briefly mentions that Lanyer’s poem on Cookham was probably written and definitely published before Jonson’s. Does that make Jenkins’s “sons of Ben” bastards of Aemilia if they go unacknowledged by her and her female rendition of the country estate?

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