Todd Andrew Borlik, Literature and Nature in the English Renaissance: An Ecocritical Anthology

Todd Andrew Borlik, Literature and Nature in the English Renaissance: An Ecocritical Anthology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) 622 pp. £84.99 Hb, ISBN: 9781316510155

Humankind’s interaction with the Earth has left it scarred and damaged. We are repeatedly told that action is urgently needed. The founder of the Fridays for Future school strikes, Greta Thunberg, has given impassioned speeches in which she points out that ‘We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilisation – and the entire biosphere – must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be’.[1] No holes barred, no half-measures: everyone must act. What can we, in the arts and humanities, do to respond to the climate crisis?

Todd Andrew Borlik has produced an ambitious anthology which responds to this question. The careful selection and arrangement of texts does not merely present us with a veneer of ecological editing but challenges our interpretation and interaction with these texts into active environmentalism. Borlik’s choice of texts is varied and reflects humankind’s interaction with the planet, from the awe and wonder expressed in William Harvey and Francis Willoughby’s Gannets at Bass Rock in which the bird are ‘more in number than the Stars appear in a clear and Moonless night’, to the less savoury interactions such as Robert Laneham’s descriptions of bear-baiting and hunting during Elizabeth I’s stay at Kenilworth Castle in 1575.

The chosen texts are from a diverse range of genres including dialogue, psalms, scripture, epic, poetry, epistles, and prose fiction. Whilst the early modern period can pose difficulties in terms of authorial diversity, Borlik has chosen to steer away from a male-centric narrative by including women writers and translations by women, such as Lucy Hutchinson’s translation of Lucretius. This will give students and those new to the early modern period a truer sense of the range of early modern writing and writers than anthologies focussed on canonical figures or a single genre.

The design of the anthology has been well-thought through for readers. It is split into six parts – Cosmologies, The Tangled Chain, Time and Place, Interactions, Environmental Problems in Early Modern England, Disaster and Resilience in the Little Ice Age – and each part has topical subsections. This arrangement guides the reader as to how to read each extract and gives a sense of the scope of other texts that can be read alongside one another. It also reflects the varied relationships between humankind and nature and the range of interactions therein. This approach means that readers are exposed to a range of texts and approaches to nature, from texts identifying the problematic treatment of the world such as John Eveyln’s polemic against air pollution, ‘Fumifugium’, and Robin Clidro’s Marchan Wood in which a squirrel laments the ravaging of her forest home; to the enviable situations of country houses and gardens expressed in extracts from Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell. Borlik does not shy away from including unusual texts. For example, the broadside extract about a woman who left £1,800 to her cat in 1695 (64) not only illustrates the relationship between owners and their pets during the period but shows, in a more light-hearted tone than some of the heavier subject matter, just how similar the concerns and priorities of early modern people were to ours today.

Each text or extract is preceded by a short introduction providing context, comparable texts, suggestions of how to read the text eco-critically, and with pointers towards secondary reading. Bibliographies for each part and subsection are provided in Appendix B, which also includes a separate bibliography of secondary ecocritical reading. This should make a student-friendly resource and help readers to grasp the critical field. Appendix A provides further important contextual material in the form of a timeline of ‘Industrialization and Environmental Legislation in the Early Anthropocene’ from 1490 to 1709. This timeline is wide-ranging and includes acts for the preservation of the environment, hunting and fishing laws, periods of civil unrest, the appearance of new technology such as blast furnaces, and significant construction projects such as the building of Henry VIII’s warship in 1513.

While the short introductions to each extract are well-crafted and provide direction in terms of eco-critical reading, not all the writers or ideas are fully referenced in either the introductions themselves or the individual bibliographies in Appendix B. For example: ‘Cosmologies’ has an extract from Timon of Athens, the introduction to which mentions Thomas Hobbes’s view of the state of nature, and Timothy Morton’s ‘dark ecology’, neither of which appear in the bibliography to provide the reader with further reading to follow up these ideas. This is repeated in other introductions to texts. Though not a fatal flaw to this excellent anthology, it is a shame that a book which would make an excellent core text on a course does not provide references for all the ideas cited in the introductions.

It is rare that an anthology seeks to do more than bring together writers and texts in appropriate or complimentary groupings. Borlik’s anthology is not just a collection of extracts of texts, it is a narrative which is told through carefully chosen texts and writers. Borlik’s anthology is beautifully crafted, celebrates the wonders of nature, and warns of the dire consequences of the mistreatment of the natural world. It shows that our modern concerns are not wholly new, and that early modern people were aware of the damage their lives were doing to the world and the need for conservation. This anthology would be an ideal key text and teaching aid on any undergraduate courses looking at ecocriticism and the early modern period, though it comes with a large price tag.

So what can the arts and humanities do to respond to environmental concerns and the climate crisis? Borlik’s answer is simple: by using these texts to respond, by reading to change. Borlik’s powerful introduction brings the humanities into the thick of the action, making our work relevant and, most importantly, giving readers the belief that reading can be part of this call for action: ‘Unless the environmental humanities is a mere oxymoron, we must believe that literature might help us listen, learn, and change’ (23). Borlik’s anthology presents that literature in a way that just might make us ‘listen, learn, and change’.

Rachel White, Newcastle University


[1] Greta Thunberg, ‘“Our house is on fire”: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate’ <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate> [accessed 5/11/19]

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