Studies of a Biographer/John Ruskin

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JOHN RUSKIN


Ruskin's death, as we all agreed, deprived us of the one man of letters who had a right to burial in Westminster Abbey. We may rejoice that his representatives preferred Coniston. The quiet churchyard in a still unpolluted country was certainly more appropriate for him than the 'central roar' of what he somewhere calls 'loathsome London.' But the general consent marks the fact that Ruskin had come to be recognised as a compeer of the greatest writers of the age. By many he is also revered as one who did more than almost any contemporary to rouse the sluggish British mind from its habitual slumber. His career, indeed, suggests many regrets. His later writings are too often a cry of despair and vexation of spirit. The world is out of joint, and all his efforts to set it right have failed. To those who cannot quite agree that we are all driving post-haste to the devil, the pessimism may seem to indicate the want of intellectual balance which did much to waste surpassing abilities. But if his vagaries are sometimes provoking, at any rate they are always interesting. Though my intellectual idols in old days were of a different school, I was never so dull as to be indifferent to the curious fascination of his books. I have been refreshing my memory of them lately, and if I cannot profess myself an ardent disciple, I have at least read with renewed or increased admiration of his literary power. One excellence is conspicuous at first sight. The cardinal virtue of a good style is that every sentence should be alive to its fingers' ends. There should be no cumbrous verbiage: no barren commonplace to fill the interstices of thought: and no mannerism simulating emotion by fictitious emphasis. Ruskin has that virtue in the highest degree. We are everywhere in contact with a real human being, feeling intensely, thinking keenly, and, even when rhetorical, writing, not to exhibit his style or his eloquence, but because his heart burns within him. In his later moods, indeed, Ruskin held that he had been at first too much given to the ornate: he had been seduced by his admiration for Hooker to indulge in elaborate long-winded sentences: and he certainly had a weakness for very deliberate 'purple patches.' That was a venial fault as a young man, and was sufficiently punished by misdirected admiration. People, as he complained, would take him for a coiner of fine phrases, instead of a real philosopher and a serious critic of art. Modern Painters, as even an artistic ignoramus could see, was something much more than rhetoric. It was an intellectual feat which becomes more surprising the more one thinks of it. The first volume, we remember, was not only written when he was twenty-three, but when he had had, in some respects, a singularly narrow education. Ruskin, we may note, was at Oxford during the most exciting period of the 'movement.' His ablest contemporaries were all going through the Newman fever. Ruskin seems never to have been aware that such a person as Newman existed. He amused himself with geology and botany, and seems to have been as blind as became the son of a sound Evangelical wine-merchant to the very existence of any spiritual ferment. That might seem to prove that he cared nothing for intellectual speculations. Yet within a year or two he was writing a book of which it may be said that no work produced by an English author of the same period of life has ever done so much to set people thinking in a fresh direction. The generous desire to do justice to Turner, which prompted the book, led, I suppose, to the most triumphant vindication of the kind ever published. In any case, the argument was so forcibly put as to fall like a charge of dynamite into the camp of the somnolent critics of the day. The book, whatever its errors, is, I fancy, the only one in the language which treats to any purpose what is called æsthetics. It is amusing to notice what difficulty the young critic has in finding any previous authorities to confute. He goes back to Locke's essay, and Burke on the 'Sublime and Beautiful,' and Alison on 'Taste,' and the papers by Reynolds in Johnson's Idler, which have also, as he remarks, the high sanction of their editor. In truth, English speculation on such matters was nearly a blank. Untrammelled by any solemn professors of æsthetics, Ruskin could be all the fresher; and perhaps the better able to impress readers who were neither philosophical nor æsthetic. People who shared the indifference to art of those dark ages (I can answer for one) were suddenly fascinated, and found to their amazement that they knew a book about pictures almost by heart. They did not foresee the day in which a comfortable indifference to artistic matters, instead of being normal and respectable, would be pitiable and almost criminal. Ruskin, no doubt, gave the first impulse to the change.

