Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jessica Malay: "Buildings with Words"

Jessica L. Malay
University of Huddersfield

Buildings with Words: Architectural Metonymy in Early Modern Literary Texts

1> In sixteenth century literary devices derived from the English landscape evolved in significant ways from their sources in classical and medieval literature. In these source texts the convention of the locus amoenus, or pleasant and often virtuous place of repose, functions as a formulaic topos recognized by readers as a preparatory structural device for particular types of literature. In this topos, as traditionally employed, the entrance into this pleasant landscape signaled a remove from the demands and corruption of society into a place of peace, contemplation and virtue.
[1] Certainly, elements of this convention continued to function within an emerging landscape discourse of the sixteenth century. However the trope of the “pleasant place” also emerges in literary texts of the period as a politically charged device that, even when used as a simple metaphor, was increasingly employed to communicate particular political beliefs.

2> Two of the most important catalysts for this invigoration of the locus amoenus topos were the modifications in the structures and practices of government emerging in the early sixteenth century and the comprehensive, and often politically calculated, redistribution of church land after the dissolution which often went hand in hand. The rise of a centralized and unified monarchy, already underway under previous kings, converged in the reign of Henry VIII. During his reign he consolidated important power structures, administering these through a bureaucracy run by men from the gentry classes. This created a climate of opportunity for many who vied for newly available monastic land in order to enhance their financial, social and political position. Some of these lands were bought as a type of “portfolio investment” while one or two venues would be heavily invested in to create a primary residence.
[2] This primary residence in turn was expected to participate in the maintenance or elevation of an individual within the socio/political milieu and in this way developed a semiotic connection with the owner.

3> Sir Bryan Tuke, who held the post of the treasurer of the King’s chamber, purchased Layer Marney in Essex from the two daughters and co-heirs of John, second Lord Marney.
[3] And while his own finances suffered from the strains of his office, his purchase of the Layer Marney estate established his heirs as powerful local figures for nearly a century. Philip Hoby, one of the grooms of the privy chamber and a diplomat during the reign of Henry VIII and Edward VI, acquired Bisham Abbey in a trade with Anne of Cleves. The acquisition of Bisham Abbey again established the Hoby heirs both locally and within Tudor and later Stuart politics.[4] Maurice Howard suggests that Sir Anthony Browne, Henry’s Master of the Horse, was allowed to purchase Battle Abbey because of Henry’s desire to place a trusted servant in a strategic defensive position. Browne used stone from the abbey to build both civic and domestic buildings, and his position of authority in the local area was attested to at his death by the grand tomb chest erected in the parish church just outside the abbey.[5] Sir Richard Grenville’s letter to Cromwell, asking for the priory of Launceston, makes clear that the establishment of oneself in a property worthy of one’s position in society was understood and accepted within the culture. He explains, “Nor I do not this for no covetousness, but to stand in the case of others.”[6] Later, in the reign of Elizabeth I, Sir William Savile of Thornhill was advised by his uncle:

"Considering your houses in my judgment are not suitable for your quality, nor yet complete with furniture, I conceive your expenses ought to be reduced to two thirds of your estate, the rest saved to the accommodation of you in that kind."

4> William Woolley “condemned Godfrey Clerk’s house at Chilcot in Derbyshire as ‘not equal to his estate and quality, being Knight of the County and married to Catherine, daughter of Philip, Earl of Chesterfield.’”
[8] Finally, as the case of Robert Sidney reveals, one’s reputation and one’s house were often synonymous. In a letter to his wife concerning their house, the famous Penshurst, Sidney complains, “If I find no meanes for my workmen my building cannot go forwards which wil be disgrace to me.”[9]

5> Thus, by the sixteenth century, the individual him or herself could be defined in terms of one’s relationship to property.
[10] Howard, more practically asserts that the way in which an individual managed one’s property transactions could “make or break his or her reputation for moral probity.”[11] By the same token, an individual’s property was increasingly recognized as a “vast system of signs, signs that ‘advertise’ meanings . . . to those watching them,” that functioned as a “text, or a stage.”[12] What many wished their houses to advertise, was, of course, their worthiness—most especially their moral worthiness. This development of the connection between owner and house resulted in the infusion of the convention of the locus amoenus trope with conceptions of individual power, identity and social consciousness. From this emerged a discourse which utilized and refined images of country estates to produce significations of social qualities and characteristics seen as desirable within the culture. It was a discourse that Keri McBride contends, promoted a particular understanding of the “legitimate exercise of power that is both visible in and engendered by the right relationship of human being to land.”[13]

