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  • Renaissance Ecology: Imagining Eden in Milton's England
  • Christine Coch
Ken Hiltner , ed. Renaissance Ecology: Imagining Eden in Milton's England. Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2008. xii + 356 pp. index. illus. bibl. $62. ISBN: 978-0-8207-0402-9.

This essay collection celebrates the work of Diane McColley, who years ago set out "to be a cultural ecologist —to consider how literature and the arts and the natural world fit together and affect each other" (284). McColley's focus on Milton made her a pioneer in approaching early modern literature from what is now termed an ecocritical perspective. As Ken Hiltner, her student, attests, the attention she has drawn to "the far-reaching ecological implications of Edenic thinking, both for the early modern period and our world today," informs the contributors' eleven essays (7). Fittingly, McColley herself has the final word in the volume, a personal paean to Milton scholarship as work Edenic in the beauty of its polyphonic variety, in its interdependence of colleagues and friends, students and teachers, and in its deep situatedness, its rootedness in place.

While Hiltner's premise that Eden represents not only a "lost past" but also an "imagined future" (1) is not novel, his introduction suggestively argues that the early modern period's particular interest in Eden originated in new and conflicting attitudes toward the natural environment, attitudes developing not only because thinkers like Bacon and Descartes were changing the way people perceived their relation to nature, as has often been claimed, but also because the country was "in the midst of an environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions" (1). Readers will need to seek elsewhere for a detailed account of this crisis and responses to it, but some of the strongest essays in the volume engage the physical conditions of the land and air of England.

Particularly compelling are Jeffrey S. Theis's and Karen L. Edwards's historical contextualizations of forest and "waste" in Milton's Eden. Theis relates contemporary debates about the use and conservation of English forests to Milton's "sylvan pastoral" representation of paradise to show how "the topography of forests and their complex legal status serve to complicate ideas of protection, agency, and how one's identity is inseparable from the natural world" (257). Edwards considers how the surprising inclusion of "waste" in Eden (Paradise Lost 4.536-38), and Adam and Eve's possession of "edge tools" to till it (264), point to Milton's belief [End Page 1431] that the sort of "thorough, sweeping Reformation" originally aimed at by the Diggers was a means to "regain paradise" (271).

Preceding these historicist essays in the volume are, loosely grouped, four exploring Milton's conceptions of paradise, three relating these conceptions to the work of other artists, and two examining other seventeenth-century writers' paradisal ideals. Barbara Lewalski opens by surveying the characteristics of Milton's paradise, site of cultivated nature —human and otherwise —and marital love, located variously in heaven, within a person who engages the fallen world using the resources of faith and virtue, and ultimately throughout post-apocalyptic earth. Stella P. Revard and Ann Torday Gulden each examine Eve's serenade in book 4, one to identify classical models for the erotic love poetry of paradise, with its unusually equal gender roles, the other to show how Eve's more integrative, empirical worldview teaches Adam to counterbalance the linear, categorizing mindset that threatens to separate him from the garden's vitality at the beginning of the epic. Looking back to A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, William Shullenberger demonstrates that well before the epics, Milton was imagining a virtuous, vigorous feminine eros that could renew a masculine order, creating ecological harmony. The elements of such a Neoplatonic paradise he traces in Botticelli's allegorical Primavera, likely influenced by common textual sources.

The three essays that follow shift the focus away from Milton's texts, studying how other artists featured the ecological interdependence vital to his paradise in their poems, illustrations, and paintings. Blake's inversion of the Miltonic ideal in the fragmented world of the flower poems in Songs of Experience is analyzed by June Sturrock, who also...


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pp. 1431-1432
Launched on MUSE
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Archive Status
Archived 2009
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