His popular reputation was partly due to the passages which a severe taste can only just approve. Yet the worst one can say of such famous bits of rhetoric as the comparison of Claude's skies with Turner's is that they approach Shelley's finest imagery too nearly for prose. The rhetoric rests, in any case, upon some remarkable qualities. His defence of Turner is mainly an exposition of Turner's truthfulness to nature, and shows that his eulogist is qualified to judge of his fidelity. Ruskin has watched sky and sea and mountains so closely, that he is revolted by the old conventional portraits and demonstrates his point with extraordinary fulness of knowledge. He surpasses the average critic in that respect as a scientific specialist surpasses a mere popular observer. Ruskin, indeed, took himself to have a specially scientific mind. So far as aptitude for science means power of observation, the claim, I imagine, was perfectly justified. He came in later years to detest science 'in the lump,' and to speak of leaders of science with unfortunate arrogance. But his power of seeing the phenomena vividly was as remarkable as his power, not always shared by scientific writers, of making description interesting. I owe him a personal debt. Many people had tried their hands upon Alpine descriptions since Saussure; but Ruskin's chapters seemed to have the freshness of a new revelation. The fourth volume of Modern Painters infected me and other early members of the Alpine Club with an enthusiasm for which, I hope, we are still grateful. Our prophet indeed ridiculed his disciples for treating Mont Blanc as a greased pole. We might well forgive our satirist,[1] for he had revealed a new pleasure, which we might mix with ingredients which he did not fully appreciate. The power of giving interest and fascination even to dry geological details was no doubt due to the singular fervour of his nature-worship. One pardons a lover for some excess of interest even in the accessories of his mistress's charms. How Ruskin's passion for nature was developed by his surroundings may be learnt from many of his most interesting reminiscences. But the surroundings worked upon innate predispositions which must have been almost unique. He speaks in Modern Painters of his 'intense joy, mingled with awe,' when his nurse took him to Friar's Crag on Derwentwater. It was 'comparable only to the joy of being near a noble and kind mistress'—and equally inexplicable. Long afterwards he tells us how, as a boy, he would pass entire days rambling on 'Cumberland hillsides or staring at the lines of surf on a low sand,' and traces his whole power of judging in art to the habit thus acquired. In this quality, and in this alone, he was, he thinks, remarkable as a child. Most children have a certain taste for ponds and rocks, as offering romantic chances of dirt and danger, and as the habitat of things catchable, and partly, if they are imaginative, as probable haunts of pirates and Robinson Crusoes. Those are surely rare who, as Ruskin tells us of himself, found a 'strange delight' in getting a 'land-line cutting against the sky.' Wordsworth was another recorded instance, and Ruskin himself compares this early passion to that which prompted the famous ode. Heaven lies about us in our infancy, if we happen to be Wordsworths or Ruskins, and till he had grown to manhood its indulgence gave him a pleasure infinitely greater than he had since found in anything. This enthusiasm, however psychologists may explain it, not only gave charm to Ruskin's early writings, but gave the substance of the æsthetic doctrine to which, as he observes rather ruefully, people would pay no attention. He set out with the intention of systematically expounding a theory of the beautiful. Unfortunately, he had one infirmity fatal to such an attempt. He was incapable of arranging his thoughts in orderly symmetrical pigeon-holes: his mind was essentially discursive: he could see things more vividly than any one, and could argue acutely and ingeniously; but he had never the patience to consider how his thoughts should be co-ordinated and wrought into consistent unity. The Modern Painters, we know, could never be really completed at all, because he was attracted by all manner of irrelevant and collateral issues. In later years his incapacity for consecutive writing becomes bewildering. You can never tell in reading a lecture whether the next paragraph will take you to questions of religion or art or social evils or autobiography. In a letter to Carlyle in 1855 he humorously declares that he is reading German metaphysics, poetry, political economy, cookery, music, geology, dress, agriculture, horticulture, and navigation all at once, which, as he observes, 'takes time.' No human intellect, one might add, performing such rapid flights from topic to topic, could ever get any of them fairly worked out. A letter from an unnamed friend, which he published in the Fors Clavigera, suggests a partial explanation. 