Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Ruskin (1819–1900)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Charles van Dyke (1856–1932)
IT is not given every man to date an epoch from himself, to turn aside old conceptions, and to swing the whole current of thought into a new channel. The epoch-making men are few in any century; they themselves seldom realize the value of the work they are doing, and the public recognizes it perhaps last of all. Each one of them, as he appears, undergoes the usual misunderstanding at the hands of both friends and foes. There are assertions and denials, attacks and defenses, adulation and abuse; until at last it has passed into a proverb that a man cannot be summed up justly by contemporary thought. Perhaps no one in the nineteenth century has suffered so much from misunderstanding and indiscriminate criticism as John Ruskin. And even now that his work is done and he himself has passed from the field of activity, the value of that work and the place of the worker are far from being accurately estimated. The world persists in considering him only as an art critic; while he himself thought his best endeavor to have been in the field of political economy. It is not impossible that both of these conclusions are wide of the mark. One may venture to think that his greatest service to mankind has been his revelation of the beauties of nature; and that his enduring fame will rest upon no theories of art or of human well-being, but upon his masterful handling of the English language. Whatever feature of his activity may be thought the best, it cannot be denied that he has been a powerful force in many departments: a prophet with a denunciatory and enunciatory creed, a leader who has counted his followers by the thousands, a writer who has left a deeper stamp upon the language than almost any Englishman of the nineteenth century.  1
  Mr. Ruskin’s parentage, early training, and education are recorded in ‘Præterita’ (1885–9),—his fascinating but incomplete autobiography. In his childhood his Scotch mother made him read the Bible again and again; and to this he thought was due his habit of taking pains, and his literary taste. Peace, obedience, and faith, with fixed attention in both mind and eye, were the virtues inculcated by his early training. The defects of that training he puts down as—nothing to love, nothing to endure of either pain, patience, or misery, nothing taught him in a social way, no independence of action, and no responsibility. At fourteen Mr. Telford, one of his father’s partners in the wine trade, gave him a copy of Rogers’s ‘Italy’ with Turner’s illustrations; and his parents forever after held Mr. Telford personally responsible for the art tastes of the son. They had predestined him to the Church. “He might have been a bishop,” was the elder Ruskin’s sigh.  2
  His study of art practically began with an admiration for Turner. He knew a great deal about nature, and had met his great passion, the Alps, before he was twenty; and he had also studied drawing under Runciman, Copley Fielding, and Harding. His earliest writings were poetical; and as an Oxford student he wrote the pretty story, ‘The King of the Golden River’ (1841), besides making some contributions to magazine literature: but his first important effort was when as the Oxford graduate he put forth the first volume of ‘Modern Painters’ (1843). Ostensibly this was an inquiry into the object and means of landscape painting, the spirit which should govern its production, the appearances of nature, the discussion of what is true in art as revealed by nature; but in reality it was a defense of Turner at the expense of almost every other landscape painter, ancient or modern. It came at a time when people knew very little about art, and thought it a mystery understood only by the priests of the craft; but Mr. Ruskin burst the door wide open, and talked about the contents of the high altar in a language that any one could understand. It was an energetic and eloquent statement of what he believed to be truth. From his studies of nature he came to think that truth was the one and only desideratum in art; and the whole argument and illustration of ‘Modern Painters’ is hinged upon nature-truth and its appearance in the works of Turner. It was nearly twenty years before the five volumes of the work were completed, and during that time Mr. Ruskin’s views had broadened and changed, so that there is something of contradiction in the volumes; but it to-day stands as his most forceful work. Philosophical it is not, because lacking in system; scientific it is not, because lacking in fundamental principles. The logic of it is often weak, the positiveness of statement often annoying, the digressions and side issues often wearisome; yet with all this it contains some of his keenest observations on nature, his most suggestive conceits, and his most brilliant prose passages. It made something of a sensation, and Mr. Ruskin came into prominence at once.  3
