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Ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature.


This essay both presents educators with an overview of ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature, as well as suggests ways they may be brought into the classroom. In particular, it provides a strategy for introducing students to the somewhat startling revelation that many of today's most topical environmental issues, such as deforestation, unchecked mining, development of wetlands, and the willful elimination of endangered species, were also pressing concerns for Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.


When confronted with the image of a literal dark cloud of air pollution hanging over Coketown in Dickens's Hard Times, a broad swath of students is immediately persuaded both that our current environmental crisis has roots in the nineteenth century, and that writers of the time were already chronicling its growth. However, turn the clock back two centuries, to Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and students and teachers alike are remarkably resistant to the notion that the roots of the crisis could possibly reach back so far. There are, I think, principally two reasons for this. First, in spite of a virtual avalanche of work by historians in the past twenty years exploring the Medieval and Renaissance origins of the so-called Industrial Revolution, in the popular imagination this still very much remains a nineteenth-century revolution. Second, and ironically, the successes of the ecocritical movement itself may have inadvertently fostered this very view. Because some of the most important work in the field, such as that done by ecocritics Lawrence Buell and Jonathan Bates [1], focuses on literature from the nineteenth century--the very period most students still associate with the rise of technological modernity--this underscores for many that this is through-and-through a nineteenth-century phenomenon. The purpose of the present essay is to present educators with an overview of ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature, as well as to introduce important primary and secondary sources for possible further consideration.

Any attempt to introduce a "green" reading of Renaissance literature in the classroom must begin by making clear that many of today's most topical environmental issues, such as deforestation, unchecked mining, development of wetlands, and the willful elimination of endangered species, were also pressing concerns four hundred years ago. Indeed, thanks to mass deforestation, a dark cloud of coal smoke had already descended over London by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays. As Sir William Cecil noted in 1596, "London and all other towns near the sea ... are mostly driven to burn coal ... for most of the woods are consumed." [2] Deforestation had in fact become such a controversial issue that in 1653 Sylvanus Taylor baldly declared that "all men's eyes were upon the forests." [3] Taylor, an early advocate of sustainable yield, argued that two trees should be planted for every one cut down, but thanks to a report prepared by Dr. John Parker and Edward Crasset encouraging the elimination of forests, in 1653 the "Act for the Deforestation, Sale, and Improvements of the Forests" was responsible for another wave of mass clear cutting. [4] With the forests quickly being decimated, coal mining became--although not without a great deal of controversy--a major industry as early as the sixteenth century, fueling such proto-industrial practices as copper smelting and glassmaking. This fact was not lost on poet John Milton, who in no less than three occasions in Paradise Lost lashes out at mining as being evil in origin, as demonically-inspired human beings "with impious hands / Rifl'd the bowels of thir mother Earth / For Treasures better hid." [5]

Deforestation and mining are only part of the Renaissance's environmental crisis. Beginning in the sixteenth century, wetlands, in the form of fens and marshes, were the subject of a series of lawsuits and riots initiated by local residents resisting massive drainage projects that would be condoned by both Crown and Commonwealth. In a remarkably modern way, these lawsuits argued that, in the words of historian Joan Thirsk, "Fish and Fowl were disturbed in their traditional habitats by the drainage, wetland that had afforded lush pasture in summer was drained dry and robbed of the nutrients it had formerly received annually from winter flooding, and, in addition to this all, the commons were reduced to one-half to one-third of the former size." [6]

Additionally, following the publication of John Fitzherbert's Boke of Husbondrye in 1523, for over a century works by Thomas Tusser, Barnabe Googe, Andrew Yarranton, and others argued to wealthy landowners that changes in agricultural practices (especially the substituting of indigenous plants with ryegrass, clover, trefoil, carrots, turnips, and sainfoin) could lead to dramatic increases in crop yields and profit. [7] Aghast at this proposed wholesale elimination of what became endangered indigenous plants, in his poem "Man," George Herbert eerily presages a modern environmental argument (often now marshaled into use to suggest that the planet's last remaining rain forests might contain endangered plants that could one day cure cancer) by suggesting that "in ev'ry path / He [man] treads down that which doth befriend him, / When sickness makes him pale and wan." [8] Herbert's point was simply that even the seemingly insignificant plants we thoughtlessly tread upon and exterminate might be the "Herbs [which] gladly cure our flesh" (23) in time of greatest sickness.