'You can,' said this frank critic, 'see an individual concrete fact better than any man of the generation; but an invisible fact, an abstraction, … you have, I fancy, been as incapable of seeing as of seeing through a stone wall.' With necessary deductions from the judgment of a candid friend there is, I fancy, much truth in this. Ruskin was too much absorbed in the individual and concrete to be a good system-monger. Intellectually, he resembles a short-sighted man to whom every detail is so abnormally vivid in turn that he forgets the whole. He has to make his theories—if theories he must have—not by patient induction, but by flashes of intuition. His theory of the beautiful simply formulates his own childish instincts. Wordsworth had seen, we know, in his own early feelings a proof of the soul's pre-existence 'with God, who is our home.' So Ruskin, though he somewhere calls this fanciful, regards the sense of beauty as a revelation—as something like the inner light of mystics. All natural beauty, he says, is 'typical of the divine attributes'; and he tries to show in detail how the sense of beauty corresponds to a perception of Infinity, Order, Symmetry, Unity, and so forth, and how the external world is thus a divinely appointed system of symbols, dimly recognised even in childhood. This theory, no doubt, is as good as others. Like others, indeed, which present themselves as a direct inspiration of the prophet, it may fail to convince opponents; and the elaboration into a symmetrical system must not be taken too seriously. Ruskin quaintly remarks how hard he found it to prevent his Seven Lamps of Architecture from becoming eight or nine upon his hands. No doubt his first follower, if he had found one, would have redistributed his symbols, and interpreted various objects to mean entirely different truths. It should be taken, as we take Wordsworth's ode, not as a prosaic argument, but as an imaginative way of expressing his own sentiments. If disputable as a general theory, it shows what the love of nature meant for Ruskin. To him it seemed to be a part of religion; and a description is for him not a mere catalogue of forms and colours and sensations, but a divine language to be interpreted by the 'high instincts' (if I may quote the inevitable ode again) before which our mortal nature trembles like a guilty thing surprised. To read the true meaning of these outward and visible signs is the function of what he calls the 'theoretic faculty'; and, parenthetically, I may add that his theory, good or bad in itself, leads him to very interesting literary criticisms. I do not know whether the chapters in which he discusses the 'theoretic' faculty or imagination will pass muster with later psychologists better than his theory of the beautiful with professors of æsthetics. But I never read anything which seemed to me to do more than these chapters to make clear the true characteristics of good poetry. Ruskin's critical judgments are certainly not always right; no critic can always judge rightly, unless at the cost of being thoroughly commonplace, and Ruskin is often wayward and sometimes extravagant. But his sense of what was excellent was so keen and genuine, and he could often analyse his impressions so subtly, that I have seemed to myself (perhaps it was an illusion) to have really learnt something from his remarks.

Ruskin's theory suggested many difficulties—which, indeed, is the chief use of a theory. Contemporary critics condemned him and his clients, the Pre-Raphaelites, as 'realists.' He was taken to hold, that is, that the merit of a work of art was measurable entirely by the quantity of 'truth' which it contained. I fancy that the employment of the word 'truth,' when what is really meant is 'likeness,' leads to as many fallacies as any known misuse of language. It seems, in particular, to make a moral duty of what is a simple question of artistic method. In the Modern Painters he is constantly struggling against this interpretation, though he never gets the point quite clear. There is a difficulty in carrying out the theory consistently. The painter, it seems, is to give the facts pure and simple, but then it is just because the facts signify ideas. The greater the realism, though it may sound paradoxical, the greater the idealism. If, indeed, the 'love of nature'—the intense joy and awe which Ruskin and Wordsworth felt in their early days—be interpreted to mean that the natural scenery which Turner painted is symbolic of divine truths, the closer the imitation the fuller will be the revelation. But when Ruskin is showing the marvellous accuracy of Turner's perceptions, he seems to become simply scientific or prosaic. Turner's merit is explained to be that he instinctively grasped the laws of mountain structure and saw what later geologists tried to explain. It is only by a kind of after-thought that the scenery is made to be somehow edifying and symbolic. There is a greater difficulty behind. After all, is the 'love of nature' so clearly a religious or moral sentiment? In a chapter of Modern Painters upon the 'Moral of Landscape,' Ruskin tries, with great ingenuity, to show that the passion is at any rate congenial to the highest moral feelings. Yet he betrays some doubt. With Byron, the 'love of nature'—if we are to take his word for it—was a corollary of his misanthropy. He loved the deep and dark blue ocean precisely because it has a pleasant way of sending man shivering and howling to his gods. Is not that the logical view? To love rock and stream precisely for their wildness surely means that you dislike the garden and the field which are useful to human beings. The love of nature, as interpreted by Rousseau and his followers, meant, in fact, a condemnation of civilised man, not misanthropy, indeed, but a conviction of the thorough corruption of men as they are—whatever we may hope for men as they are to be.

