Bruce R. Smith invites the reader of The Key of Green to begin with the ‘Green Gallery’ of 30 colour plates in the book’s centre, and then browse the text using his index of images and figures. Plate 1 shows an open door leading into the Green Closet at Ham House, Surrey, an image the reader has already seen on the front cover of the dust jacket (where the small text is noticeably inconspicuous). The final plate shows a locked cabinet made from dark pine and inlaid with white mother-of-pearl. The index directs readers from this image to the book’s last sentence (‘we must first of all unlock the black-and-white doors that for too long have kept us out’ (258)), and it is no coincidence that matching monochrome is found on the back cover too. The Key of Green opens these various doors by exploring the extra-verbal meaning of literary texts, and in doing so ‘picks one of the locks that shut us off from the past’ (3).
Such riddling touches epitomise the book, both in its matter and its method. Smith calls his approach ‘historical phenomenology’, which he has previously described as insisting that ‘texts not only represent bodily experience; they imply it in the ways they ask to be touched, seen, heard, even smelled and tasted’ (Smith (2000) 325-26). Consequently The Key of Green is only indirectly linked with green studies and ecocriticism; it contributes more to the burgeoning field of ‘ambient poetics’. As the book’s subtitle indicates, The Key of Green shows how Renaissance writers conceived the relationship between perception and passion, and between truth and the body. The book has two intertwined strands: it offers a history of embodied knowledge through seventeenth-century writers who thought ‘with their bodies as well as their brains and are not afraid to say so’ (106), and it provides concrete examples of material objects and environments (books, rooms, tapestries, curtains etc.) that mediate reading experiences. Meanwhile, The Key of Green enacts its own argument by drawing attention away from the black-and-white text to aspects of its production: Smith constantly encourages us to consider layout, typography, etymology, and the relation of image and text in his physical book. Phenomenology is not just a historical concern here.
For readers who prefer to start with text rather than images, Chapter 1, ‘Light at 500-510 Nanometers and the Seventeenth-Century Crisis of Consciousness’, provides the theoretical exposition of Smith’s theme. It begins with the ‘green thought in a green shade’ of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, then moves to summarise Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida on the contingency of colour names, and then argue that the seventeenth century witnessed a decisive break in how colour was perceived: colour was no longer imagined as an objective property, but as something created in the eye. Chapter 2 contains wads of ‘Green Stuff’: materials, substances, fabrics, canvases and texts that are green and promote green/ambient consciousness. The third chapter (‘Between Black and White’) ambitiously introduces a ‘spectrum of thinkers’ graded according to their views on perception: a few thinkers are purely black (Aristotle, aligned with matter, body and earth) or white (Plato, idea, mind, heaven), but most are identified with other colours: e.g., violet (Edmund Spenser), red (Ben Jonson) or blue (Philip Sidney). Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, John Donne and Marvell are the fertile green writers who apparently achieved the most natural balance of black and white. Chapter 4 ranges widely, from the ut pictura poesis motif and Aristotle’s Poetics to National Trust properties (the book is clearly the result of a tour of England), The Faerie Queene, The Rape of Lucrece and Richard Crashaw’s poetry. The book’s focus continues to spiral outwards in its closing chapters: Chapter 5, ‘Listening for Green’, contains little about synaesthesia, and mostly concerns ‘ambient listening’ and the orality of words in psalms and song, and Chapter 6 finds colour in Renaissance staging by examining The Curtain theatre, where the King’s Men performed in 1598 and 1599.
It should now be apparent that the book is not just a cultural history of green; indeed, The Key of Green’s argument for the colour’s prominence in early modern Europe at times feels like a side issue. The dual status of ‘green’ as colour and mode of perception on occasion seems too convenient: e.g., ‘there is surely no more striking instance of hearing green […] than the phenomenal popularity of the ballad “Greensleeves” and its progeny’ (178). Smith delves deep for evidence to support his examples, but some readings (particularly how The Curtain and some of the stately homes were experienced) are argued with selective rigour in supporting his claims. Though the book has impressive breadth, it may frustrate those who insist on strict historical accuracy as much as it may delight others with an eye for aesthetics and phenomenology. These comments are not just criticisms, however, but an acknowledgement that the book encourages a certain type of reading. Smith’s argument intentionally reaches beyond the text: it relies on implication and association, such that the book’s meaning needs to be experienced, as well as absorbed.
The Key of Green is an unpredictable, playful and provocative work, which is almost, but not quite, suitable for a popular audience. Its hypothesis about the greenness of Renaissance vision—its ambient, diffuse, generative, and ‘logofugic’ (rather than ‘logocentric’) qualities—deserves to be taken seriously, and finds strong support in another interdisciplinary study, Alastair Fowler’s Renaissance Realism (2003). The book slots in well between Smith’s earlier The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999) and more recent Phenomenal Shakespeare (2010). The Key of Green provides a rich introduction to the extra-literary contexts of the early modern written word, although its conclusions are more exploratory than definitive. It is indeed a book to wander through and contemplate as though at an art gallery.
Fowler, Alastair. Renaissance Realism: Narrative Images in Literature and Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Smith, Bruce R. Phenomenal Shakespeare. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.