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Back to Nature

The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance

By Robert N. Watson

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-viii

Part I: Introduction: The Green and the Real

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1 Ecology, Epistemology, and Empiricism

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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 ...

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2 Theology, Semiotics, and Literature

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pp. 36-73

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 ...

Part II: Paradoxes: Alienation from Nature in English Literature

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3 As You Liken It: Simile in the Forest

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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 ...

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4 Shades of Green: Marvell's Garden and the Mowers

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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: ...

Part III: Reformations: Protestant Politics, Poetics, and Paintings

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5 Metaphysical and Cavalier Styles of Consciousness

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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 ...

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6 The Retreat of God, the Passions of Nature, and the Objects of Dutch Painting

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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 ...

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7 Nature in Two Dimensions: Perspective and Presence in Ryckaert, Vermeer, and Others

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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 ...

Part IV: Solutions: The Consolations of Mediation

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8 Metal and Flesh in The Merchant of Venice: Shining Substitutes and Approximate Values

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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 ...

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9 Thomas Traherne: The World as Present

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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 ...

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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. ...


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pp. 337-396


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pp. 397-417


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pp. 419-436

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pp. 437-446

Among the many colleagues and students to whom I owe gratitude, particular thanks to those who read drafts and pursued research for me: Emily Bartels, Amy Bruinooge, John Carriero, Kristine Chong, Brian Copenhaver, Stephen Dickey, Robert Dorit, Bonnie Foote,William T. Hendel, David Kunzle, Margaret Lamont, Lilian Lee,Margaret Maurer, Russ McDonald, Claire McEachern, Ruth Morse, Anne Myers, Kris Pangburn, William Phelan, Holly Crawford ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204254
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220223

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 51 illus.
Publication Year: 2011