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

Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance. By Robert N. Watson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006. viii + 437 pp. 39 [pounds sterling]. isbn: 978-0-8122-3905-8.

This is a book distinguished by the degree to which its reach exceeds its grasp. In it, Watson offers a sketch of a 'Unified Field Theory of seventeenth-century English culture' (p. 140). All the various, seemingly contradictory, events--philosophical, political, religious, literary, pictorial, social--can be ordered and understood if we grasp a single analogy: 'civilization is to nature as perception is to reality' (p. 3). And since this is not science, Watson feels the need to demonstrate how his discovered analogy might explain everything. The result is a long book that often gives the impression of being superficial, an impression intensified by Watson's enjoyment of lists of quotations--in a single half-page paragraph he leads the reader through the thought of Francis Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Quarles, Polonius, and Thomas Sprat, while bringing in The Beatles, Paul Simon, and Zeno as explanatory examples (p. 12). Zeno's paradox, in fact, appears some eight times in the book, and on occasion characterizes the reading experience: the more that is read, the less movement towards understanding there seems to be, particularly if one dips regularly into the fifty-nine pages of notes.

Yet the constant appearance of Zeno's paradox also points to the book's strengths, which are significant. Ecocriticism, like all explicitly motivated criticism, threatens to subordinate the objects of its attention to its pre-existent aims. Watson is a committed ecocritic, and he sees this book as a work of ecological advocacy; it is designed to help us understand the history of our relationship with nature, and particularly the history of our carelessness towards nature. He extends that history from the Romantic period back to the late Renaissance (1580 to 1660). He does that by arguing that Protestant Europe was in the grip of a cultural crisis: direct knowledge of both the divine and the temporal world had come to seem almost impossible; and the mediated nature of human perception and knowledge was regarded as increasingly problematic. The result of this crisis of alienation was the development of a new but distinctively nostalgic interest in nature, in which the natural was viewed as representing a lost age of certainty and belonging. Truth came to be seen to lie in the past, and the culture became profoundly retrospective; the real was sought in the green.

Watson keeps on mentioning Zeno's paradox because he is very good at showing how the literary works he looks at do not, finally, believe in the regressive idealism which, he suggests, is thrown up by the cultural crisis he posits; the longed-for identification with nature remains unreachable, with the honourable exception of the works of Thomas Traherne. For Marvell and Shakespeare, the complications and complicities of human consciousness are inescapable, and indeed provide a large part of the intellectual substance of their works. Dutch landscape painters, similarly struck by the philosophical ironies inherent in the human attempt to go back to nature, are seen to respond by casting nature in the role of Christ, as the victim of mankind. Watson's readings of the literary texts--I cannot judge his contribution to the history of art--are not new in any large sense, but, particularly with respect to Marvell and Shakespeare, they are intelligent and subtle. His achievement is to show the extent to which those texts can be appreciated through an approach to their engagements with nature and the natural. In doing so, he enriches our understanding of the role of 'the green', in particular as a locus of a set of epistemological and ontological questions. Others, I imagine, will follow his lead, and a reading list for those interested in Shakespeare's green worlds will add Watson's name to the list of Frye, Barber, and Montrose. Committed ecocritics may even celebrate the book's excessive reach, seeing that it is grasping at their heaven.

John Lee

University of Bristol
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Author:Lee, John
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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