  While ‘Modern Painters’ was being written, he made frequent journeys to Switzerland to study the Alps, and to Italy to study the old Italian masters. From being at first a naturalist and a prophet of modernity, he soon became an admirer of Gothic and Renaissance art. Turner and Fra Angelico were almost antithetical. He tried to reconcile them on the principle of their truthfulness; but one had put forth an individual truth, the other a symbolic truth, and Mr. Ruskin never brought them together without the appearance of incongruity. The more he studied Italian painting, the more he became impregnated with the moral and the religious in art. In a letter he has put it down that what is wanted in English art is a “total change of character. It is Giotto and Ghirlandajo and Angelico that you want and must want until this disgusting nineteenth century has—I can’t say breathed, but steamed, its last.” The moral element and the sincerity of fifteenth-century work quite captivated him, and he began to fail in sympathy for modern products. He started the hopeless task of turning the art world backward, and reviving the truth and faith of the early Italians. But the world never turns backward successfully. Italian art was good art because it did not turn backward; because it revealed its own time and people, and was imbued with the spirit of its age. That spirit died with the Renaissance. The nineteenth century could not revive it. It had a spirit of its own which it revealed, and which Mr. Ruskin opposed all his life. It was not moral enough or reverent enough or true enough; in short, it was not like the old, and therefore it was wrong.  4
  About 1850 the Pre-Raphaelites began to attract attention. They were not followers of Mr. Ruskin, though they were a part of the new movement which he more than any other man had started. His advice to go to nature—selecting nothing, rejecting nothing, scorning nothing—had been accepted by many landscapists, and it undoubtedly somewhat affected the Pre-Raphaelites. He defended their work against popular ridicule in his spirited ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’ (1851); and tried to show that they and Turner were on the same naturalistic basis, and that his old ideas of nature and his new ideas of Italian art were not contradictory. In principle he seemed to have eliminated the personal equation (the dominant factor in nineteenth-century art); and what really attracted him in Pre-Raphaelitism was the combination of literal detail with the imitated sincerity of the early Italians. The Pre-Raphaelites as a body soon drifted apart; and Mr. Ruskin’s teaching, as regards their work, was condemned as impractical and impossible. It did not reckon with the nineteenth-century spirit.  5
  Painting alone was not sufficient to occupy so active and many-sided an intellect; and Mr. Ruskin’s first twenty years of authorship produced many books on many subjects. He wrote on the Alps, published his ‘Poems’ (1850), reviewed books, issued ‘Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds’ (1851),—the misleading title of a plea for church unity in England,—and wrote his ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’ (1849) and his ‘Stones of Venice’ (1850–53). The last-named work is not a manual of history or a traveler’s guide; but the expression of Mr. Ruskin’s ideas of life, society, and nationality as shown in architecture. The ideas are somewhat smothered by beautiful language, and many side issues in parenthesis; but they are at least original, and the result of his own observations. He spent much time and labor in Venice taking measurements and trying to reconcile conflicting styles on a single basis; but the task was too colossal. Venetian architecture is a medley of all styles. Mr. Ruskin did what he could, and the ‘Stones of Venice’ was the result. It excited opposition and was sharply attacked. He had been too erratic, too rhetorical, too violently independent of architectural laws; but at least he had explained Gothic architecture in a new way, and made an impression on the lay mind. Other works on art came out one by one: the ‘Elements of Drawing’ (1857), the ‘Political Economy of Art’ (1857), the ‘Elements of Perspective’ (1859), and yearly ‘Notes on the Royal Academy’; but Mr. Ruskin’s art teaching was practically summed up in ‘Modern Painters,’ the ‘Seven Lamps,’ and the ‘Stones of Venice.’ His other art writings were desultory, scattered, lacking in plan and unity. At forty years of age his career as an art critic closed, though he never ceased to write about art until he ceased writing altogether; but after 1860 he became interested in the human problem, and his mind turned to political economy.  6
  As an art critic Mr. Ruskin was never unreservedly accepted. He felt aggrieved that his readers cared more for the “pretty passages” in the second volume of ‘Modern Painters’ than for the ideas; but his readers were more than half right. Criticism calls for more of the calm philosophical spirit than Mr. Ruskin ever possessed. All his life he was not so much a judge as a partisan advocate, an enthusiast,—a man praising indiscriminately where he admired, and condemning indiscriminately where he lacked sympathy. His passion of praise, his vehemence of attack, his brilliancy of style, attracted and still attract attention; but the feeling that they are too brilliant to be true underlies all. Nevertheless, the multiplicity and clearness of his ideas are astonishing, and their stimulating power incalculable. To-day one may disagree with him at every page and yet be the gainer by the opposition excited. No writer of our times has been quite so helpful by suggestion. Moreover, many of his ideas are true and sound. It is only his art teaching as a whole to which objection may be taken. This is thought to be too erratic, too inconsiderate of existing conditions,—in other words, too impractical.  7
