We have been of late trying to give some sense of what Ruskin’s great later life effort, the 96 long series of published “letters to the workmen and laborers of Great Britain,” Fors Clavigera, was trying to communicate. To give an accurate sense, it seemed that it might be useful to reproduce one of those letters entire, which is what we do in today’s post.
In Clive Wilmer’s wonderful collection of many of Ruskin’s most essential writings on social life and how to rectify that vital collection’s ills. Unto This Last and Other Writings of John Ruskin (Penguin, 1985; (easily available on the web and recommended as “indispensable” if you wish to get an overview grasp of Ruskin’s social thought), Wilmer includes, at his volume’s end, two of the early fors letters, the seventh (“Caritas”) and the tenth (“The Baron’s Gate”) (titles, Ruskin’s). Wonderful as these are as representatives of the series, they overlook what is, in my view, the greatest of them all, the fifth, “The White Thorn-Blossom,” the letter for May, 1871. I think it the greatest because of its content–(it encapsulates in its 18 short pages, references to all of Ruskin’s most important social concerns and worries, not to mention some of his most glorious written passages).
As with all of Ruskin’s works of this later time, these monthly essays were seen by some eyes as “silly, dense, and unhelpful,” while others regarded them as lava flows of genius emerging from the same literary volcano that had produced the five volumes of Modern Painters and the three-volume epic, The Stones of Venice. Frederick Harrison, one of our subject’s early biographers, thinking of the fors series a a whole, reflected that it “is [simultaneously] Ruskin’s Hamlet and Apocalypse. It flows on in one fascinating causerie as it might fall from the lips of a perfect master in the art of familiar conversation.” (“Familiar conversations, i might suggest,” such as few of us have these days,)
As the fors letters multiplied, Ruskin’s tone got ever angrier as his conviction deepened that few, if any, took anything he was saying seriously. To make things more befuddling, the erudition exhibited and prose density exhibited in the letters intensified, So much was this the case that many of his readers did not take the time needed to learn the lessons he was teaching; his was “homework” that was simply too demanding.
Indeed, It is useful we think of the fors letters as a sequence of “class lessons” that develop over the course of a few semesters. Ruskin has things to say that he knows will be useful or helpful to his reader/students if they but take these roles seriously (the root definition of a “student” is someone who is “eager, indeed zealous, about the gaining of knowledge;”, Should they do so,, they, and those with whom their lives intersected, would find their hearts and minds uplifted and their paths eased.
Title page of thefirst Fors Clavigera Letter (image courtesy Paul Dawson)
And so, today, i put before you one of his fors lessons, a lesson to be digested as you see fit–all at once, repeatedly (it deserves that!), perhaps slowly–a paragraph a day?!. As you read, you will be treated to some glorious writing, and find yourselves being asked to think deeply about some of this life’s most critical questions and problems. Such, always, being the challenges and rewards of reading Ruskin with care.
You can open Fors Letter 5 by clicking on the link to it below this paragraph. It is reproduced exactly as it appears in Volume 27 of The Collected Works of John Ruskin, `edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, and published by George Allen in London between 1903 and 1912, still the definitive Ruskin collection over a century later (frequently referred to as “The Library Edition.”). I have been remiss not to have devoted substantial space to this editorial masterwork in prior posts. Many great masters’ writings’–Shakespeare, Dickens, Dante–have been collected and published over the centuries, but none have ever been blessed with the assiduous devotion, editorial erudition, and sheer brilliance of the Cook and Wedderburn effort, qualities which will be immediately apparent as you read Fors 5. Two more comments: first, throughout the letter, Ruskin’s allusions and images being not always immediately obvious, even to the learned, I have inserted in red what I hope will be clarifying comments. Second, ill 39 volumes of The Library Edition are available for perusing or full download on the following site at Lancaster University in the UK:
Click the Download button below to view full screen or on a mobile phone or tablet.
As far as I am aware, no one else has ever published a fors letter attended by editorial commentary throughout. DO let me know what you think.
As numerous times before, I now register my heartfelt thanks to Jenn Webb of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Department of IT Services for her remarkable assistance in fashioning this important post.
Until next time; do continue well out there!