“The Description of Cookham” was first published in 1611 in Aemilia Lanyer’s volume of poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Lanyer lived from 1569-1645. The poem is a farewell to the beloved estate Cookham and its lady, the Countess of Cumberland; it both celebrates the invigorating effects the Countess has on the estate and mourns how her departure causes it to wither. Lanyer lived with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess Dowager of Cumberland, and her daughter Anne Clifford when Lanyer was a teenager, and Cookham was the estate that the Crown leased to Margaret’s brother, a place the Clifford family occasionally lived. “The Description of Cookham” was written between Anne Clifford’s wedding on February 25, 1609, when she took the name “Dorset,” and the poem’s entry in the Stationers’ Register on October 2, 1610.
The book Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was issued twice, though its publication history is complicated to reconstruct. One text includes the short version of dedications: STC 15277. Poems requesting patronage are addressed to Anne of Denmark (James I’s Queen), Elizabeth Stuart (their daughter), “All virtuous ladies in general,” Lady Lucy Russell (Countess of Bedford), and Lady Anne Clifford (Countess of Dorset). There is also a prose dedication to Lanyer’s current patron, Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess Dowager of Cumberland. This text includes a typesetting error that is corrected in the other version, STC 15277.5, indicating that this second text may be the later printing. It includes all the opening addresses existing today: Anne of Denmark (James I’s Queen), Elizabeth Stuart (their daughter), Lady Arabella Stuart, Susan Bertie (Countess Dowager of Kent), Lady Marie (Countess Dowager of Pembroke), Lady Lucy Russell (Countess of Bedford), Lady Katherine Howard (Countess of Suffolk), and Lady Anne Clifford (Countess of Dorset), Lady Margaret Clifford (Countess Dowager of Cumberland), “All virtuous ladies in general,” and “To the virtuous reader.” Three editions of the text have been published in the 20th century, when Lanyer’s work was rediscovered: a 1978 edition by A. L. Rowse, a 1993 edition by Susanne Woods, and a 1994 edition by Diane Purkiss, which also includes the plays of Elizabeth Cary.
“The Description of Cookham” draws on multiple poetic traditions. Its elegiac tone imbues this farewell to the estate with a mournful sense of loss; the estate loses the Countess, and the speaker loses them both. Cookham is portrayed as Edenic, a perfect haven of nature that reflects God’s beauty but is now lost. The poem also addresses the classical topic of “farewell to a place,” most famously evident in Virgil’s Eclogue 1. The pastoral tradition of the “pathetic fallacy” is evident throughout the poem as nature actively responds to and often sympathizes with human emotion.
With Cookham, Lanyer published the first poem in the country-house genre. Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” is generally thought to have started the genre, but it was not published until 1616. Jonson also wrote “To Sir Robert Wroth,” published in the same 1616 volume as “To Penshurst” and seen as a companion piece to it. Poems that continued the country-house genre include Robert Herrick’s “A Country-life: to his Brother Mr. Thomas Herrick” and “A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton,” Thomas Carew’s “To Saxham” and “To my Friend G.N. from Wrest,” and Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House.”
- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “Aemilia Lanyer: 1569-1645.” p. 1436; “Emilia Lanier.” Wikipedia.
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- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “Aemilia Lanyer: 1569-1645.” p. 1436
- Hadfield, Andrew. “Politics.” p. 239
- Hibbard, G.R. “The Country House Poem of the Seventeenth Century.” p. 159
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