6> The way these significations functioned is best explained by Gérard Genette in his discussion of the literary figure. Genette explains, “its existence depends completely on the awareness that the reader has [ . . . ] of the ambiguity of the discourse that is being offered to him.” Genette goes on to quote Sartre’s observation that “it is he [the reader] . . . who enables the significance” of each figure to be understood. The figure becomes a hermeneutic circle that “depends on the gap between these words and those that the reader perceives, mentally beyond them, ‘in a perpetual supersession of the written thing.’”
[14] Consequently, as James Duncan explains, “objects and certainly abstract groupings such as landscapes have no intrinsic meaning. The meaning they have is social; it arises out of social interaction and is conferred upon them by social groups.”[15] This element of shared meaning or consensus was present in the figure of the country house estate and explains why literary devices derived from it were ubiquitous in the period, providing a potent metaphor that was accessed extensively.

7> The most widely recognized deployment of this landscape discourse is Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” the oft-cited model for the genre. In this poem, his reader is initially introduced to an idealized pastoral world, inhabited with mythological characters cavorting in the forests and meadows surrounding the estate of Robert Sidney. As the poem progresses, themes of plenty, hospitality and virtue are clearly associated with Robert Sidney who is presented in a pastoral role, preserving the community through his just stewardship.
[16] Decades earlier, in 1586, Geoffrey Whitney used a similar discourse in his “Patria Cuique Chara: To Richarde Cotton Esquier.” Here he likens Cotton’s Cumbermaire estate to “A Comon-wealthe [ . . . ]/ By whose supporte, the meaner sorte doe live.”[17] Cotton’s estate is seen as “A stately seate” where Cotton spends his time to his “praise, and to your countries good.”[18]

8> These examples reveal what Roman Jakobson describes as “contiguity”—where the moral qualities of the owners become metonymically associated with the landscape itself.
[19] Charles Molesworth notes that a “strategy of metonymy” becomes a way of establishing the connection between value in the sense of property and value in its more spiritual sense. A man’s estate is viewed as the “effect” of his virtue.[20] In Jonson’s “To Penshurst” Robert Sidney is seen not merely to build but to “dwell” in harmony with human, animal and mineral upon his estate.[21] In like manner, Whitney presents Cotton as the master who “hath no stinge” where all “in the hive with him doe live in blisse.”[22]

9> These and other texts developed the metonymic connection between a house and its owner into a paean of virtue and tranquillity in keeping with the locus amoenus convention. At the same time they infused the trope with politically charged messages that could be deployed to communicate particular political positions. One example of this can be found in Mary Sidney’s “To the Angell spirit of the most excellent Philip Sidney,” a dedicatory poem in the Tixall Manuscript of the Sidneian Psalms (1599). Sidney used this poem as both an elegy to her brother, and a politically charged admonition to the Queen. In this poem Mary Sidney counsels Elizabeth to consider more seriously the militant Protestant position Philip Sidney advocated, as well as to chastise the Queen for her neglect of him. One of the most salient metaphors within the poem is Mary Sidney’s identification of her brother as a “goodly building [ . . . ]/cut off by fate.” Here Sidney goes beyond simply displaying her brother’s virtue through a culturally accessible figure. By asserting his virtue through a metonymic association with a “goodly building,” she presents the ambiguity of Philip Sidney’s place in the court of Elizabeth. In that gap between the words and that which is perceived beyond those words, as discussed by Genette, Sidney subtly criticizes the Queen for being blind to her brother’s extraordinary worth:

"As goodly buildings to some glorious ende
cut of by fate, before the Graces hadde
each wondrous part in all their beauties cladde,
Yet so much done, as Arte could not amende;
So thy rare workes to which no witte can adde,
in all mens eies, which are not blindely madde
Beyonde compare above all praise, extende."

10> Her inference that only one “blindely madde” could fail to see the rare work that was her brother, even in his unfinished state. This inference asserts paradoxically that Philip Sidney was already perfect despite being incomplete. Here Mary Sidney suggests the Queen’s indifference denied Philip Sidney the full glory due him. Her patronage, which could have provided Philip Sidney with an actual country house estate to advertise his worthiness—and political power—was denied him. Instead, Mary Sidney makes clear it is her brother’s virtue alone that animates the metonymic device of the house, in the absence of the material object itself. Earlier, Philip Sidney himself employed this device of the goodly building to represent his virtue when he humbly begs the queen to “reed my hart in the course of my life, and though it self be but of a mean worth, yet to esteem it like a poor house well set.”
[24] Again, the inference that he is indeed a “poor” if “well sett” house contains a veiled criticism of the Queen’s neglect. Here Sidney also imbeds an allusion to Matt. 7:24-25,[25] allowing the metaphor to more robustly communicate his virtue. The Sidneys’ use of the word “building” reveals that by the late sixteenth century the convention of the metonymic substitution of a country house, with its layered allusions to classical and biblical topos, for a particular person had begun to function as an idiom. The use of the term “building” was understood by contemporary readers as containing within it the multivalency present in the discourse of the country house without the need for further exposition or development.

