Back to Nature

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

Robert N. Watson
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Back to Nature
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0425-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Part I. Introduction:: The Green and the Real
    • Chapter 1 Ecology, Epistemology, and Empiricism
      (pp. 3-35)

      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:...

    • Chapter 2 Theology, Semiotics, and Literature
      (pp. 36-74)

      Though it was spoken in a different vocabulary from that of deism or atomism, let alone environmentalism or quantum physics, the question of whether matter could itself be God, or God could be matter, was not at all foreign to Renaissance culture. The clearest analogue to the problem I have been sketching—indeed, the form in which it is most openly and extensively discussed—is the bitter Renaissance controversy over transubstantiation. The difference between identifying things with an absolute material essence, or else believing them to achieve their identity only within the experiential scope of each individual, correlates with the...

  4. Part II. Paradoxes:: Alienation from Nature in English Literature
    • Chapter 3 As You Liken It: Simile in the Forest
      (pp. 77-107)

      In the four syllables of its title, As You Like It contains both the words used to signal simile, and places “like” as a barrier between “you” and “it.” From that title onward, this pastoral play is permeated with the idea of likeness, which is to say, imperfect identity—and the way that both “liking” and “likening,” even in apparently benign forms, necessarily impose on their living objects. Shakespeare describes the chronic nostalgia for nature as a sentimental manifestation of Pyrrhonist anxieties, the suspicion that we can know things only as we liken them, never in or as themselves.


    • Chapter 4 Shades of Green: Marvell’s Garden and the Mowers
      (pp. 108-134)

      Like many Renaissance dialogues, this chapter invites you to stroll through a garden and the fields around it, contemplating some lovely but nettlesome questions. Fortunately, we have Andrew Marvell along, opening “The Garden” with a praise of rustic simplicity and a corresponding renouncement of secondary or symbolic meanings:

      How vainly men themselves amaze

      To win the palm, the oak, or bays,

      And their uncessant labours see

      Crowned from some single herb or tree,

      Whose short and narrow vergèd shade

      Does prudently their toils upbraid,

      While all flow’rs and all trees do close

      To weave the garlands of repose.

      (lines 1)...

  5. Part III. Reformations:: Protestant Politics, Poetics, and Paintings
    • Chapter 5 Metaphysical and Cavalier Styles of Consciousness
      (pp. 137-165)

      The same Andrew Marvell who so mesmerizingly walked the tightrope between solipsist/subjectivist and materialist/objectivist views of the universe walked, with no less amazing skill, the tightrope between the Puritan revolutionaries and the Royalist forces. This may be more than a mere coincidence. The conflicting ontologies—one that deemed the essential reality the one created within the individual believer, especially through language, the other believing in an essential reality received through the senses as a shared legacy—correlate significantly with radical Protestantism and the High Church respectively. They also correlate with the old division between Metaphysical and Cavalier poetry.

      Though I...

    • Chapter 6 The Retreat of God, the Passions of Nature, and the Objects of Dutch Painting
      (pp. 166-225)

      Anyone eager to see ordinary objects depicted in Renaissance painting must aim for the northern European section of museums. Though real household items and naturalistic scenery populate some fifteenth-century religious paintings, they become much more common and prominent in the later sixteenth century. At first glance, this seems odd, given the mistrust of materialism fundamental to Protestant religion and the Reformers’ penchant for turning whatever physical objects they did not destroy into metaphors of human subjectivity. As seventeenth-century English poetry has shown, it was Catholic religious culture that had a structural and traditional affinity for objects as they present themselves...

    • Chapter 7 Nature in Two Dimensions: Perspective and Presence in Ryckaert, Vermeer, and Others
      (pp. 226-254)

      The suggestion that “It was Kepler who for the first time turned away from the world to a representation of it, to the picture of it on the retina”¹ should remind us that technical developments could unsettle both individual subjectivity and universal beliefs. Understanding the perceiver was essential to understanding external reality, but it also marked the barriers between them. If the mind receives an ellipse and infers a tilted circle, which one is the truth? The development of linear or single-point perspective in Renaissance painting seems to be a movement toward nature, or at least toward naturalism: the paintings...

  6. Part IV. Solutions:: The Consolations of Mediation
    • Chapter 8 Metal and Flesh in The Merchant of Venice: Shining Substitutes and Approximate Values
      (pp. 257-296)

      By taking the supernatural out of the perceptible world, Dutch art paradoxically sanctified that world. When iconoclasm forced artistic energies into new channels, the Christian culture’s piteous response to its martyrs was redirected or recathected onto humanity’s victims throughout the ecosystem—much as (according to Max Weber’s controversial theory) the penitential exertions formerly offered by Catholicism for self-improvement, rendered inefficacious by Reformation theology, were channeled into profitable hard work in the ordinary world.¹ Karl Marx claimed that capital undermined “the deification of nature,”² because nature became an object for humanity to use rather than worship; the Reds were seldom Greens....

    • Chapter 9 Thomas Traherne: The World as Present
      (pp. 297-323)

      “Ecstatic” is the adjective many readers would reflexively apply to Thomas Traherne’s rapturous writings,¹ but for the purposes of my argument it is important to note that he is almost the opposite—instatic, re-instating objects with identity by taking them into himself, rather than being lifted out of himself. It is a distinction almost without a difference, because the relationship is purely amorous and never adversarial: things are present essentially within him, but this renders them so vivid that the ego nearly dissolves into the given universe. Because the very purpose of that universe is to serve and delight the...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 324-336)

    Ted Hughes has asserted that “The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man.”¹ This book has been describing the late Renaissance as a particularly tense chapter in those paired stories: a cliff-hanger in which the terrified collective mind of Western Europe clings tighter than ever to the outer face of the natural world, knowing that the surface is slippery and crumbling, and knowing that a fall may do irreparable damage. In several categories, the elite intellectual culture appeared obsessed with getting back to nature, hoping there and thereby to regain unmediated contact with simple...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 337-396)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 397-418)
  10. Index
    (pp. 419-436)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 437-437)