What Else Is Pastoral?
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What Else Is Pastoral?

Renaissance Literature and the Environment

Ken Hiltner

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eBook - ePub

What Else Is Pastoral?

Renaissance Literature and the Environment

Ken Hiltner

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About This Book

Pastoral was one of the most popular literary forms of early modern England. Inspired by classical and Italian Renaissance antecedents, writers from Ben Jonson to John Beaumont and Abraham Cowley wrote in idealized terms about the English countryside. It is often argued that the Renaissance pastoral was a highly figurative mode of writing that had more to do with culture and politics than with the actual countryside of England. For decades now literary criticism has had it that in pastoral verse, hills and crags and moors were extolled for their metaphoric worth, rather than for their own qualities. In What Else Is Pastoral?, Ken Hiltner takes a fresh look at pastoral, offering an environmentally minded reading that reconnects the poems with literal landscapes, not just figurative ones.

Considering the pastoral in literature from Virgil and Petrarch to Jonson and Milton, Hiltner proposes a new ecocritical approach to these texts. We only become truly aware of our environment, he explains, when its survival is threatened. As London expanded rapidly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city and surrounding rural landscapes began to look markedly different. Hiltner finds that Renaissance writers were acutely aware that the countryside they had known was being lost to air pollution, deforestation, and changing patterns of land use; their works suggest this new absence of nature through their appreciation for the scraps that remained in memory or in fact. A much-needed corrective to the prevailing interpretation of pastoral poetry, What Else Is Pastoral? shows the value of reading literature with an ecological eye.

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Part I




Here it is easy to run into that dead-end in philosophy, where one believes that the difficulty of the task consists in our having to describe appearances that are hard to get hold of, the present experience that is slipping away quickly, or something of that kind.
LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, Philosophical Investigations
Prior to Socrates, Plato was profoundly influenced by the philosopher Cratylus, who may in fact have been his teacher. Outside of his appearance in Plato’s dialogue that bears his name, we know little about him other than what we learn from the Metaphysics, where Aristotle groups him with a number of thinkers who, because they “saw that all of nature was in flux, and that no true statement can be made about that which is in such flux, concluded that, of course, regarding what is everywhere and in every way changing, nothing could be said” (my translation).1 Perhaps not surprisingly, Aristotle names Cratylus as one of the followers of Heraclitus; however, because he observed that everywhere everything is changing so quickly, Cratylus “criticized Heraclitus for saying that one cannot step twice into the same stream, for he himself thought it could not be done even once.”2 Because he doubted that language could represent an environment so manifestly and wildly in flux, Cratylus “ended by thinking it not proper to say anything at all, but only moved his finger” to communicate by gesture.3
There is, of course, something comic about the image of the mute and gesturing Cratylus; however, to Plato, assuming he took Cratylus seriously (which we have little reason to doubt), this may have seemed a frightening end for a philosopher, perhaps even for philosophy itself. It certainly did not bode well for the power of language to represent our ever-changing surroundings. Fortunately for Plato, he found a new teacher, Socrates, who promised to save language from nature’s relentless flux by imagining a fixed and immutable realm securely “beyond nature,” which, he reasoned, is what language must be referencing, or at least should represent if written or uttered truthfully by a knowledgeable person. However, if we are to believe Aristotle (and compelling reasons to do so have recently been put forth),4 Plato remained loyal to Cratylus and Heraclitean thinking throughout his life, never accepting that Socrates’ solution, which posits a metaphysical realm where ethical Ideas like Beauty and Justice have existence, generally applied to the sense objects we encounter in the physical environment.5
In his youth he [Plato] became acquainted with Cratylus and Heraclitean doctrines, that all objects perceived by sense are ever in flux and that it is hence impossible to have knowledge about them. He held these views even in his later years. Socrates, however, devoting himself to ethical matters while neglecting nature [physis] as a whole, sought the universal in ethical matters, and hence was the first person to fix thought by way of definitions. Plato accepted this teaching, but believed that this did not apply to sensible things, but to something else [i.e., ethical Ideas]. For this reason, Plato held that it was impossible for the common definition to be of any sensible things, as they were always adrift in flux.6
The fact that his most celebrated student doubted that Socrates’ realm of Ideas provided referents for the physical environment not only underscores the challenges that theories of representation face, it also opens up the question of how successful we are in our representational enterprises. Not surprisingly, these issues were never fully resolved. This became apparent in the twentieth century when a range of poststructural thinkers became, like Plato, dubious of the claim, which in some sense begins with Socrates, that there is a firm linguistic link (i.e., a “structure”) between what phenomenologists call the “things themselves” and the words we use to represent them.
As a great deal of ink has been spilled on the question of representation, I do not presume to have anything new to add. Recalling the silent, gesturing Cratylus (whom I, like Plato, take very seriously), my interest is not in the representational, but rather the gestural, the fact that, when faced with the representational quagmire that has given pause to thinkers from Plato through Derrida, some poets and artists, especially those directing themselves to their surrounding environment, pointed us there too, rather than attempting to capture it on canvas, or between the covers of a book. Of course, they often (and often unavoidably) did that as well, but it is the gesture, and the preference of the gesture over the representation, that interests me most. As perhaps it should us all; for well over two thousand years, we have largely neglected gesture while endlessly theorizing and making a fetish of representation.
In his Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance,7 Robert Watson compellingly argues that in the Renaissance there was considerable anxiety over whether works of art, including literature, could successfully represent reality and, in the process, truly lead us “back to nature” (i.e., mimetically connect us to the “things themselves”). Regarding this important concern, my argument in this and the next three chapters is a simple one: faced with this anxiety, some poets and artists in the Renaissance, especially those producing pastoral works, preferred Cratylic gestures over attempts at representation.
While this may seem like an arcane study of why such Cratylic gestures were favored and employed (and in some ways I suppose that it is), there is quite a bit at stake here. As Angus Fletcher astutely observed in his study of environmental poetry, “We find an argument, never settled but only deferred, between Plato’s mathematical intuition that his Ideas are ‘eternal’ and the poets’ belief that whatever undergoes change (and indeed change itself) yields the only true idea.”8 In the closing of his Republic, Plato famously alluded to an “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” over who should control representations of reality. Since he argued that, at least with respect to ethical Ideas, only philosophers have access to what is “real,” Plato clearly felt that they alone, and certainly not errant poets, should be sanctioned by the State to represent reality. While this dispute is certainly real, Fletcher points to another, even more basic, and perhaps even more important, quarrel between philosophy and poetry, one that draws into question the success of the representational project itself. Fletcher rightly points out that Plato was concerned with metaphysical Ideas, which, the philosopher argued, not only can be successfully represented in language, but form the basis of representation itself. On the other hand, certain Renaissance poets, especially pastoral poets concerned with the environment, direct themselves to that which is so manifestly and wildly in flux that its successful representation is, as it was for Cratylus, drawn into question, requiring them to devise strategies to deal with the problem, which is often not even acknowledged as a difficulty by philosophers after Plato.
Fletcher persuasively argues that, while certain Renaissance poets (like Milton) wrestled with the problem of representing the physical environment, it is not until early in the eighteenth century that James Thomson’s enormously influential poem The Seasons squarely took on the problem by attempting to work out the manner by which a highly representational and descriptive poetic treatment of an ever-changing environment could be effectively achieved. After considering the many challenges that such descriptive poetry faced in the next century, Fletcher moves to Walt Whitman, who, he argues, largely inaugurated a new species of poetry, the “environment-poem,” which itself “is an environment . . . such a poem does not merely suggest or indicate an environment as part of its thematic meaning, but actually gets the reader to enter into the poem as if it were the reader’s environment of living.”9 To achieve this startling end, which so successfully represents an environment between the covers of a book that readers are encouraged to imaginatively enter into it, Fletcher argues that the poets who stretched from Thomson to Whitman developed a variety of strategies for representing their environments. Just a year after Fletcher published his theory, Lawrence Buell, perhaps the most respected ecocritic working in the field, not only supported the notion of the “environment-poem,” but suspected that it could be “extended beyond poetry to include (at least some examples of) other genres,” though he questioned, I think rightly, whether Fletcher would endorse the move.10
While I find fascinating Fletcher’s account of how poets from Milton onward wrestled with the task of representing an environment wildly in flux, in this book my interest is in the Renaissance and earlier periods, when there was often a reluctance to even make the attempt. Because we tend to see these earlier periods through the lens of the highly representational eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature that Fletcher considers, we risk not even acknowledging these earlier pastoral works as environmental poetry. After all, how can they be when, sparse in description, they hardly represent the environment at all? Clearly, they do not fit the mold of the “environment-poem” introduced by Fletcher and endorsed by Buell.
Nonetheless, they are environment poems, just of a different sort. This acknowledgement is of central importance in understanding Renaissance pastoral. One of the reasons that we have generally failed to recognize early modern pastoral as a form of nature writing is because, as Fletcher perceptively notes, for more than three centuries we have gradually come to expect nature writing to be more and more representational. However, as Plato made clear, and about which many Renaissance artists were well aware (as Watson has demonstrated), the challenges that come with representing nature are more than a little daunting. Consequently, certain Renaissance writers, made anxious by these challenges, employed gestural strategies to produce pastoral works that, while short on description, are nonetheless “environment poems.” To understand how they are, it will be helpful to return to one of the West’s earliest and most provocative discussions of this issue: Plato’s Cratylus. In the process, we can take up a question of special consequence to environmental critics, which few address: What is nature?
In his Cratylus, which is likely one of his later works, or at least one of the later works of his middle period, Plato takes the opportunity to reflect on the philosopher ...

Table of contents

  1. Acknowledgments
  2. Introduction
  3. Part I. Literary Issues
  4. 2. What Else Is Pastoral?
  5. 3. What Else Was Pastoral in the Renaissance?
  6. 4. Pastoral and Ideology, and the Environment
  7. Part II. Environmental Problems
  8. 6. Environmental Protest Literature of the Renaissance
  9. 7. Empire, the Environment, and the Growth of Georgic
  10. Select Bibliography