11> This use can be seen in a number of other works from the period. William Shakespeare employs it when describing the murdered Duncan in Macbeth. In this scene Macduff cries out:

"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life o’th’ building."

12> And while these lines infer the building is an ecclesiastical edifice, the metonymy is not fixed and functions to appropriate allusions of both the church and palace connected with kingship. Shakespeare also uses this device in connection with the young man of the sonnets. In sonnet 80, after rehearsing his own humility, he expresses the fame and social stature of the young man by declaiming, “He of tall building and of goodly pride” (789). This metonymic device was also applied to women. In Thomas Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, the respected Antonio laments the suicide of his wife after she is raped by the Duke’s step-son:

"Draw neerer Lords and be sad witnesses
Of a fayre comely building newly falne,
Being falsely undermined [by] violent rape [ . . . ]"

13> This use of the metaphor calls to mind Mary Sidney’s appropriation of similar discourse concerning the early demise of Philip Sidney where the culturally rich signification of the country house is present even in its absence, with lack providing additional poignancy to the lament through the oppositional figure of the ruined house. This can also be seen in the example from Macbeth.

14> Shakespeare uses this figure again, if less tragically in Two Gentlemen of Verona where Shakespeare employs the device to not only illustrate the effect of unrequited love upon Valentine, but to allude to a topical social issue of the time:

"O thou that dost inhabit in my breast,
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless,
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was!
Repair me with thy presence, Silvia." (5.4.7-10, p. 22)

15> Valentine’s use of the extended metaphor of a neglected building may be employed light-heartedly in this passage. However, while the metonymic association of a gentleman with his country house enriches the character of Valentine, while at the same time inserts anxiety into the scene by alluding to a destruction which threatens to destabilize the landscape. For while the discourse of the country house attempted to posit a secure and unchanging social structure, the very imagery that participated in the promulgation of this ideological position could, conversely, be deployed to question or even undermine it.

16> Shakespeare’s almost comedic use of the metonymic device of the building as representative of virtue in Cymbeline, while not particularly ideologically damaging, does show a willingness to subtly undermine the discourse supporting prevailing cultural norms. In act four the Roman General, Caius Lucius stumbles across the body of the slain Cloten:

"Soft, ho! what trunk is here
Without his top? The ruin speaks that sometime
It was a worthy building." (4.2.355-357)

17> Cloten, of course, is not a “worthy building.” Instead, alive he was a depraved and wicked usurper, an agent of chaos and destruction. Only by reducing him to a ruin is he rendered harmless. In this play the effect upon landscape discourse by such contradictory usage would have been contained within the confines of the drama. Even the play’s wise and virtuous heroine, Imogen, mistakes the trunk for a “worthy building,” that is, her husband, Posthumous, though at this point in the play Posthumous’s worthiness has come into question and the two figures are subsumed into the metonymic device.

18> Other texts go beyond simply toying with landscape discourse, instead inserting alternative values into it by a reshaping and realigning the tropes and metonymies associated with it. This is what Amelia Lanyer does in her poem “The Description of Cooke-ham.” In this poem the estate of Cookham is not, like Jonson’s Penshurst, an idealized country house estate invigorated by the virtue of its owner, but quite the opposite. The “princely Palace” confers nothing upon the resident and serves only as that “sweet place” where “Virtue then did rest.” The house serves as a mere staging point for virtue. Lanyer describes the physical structure of the house at Cookham only briefly, quickly moving the subject of her poem, Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland, from the “Palace” to the unbounded spaces outside the house. These come to represent an alternative metonymic space, that of Paradise.
[28] Early in the longer poem to which “The Description of Cooke-ham” is appended, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, the Cookham estate is described as a “Paradice,” (51-52) and is aligned with heavenly authority rather than the earthly authority represented by the great buildings in contemporary landscape. Lanyer does this by preparing the reader for an alternative understanding of the pastoral images used in landscape discourse. In her Passion narrative which precedes “The Description of Cooke-ham” she reinscribes this imagery by powerfully affiliating it with Christ, a strategy also employed by Philip Sidney. Margaret Clifford, a figure closely connect with Christ in this text, is represented as the animating and spiritual force present in the Cookham estate. On the “sacred hill,” far removed from the actual male created space of the Cookham country house, Lanyer presents Clifford as participating in a community made up “Christ and his Apostles,” and a household of women, including Lanyer (133). In “The Description of Cooke-ham,” Lanyer employs the imagery of the country estate to propose alternatives to the very ideologies this imagery fostered. She is able to do this because the topos, as discussed above, was already infused with biblical and classical allusions associated with virtue. In many ways, what Lanyer does is to realign the topos in keeping with its earlier employment as a classical/biblical locus amoenus, challenging the accrued political assumptions present in the trope by the early seventeenth century.

