The Island Garden

England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell

Lynn Staley

ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern

For centuries England’s writers used the metaphor of their country as an island garden to engage in a self-conscious debate about national identity. In The Island Garden: England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell, Lynn Staley suggests that the trope of Britain as an island garden catalyzed two crucial historical perspectives and thus analytic modes: as isolated and vulnerable, England stood in a potentially hostile relation to the world outside its encircling sea; as semi-enclosed and permeable, it also accepted recuperative relationships with those who moved across its boundaries. Identifying the concept of enclosure as key to Britain’s language of place, Staley traces the shifting meanings of this concept in medieval and early modern histories, treatises, and poems.

Beginning with Gildas in the sixth century, Staley maintains that the metaphor of England as the island garden was complicated, first, by Bede in the eighth century and later by historians, polemicists, and antiquarians. It allowed them to debate the nature of England’s identity in language whose point might be subversive but that was beyond royal retribution. During the reign of Edward III, William Langland employed the subjects and anxieties linked to the island garden metaphor to create an alternative image of England as a semi-enclosed garden in need of proper cultivation. Staley demonstrates that Langland’s translation of the metaphor for nation from a discreet and royal space into a communally productive half-acre was reformulated by writers such as Chaucer, Hoccleve, Tusser, Johnson, and Marvell, as well as others, to explore the tensions in England’s social and political institutions.

From the early thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, English treatments of the biblical story of Susanna capture this self-conscious use of metaphoric language and suggest a perspective on law, individual rights, and conscience that is ultimately crucial to England’s self-conception and description. Staley identifies in literary discourse a persistent argument for England as a garden that is enclosed yet not isolated, and that is protected by a law whose ideal is a common good that even kings must serve. The Island Garden is a fascinating and focused exploration of the ways in which authors have developed a language of place to construct England’s cultural, social, and political identity.

Lynn Staley is Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English, Colgate University.

“Lynn Staley’s The Island Garden: England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell is a capacious, erudite, ruminative, recursive work that explores the complex web of discourses that composed the identity and history of England. Staley shows us the ways in which writers formed a range of images for England as they engaged with different political contexts. Hers is not a unilinear, teleological history; rather, we encounter a patient display of continuity in the resources of historical imagination from medieval to early modern.” — David Aers, Duke University

“Lynn Staley’s work just keeps getting better and better, more penetrating and incisive. Her study of English identity, The Island Garden, is richly nuanced and traverses an unusually wide range of texts, down to the seventeenth century. Staley nimbly deploys, analyzes, and distinguishes a rich variety of discourses and their various manipulations, and remains constantly alert to their often surprising variations.” — Ralph Hanna, Keble College, University of Oxford

“The Island Garden: England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell dazzles with its sweep, reach, learning, and confident grounding in medieval and early modern texts and historiography. Lynn Staley here takes on nothing less than the way that English space, place, and identity over more than a millennium was shaped by the language of enclosure—by the monastic or country house, the croft, the sceptered isle, the Edenic green garden in a silver sea that was an England both chaste and beautiful as Susanna and also vulnerable to invasion, seizure, and the sluice gate.” — Gail McMurray Gibson, Davidson College


“Staley explores the metaphor of the island garden as it pertains to England’s continual search for (and understanding of) its own sense of national identity. A thread that runs through this is the sense of enclosure that permeates the texts that form the basis of the book. . . . Staley’s book is both extremely straightforward in its argument and wide-ranging in its literary, cultural, and historical scope. The end result is a wholly satisfying scholarly endeavor.” — Choice

”. . . It is good to have Lynn Staley’s study, which charts how the nation was conceived and imagined and reminds us of this long history. For Staley the conception of Britain as an island garden was not an imagined identity but a ‘trope with a set of available ideas or anxieties’ principally about safety and isolation. . . . The Island Garden is an impressively conceived and substantial book. . . ” — Times Literary Supplement