While writers such as Milton and Herbert address some of these ecological upheavals (deforestation, mining, reduction of wetlands, and the eradication of endangered species) specifically, it has been compellingly argued by Leo Marx in his The Machine in the Garden that early-modern pastoral itself, such as Shakespeare's The Tempest, was in part motivated by the ecological devastation in Elizabethan England. [9] The colonial enterprise, argued Marx, was in part generated by, and in part generative of, a pastoral discourse which sought very literally to find the ever-receding bucolic world imagined in pastoral literature in the very definite, physical location of the untouched wilderness of prospective colonies. Aware that England was no longer a natural wonderland, writers like Shakespeare looked to the colonies for this illusive pastoral paradise. A provocative question to put to students regarding any "pastoral" literature then, is to what extent might the wonderful bucolic world imagined in this text be the writer's response to a developing world that was anything but pastoral? It is noteworthy that most Renaissance pastoral was written in highly developed, indeed urban, settings.

Although students, especially at the University level, are increasingly aware of postcolonial approaches to literature, this understanding often exclusively sees the "colonized" as human beings. True, in some instances it would be the human colonized resources which would appeal most to the colonizer, with the prospect of labor so cheap that literally thousands of hours of human labor could be lavished in the making of a single wool rug or bolt of silk fabric. On the other hand, the colonized natural resources, which in this case supply the wool and silk, also had immense appeal to the colonizer. The classic Renaissance example of the latter is Faerie Queene author Edmund Spenser, who found the colonized Irish people of such little consequence that he called for their elimination so that the island itself could be resettled by a British population. [10] In this extreme case, the "colonized" exclusively referred to the place. This said, the lead question to put to students regarding any colonial text--Renaissance or otherwise--should be the following: To what extent did this colonial project seek to do violence to the indigenous people of the colonized place, and to what degree was the violence directed toward the place itself? The answer will determine whether the text will reveal itself best to a largely ecocritical approach or some sort of cultural analysis, such as a subaltern study. Most texts will, of course, benefit from both types of readings, but it is important to recognize this often ignored ecological component of colonialism.

Similarly, students are often sympathetic to feminist approaches to Renaissance texts. However, they are frequently unaware that the desire to control both woman and the natural world was often expressed by the same patriarchal rhetoric. In her groundbreaking eco-feminist work, The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant devotes a chapter to Renaissance writer and scientist Francis Bacon. [11] Merchant argues that Bacon's desire to scientifically control feminized nature, conceived of as the goddess Natura, is merely an extension of the patriarchal enterprise. Using the most vicious misogynistic language, Bacon repeatedly calls for the complete domination and control of both women and what we would call Mother Nature. Provocative classroom discussions can use as a point of departure the question of just how patriarchal thinking, when universalized, can provide the ideological framework for the domination not only of women, but of conquered and colonized peoples, individuals of other races and classes, and indeed the natural world itself. On the other hand, ecocritical writers such as Diane McColley have compellingly argued that certain men, such as Milton, believed that women had a unique relationship with nature from which men could surely learn much. [12]