When, in the Modern Painters, Ruskin tried to extend his theory from the beauty of inanimate nature to the beauty of organised beings, he felt this difficulty. Some animals, and many men, are undoubtedly ugly. If they are symbolic of anything, it is of something the very opposite of divine—of sensuality, greed, and cruelty. In the language of his Evangelical days, Ruskin regards this as a result of the 'Adamite fall.' As the love of nature is essentially a part of religion, he naturally comes to a theory which identifies the 'æsthetic' with the moral or religious instinct, and scandalised many people who did not wish their love of art to be trammelled by any crotchets of morality. The change from the Ruskin of the Modern Painters to the Ruskin of the later days is, of course, marked by the development of this feeling. The vileness of man, instead of the beauties of nature, becomes his chief preoccupation. In the early volumes he is not only enthusiastic, but seems to count upon the enthusiasm of his readers. He is exultingly smiting the Philistine hip and thigh with a certain complacency; and the good time is coming in which Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites will be duly honoured. The fervid rhetoric is the natural language of one who is leading a band of followers to the promised land. Something gradually changed; not his character, but his habitual tone of feeling. In his natural temper, he tells us, he had most sympathy with Marmontel;[2] in his 'enforced and accidental temper,' with Swift. If any one asks how Swift was soured, there is no want of sufficient explanation. We cannot say of Ruskin that he ever became 'soured': the genial and generous qualities which suggest the comparison to Marmontel were always there; but, certainly, his 'enforced and accidental temper' became only too like Swift's. The modern Englishman was, for him, painfully like the Yahoo. A man hardly becomes a pessimist out of simple logic, and Ruskin had personal sorrows and sufferings, and an exquisitely sensitive and affectionate nature. The intellectual change was, perhaps, rather effect than cause, but it was, at any rate, characteristic. He was distracted from the Modern Painters by the keen interest in architecture which produced the Stones of Venice and the Seven Lamps. The study gave prominence to a new point of view. In his early work he might pass for a believer in progress. The 'love of nature' is, in some sense, a product of the last century or two; and the modern painters of whom he wrote, with Turner at their head, were, he thought, incomparably superior to Claude or Salvator. But in architecture, he saw decay instead of progress. The ancient buildings, whose glory he set forth, were being recklessly destroyed or 'restored,' and the art of building itself was a thing of the past. Great architecture presupposes continuous traditions and a certain social harmony. The mediæval cathedrals were the product of a spontaneous instinct, in which each man took his part as naturally as the bee in the honeycomb, and thought as little of his separate interests. We have lost the power because society has been disintegrated; instead of a common ideal, we have a dozen conflicting fashions, and depend upon self-seeking architects, and greedy contractors and demoralised workmen. Whatever may be the true way of stating the relation between art and morals, there is a close connection between good art and sound social conditions. If a people become selfish and brutalised, no national art, at least, can flourish. Far be it from me to attempt an accurate statement; but I cannot doubt that Ruskin's vehement assertions were at least approximations to a most important truth. He was thus in face of a dilemma. Delicate and refined natures, indeed, might shut themselves up in a Tennysonian 'palace of art,' and cultivate ideals as remote as possible from the prosaic ugliness of the modern world. Ruskin's sympathies and moral feelings were too strong. Even in his early writings, he objected to use the word 'æsthetic' because it suggested the effeminate taste which 'ministers to morbid sensibilities.' Like William Morris, on the same grounds, he held that art as a social product could only be renewed by regenerating society itself. That was a tolerably large enterprise, into which he threw himself with, perhaps, more energy than reflection; but which led, at least, to the utterance of some very pungent and much-needed truths.

