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    Johm Ruskin Sewanee review Essay

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    During the last few years the literature of “Ruskin ism” has been multiplied, and we have many studies, of varying merit, that deal with the life and influence of the great art critic and philanthropist. The curiosity of the reading public has, however, not been satisfied, but only whetted by these partial sketches. No literary genius, per haps, has ever been so generous in his self-disclosures as Ruskin, and yet no man’s life, in some of its phases, has been so wrapped in mystery. The prefaces of his works abound in revelations of his own personal history and feel ings; his lectures bristle with allusions to his private hopes, fears and disappointments.

    We have more than two vol umes of autobiography from him, and yet very few, if any, of the multitude of his admirers can say that they really know and understand John Ruskin as he is. It is with a fair appreciation of these facts that Mr. W. G. Collingwood, Mr. Ruskin’s secretary and the editor of his poems, has given to the world his admirable and extensive “Life and Work of John Ruskin.” Strictly speaking this is not a bi ography, but rather an account of the work of the master, written by a disciple, with just enough biographical detail to form a chronological thread by which the various writings are arranged. Ruskin’s admirers will have to wait until time shall have removed all necessity for reserve, and the letters and private documents shall be given to the world. For the present all must be thankful for the information that is given?and so delightfully given?in these two splendid volumes. Mr. Collingwood writes with the fervor of an apologist. His style, at times, is not unlike Mr. Ruskin’s own. He is a man of earnestness and feeling. And yet the general impression produced by his story is not entirely pleasant or satisfactory. The fact is, that Mr. Ruskin’s work must be subordinate in interest to Mr. Ruskin’s personality.

    Even his literary achievements, taken as a whole, are of un- certain value, if the value of such work is to be tested by its permanent results. In spite of all talk to the contrary, the public at large will stick to the first volumes of the Modern Painters, the “Seven Lamps of Architecture” and “The Stones of Venice” as the author’s masterpieces. When therefore, we are told that he himself is dissatisfied with these earlier works, as not in keeping with his matured opinions; that the “Stones of Venice” was recast and changed, and the “Modern Painters” put on the condemned list, it tends to weaken our enthusiasm for this literature. In order then, properly to appreciate Mr. Ruskin’s literary work from his stand-point, the student should be furnished with a supplementary volume of “Retractations.” All that Mr. Collingwood says, the portraits that he gives us, the frag- ments of correspondence (especially the most delightful letters to and from Carlyle and Browning), intensify the de- sire for a publication of Ruskin’s letters. It is only thus that we shall be able to estimate the life and character of this man, whose genius, so like Swift’s in many ways, as he himself tells us, is softened by a strange and tender pathos of regret for failure, by a deep yearning for human love, that has striven painfully with his self-confidence in generous deeds and noble sacrifice for the recognition and approval of his fellow men.

    John Ruskin was born in London, Feb. 8th, 1819. His father was an enterprising and prosperous wine merchant, his mother a strong and earnest woman who gave her life to this, her only child. It was a Scotch family, and the char- acteristic traits were conspicuous in the parents and the son. There was 110 self-indulged and easy freedom in this boyhood. His training and education were prearranged and carried out with scrupulous care. Almost from the first he exhibited the precocity of the poet and artist, and his attitude toward his several school teachers had always in it something of the confidence of genius. In the fall of 1836 he matriculated at Oxford, and went into residence the following January. He was already a writer of poetry—and poetry of considerable merit—an enthusiastic student of art and natural science—a telling contributor to two or three magazines, and had prepaied foi Blackwood a reply to some criticisms on Turner, the publication of which was fortunately prevented by the artist himself, who llius made the Modern Painters possible. Mr. Ruskin’s career at the University was not eventful. He won the Newdigate prize on the third trial, with a poem for which his biographer apologizes as representing one of his weaker moods. In the stir of the Oxford Religious movement he took no part.

    The discussions of men like Pusey, and Keble, and Newman, did not interest the young Calvinist, whose mother had taken up her residence with him, chiefly for the purpose of guarding his religion. He was at this time passing through his first unfortunate love affair, which was indeed the stimulus of his ambition for the Newdigate, and the disappointment of which led to such entire collapse of his health and strength that he left the University before taking his degree. In May, 1842, he returned to his college, Chiisl Chinch, and passed for his B. A., with an honorable double fourth. His visit to the Continent had increased his enthusiasm for Turner, and immediately after quitting the University he began to write his vindication.

    The name of the book was changed before publication, and appeared in April, 1843, under the title “Modern Painters, their superiority proved, etc., especially from the works of J. M. W. Turner, Esq., R. A.” The book was certainly a revelation to the reading public. It was au- dacious but magnificent. Some hero-worshipers of ac- cepted masters were outraged and indignant, but the volume swept its way to popularity. No prose writer had ever shown such wonderful powers of description, along with such exact familiarity with natural scenery.

    The keen analysis, the splendid imagery, the brilliant style, the impetuous ardor of the argument won the admiration of England, and of the world. The secret of the “Oxford Graduate” leaked out through the proud father, and John Ruskin became a celebrity in the great world, the apostle of a new era in art criticism. From this time onward his standing as a literary and art critic was assured. He was and is the dictator to a multitude of disciples. There is a Ruskin society devoted to the study of his works.

