Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell

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Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell by Diane Kelsey McColley. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. 252. $89.95.

Halfway through his essay "Walking," H. D. Thoreau asks "Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature?" The question is rhetorical. He has already announced his own intent to speak for Nature, and turned to survey the territory behind, where he finds little in the way of precedent or guidance:

English literature, from the days of the minstrels to the Lake Poets--Chaucer and Spenser and Milton, and even Shakespeare included, breathes no quite flesh and in this sense wild strain. It is an essentially tame and civilized literature reflecting Greece and Rome. Her wilderness is a green-wood--her wild man a Robinhood. There is plenty of genial love of Nature, but not so much of Nature herself.

The literature that speaks for Nature is yet to come, or so it would seem. Thoreau's gesture is at once a ground-clearing and an investiture; it heralds the American tradition of nature writing, which has at heart the belief that before the nineteenth century "Nature herself" is mostly absent from Western literature. This is also a central tenet of ecocriticism, which generally does not regard early modern literature as ecological in its concerns or sensibilities. Although Thoreau's name does not appear in Diane McColley's Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell, it is largely his judgment on English literature and its formidable critical legacy that the author has in her sights when she announces her intent to challenge the notion "that pre-Romantic and pre-Darwinian poetry, especially if it is monotheistically religious, is intrinsically unecological, or that 'ecocriticism' of it is intrinsically anachronistic" (1).

The book's central argument is that many English poets of the seventeenth century, including Milton and Marvell, but also George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Margaret Cavendish, among others, demonstrate sensibilities properly deemed "ecological" when they criticize contemporary practices of deforestation, pollution, and large-scale mining; show regard for plants and animals as "fellow creatures whose lives belong to themselves"; and promote a sense of kinship with and empathy for all living things by means of "language responsive, in sound and form as well as image and thought, to the lives of plants, animals, elements and places" (1, 7). McColley chooses the modern term "ecology" over the classical and early modern term "economy" because, she says, "economy," with its roots in the Greek words oikos (household) and nomos (law), designates the management of an estate for human benefit, while "ecology," with its root logos (word, knowledge), "suggests that our use of knowledge needs to be good for the whole household of living things" (1). Ecology, then, concerns the knowledge of nature in itself, as opposed to knowledge of its use-value for humans; it also involves the intimate personal engagement of the human subject with the natural world. "Ecological" poetry of the seventeenth century, whose language McColley describes as fluid and responsive to the lives of animals and plants, promoted just such respectful attention to nature and empathetic connections with it. By contrast, she says, "the Baconian program of empirical science required a rational, explicit, unambiguous language," which promoted the domination of nature, its reduction to a body of ascertainable facts, and its exploitation for human benefit (4).

McColley's readings of the "living language" of poetry are sensitive, beautifully realized, and powerful; they make an important contribution to critical understanding of how seventeenth-century poetry reworks traditionally allegorical and emblematic readings of nature and reflects an emerging awareness of the natural world. Readings of the language of science are less nuanced by comparison, but the primary sources brought together in this book, including several texts of early modern science, will be useful to other scholars and critics looking to interrogate critical commonplaces about nature in early modern literature. …