A green thought in a green shade: the role of feeling in the works of John Evelyn

As part of a wider study on emotional responses to nature in the ‘long 17th century’, Williams' project investigates the works of John Evelyn (1620-1706). It considers how his works were shaped not only by the significant socio-political and religious changes that took place in his lifetime, but also by deeply felt responses to nature itself.

A green thought in a green shade: the role of feeling in the works of John Evelyn

Further to identifying perceptible shifts in early modern feelings about nature: such as sympathy and passion, or regret and nostalgia, Linda Williams asks how such feelings might be the legitimate precursors to the heightened imaginative responses to nature evident in romanticism. In particular, she questions recent ecocritical views of the 17th century as a pivotal turning point in the modern disenchantment of nature in which Cartesian dualism, scientific revolution and the mastery of nature are seen as setting ontological precedents for an instrumentalisation of nature which would only be partly relieved with the advent of 19th century romanticism.

Whilst aiming to resist colouring historical accounts of nature with contemporary green sensibilities, Linda shows how 17th century feelings for nature were much more complex than those asserted by the proponents of an early Enlightenment sense of ‘disenchantment’. The works of John Evelyn provide her with an interesting case study since while the beauty of a garden could lead Evelyn to feelings ‘ravishing all the senses’, his passion for nature was also disciplined, erudite and directed into variously useful social projects. Evelyn’s works on the conservation of forests, his advocacy for purer air, or for a new eloquence in the design of gardens were shaped by the complex economy of affects that arose with the volatile conditions of revolution, the interregnum, and restoration. Yet they were also seminal to a new approaches to nature in the 17th century that really only began to germinate and flourish in the 18th century.

Image: The Cawthorpe Oak in winter from John Evelyn's Sylva, or, a discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in his Majestys dominions; as it was delivered in the Royal Society, on the 15th of October 1662 ... York: printed by T. Wilson and R. Spence, and sold by J. Mawman [et al.], 1801 [Early Science Collection FOL. QK477.Ev2, Kings College, London].