About 1860 he began his warfare against the creed of the modern world, which for him was represented by the Political Economists. He was taken to be a dangerous heretic. Readers were so much outraged that Thackeray had to stop 'Unto this Last' in the Cornhill, and Froude to decline 'Munera Pulveris' for Fraser. The strength of the popular prejudice surprises later readers. For some years we have been flouting the old Political Economists with a scorn as unqualified as the respect with which they were formerly greeted. Ruskin, indeed, had precedents enough for identifying political economy with the degrading and materialising tendencies of modern society. The doctrine had been denounced from its very birth by Conservatives, Socialists, and Radicals of many types as heartily as Ruskin could wish. He declared himself to be an interpreter of Carlyle, to whom, as he said, he owed more than to any one, and who had spoken the whole truth about the matter in Past and Present. No one could acknowledge an intellectual debt more loyally and heartily, and Carlyle's philosophy in general, as well as his special denunciations of the 'dismal science,' had clearly a potent influence upon his disciple. The Christian Socialists, too, with whom Ruskin associated, were protesting against the old orthodox doctrine in the same spirit—to say nothing of other critics who arose within the ranks of the Economists themselves. There was nothing new in the simple fact of a revolt. Carlyle, however, to the ordinary Briton, passed for an eccentric old Diogenes—a railer at things in general, or perhaps a humorist whose misanthropy was half affectation. The Christian Socialists might be treated as amiable and excellent crotchet-mongers, whose philanthropy wanted common-sense. And undoubtedly there was a vulgar version of Political Economy, which used the orthodox phrases ignorantly and blatantly enough, preached an absolute and selfish 'individualism,' and discovered that every scheme of social reform was somehow condemned by inexorable scientific law. Ruskin, therefore, resolved, he tells us, to come to close quarters with pseudo-science; and to make it the 'central work of his life to write an exhaustive treatise upon Political Economy.' He began, apparently, by reading Ricardo and Mill and such other authorities with attention; though with a strong impression that they would turn out to be humbugs. One result was that he attributed to some of his opponents, to J. S. Mill in particular, a complicity with a vulgar version of their doctrines which they altogether repudiated. He should have recognised that Mill could speak as emphatically as himself of the injustice of the actual social order; and sympathised quite as much with the Socialist aspiration, if not with the Socialist solution. There was, undoubtedly, a radical antagonism of principle; but Ruskin was too passionately eager to distinguish between the stupid and selfish opponents, and men whose ability and genuine zeal he ought to have appreciated.[3]

Ruskin struck some sharp blows. The craftsmen still believed implicitly in their Diana of the Ephesians. Carlyle's huge growls had passed over men's heads like distant thunder, too vague to be effective. Ruskin meant to be the lightning, striking distinct and tangible points. He had, as he had showed in his other works, a singular power of putting nasty questions, of hitting weak points, exposing loose and wordy phrases, and generally making himself disagreeable to self-complacent phrasemongers. He succeeded in irritating, if not in convincing. For the time the respectable world shut its ears and kept him out of correct periodicals. Naturally, he has now the credit which comes to the earlier mouthpieces of a rising sentiment. I cannot believe, indeed, that those 'arrows of the chace'—to adopt his title for his occasional letters—really advanced economics. He could make special points, but not construct a mere scientific theory. His moral sense was in too great a hurry to step in. He could not look at the facts quietly before fulminating his spiritual censures. When, for example, he convinced himself that usury was wicked, he jumped—most generously but most impatiently—to rash and, as I think, absurd conclusions. To tell him that his theory would be fatal to the whole structure of modern industry might convince him that it must be true, for modern industry is one mass of corruption. To me, I confess, his doctrine seems to show that one's conscience may be a dangerous guide unless it condescends to be enlightened by patient and impartial inquiry. We cannot honour too cordially Ruskin's sensibility to social evils, and the vehement hatred of baseness and brutality which inspired his headlong assault. But one result of his errors was that they gave some apparent excuse to the infinitely commoner fault of cultivating indifference.

Ruskin's righteous indignation took, it must be admitted, some very queer forms. 'I will put up with this state of things not an hour longer,' he says in the first letter of the Fors Clavigera. The singular series which followed must always be one of the curiosities of literature. No man of genius, in the first place, ever treated his public with such unceremonious frankness. One is often inclined to accept his own view that his style had improved by increased directness and sacrifice of rhetorical ornament. On the other hand, the incapacity for keeping to any line of thought has reached its highest point. The twenty-fifth letter begins, à propos to nothing, with a famous receipt for a 'Yorkshire Goosepie,' a Brobdingnagian pie, which engulfs also a turkey, ducks, woodcocks, a hare, and any quantity of spices and butter. He proceeds at once to a description of the British penny, diverges into heraldry, and ends by an account of Edward III.'s fight with the French at Calais. Amazed correspondents, he tells us, inquired into the meaning of this pie, and his answer, though it manages to introduce an assault upon Darwinism, hardly clears the point. One can hardly doubt that the discursiveness and eccentricity were indicative of a morbid irritability of brain which was to cloud his intellect, and which is the best apology for certain utterances which offended his readers. When a correspondent complained of his speaking of Mill and Mr. Herbert Spencer as 'geese,' he replied that he said so simply because he 'knew a goose when he saw one.' Other phrases show a rudeness strange in one who in personal intercourse was the most courteous of men. When, indeed, he has said something specially sharp, he generally proceeds to insist upon the extreme care and moderation of his language. 'Whatever is set down for you in Fors,' he says, 'is assuredly true, inevitable, trustworthy to the uttermost, however strange.' He quaintly admits in a note that he may make a mistake or two upon merely 'accessory points.' Such extravagancies, and there are plenty of them, shocked the critic of well-regulated mind. Matthew Arnold, if I remember rightly, refers to some of them as instances of British crudity. We may forgive them if we take them as due to a physical cause. No doubt, however, he had a tendency to such escapades: he took a pleasure, as he admits somewhere, in a 'freakish' exaggeration of his natural humour. Carlyle used often to qualify his extravagant remarks by a huge guffaw, which implied that he was only half serious; and Ruskin's sharp sayings were entitled to the same allowance. He is partly soothing himself by equivalents for a good 'mouth-filling' oath, and partly amusing himself by the neatness with which he can hit a weak point.

