During a break from my studies of English literature at University of Oxford, my English cousin, Lee, a generous host, asked me, "What would you like to see?"
"Penshurst Place," I responded, and to my surprise, Lee knew exactly where it was in the English countryside. "It's not far from Rudyard Kipling's home, Bateman's, and Bodian Castle, one of the few moated castles in England," she said.
So, the next afternoon, we were off in her small English car across windy, bumpy roads to the Sidney family estate, Penshurst Place, which was the inspiration for Ben Jonson's poem "To Penshurst."
I found it disconcerting to be riding in a vehicle apparently driven on the "wrong" side of the road, and my anxiety was heightened by the narrow country roads.
Months earlier, shortly after my arrival in England, Lee showed me Rochester Castle, above the Medway River, which wound into Rochester, Kent and Chatham, her hometown - also the former home of Charles Dickens. She walked me around and through the historic district with its period exhibits, which tourists visit, and also the downtown area, where locals shopped.
But now I was in the heart of England.
Penshurst Place is an impressive estate, and I could certainly appreciate Jonson's poem favoring a beneficent nature that lends humans her fruit. The gardens of the estate were green and lush on this cool summer day. The flowers were bright and open, and I could sense in these surroundings that all was somehow right with the world. This garden was a sort of 17th-century world - the Earth, a benevolent provider.
I had presented "To Penshurst" in my small tutorial at Lincoln College, Oxford, and now I was at Penshurst. The estate belonged to the descendants of 16th-century sonneteer Sir Philip Sidney.
While my poetry has fallen shy of the work of Jonson and Sidney, I could not help but be moved to more fully comprehend English literature in this light.
Kipling's home was a more recent but more rural estate, and humbler than Penshurst Place, but it held its own amid the lushly rolling countryside. Bodian Castle was so close that it seemed to sit in Kipling's backyard.
Kipling's turn-of-the-century Rolls Royce was parked behind glass in a stout barn near the large main house.
Oh, the glory of Empire!