Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance

Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance

Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance

Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance


Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

Sweeping across scholarly disciplines, Back to Nature shows that, from the moment of their conception, modern ecological and epistemological anxieties were conjoined twins. Urbanization, capitalism, Protestantism, colonialism, revived Skepticism, empirical science, and optical technologies conspired to alienate people from both the earth and reality itself in the seventeenth century. Literary and visual arts explored the resulting cultural wounds, expressing the pain and proposing some ingenious cures. The stakes, Robert N. Watson demonstrates, were huge.

Shakespeare's comedies, Marvell's pastoral lyrics, Traherne's visionary Centuries, and Dutch painting all illuminate a fierce submerged debate about what love of nature has to do with perception of reality.


This book is the offspring of two seemingly incompatible parents: one a desire to bring ecological advocacy into the realm of Renaissance literature (where it has usually been deemed irrelevant at best), the other a desire to articulate the intricate philosophical ironies of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Marvell’s “Mower” poems, and seventeenth-century Dutch painting. They were brought together by a discovery that what looks to modern eyes like early environmentalist sentiment—what would later evolve into that sentiment— originally functioned as an analogy: civilization is to nature as perception is to reality. Pastoralism was part of a broad primitivism: the nostalgia that appears to concern a lost ecology also laments a lost epistemology. English literature and its cultural contexts during the era of Protestant power running roughly from the destruction of the Armada in 1588 to the Restoration in 1660, which I will be calling the late Renaissance, reveal that the familiar efforts to recover simple experience out in the fields or the wilderness, to re-immerse oneself in the natural order, were partly fueled by a craving for unmediated knowledge in any form. As the persistent references to the Garden of Eden suggest, the movement back to nature was partly a code for a drive back toward some posited original certainty—a drive baffled by paradox and by history, leaving the pastoralist merely posing with his back to nature.


Would anyone have bet on horticultural studies as a plausible heir to cultural studies at the forefront of literary criticism in English? Perhaps someone recalling the shift from the divisive Vietnam War protests of the 1960s to the generally cuddlier environmentalism of the 1970s could have foreseen that the next generation of scholars would look back penitently from the ivory tower toward the planted rather than the tented field. In any case, ecocriticism seems to be booming in its test markets (British Romanticism and the literature of the American West), and now stands ready to push its way back into the Renaissance. My . . .

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