The Fors, however, shows feeling deep and genuine enough. It fully explains his enforced resemblance to Swift. He is as vehement, if neither so coarse nor so pithy. 'I perceive,' he says, 'that I live in the midst of a nation of thieves and murderers; that everybody around me is trying to rob everybody else, and that, not bravely and strongly, but in the most cowardly and loathsome way of lying trade; that "Englishman" is now merely another word for blackleg and swindler; and English honour and courtesy changed to the sneaking and the smiles of a whipped pedlar, an inarticulate Autolycus, with a steam hurdy-gurdy instead of a voice.' He only hopes to 'pluck up some drowned honour by the locks out of this festering mass of scum of the earth and miserable coagulation of frog-spawn soaked in ditch-water.' He follows an equally bitter passage elsewhere by observing that his words are 'temperate and accurate—except in short-coming of blame.' Our great teachers, he tells us, even Carlyle and Emerson, accept too easily the comforting belief that right will speedily become might. That is not the ordinary view of Carlyle, who was gloomy enough for most of us. Ruskin, in passages like the above, seems to be trying to surpass his master. We are worse, he assures us, than Eccelin of Padua, who slew two thousand innocent persons to maintain his power, whereas we lately slew in cold blood five hundred thousand persons by slow starvation—that is, as he explains, did not prevent a famine in Orissa. The cases are not strictly parallel. In spite of such feats of logic, Ruskin's bitter utterances constantly made you wince. His attacks on modern society might be caricatures, but clearly there were very ugly things to caricature. Whether he bewailed the invasion of country solitudes by railways and suburban villas, or the mean and narrow life of the dwellers in villas, or went further and produced hideous stories of gross brutality in the slums of London or Manchester, he had an unpleasant plausibility. If you tried to reply that such things were not unprecedented, you felt that the line of defence was rather mean, and that even if Ruskin was over-angry you had no business to be too cool. When I read Fors I used always to fancy that I could confute him, and yet to feel uncomfortable that he might be more in the right than was pleasant. The evils which had stung so fine a nature to such wrath must at least be grievous.

How much Ruskin did to awaken people to a sense of social diseases, or how far his diagnosis was correct, is another question. I am only considering the literary aspect. Ruskin is now often compared to his master, and although attempts to compare great writers, and especially to place them in order of merit, are generally vexatious, the relation between the master and his disciple may suggest certain points. In the twenty-five years which preceded Ruskin's assault upon the Economists, Carlyle had been, one may say, the leader of the intellectual opposition. He denounced the prevailing tendencies, one outcome of which was in his dialect the 'pig philosophy' of Utilitarians and Materialists. His disciples were few, and even those who shared his antipathies were often shocked by his rugged idiosyncrasies and what seemed to be his deliberate mannerisms. Yet, considered as a prophet, it seems to me that Carlyle had a far more potent influence upon the more thoughtful young men of the time than Ruskin ever possessed. He might be grotesque and extravagant, but his influence embodied a more vigorous and coherent philosophy. He had the uncompromising thoroughness of the Puritan, and in this respect was a quaint contrast to his disciple. Carlyle, as a descendant of John Knox, approved of the famous sentiment, 'May the devil fly away with the fine arts!' He sympathised with Cromwell's view of the right method of dealing with cathedrals, and would have been ready enough to smash painted windows and deface the images of saints. Ruskin, who drew his early religious impression from an enfeebled version of Puritanism, was alienated from it precisely by this iconoclastic tendency. Though he never followed Newman, he came to admire mediæval art so warmly that he has some difficulty in explaining why, at a later period, he did not become a Catholic. There was a point of contact, no doubt, in the hatred of the 'pig philosophy' (the word does not represent my own prejudices) and Ruskin's conviction of the desirable subordination of art to morality. Ruskin saw, as he tells us, that art had decayed as much in Catholic as in Protestant countries, and fell back upon a religious creed, vague enough except as expressing antipathy to scientific materialism. But his version is curiously modified in the process of engrafting the love of the beautiful upon Carlyle's sterner philosophy.

