Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century
Denys Van Renen explores the relationship between nature and "new science" in his latest book, the first to be published under the new partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press.
Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit. But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the “care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.” Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.
How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life. But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.
Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the “rise” of large-scale processes—the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies—obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.
Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like “The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight.” The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.
I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the “New Science,” which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.
While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.
In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.
- Denys Van Renen
Denys Van Renen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of 'The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England' and co-editor of 'Beyond 1776'. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's journals forthcoming.
 Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).
Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.