The locus amoenus: ethically justified space in seventeenth-century poetry

Sarah Dempster

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The subject of this thesis is the locus amoenus, the classically derived ideal place appropriated by seventeenth-century rural poets. The poetic representation of a place of both safety and comfort took both topographical and ideological form in the upheaval of the seventeenth century. To date, no extended studies of the locus amoenus in seventeenth-century rural poetry have been published. Moreover, examinations of this subject conventionally focus on classical expressions of an ideal place. This thesis provides a critical consideration of the locus amoenus regarding the poetry of Aemilia Lanyer, Ben Jonson, Mildmay Fane, Robert Herrick, John Denham, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton.

 The classical roots of the term locus amoenus reveal many of the elements that went in to the poetic fashioning of the ideal place. More than classical symbolism, the ideal place of the seventeenth century was set against a backdrop of agrarian capitalism, anxieties over social hierarchy, and civil war. By studying a variety of poets and their contexts, it is possible to account for and clarify the manifestations of the ideal place the century produced. Aemilia Lanyer and Cookham are considered first in this thesis. The poet envisages the female family at the centre of the ideal place in command of the estate. Next, Ben Jonson creates the estate of Penshurst as a place of temporary respite, away from the flattery demanded of him at court. Mildmay Fane, with his combination of staggering wealth and moderation in all things, seeks a quiet, natural locus amoenus, and is remarkably consistent in his commitment to the via media throughout his body of work. Fane’s ideal place holds friendship as the anodyne to civil strife and the increasing difficulties between Parliament and the Stuart monarchy. His great friend, Robert Herrick, shared the same Royalist sympathies, but perceives that social harmony can be found on the ideal estate. The way to this estate lies in the traditions and sports of old, where peasants dutifully bring in and celebrate the estate’s harvest with a benevolent lord. John Denham found the ideal place was firmly rooted in both historic and present-day England, perceived from his vantage point atop Cooper’s Hill. Andrew Marvell’s approach to the ideal place is one based on community, spirituality, and moderation. Marvell’s ideal landscapes are surrounded by the aftermath of civil war, whether in vegetative military symbolism or a mowing down of grass like so much human flesh. Lastly, Milton subverts the Jonsonian practice of the masque of praise to transpose a physical space into a locus amoenus of the mind. Ultimately, it is in the redeemed soul that Milton perceives the strongest hope for an enduring locus amoenus.

This thesis reflects on the individual idealism and identity that each poet wished to create. By focusing on an assembly of poets, I demonstrate the importance of understanding the complex and diverse potential of the locus amoenus in the seventeenth century. Even though the nature of each ideal place is not always congruous between poets, much can be learned about the social, political, and cultural nature of the seventeenth-century ideal place when considered together. This study of the locus amoenus not only illuminates strife-ridden England, but considers the characteristics of landscape for defintion in a new, more peaceful world.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


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