Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1699/Mr. Ruskin's Letter to Young Girls

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From The Spectator.


Mr. Ruskin has reprinted from a recent number of his curious Fors Clavigera a very striking little letter to young girls, which deserves attention on many accounts. In the first place, it is full of that delicately mixed playfulness and sæva indignatio against the world as it is, which has always characterized those who have tried to combine the gospel of righteousness with an attempt to interpret the claims of beauty on the human heart. It characterized Socrates. There never was a more delicate mixture of playful irony with a passionate sense of the interior clingingness of moral evil, than in the Socrates of Plato. Mr. Matthew Arnold, who, in our day, has been the great spokesman of the duty of combining the Greek teaching as to perfection and wholeness of purpose and action, with the Hebrew teaching as to righteousness of life, has shown precisely the same tendency to combine playfulness of manner with a deep belief in the value of self-renunciation or, as he calls it, "the secret of Jesus;" and here we have Mr. Ruskin inculcating in the same breath on young girls the duty of accepting even joyfully their disappointments and troubles, as trials coming straight from the hand of Christ, — teaching them that they must be literally ready to forsake all they have to be Christ's disciples, — and yet enjoining upon them to open their minds to the fullest degree to all the play and humor in life, "to cherish without straining the natural powers of jest in others and yourselves;" and even inculcating on them that if their parents permit it, they are to dress in bright colors (if becoming), though in plain materials. His style, too, is full of irony. Irony, indeed, appears, in its higher sense, to be of the very soul of Christianity, if only because the teaching that this world is ruled in its minutest details by the divine will, implies in itself so many ulterior and covert meanings for human destiny, — meanings of which the human instruments cannot possibly be conscious. There was assuredly a strange and mystic irony in Christ's words to James and John, when they asked to sit on his right hand and his left in his kingdom, and assured him that they could drink of the cup that he would drink of, and be baptized with the baptism with which be was baptized, and when he, in reply, declared to them that they would indeed drink of that cup and be baptized with that baptism, though in a sense and with results of which they had then no dream. But the irony of prophets of the beautiful has necessarily more of playfulness in it than the irony of the prophets of the good taken alone. The little incongruities of life strike the former as keenly as the greater incongruities of moral paradox. Mr. Ruskin, for instance, not perhaps in the best taste, calls his young friends "little monkeys" when he bids them, whatever they do, not dream of preaching to the poor, of whom, he says, the chances are that they are, without knowing it, infinitely truer Christians than their young-lady patrons; and he evidently has a very graphic picture in his mind's eye of the naturally didactic redundancy of schoolgirl virtue, when girding itself up to do the work of God. He quizzes, too, not without point, those who go about "with white crosses" "in an offensively celestial uniform, as if it were more their business or privilege than it is everybody's to be God's servants." And in general, it may be said that Mr. Ruskin puts his advice to these young girls into a somewhat playfully parabolic form, calling his letter "a splinter of the lance of St. George," — the society which Mr. Ruskin has founded is called the "St. George's Society," — and inveighing against "the present basilisk power of society," — all which, we suppose, he intends his young friends to accept spiritually, and not in its most literal sense. In a word, the first characteristic of Mr. Ruskin's teaching may be said to be that it unites with a very high doctrine of self-renunciation, a strong desire to recommend the constant and very active enjoyment of the brighter side of life, of its glowing colors, its quaint conceits, its ineradicable and sometimes pathetic illusions, its grotesque contrasts. Indeed, the preacher earnestly represents this enjoying spirit as not only perfectly consistent with righteous zeal, but in some sense of positive obligation, if only by way of using reverently a divine gift which, instead of diminishing the earnestness of life, helps to renew and increase it by interrupting that perpetual strain after a single purpose, for which assuredly human nature — at least as we now know it — was never intended.

In the next place, it is remarkable that Mr. Ruskin, though you might have expected him to be more of a disciple of the beautiful and less of a purely spiritual teacher than Mr. M. Arnold, yet, unlike Mr. Arnold, has the religious instinct to see that in pressing self-renunciation — what Mr. Arnold calls "the secret of Jesus" — on his young friends, he must rest it on the same sure foundation on which it was based originally by the Saviour of mankind; that he cannot ask the human conscience to surrender itself to a fate or destiny, or "a stream of tendency not ourselves," with any prospect of turning a habit of surrender directed to such blind agencies as these, into a source of peace and serenity of spirit. Mr. Ruskin makes no such hopeless attempt: —

Keep [he says] absolute calm of temper, under all chances; receiving everything that is provoking or disagreeable to you as coming directly from Christ's hand; and the more it is like to provoke you, thank him for it the more; as a young soldier would his general for trusting him with a hard place to hold on the rampart. And remember, it does not in the least matter what happens to you, — whether a clumsy schoolfellow tears your dress, or a shrewd one laughs at you, or the governess doesn't understand you. The one thing needful is that none of these things should vex you. For your mind, at this time of your youth, is crystallizing like sugar-candy; and the least jar to it flaws the crystal, and that permanently. Say to yourselves every morning, just after your prayers, "Whoso forsaketh not all that he hath, cannot be my disciple." That is exactly and completely true; meaning, that you are to give all you have to Christ, to take care of for you. Then if He doesn't take care of it, of course you know it wasn't worth anything. And if He takes anything from you, you know you are better without it. You will not, indeed, at your age, have to give up houses, or lands, or boats, or nets; but you may perhaps break your favorite teacup, or lose your favorite thimble, and might be vexed about it, but for this second St. George's precept.

