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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Calais Spire
By John Ruskin (1819–1900)
 
From ‘Modern Painters’

THE ESSENCE of picturesque character has been already defined to be a sublimity not inherent in the nature of the thing, but caused by something external to it; as the ruggedness of a cottage roof possesses something of a mountain aspect, not belonging to the cottage as such. And this sublimity may be either in mere external ruggedness and other visible character, or it may lie deeper, in an expression of sorrow and old age,—attributes which are both sublime; not a dominant expression, but one mingled with such familiar and common characters as prevent the object from becoming perfectly pathetic in its sorrow, or perfectly venerable in its age.  1
  For instance, I cannot find words to express the intense pleasure I have always in first finding myself, after some prolonged stay in England, at the foot of the old tower of Calais church. The large neglect, the noble unsightliness of it; the record of its years written so visibly, yet without sign of weakness or decay; its stern wasteness and gloom, eaten away by the Channel winds and overgrown with the bitter sea grasses; its slates and tiles all shaken and rent, and yet not falling; its desert of brickwork full of bolts and holes and ugly fissures, and yet strong, like a bare brown rock; its carelessness of what any one thinks or feels about it,—putting forth no claim, having no beauty nor desirableness, pride nor grace, yet neither asking for pity; not, as ruins are, useless and piteous, feebly or fondly garrulous of better days, but useful still, going through its own daily work,—as some old fisherman beaten gray by storm, yet drawing his daily nets: so it stands, with no complaint about its past youth, in blanched and meagre massiveness and serviceableness, gathering human souls together underneath it; the sound of its bells for prayer still rolling through its rents; and the gray peak of it seen far across the sea, principal of the three that rise above the waste of surfy sand and hillocked shore,—the lighthouse for life, and the belfry for labor, and this for patience and praise.  2
  I cannot tell the half of the strange pleasures and thoughts that come about me at the sight of that old tower: for in some sort, it is the epitome of all that makes the Continent of Europe interesting, as opposed to new countries; and above all, it completely expresses that agedness in the midst of active life which binds the old and the new into harmony. We in England have our new street, our new inn, our green shaven lawn, and our piece of ruin emergent from it,—a mere specimen of the Middle Ages put on a bit of velvet carpet to be shown, which but for its size might as well be on the museum shelf at once, under cover. But on the Continent the links are unbroken between the past and present, and in such use as they can serve for, the gray-headed wrecks are suffered to stay with men; while in unbroken line the generations of spared buildings are seen succeeding each in its place. And thus in its largeness, in its permitted evidence of slow decline, in its poverty, in its absence of all pretense, of all show and care for outside aspect, that Calais tower has an infinite of symbolism in it, all the more striking because usually seen in contrast with English scenes expressive of feelings the exact reverse of these.  3
  And I am sorry to say that the opposition is most distinct in that noble carelessness as to what people think of it. Once, on coming from the Continent, almost the first inscription I saw in my native English was this:—
  “TO LET, A GENTEEL HOUSE UP THIS ROAD”
And it struck me forcibly, for I had not come across the idea of gentility, among the upper limestones of the Alps, for seven months; nor do I think that the Continental nations in general have the idea. They would have advertised a “pretty” house, or a “large” one, or a “convenient” one; but they could not, by any use of the terms afforded by their several languages, have got at the English “genteel.” Consider a little all the meanness that there is in that epithet, and then see, when next you cross the Channel, how scornful of it that Calais spire will look.
  4
  Of which spire the largeness and age are also opposed exactly to the chief appearances of modern England, as one feels them on first returning to it: that marvelous smallness both of houses and scenery, so that a plowman in the valley has his head on a level with the tops of all the hills in the neighborhood; and a house is organized into complete establishment—parlor, kitchen, and all, with a knocker to its door, and a garret window to its roof, and a bow to its second story—on a scale of twelve feet wide by fifteen high, so that three such at least would go into the granary of any ordinary Swiss cottage; and also our serenity of perfection, our peace of conceit, everything being done that vulgar minds can conceive as wanting to be done; the spirit of well-principled housemaids everywhere exerting itself for perpetual propriety and renovation,—so that nothing is old, but only “old-fashioned,” and contemporary, as it were, in date and impressiveness, only with last year’s bonnets. Abroad, a building of the eighth or tenth century stands ruinous in the open street; the children play round it, the peasants heap their corn in it, the buildings of yesterday nestle about it, and fit their new stones into its rents, and tremble in sympathy as it trembles. No one wonders at it, or thinks of it as separate, and of another time; we feel the ancient world to be a real thing, and one with the new: antiquity is no dream; it is rather the children playing about the old stones that are the dream. But all is continuous, and the words “from generation to generation” understandable there. Whereas here we have a living present, consisting merely of what is “fashionable” and “old-fashioned”; and a past of which there are no vestiges; a past which peasant or citizen can no more conceive—all equally far away—Queen Elizabeth as old as Queen Boadicea, and both incredible. At Verona we look out of Can Grande’s window to his tomb; and if he does not stand beside us, we feel only that he is in the grave instead of the chamber,—not that he is old, but that he might have been beside us last night. But in England the dead are dead to purpose. One cannot believe they ever were alive, or anything else than what they are now,—names in schoolbooks.  5
  Then that spirit of trimness. The smooth paving-stones; the scraped, hard, even, rutless roads; the neat gates and plates, and essence of border and order, and spikiness and spruceness. Abroad, a country-house has some confession of human weakness and human fates about it. There are the old grand gates still, which the mob pressed sore against at the Revolution, and the strained hinges have never gone so well since; and the broken greyhound on the pillar—still broken—better so: but the long avenue is gracefully pale with fresh green, and the court-yard bright with orange-trees; the garden is a little run to waste,—since Mademoiselle was married nobody cares much about it; and one range of apartments is shut up,—nobody goes into them since Madame died. But with us, let who will be married or die, we neglect nothing. All is polished and precise again next morning; and whether people are happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, still we sweep the stairs of a Saturday.  6
  Now, I have insisted long on this English character, because I want the reader to understand thoroughly the opposite element of the noble picturesque; its expression, namely, of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart. Nor only unpretending, but unconscious. If there be visible pensiveness in the building, as in a ruined abbey, it becomes, or claims to become, beautiful; but the picturesqueness is in the unconscious suffering,—the look that an old laborer has, not knowing that there is anything pathetic in his gray hair and withered arms and sunburnt breast: and thus there are the two extremes,—the consciousness of pathos in the confessed ruin, which may or may not be beautiful, according to the kind of it; and the entire denial of all human calamity and care, in the swept proprieties and neatness of English modernism: and between these there is the unconscious confession of the facts of distress and decay, in by-words; the world’s hard work being gone through all the while, and no pity asked for nor contempt feared. And this is the expression of that Calais spire, and of all picturesque things, in so far as they have mental or human expression at all.  7
 
 
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