19> The device of the “goodly building” was derived from landscape practices emerging from the socio-political environment of the sixteenth century. It appropriated elements of the locus amoenus topos infused with Classical and Biblical allusions to virtue in order to elevate the individual connected with a country house estate. The device served to posit a cultural stability dependent upon what was perceived to be the “right relationship” amongst those who inhabited the landscape of early modern England. The disruptions and renegotiations in this relationship caused by the redistribution of land after the Reformation, as well as changes in the political system that saw the last vestiges of a more feudal social construct dissipate, made use of this device as part of a strategy aimed at maintaining a socially constructed “right relationship” between all members of the society. Yet at the same time, the instability inherent in the device allowed for its strategic deployment capable of challenging and reshaping prevailing political and social norms.


[1] B. David Evett, “‘Paradice’s Only Map’: The Topos Of The Locus Amoenus And The Structure Of Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House,’” PMLA 85.3 (1970) 505.

[2] Maurice Howard, The Building of Elizabethan and Jacobean England (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale UP, 2008) 17-23.

[3] “Parishes: South Weald,” A History of the County of Essex, vol. 8 (1983) 74-90. Online at <>.

[4] Piers Compton, The Story of Bisham Abbey (Maidenhead: Thames Valley, 1973) 55.

[5] Howard, 22.

[6] Richard Grenville qtd. in Joyce Youings, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (London: Allen Unwin, 1971) 229; catalogued in Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547, vol 14. 1 (London, 1894) 580.

[7] William Savile qtd. in Nicholas Cooper, Houses of the Gentry: 1480-1680 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale UP) 1999 16.

[8] William Woolley qtd. in Nicholas Cooper 16.

[9] Sidney, D’ Lisle ms. 2.155.

[10] Don E. Wayne, Penshurst: The Semiotics Of Place And The Poetics Of History, (Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1984) 23.

[11] Howard, 17.

[12] Don Mitchell, Cultural Geography: a Critical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 137, 139.

[13] Kari Boyd McBride, Country House Discourse in Early Modern England: A Cultural Study of Landscape and Legitimacy (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2001) 6.

[14] Gérard Genette, Figures Of Literary Discourse, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Columbia UP, 1982) 54.

[15] James S. Duncan, “Landscape and the Communication of Social Identity,” The Mutual Interaction of people and their Built Environment: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Amos Rapoport (Paris: Moulton, 1976) 392.

[16] Ben Jonson, “To Penshurst,” The Poems and Prose Works, Ben Jonson, eds. C.H. Herford Percy and Evelyn Simpson, vol. 8 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954) 94.

[17] Geoffrey Whitney, “Patria Cuique Chara,” A Choice of Emblemes, 1586, ed. John Horden. (Menston, Yorkshire: Scolar P, 1969) 201.

[18] Whitney 201.

[19] Genette 55.

[20] Charles Molesworth, “Property and Virtue,” Genre 1.2 (1968) 145-146.

[21] Jonson, “To Penshurst” 96.

[22] Whitney 200.

[23] Mary Sidney, The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, ed. Margaret P. Hannay, et. al., vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998) 112.

[24] Philip Sidney, The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963) 147.

[25] 24: Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. From: Bible, Authorized Version [King James] (London, 1616).

[26] William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Well, Gary Taylor, et. al., 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005) 3.1.65-68, p. 978. All subsequent references to Shakespeare are from this edition and are referenced parenthetically.

[27] Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy in Thomas Middleton, The Complete Works, ed. Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007) 1.4.1-3.

[28] Aemilia Lanyer, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, ed. Susanne Woods (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993) 130: lns 5-7. All subsequent references to this work are from this edition and are referenced parenthetically.

Jessica L. Malay is a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield where she teaches Renaissance Literature. Her interests include literary history and the effects of culture on literary production. Dr. Malay’s recent publications include: Inhabiting Place: Textual Constructions of Space in the Writing of Renaissance Women (Mellen, 2006); “Jane Seager’s Sibylline Poems” ELR (2006); and “Elizabeth Russell’s Textual Performances of Self” COMITATUS (2006).

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

No comments: