Leah Knight, Reading Green in Early Modern England

Leah Knight, Reading Green in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). 166pp. £60 hb, ebook PDF, ebook ePUB. ISBN: 978-1-4724-0621-7.

Leah Knight’s Reading Green in Early Modern England explores the varied meanings and practices associated with “green” in sixteenth and seventeenth century English texts. As Knight is careful to note, green or “going green” did not carry the same political and ecological connotations during the early modern period as it does today. Nonetheless, Knight’s work uncovers some surprising ways in which paying attention to green and its influences upon the body in early modern England aligns with contemporary environmentalist concerns. Knight also emphases the historical and cultural contexts that would produce a singular and decidedly material understanding of green in the period. Knight’s analyses of green extend over a wide variety of genres, including optics and olfaction, mechanics, and gardening texts. Drawing from an array of disciplinary fields, including literary, environmental, and visual studies, Knight’s work diverges from more explicitly ecocritical projects. Reading Green, then, is rather a study “of a color and the objects most distinctively infused and identified with it, as well as the histories of their inscription and interpretation” (5). Knight’s analyses chart an interesting and unexpected narrative regarding this multivalent and popular conception of green in early modern texts.

Knight’s introduction maps out the terms and parameters of her study, demonstrating quickly with several examples drawn from the period the diversity of green as a concept. Among the valences of the term relevant to Knight’s study is the notion of green as new, salubrious, and enigmatic. Knight is careful to delineate how, in the period, green was an encompassing term, one that enfolded many complex impressions of the environment, the home, and literary practice.

Following the introduction, Reading Green is divided into three sections. Part I, “Impressed by Nature,” comprising the first two chapters, examines the ways in which green and nature more broadly were thought to influence early modern individuals. The first chapter, “Seeing Green: Early Modern Optics on Gardens of Verse,” discusses the significance of early modern authors’ encounters with green, particularly in their reading practices, using green as a filter or “optical restorative” (18) between visual encounter and text. Knight hypothesizes that the rise in windows with glass panes, often colored green, alongside interior domestic designs that called for abutting gardens, helped to promulgate the greenness of vision throughout the home and consequently in texts. In considering early modern optical theories alongside the practices of reading in the period, “Seeing Green” highlights the imbrication of green in visual and textual encounters. The second chapter of Part I, “Breathing Green,” considers early modern air pollution and the idea of inhaling both green and lyric as poetic “airs” or verdant restoratives to the listener of verse. Given the material understanding in the period of both air and speech, lyrical airs interacted with the body and were figured as particularly healthful. Knight brings in an array of archival material, including medical texts and herbals, in a helpful discussion of the early modern notion of olfaction and physical health.

Part II, “Impressing Nature,” turns away from the effect of green on passive human individuals and instead studies the ways in which early modern individuals influenced the natural world. This section opens with the chapter titled “Moving Green: Rhetorical Motivation and Botanical Animation,” and seeks to uncover how the Orphic trope of enlivening the landscape carried over into Renaissance ideas about the effect of human lyric on a powerful symbol of the broader environment: trees. As Knight argues, both medical and literary texts drew upon “the power of language to impassion the sympathies of greenery” (65). These sympathies, Knight shows, are evoked through the natural historical understanding of plant life and, at the same time, poets’ and botanical authors’ desire to sway the passions of their readers. By recalling the Orphic myth of moving trees with music, early modern authors turned to a unique tradition of influencing the natural world that was featured in both lyric and prose. Moving to a more violent means of impressing upon green, Chapter Four, “Writing Green,” explores the early modern practice of inscribing text upon the landscape, specifically trees. Here, Knight’s analyses extend across a wide range of genres, including travel narratives, emblem books, and poesies carved upon tree trunks.

Finally, Part III, “Lasting Impressions,” turns to a case-study in the history of reading with Chapter Five, “Healing Green: Or, How Andrew Marvell Read Gerard’s Herbal.” This final chapter echoes Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine’s now famous article “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.” Knight’s goals, however, are to elucidate how Marvell’s “Damon the Mower” can be used not merely as a single illustration of a text’s relationship to another, but rather as a means for elucidating a new methodological approach in the history of reading. In short, Knight aims to uncover the many layers of readers and relationships with Marvell as a starting point. These layers include the author’s own encounter with these texts. As Knight argues, “[a]n excess of historicization and periodization can have the unintended effect of denying the ongoing organicism of a text, its ability to grow on through generations of human life” (113). In this case, Knight constructs the many readings she tracts as an “ecosystem” (113), one that is necessarily open and changing with each new encounter with the text. Interestingly, Knight presents what would have been an introduction to a single reading of Marvell alongside John Gerard’s Herball before she discovered that the editor A.B. Grosart in the nineteenth-century had already noticed the connection. The purpose of this material is to show how, despite Grosart’s anticipation of her discovery, Knight is able to advocate new intertextual method of reading the poem among both its influences and subsequent readers.

Knight’s Reading Green is ultimately an evocative study of how early modern culture lived, saw, and smelled greenly. Ecocritical and literary scholars will find her analyses lucid and convincing, and one of the strengths of this book is the ways in which it opens up new avenues for additional research into the animated and salubrious green world of early modern England.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill