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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday: Hospitality Through the Centuries

with Claudia, who even loaned me a hat!, and fabulous Hostess with the Mostest Joan. The bottom photo is from 1994 - at Penshurst with the Harrises.


At last month’s Poetry for All Highlights Founders Workshop, Eileen Spinelli told us that a writer needs time to meander. So please bear with me – I’m meandering today!

Last weekend, I had the terrific good fortune to attend the SCBWI Southern Breeze summer retreat, “Show Don't Tell: How Acting Techniques Improve Writing” led by Hester Bass. At first I thought I’d find a poem celebrating acting for today, and then I wanted to celebrate hospitality – shown by Hester in her leadership, shown by Joan Broerman, our region’s founder, who along with hubby Neal welcomed all of us into their home for sessions and meals, and shown by co-RA Claudia Pearson, who graciously offered me her gorgeous guest room to bunk in for the weekend.

A search for poems on “hospitality” led to Ben Jonson’s 1616 poem, “To Penshurst.” Well, this poem led me to an old photo album. Jeff, myself and Morgan, age two at the time in 1994, made a trip to England for our 10th anniversary. We were covered up with hospitality and wonderful day trips by friends of Jeff’s family – John and Pauline Harris, and their son Chris. Their home was in Sevenoaks, Kent, not far from the Penshurst estate, and off we went. John and Pauline are both gone now, but I will always remember their warmth and enthusiasm.

I’ll also always remember that trip to Penshurst – the medieval banquet hall and its chestnut beams and long, long tables transported us back to the fourteenth century! According to my notes, we stopped for a decadent cream tea in the Tea Room on the way out, where we were bid goodbye with double rainbows outside.

I figured since the poem was written by Ben Jonson, dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare, it qualified as both acting-related and hospitality-related. It’s an “estate poem” which looks at nature, culture and social relationships. Here’s a taste with the beginning and a bit from later on:

To Penshurst

by Ben Jonson
(excerpt)

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.


But all come in, the farmer and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples; some that think they make
The better cheeses bring them, or else send
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend
This way to husbands, and whose baskets bear
An emblem of themselves in plum or pear.
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such? whose liberal board doth flow
With all that hospitality doth know;
Where comes no guest but is allowed to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat …


For the entire poem, click here.

Oh – and did you know Ben Jonson is the only person buried in an upright position in Westminster Abbey? (Click here for more. Told you I was meandering.)

Thanks for visiting, and meander on over to Mary Lee’s A Year of Reading for the Poetry Friday roundup!
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