It is striking enough to see that Mr. Ruskin's insight into moral beauty is so deep, that he perceives at once that the whole serenity and joy which accompanies the abandoning of what is precious, however trifling, or however priceless, can only come of the faith that it is abandoned to One who knows exactly what is needful and what is hurtful to those whom he thus asks to abandon it. Without that profound conviction, there might be wisdom, there might be the highest triumph of self-control, there might be the truest economy, in quietly accepting an inevitable loss, but there could not be joy, there could not be inward happiness, there could not be the serenity which comes of following implicitly the guidance of an inexhaustible love, in such an act. Mr. Ruskin sees what Mr. Arnold does not, — that the beauty of this willingness and even gladness to lose, lies entirely in the faith that it is the act of love, and not the mere operation of a law, which demands the sacrifice. True feeling even for beauty will tell us that a light without a source of light, joy without a fountain of joy, peace without an object of trust, is anomalous and unmeaning, warranting not admiration, but aversion. It is wise not to fret at the inevitable; it is noble not to withhold sacrifices which the general well-being calls for; it is brave to make them without hesitation, and without giving more pain than is necessary to those for whom they are made. But it is not wise to feel the happier because the "stream of tendency not ourselves" has swept a new treasure out of our grasp; it is not noble to persuade ourselves that we are the better for that for which we are the worse; it is not brave to assure our own hearts that we are the richer for being positively poorer. Only if the loss is really balanced by a greater spiritual gain, only if the treasure lost is more than restored by the love of Him who takes it away, is this joy through sorrow, this springing-up of a new gladness in affliction, really reasonable. Mr. Ruskin sees this, which Mr. Matthew Arnold does not see, and it does credit, we think, to that fine instinct for beauty which no one carries on more truly than he does into the region of spiritual imagination.

Finally, it is curious to perceive how even in advice "to young girls," Mr. Ruskin's partly, no doubt, doctrinaire abhorrence of great cities breaks out. Nothing can be better than his advice as to their dress. He encourages them to be gay, he allows them to be swayed by the fluctuating flow and ebb of social taste, though he prohibits their being either expensive, or disposed to follow fashion into its wasteful caprices. But then he teaches even these young girls, so far as he can, to abhor London, as the Jewish prophet taught the women of his people to abhor the Moabitish or Amoritish women: —

Dress as plainly as your parents will allow you, but in bright colors (if they become you), and in the best materials, — that is to say, in those which will wear longest When you are really in want of a new dress, buy it (or make it) in the fashion; but never quit an old one merely because it has become unfashionable. And if the fashion be costly, you must not follow it. You may wear broad stripes or narrow, bright colors or dark, short petticoats or long — in moderation — as the public wish you, but you must not buy yards of useless stuff to make a knot or a flounce of, nor drag them behind you over the ground; and your walking-dress must never touch the ground at all. I have lost much of the faith I once had in the common sense and even in the personal delicacy of the present race of average Englishwomen, by seeing how they will allow their dresses to sweep the streets, if it is the fashion to be scavengers. If you can afford it, get your dresses made by a good dressmaker, with utmost attainable precision and perfection; but let this good dressmaker be a poor person, living in the country, not a rich person living in a large house in London. "There are no good dressmakers in the country?" No; but there soon will be, if you obey St. George's orders, which are very strict indeed, about never buying dresses in London. "You bought one there the other day for your own pet! "Yes; but that was because she was a wild Amorite, who had wild Amorites to please; not a companion of St. George.

One does not exactly see why poor dressmakers who live in London are to be punished for living there by getting no employment, unless it be regarded as a sin in itself to live in London, which is probably Mr. Ruskin's real view. He most likely believes society concentrated in such great masses as the great towns collect to be entirely incapable of any true organization; and wishes, therefore, by every means in his power to discourage such moral and spiritual crushes. But it is hard to conceive that great cities have not arisen as a consequence of action quite as inevitable, and therefore quite as certainly overruled by Providence, as any loss or gain which befalls the individual human life, and Mr. Ruskin would have taught, we think, what was more in consistency with his other lessons, if he had suggested the best way of alleviating the abuses of city life, instead of advising his pupils to ignore them. But his artistic genius is, we suppose, so much more revolted by the soiling and hiding of all the noblest detail, of all moral individuality, in these great dust-heaps of the world, than it is by still greater evils which admit of clear study and intelligent insight, that we are bound to make allowance for this little blot on the really fine taste and noble moral enthusiasm of Mr. Ruskin's "Letter to Young Girls."