    The number of bound volumes of his writings, put out by his two English publishers alone, is 300,000. From 1843 to 1871, in spite of repeated attacks of illness, his literary activity was incessant, and every step he made was a fresh victory. The “Stones of Venice” and the “Seven Lamps”—the most finished of his works—surpassed in some respects the “ Modern Painters,” the concluding volumes of which appeared before i860. He became known as a popular and brilliant lecturer on his favorite subjects, and various volumes of lectures, e.g., “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Queen of the Air,” and “Lectures on Art,” were read and studied and quoted by an increasing host of followers on both sides of the Atlantic. It seemed as if he had reached the limit of human fame. In geology and mineralogy, as in architecture, and painting, and sculpture, he was recognized as an authority.

    His own drawings were given a place in the National Gallery. His mastery of English style had created a new school of expression. What Erasmus, and Voltaire, and Dr. Johnson were in their days to the world of letters, that Ruskin was in the world of art. Even his father, who had at first deplored his abandonment of poetry, was satisfied at last with the position which he had achieved. It was a great cause and a great prophet.

    But Ruskin himself was not satisfied. He regarded all this work as preliminary and preparatory. As Mr. Collingwood says, “Until he was forty, Mr. Ruskin was a writer on art; after that, his art was secondary to ethics.” He used art as a text, never as a theme. His earlier religious convictions and his devotion to art went together. A cloud settled over him—a morbid sense of the evil of the world, a horror of great darkness. He began a fierce crusade against the old world, its hypocrisies, its orthodoxies, its respectabilities.

    Carlyle’s invective was a zephyr to the blasting breath of his displeasure. The Sage of Chelsea was of course delighted. Ruskin’s attack on modern political economy began with the “Unto This Last” (i860) and “Munera Pulveris” (1862). The letters to workingmen “Fors Clavigera” began to appear in 1871, and continued at intervals for thirteen years. Their biting wit and sarcasm, their fierce scorn for received opinions and cherished institutions, their strange use of familiar terms, did not commend these writings to the sober, common sense of men. And Ruskin writhed under the cool compassion with which they were received. Ruskin’s social theories culminated in “Time and Tide,” which appeared in 1867, and which his biographer considers to be “the central work of his life.” I it he gives an outline of his ideal con- stitution for the Utopian Commonwealth. The four predom- inant characteristics are adopted or adapted from the Middle Ages, and include their guild system, their chivalry, their church, and something of their feudal scheme.

    The bane of labor in modern times, he says, is competition, and the pro- posed remedy for this is the organization of guilds—guilds not local, but universal—in which wages shall be regulated, the best work guaranteed, and the workmen of superior talent gladly recognized as “masters” or “captains” of labor, “not without a certain pecuniary advantage, but without that disproportion of income and of responsibility, which is the plague of modern commerce and manufacture.” Again, the object of education should be the moral and physical improvement of the race, and only those who had qualified themselves by attaining a certain standard in these respects ought to be allowed to marry.

    This would be the true knighthood. An allowance should be granted to the newly married for the first seven years by the State, and all incomes should be limited to some fixed maximum. As to the Church, that was a concession of Ruskin to the inherent religiousness of human nature. It should be a department of the State, with paid officers called “Bishops,” who should teach no doctrines, but give themselves to pastoral care, the various families being at liberty to accept their ministrations or not as they pleased. The feudalism of the Middle Ages finally gave the theory of government. For the present a military despotism is the only cure for a diseased society, and the ideal State must be absolute in power. There should be no ownership of land, but all citizens tenants of the State. In various ways, some rather amusing, some solemnly real, with vast expenditure of his private fortune, Mr. Ruskin has tried to carry out these theories in practical life. His experiments have included free libraries, new homes for the poor, street sweepings, and model tea-shops.

    In 1871 he called for adherents, and the St. George’s Guild was organized, as a practical example of “socialistic capital as opposed to a national debt, and of socialistic labor as opposed to compet- itive struggle for life.” The Guild flourished for a while, and still continues, although it has practically abandoned its distinctive mission, and contents itself with contributing to educational institutions and maintaining the Sheffield Museum. In 1869 Mr. Ruskin was elected Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, and retained the position until 1888, when he resigned it on account of the introduction of vivisection into the schools.

    The recurrence of an attack of brain fever in 1881 re- alized the worst fears of his friends, who more than once had trembled at the dark chaos out of which his thought had seemed to flash at times—but he gradually recovered his accustomed clearness and vigor of mind. The death of his riend Arthur Hilliard, in 1887, brought the “storm cloud” down upon him once more, and for many weeks his life was espaired of. Again he recovered and resumed his work— until in August, 1890, a return of the awful malady induced him to abandon all effort, and retire from the world to his quiet retreat at Brantwood. The work of his life is done. Some of it shall live in the world’s best literature; some of it shall have enduring illustration in the lives of men. Whether he has been ahead of his age, or whether he has been only a mistaken social idealist, his heroic unselfishness, his “scorn of all miserable aims that end in self,” command the respect and admiration of mankind.

    What the inner struggles, ambitions, disappointments, thoughts, and hopes of the man himself have been, will be the fruitful and inspiring theme of some future biographer. For the present we are grateful for the richness and helpfulness of what Mr. Collingwood has given us, and may unite with him in his hope for his master, that, “now the storm-cloud has drifted away, and there is light in the west, a mellow light of evening time, such as Turner painted in his pensive Epilogue, Datur Hora Quieti, here is more work to do, but not to-day. The plow stands in the furrow; and the laborer passes peacefully from his toil, homewards.”

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