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Amy Tigner, Literature and the Renaissance Garden From Elizabeth I to Charles II: England’s Paradise. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4094-3674-4. xii + 271 pp. HBK. £60.00

Reviewed by Andrew Wadoski

[1]  Literature and the Renaissance Garden offers a comprehensive survey of the garden over a roughly 100-year period from the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign to that of Charles II and the printing of Paradise Lost. It addresses the garden as both a physical site and literary topos, describing the specificities of their manifestations in both soil and ink as well as the interactions of these two forms, the doublings and reflections of gardens ‘both real and imagined, gardens made of plants and those cultivated from ink and paper’ (1). This ambivalence is constitutive of the book’s understanding of the garden as a representational site, and throughout the garden is understood principally as a site of mediation between opposed forms of theorizing both individual and collective political being in the English Renaissance. It is a representational form working to rationalize the contradictory relations between an England valorized both as a self-contained happy garden state and in its georgic labors of colonial expansion; the private labors of self-cultivation and the public project of commonwealth building; the regressive yearning for a golden age of simple knowledge and early modern science’s forward looking and expansive gaze on the world.

[2]  Driving this wide-ranging survey is the pursuit of a multiform and ever shifting network of symbolic associations termed in this study the ‘paradise imaginary.’ The ‘paradise imaginary’ is an essentially utopian epistemology; like any good utopia, the thinking work embodied in these Renaissance gardens generates and reinforces the very ambivalences it seeks to capture and contain. At its core, this book’s image of the garden is a figure through which nostalgic yearnings for Eden work to center the early modern state’s imagination of its own ideal origins and ends. Sensitive to the ‘multiple and conflicting associations’ of Eden as an historic site in the Renaissance, Literature and the Renaissance Garden’s analyses of the figure’s story of a redemptive encounter with the natural world opens onto a range of fraught questions about the nature of political identity in the early modern world, and of that identity’s essential grounding in the story of the Fall.

[3]  Professor Tigner’s work thus picks up on and extends the growing body of writing on Renaissance gardens, both real and imagined, that has flourished since the early and foundational efforts of Giamatti and Comito while notably engaging the more materialist readings and methodologies of Roy Strong, Keith Thomas, Michael Leslie, and Rebecca Bushnell, among others. Like its critical interlocutors, this analysis moves across a variety of texts, offering readings of works such as The Faerie Queene, King Lear, and Paradise Lost in relation to a wide range of herbals, planting guides, and accounts of period gardens. Along the way, an impressive record of archival work is always foregrounded, pointing the adventurous reader to countless possible excursions into EEBO and the Short Title Catalogue. This book’s fascination with the archive, while often illuminating, also, at times, offers one of its greatest difficulties. Many of its readings get bogged down in citation and information, and the analysis too often wants to offer major poems as interpretive guides to archival curiosities rather than the other way around—occasionally at the expense of the complexity this book’s argument seeks.

[4]  As this book sets up the garden as a privileged ground for early modern England’s dialogue with such complications of political identity as gender, colonialism, and the regulation of the body, its underlying concern is with describing an ecocritical Renaissance. This book’s political, the ‘paradise imaginary’ is fundamentally an ecological account of the ways human relations are shaped by, within, and against the natural world. Here, early modern politics exist largely at the intersection of nature and culture and the garden is the figure that most fully embodies this nexus. While a number of important recent works have argued for the utility of ecocritical theory as a mechanism for interrogating Renaissance culture, notably Robert Watson’s Back To Nature, Literature and the Renaissance Garden perhaps too readily accepts the argument both as settled and as offering a clearly defined methodology. While there is certainly a large and growing body of scholarship productively deploying ecocritical perspectives on Renaissance culture and its artifacts, this does not necessarily constitute consensus on either the viability of this critical method or even of what the Renaissance ecocritical actually is. The argument, which covers so much historical territory, so many conceptual frameworks, and so many different texts, could have found more focus and force with a rigorous, clear, and sustained advocacy for the ecocritical hermeneutic’s place in Renaissance studies.

[5]  This, I admit, would be a very different kind of book; however, it is one that is gestured towards in Literature and the Renaissance Garden’s final chapter, a reading of Milton that projects the ecological underpinnings of Paradise Lost’s civic humanism forward to Jefferson’s Monticello—a crucial historical groundplot of ecocritical theory as it is currently constituted. (As an aside, this chapter includes one of the book’s most fascinating archival revelations, an image of a signed title page from Thomas Jefferson’s copy of a 1751 edition of Paradise Lost now in the Stanford University library.) Overall, this book’s aim for comprehensiveness poses readers their greatest challenge. Simply, the book covers so large a territory and accounts for so many perspectives that the ‘paradise imaginary’ as described herein cannot quite carry the burden of structuring the multiform and historically emergent ecology of nationhood pursued throughout this book.

[6]  The true importance of the book is twofold. First, its image of the garden allows us to think of early modern nationhood in ecological terms. Second, it does so with an impressive synthesis of diverse and wide-ranging networks of documentary evidence. Its account of the garden, and the connections it draws among a range of texts and period ecological discourses, from middlebrow herbals to cutting-edge scientific treatises, notably gives the reader ample material with which further to refine and historically specify the emerging ecocritical conversation in Renaissance studies. Further, its rigorously documented portrait of Renaissance England’s complex vision of political ecology offers fruitful ground from which to assess the stakes and ideological investments of this most fraught of iconographies as it appears in major English writers from Spenser to Milton.

Oklahoma State University, November 2012