  The services which Mr. Ruskin rendered humanity as an art writer should not, however, be overlooked. First, he brought art positively and permanently before the public, explained it to the average intelligence, and created a universal interest in it by subjecting it to inquiry. Secondly, he elevated the rank and relative importance of the artist, and showed that he was a most useful factor in civilization. Many of the artists who are to-day sneering at Mr. Ruskin for some hasty opinion uttered in anger, appreciate but poorly what a great preacher and priest for the craft he has been, and what importance his winged words have given to art in this nineteenth century. Thirdly, though he did not make Turner, yet he made the public look at him; and though he did not discover Italian art, he turned people’s eyes toward it. Before Mr. Ruskin’s utterances, Giotto and Botticelli and Carpaccio and Tintoretto were practically unknown and unseen. Mr. Ruskin was the pioneer of Renaissance art study; and though modern critics may have much amusement over his occasional false attribution of a picture, they should not forget that when Mr. Ruskin went to Italy in the 1840s there was no established body of Italian art criticism to lean upon. He stood quite alone; and the wonder is not that he made so many mistakes, but that he made so few. Generally speaking, his estimate of Italian art was just enough, and his appreciations of certain men well founded.  8
  But Mr. Ruskin’s greatest discovery has been picturesque nature; and for that, humanity is more indebted to him than for anything else. Wordsworth, Scott, and Byron had dabbled in nature beauty in a romantic associative way; but Ruskin, following them and in a measure their pupil, began its elaborate study. To enforce his argument for truth in art, he drew for illustration truth in nature. With rare knowledge, keenness of observation, and facility in description, he displayed the wonder-world of clouds, skies, mountains, trees, grasses, waters, holding them up in all their colors, lights, shadows, and atmospheric settings. In youth his predilection for mountain forms, rock structure, crystals, and scientific facts was well marked; and in his art writings his sympathy is always with the landscape at the expense of the figure composition. Indeed, it was to prove Turner true to nature that he first began writing upon art; and his most profound studies have been in the field of natural phenomena. Well trained and specially equipped for this field, he pointed out the beauties of nature in the infinitely little and the infinitely great with such masterful insight and skill that people followed him willy-nilly. Almost instantly he created a nature cult—a worship of beauty in things inanimate. People’s eyes were opened to the glories of the world about them. They have not been closed since; and the study of nature is with succeeding generations a growing passion and an unwearying source of pleasurable good. Mr. Ruskin is to be thanked for it. This great service alone should more than counterbalance in popular judgment any artistic or political vagaries into which he may have fallen.  9
  About 1860, as already noted, his art and nature studies were pushed aside by what he thought more urgent matter. His moral sense and intense humanity went out to the workingmen of England, and he courageously devoted the rest of his life to an attempt to better their condition. This was the natural leaning of his mind. He was always an intensely sensitive and sympathetic man, with moral ideas of truth, justice, and righteousness opposed to the ideas of his times. He should have been a bishop, as his parents desired, or a preacher at least; for he had the Savonarola equipment. Denunciation and invective were his most powerful weapons; and lacking a pulpit, he now sent forth letters against the prevailing social system, written as eloquently as though he were describing sunsets and Alpine peaks. His ‘Unto this Last’ (1860), “the truest, rightest-worded, and most serviceable things I have ever written,” was followed by ‘Munera Pulveris’ (1862–63), ‘Time and Tide’ (1867), and ‘Fors Clavigera’ (1871–84). These books contain the substance of his political economy, which is as impossible to epitomize as his art teachings. It was written for the workingmen of England, but it shot over their heads; and is moreover marked by inconsistencies, the result of Mr. Ruskin’s changing views and waning strength—for much of his work in the 1880s is hectic and spasmodic from pain of mind and body. He believed in a mild form of socialism or collectivism,—a pooling of interests, a stopping of competition, and a doing away of interest upon money. So earnest was he in his beliefs that he did not write only, but strove for practical results. He established St. George’s Guild, the Sheffield museum, an agricultural community, a tea store, and a factory. He even had the streets of London swept clean to show that it could be done, and lent a helping hand wherever he could. Like Tolstoy, he tried to live his beliefs; but British materialism was too strong for him. After giving away his whole fortune, upwards of £200,000, he had to stop; broken physically and mentally as well as financially. His political economy was not a success practically, but no one who loves his fellow-man will ever cast a stone at him for it. It was a noble effort to benefit humanity.  10