The arrogance of Ruskin's language was partly adopted from Carlyle, and, indeed, is one of the awkward consequences of being an inspired prophet. It is implied in your very position that your opponents are without an essential mental faculty. You do not condescend to argue, but have a direct vision of truth not perceptible to the blind. Carlyle's famous conversion left him facing the 'Everlasting No' of Atheism in a humour of 'indignation and grim fire-eyed defiance.' But he held equally that we must disengage ourselves from the old creeds and legends which were once the embodiment, but had now become mere obstructions to the religious spirit. We must 'clear our minds from cant,' and 'cant' included a great deal that was dear to weaker brethren. Ruskin, without positively dissenting, represents a different sentiment. He really loved the old symbols which to Carlyle appeared to be outworn rags of 'Houndsditch.' It is characteristic that while professing his debt to Carlyle, he associates him (of all people) with George Herbert, the Anglican divine. He was affected, at times, not only by the sweetness of sentiment of Herbert's poetry, but by the ingenuity in finding everywhere symbols of religious truth. The method becomes characteristic; as external nature is a divine symbolism, the old religious art, and all great poetry and philosophy, Shakespeare and Dante and Homer and the Book of Genesis, are a kind of mystic adumbration of esoteric truths. The Tempest is an allegory; the labyrinths of Crete and the legend of the Sirens contain profound wisdom. Though he did not read German, he was impressed by the second part of Faust, just because it is intolerably allegorical, and has a bearing upon the theory of usury. Quaintly enough, he complains that the greatest men have found it necessary to wrap up their truths in enigmas soluble only by the wise; and declares that even the parables in the New Testament are 'necessarily misleading' to the profane. When a man interprets books or, as sometimes happens, history by his fancy instead of his understanding, he becomes simply absurd to plain common-sense, unless one gives him credit for not being quite in earnest. But if considered merely as products of graceful fancy, investing tender feeling or sharp satire with the charm of poetical ingenuity, his discourses sometimes make admirable literature. The very titles of his books, the Sesame and Lilies and Love's Meinie, and so forth, are promises that his moralising shall be transfigured into the most poetical forms. I do not know that the promise is always kept: the fancies become too palpably arbitrary, and aggravate the strange discursiveness. But the little book which seems to be his most popular, the Sesame and Lilies, deserved its success. His style, I think, was at its best. He can still be as eloquent as of old, though less ornate; and, though the argument wanders a little, he manages to give a regular and concentrated expression of his real convictions. The last section in that volume, 'The Mystery of Life and its Arts,' is, to my mind, the most perfect of his essays. Perhaps I am a little prejudiced by its confession, franker than usual, of the melancholy conviction that, after all, life is a mystery: and no solution really satisfactory. It is a good bit of pessimism, especially if you omit the moral at the end.

To most admirers, however, this would hardly be a recommendation. Rather they were drawn to Ruskin because, in spite of the gloomy views which he shared with Carlyle, he did not give the same impression of 'grim fire-eyed despair.' Carlyle, we used to say, though he could denounce the world, could suggest no remedy. Ruskin, hardly more hopeful in fact, was yet always suggesting a possible regeneration. Wisdom is to be found, though it is strangely hidden away; and the Marmontel side of him comes out in his pictures of a conceivable Utopia. There is something pathetic in the kind of helpless and yet enthusiastic way in which he expounds the scheme of the 'St. George's Company.' He protests that he only undertakes such a task against his will; he would infinitely rather plunge into his favourite studies; he is forced to try to reform the world because the sight of all the wrongs and miseries is a torment to his spirit, and because he can find no one else to share his views or take up the burthen. He showed that he was in earnest by lavish generosity, and managed, at least, to start a museum. He seems to have made an oversight characteristic of nearly all founders of such societies. He began, as they all begin, by acquiring a piece of freehold land. He arranged, which also seems to be a fascinating amusement, for the currency which his followers were to use when they were established. The difficulty which he never really contemplated was the rather serious one, how the society was to be kept in order. His tenants are to adopt the laws of 'Florence in the fourteenth century'—with some modifications. Above all things, they are to renounce altogether the modern heresies about liberty. Implicit obedience to the 'Master' is to be a first principle. They are to make a curious profession of faith embodying this promise, and they are to keep their vows. They will prosper, he says, because they will all be strictly honest, and their word, therefore, implicitly accepted in all transactions. If the founder of a new society