Green Pastures: Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature

Borlik, Todd Andrew. Green Pastures: Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature. 2008. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

“Green Pastures: Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature,” reveals the surprisingly rich potential for the emergent “green” criticism to yield fresh insights into the writings of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Jonson, Marlowe, Ralegh, More, Donne, and Milton. While it avoids anachronistically casting early modern authors as modern environmentalists, the study argues that environmental issues, such as nature's personhood, deforestation, energy use, air quality, climate change, and animal sentience, are formative concerns in Renaissance texts. Situating plays and poems alongside an eclectic array of secondary sources, including herbals, forestry laws, husbandry manuals, almanacs, and philosophical treatises on politics and ethics, “Green Pastures” demonstrates that sixteenth century authors were very much aware of, and concerned about, the impact of human beings on their natural surroundings.

The first chapter examines how various writers employed the Pythagorean theories of metempsychosis and anima mundi to deflate humanist narcissism and question the state's jurisdiction over the land. Chapter Two uncovers a compelling link between the golden world of Sidney's Arcadia and the timber famine that shook Elizabethan England. The third chapter exposes how Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton use poetry to sublimate vestiges of nature worship in Catholicism outlawed by the Reformation, Chapter Four highlights the potential synergy between the pastoral and environmental ethics, arguing that Renaissance authors employed the genre to satirize consumptive dispositions and to inculcate temperance—a philosophy akin to modern notions of sustainability. The final chapter illuminates the tendency of Renaissance humanists to view the natural world as a fallen Republic, a notion that inspired a sense of kinship with and empathy with animals.

Cumulatively, these essays suggest that Renaissance texts can offer a stunning vista onto a pre-Enlightenment sensibility from which to critique Enlightenment principles often seen as contributing to our current ecological predicament. At the same time this study makes the tacit demand for a more historically informed appreciation of ecocriticism as a contemporary “version of the pastoral.”

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