  During all the years of his political-economy struggles, his restless mind and pen found many other fields in which to labor. He lectured at Oxford; wrote ‘Sesame and Lilies’ (1865), a series of miscellaneous essays; ‘Ethics of the Dust’ (1866), lectures on crystallization; ‘The Crown of Wild Olive’ (1866), three lectures on work, traffic, and war; ‘The Queen of the Air’ (1869), a study of Greek myths of cloud and storm; ‘Aratra Pentelici’ (1872), on the elements of sculpture; ‘Love’s Meinie’ (1873); ‘Ariadne Florentina’ (1873); ‘Val d’Arno’ (1874); ‘Mornings in Florence’ (1875–7); ‘Proserpina’ (1875–86); ‘Deucalion’ (1875–83); ‘St. Mark’s Rest’ (1877–84); ‘The Bible of Amiens’ (1880–5); ‘The Art of England’ (1883); and a vast quantity of lectures, addresses, letters, catalogues, prefaces, and notes. In sheer bulk alone this work was enormous. Finally body and mind both failed him; and the last thing he wrote, ‘Præterita,’ his autobiography, was done at intervals of returning strength after severe illnesses.  11
  Mr. Ruskin has stated that his literary work was “always done as quietly and methodically as a piece of tapestry. I knew exactly what I had got to say, put the words firmly in their places like so many stitches, hemmed the edges of chapters round with what seemed to me graceful flourishes, and touched them finally with my cunningest points of color.” His poems are all youthful and of small consequence. His prose is marked by two styles. The first is dramatic, vehement, rhetorical, full of imagery, some over-exuberance of language, and long-drawn sentences. This is the style of ‘Modern Painters’ and the ‘Seven Lamps.’ After 1860, when he took up political writing, he strove for more simplicity; and his ‘Fors Clavigera’ is an excellent example of his more moderate style. But he never attained reserve either in thinking or in writing. It was not in his temperament. He had almost everything else—purity, elasticity, dramatic force, wit, passion, imagination, nobility. In addition his vocabulary was almost limitless, his rhythm and flow of sentences almost endless, his brilliancy in illustration, description, and argument almost exhaustless. Indeed, his facility in language has been fatal only too often to his logic and philosophy. Words and their limpid flow ran away with his sobriety, lusciousness in illustration and heaped-up imagery led him into rambling sentences, and the long reverberating roll of numbers at the close of his chapters often smacks of the theatre. Alliteration and assonance, the use of the adjective in description, the antithesis in argument, the climax in dramatic effect,—all these Mr. Ruskin well understood and used with powerful effect.  12
  How he came by his style would be difficult to determine. He said he got it from the Bible and Carlyle: but he was a part of the romantic, poetic, and Catholic revival in this century; and Byron, Scott, Coleridge, Newman, Tennyson, Carlyle, were influences upon him. The impetuosity of romanticism was his heritage; and the great bulk of his writing is headlong, feverish, brilliant as a meteor, but self-consuming. His prose cannot be judged by rules of rhetoric or composition, any more than the pictures of Turner can be measured by the academic yardstick. They both defy rules and measurements. ‘Modern Painters’ and the ‘Ulysses and Polyphemus’ blaze with arbitrary color, and are in parts false in tone, value, and perspective; yet behind each work there is the fire of genius—the energy of overpowering individuality. Mr. Ruskin’s style is his creation as an artist, as distinguished from his exposition as a teacher; and perhaps it is as an artist in language that he will live longest in human memory.  13
  A whole library of books on many subjects—art, science, history, poetry, ethics, theology, agriculture, education, economy—has come from his pen. Few even among the learned classes realize how much the nineteenth century owed to Mr. Ruskin for suggestion, stimulus, and hopeful inspiration in many fields. He taught several generations to see with their eyes, think with their minds, and work with their hands. And the beautiful language of that teaching will remain with many generations to come. He was in the right and he was in the wrong. Apples of discord and olive-branches of peace—he has planted both, and both have borne fruit; but the good outbalances the bad, the true outweighs the false.  14

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