- Reading Green in Early Modern England by Leah Knight
Leah Knight’s Reading Green in Early Modern England is a “history of reading” derived from the way the colour green serves as an intermediary between humans and non-human things. An interest in this interplay, and the word green of the title, might well seem to announce an affiliation with ecostudies, but, as Knight declares early on, her book “is an attempt to read green, not to read greenly.” In fact, she explicitly distances her work from “ecological projects that at times align with [hers] but that are often—and often quite rightly—governed instead by pressing political aims and actions.” However, to read, as Knight does, “green” without reading it “greenly” is, I suggest, both the book’s strength and its weakness.
Divided into three sections, Reading Green is invested in recuperating the interplay between material and imaginative examples of green—in books, in the garden, in the house. As such, Knight engages recent work in book history, material literary history, and cultural studies as well as other areas.
The first section, “Impressed by Nature,” expounds how “the color green was thought to be taken into early modern bodies and minds.” In chapter one, which I found to be the most compelling chapter in the book, Knight details the myriad ways that books (and reading practices more broadly) were associated with vegetable material. Here Knight weaves a compelling history of how gardens figured as sites of composition and, even more provocatively, how green glass served literally as a lens through which early moderns might see and mediate the health of their own and others’ bodies. Chapter two “unfolds the implications,” as it were, “of breathing greenery both from corporeal surroundings and literary materials figured in verdant atmospheric forms.”
The second section “examine[s] what it meant when early modern people manipulated the greenery around them, both in factual practice [End Page 406] and in literary representations.” The Orpheus myth, Knight argues in chapter three, “illuminates the work of natural historians who, like poets, turned to the ordering of language to transport and assemble the world’s flora into a civilized and legible array.” Chapter four traces how tree inscription simultaneously marked both the association and the “inviolable distance and distinction between writer and what is written upon, person and tree, humanity and the rest of nature.”
In the final section, “Lasting Impressions,” Knight takes as her subject one familiar to readers of “green,” Andrew Marvell’s poetry. Arguing that Marvell draws on a moment in John Gerard’s Herball by which we might understand “green wounds” in Marvell’s poem as commentary on Gerard’s satire of the labouring husbandman who uses “Clown’s all-heal” plant to heal himself. In a “parody that consumes the conventions of pastoral,” Marvell, like Gerard, satirizes the rustic husbandman, the “clown.”
Knight’s examples of green evoke the interplay between the material and the symbolic, the literal and the figurative. At the same time, the narrative about this interplay often seems too neat to serve the book’s broader argument, rather than unfolding a multi-layered, complex, and sometimes contradictory material history of reading. For all of the book’s interest in materiality, green ironically becomes an overly representative catch-all. So too does the “early modern” experience of green. Knight neglects to consider, for instance, how women’s experiences with green things (including the glass of chapter two) may have registered in specific (or perhaps unique) ways in literary and cultural history (the relatively brief treatment of Lady Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer notwithstanding).
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with Knight’s disclaimer that she aims to read “green” and not “greenly,” then, such exclusions here serve to reify dominant representations and perspectives from the period and, ultimately, risk undermining work that scholars have done in early modern women’s (literary) history, ecocriticism, and ecofeminism (as well as other fields) that has complicated our sense of its particulars. Without acknowledging this work, or the alternative experiences that are its focus, Knight’s book...