Another valuable approach in the classroom is to consider the ecological implications of certain theological and philosophical worldviews, such as dualism. Because of a longstanding tradition of spirit-flesh (and emerging Cartesian mind-body) dualism, many Renaissance thinkers were of the opinion that human beings were simply not "of the earth" at all, rather at root being a metaphysical entity belonging to an-Other realm. The danger here, like in all dualisms, is that one hall of the dyad (the metaphysical) risks being wildly privileged, while the Other half (the earthly) becomes so utterly marginalized that "earthy" actually becomes a pejorative term. In an extreme form of such a dualism, such as that held by poet John Donne, "The World is but a Carkas," and we should "Forget this world, and scarse thinke of it so, / As of old cloathes, cast off a yeare agoe." [13] Obviously, this is a problematic way to view the natural world. Perhaps equally problematic is how to broach this question of dualism with students, many of whom believe it integral to their religious beliefs. However, Milton, for example, as I have recently argued in my book Milton and Ecology, could not only find little biblical support for such dualism but argued from a scriptural stance that human beings are not only an indissoluble amalgam of spirit and flesh, but equally inseparable from the places on earth we inhabit. [14] And too, it is important to note that Milton's compelling "green" reading of scripture has for over three centuries been taken as an entirely plausible theodicy by many theologians.

Unquestionably, introducing ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature in the classroom presents real challenges. But in an era when many students increasingly regard environmental activists as a quirky subculture, it is important to underscore that these are real, mainstream ecological issues that have been with us for centuries. Perhaps the most provocative question to put to students is to imagine what our world would be like today if, for example, Sylvanus Taylor and John Milton had been heeded and rampant deforestation and mining had been checked before it ever reached North America. And alternately, what might our world be like in another 350 years if our own prophetic environmentalists are ignored?


[1] For a superb ecocritical consideration of nineteenth-century American literature, see Lawrence Buell's The Environemtnal Imagination: Thoureu, Nature Writing, and the Foundation of American Culture. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995). For an ecocritical approach to British literature of the same period, see Jonathan Bates's Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991).

[2] Cecil is quoted from John Perlin's A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 186.

[3] Sylvanus Taylor, Common Good; or, the Improvement of Commons, Forests, and Chases by Enclosure, quoted by Joan Thirsk in "Agricultural Policy: Public Debate and Legislation," in The Agrarian History of England and Wales. ed Joan Thirsk (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), V.II. 310.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] John Milton, Paradise Lost in The Riverside Milton. ed. Roy Flannagan (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 1.686-88.

[6] Joan Thirsk, "Agricultural Policy," V.II.313. (See note #3 above.)

[7] The history of English farm literature in the seventeenth century is covered by Lord Ernle's "Obstacles to Progress," in Agriculture and Economic Growth in England 1650-1815. ed. E. L. Jones (London: Methuen, 1967), 49-65. For the replacement of indigenous plants with new monocultures in the seventeenth century, see L. A. Clarkson's The Pre-Industrial Economy in England 1500-1750 (New York: Schocken, 1972), 57-59.

[8] George Herbert, "Man" in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Literature. ed. Alan Rudrum et al. (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000), 43-44. All references to Herbert are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text by line number.

[9] See Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. (London: Oxford UP, 1970).

[10] See Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. R. L. Renwick (London: Eric Partridge, 1934).

[11] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 164-90.

[12] See especially McColley's "Beneficent Hierarchies: Reading Milton Greenly," Spokesperson Milton: Voices in Contemporary Criticism ed. Charles W. Durham and Kristin Pruitt McColgan (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1994), 231-48; Milton's Eve, (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983); and A Gust for Paradise (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993).

[13] John Donne, Second Anniversary in The Complete Poems of John Donne. ed. C. A. Patrides (London: J. M. Dent, 2000), 55-62.

[14] See my Milton and Ecology, forthcoming in late 2003 from Cambridge University Press.

Ken Hiltner, Harvard University, MA

Hiltner is a Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate at Harvard University. In addition to his book, Milton and Ecology (forthcoming in late 2003 from Cambridge University Press), he has placed recent articles in Milton Studies (2001), Milton Quarterly (2001), English Language Notes (2003), and elsewhere.
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Author:Hiltner, Ken
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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