could be sure that all his followers would be perfectly good and absolutely obedient, he would, no doubt, have surmounted the great initial difficulty. He is more likely, it is to be feared, to collect a mixed crowd of fanatics and humbugs, ready to dispute his authority or sponge upon his benevolence. But that is the criticism of cold common-sense, which would be inappropriate. The Utopia served to set forth Ruskin's view of the existing social evils and contrast them with an ideal of a purer and sweeter life. He contrasts a sketch of peasant life from Marmontel with the gangs of rowdy labourers who, it appears, cultivate Californian fields with the help of the latest machinery; or takes an idyllic story from Gotthelf, the Swiss novelist—unknown, I must confess, to me; or recalls the wholesome Tyrolese peasant whom he has heard singing 'like a robin' in the still uncorrupted mountain-guarded districts. It is the old story of the men of nature contrasted with corruption and luxury. He seems, for a moment, to be in the most congenial surroundings at Assisi, copying Giotto's dream of the marriage of St. Francis to the Lady Poverty. He admits that he does not quite like the look of St. Francis' camel's-hair coat, and doubts whether the Saint's vow of poverty was the right thing. Perhaps, however, a Ruskin in an earlier period might have really founded an order, instead of fondly imagining one; and, perhaps too, it would have illustrated once more the tendency of impossible ideals to stimulate a reaction to corruption. If I were capable of composing 'imaginary conversations,' I should try one between St. Francis and some sound political economist, Malthus for example, and contrast the idealist who scorns all compromise, and proposes to change men into angels off-hand, and the solid matter-of-fact reasoner who perceives—perhaps too clearly—that we shall not develop wings just yet. Both classes, I take it, are useful, but there can be no doubt which is most beloved. With all Ruskin's waywardness and dogmatism, and hopeless collisions with common-sense, he attracts people who lean to the ideal side—little as he could himself hope to fight victoriously against the great brutal forces of the world. It is tolerably clear that machinery will be made and coal-mines worked, and even that men will take interest for money, for some time to come. But we may hope that steam-engines are not really in deadly antagonism to all virtue and purity and simplicity of life; and that the leaven of Ruskin's teaching may further the desirable reconciliation.

Such problems are beyond me. The real charm of Ruskin will perhaps be most perceptible to the future reader in a region less disturbed by controversy. Ruskin's distaste for the actual world led him often to look fondly to the days of his infancy, when there were still honest merchants and unpolluted fields even at Dulwich, and some people—especially his father and mother—who could lead simple lives of reasonable happiness. People, I observe, have lately acquired a habit of insisting upon the extraordinary stupidity and selfishness of the last generation. They are good enough sometimes to make allowances for poor people born before the Reform Bill, on the ground that it is unfair for the historian to apply to a rude age the loftier standards of modern life. It is pleasant for the elderly to be reminded that some of their fathers and mothers were really worthy people, though Ruskin's estimate cannot be taken as unbiassed. To say the truth, one has a kind of suspicion that the objects of his reverence would not have appeared to us quite as they do to him. That does not prevent the Præterita from being one of the most charming examples of the most charming kind of literature. No autobiographer surpasses him in freshness and fulness of memory, nor in the power of giving interest to the apparently commonplace. There is an even remarkable absence of striking incident, but somehow or other the story fascinates, and, in the last resort, no doubt on account of the unconscious revelation of character. One point is the way in which a singular originality of mind manages to work out a channel for itself, though hedged in by the prejudices of a sufficiently narrow-minded class and an almost overstrained deference to his elders and his spiritual guides. But it is enough to say here that the book should be acceptable even to those to whom his social and artistic dogmas have ceased to have much significance.

  1. I will venture to add a reminiscence. Ruskin was induced by his friend, St. John Tyrwhitt, to attend a dinner of the Alpine Club about 1868. He declined to speak, and at first looked upon us, I think, as rather questionable characters; but he rapidly thawed and became not only courteous, but cordially appreciative of our motives. I think that he called us 'fine young men'! At any rate he joined the Club and was a member for many years, although, of course, he could still speak very frankly of our frailties.
  2. So Mill tells us in his Autobiography that a passage in Marmontel's Memoirs gave him the first help in rousing him from his youthful fit of melancholy.
  3. See Time and Tide, p. 167, for an assault upon Mill's 'wilful equivocations.' Ruskin's wrath prevented him from seeing that Mill, as was shown by his approval of land nationalisation,' was attacking 'landlordism' as sincerely as his critic.