Welcome to “Why Ruskin”

The intent of this website is to introduce its readers to the remarkable thought of the great 19th Century British Art and Social Critic, John Ruskin. Even though his is hardly a household name these days, it is my deep and enduring belief that Ruskin’s brilliant thought and carefully worked out ideas (always encased in glorious prose) still retain great relevancy for our modern days, offering new ways of thinking about and, quite possibly, if put into practice, alleviating or lessening many of the troubles which still beset us. But there is second level to Ruskin’s genius, his unparalleled ability to make the beauty of this world and life come alive. I am hopeful that, after reading some of the posts that follow you might be inclined to agree with these assessments.

If you are a First Time Visitor, I recommend you begin by reading the First Post: “An Introduction to this Site” (just click on this link). Using a number of Ruskin’s best quotes, this initial offering outlines the site’s history and goals. If, after reading it, you’d like to read other Posts, scroll up to the top of this screen and, under the banner, chose the Page, “Previous Posts in Sequence.” This will bring you to a list of all the site’s posts; chick on any one and you will be taken to it. The other Pages listed under the banner, “Writing Ruskin,” “Talks and Walks,” “Ruskin Resources,” and “Ruskin’s Life: A Radical Revision” will be self-explanatory as you open them.

The ten most recently published Posts can always be found in the right hand column. Click on any one and you will be taken to it. If you’d like to be notified of  new Posts as they publish, as I hope you will, click on the “FOLLOW” button at the top of the column and just type in your email address. (Questions, suggestions, or comments always welcome.) Also in the right column you will find a feature that allows you to view “Previous Posts by Topic,” and a very useful search engine (type in a word or phrase you are interested in).

If you’d like to read an overview explaining how I came to admire Ruskin as much as I do, complete with examples showing why I think that judgment is sound, you can have a look at my essay,  “Why Ruskin?”  The lovely drawing below–there are hundreds more (many are reproduced in the following Posts)!–is Ruskin’s

P36A4683

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208: Indelible

Good friends and readers!! We have, by this juncture, come quite a long distance from this blog’s first post in the latter months of  2014,the first year of my retirement from full-time teaching. During that time, as a few early Followers may still remember, we have covered a lot of Ruskin ground, to, in my view, and certainly in the view of many who responded to these posts as  they have appeared, general success. My idea, and commitment, from the first, has been and remains, to raise general awareness about Ruskin’s genius and his ongoing significance for our modern world, and this, I believe, has happened to some modest extent. 1. Every Dawn of Morning (An Introduction to this Site)

Post 208! I have no idea if the number “208,” had any particular salience for Ruskin; indeed, I would be greatly surprised if it did. But,  to me, it has, for some time, been sort of a looming presence as we edged closer to the day when I would put up a post bearing these three digits– almost entirely because 208 is a multiple of 52, the number of weeks in a year. Over these past few years, the passages I have chosen from Ruskin have been selected with care, my belief being that they express some of the greatest of his thoughts on a great many subjects. A fantasy, which, I now confess I have entertained for some long time, has been the following: As often noted in individual posts, many of these Ruskin excerpts beg for careful contemplation and re-visitation. My fantasy also housed the idea that if these quotes were ever collected and published,, they might be bundled in bunches of 52 and, in that capacity, become, as  singular entries, Ruskin references or guides for any given week of a year. This, in turn, means that the present Post, #208, brings to conclusion a fourth “year” of quotes, having significance at least in that regard. As it has happened – or, in truth, as it has not happened–such a collection of posts has never occurred (though, if ever the chance should be offered,  I stand at the ready to entertain the idea). While what the world needs now, as always, is love; it  probably does not need another slew of Ruskin compendia, especially given the fact that many wonderful iterations of same  exist for the interested to find and peruse at their leisure. 115: The Ruskin Compendia

               One  of the unanticipated benefits which has accrued to your blogmaster over the years this site has been publishing, is that it has not only kept me regularly engaged with Ruskin and his wonderful words, it has, in a quite unsystematic way, carried me back to some of the very best of them. Time and again, most gratifyingly, others saw how wonderful his words were too! Such reprises and appreciations always rewarmed the heart. Encountering them was like meeting an old friend suddenly and surprisingly on the path of life.

When I first started reading Ruskin seriously over a quarter of a century ago, much of that reading occurred in my study carrel on the second floor of The Warren Hunting Smith Library at Hobart and William Smith Colleges here in Geneva New York. On a shelf to my right hand, resided all the Ruskin books I had not yet read – there were many! As I went through them with care over the months and years that slipped away, it did not infrequently happen that I would pause as I read a particularly beautiful passage as tears coarsed down my face: his sentences were just so luminous, his thoughts so transportive. I simply could not understand how someone could put together so many wonderful and wise words time and again, words that lifted the spirit and opened the heart to the wonder of what it meant to be a human being alive in this world. From Ruskin, as I’ve said in numerous posts along our way, I learned to love Nature, learned to love and appreciate the best art and literature, and became – at least so I like to think – as I read these marvelous passages, a better, kinder, smarter human being. To read Ruskin regularly and with care – also as I’ve said before – is like walking a few steps with consummate genius every day, a genius delighted to have your company and infinitely patient regarding your still partial understanding of what it is it is trying to get you to understand; a genius will that will be there again tomorrow, if time and acumen fail today, waiting for you to reopen the book and go back, reread, or go on, however haltingly.

           So it is with these three glorious–or so i regard them!– passages I have chosen for today’s post – Post 208! All three are passages from our Master that have been, for me, like beacons in the night. Indeed, I have loved the first, brief one, for so long, that I have lost all recollection of when I first read it, or where it is to be found in Ruskin’s works. I loved its words so much that, when I was first getting ready to name this blog site, I was seriously thinking of calling it “every dawn of morning.” so deeply did Ruskin’s words touch me as peerless guides to life. Here they are again, a  benediction (literally, a “good speaking,”if ever one there was), that can always lighten and brighten your every day:

             Let every dawn of morning be to you as the beginning of life, and every setting sun be to you as its close. Then, let every one of these short lives leave its sure record of some kindly thing done for others, some goodly strength or knowledge gained for yourselves.

               The second passage, appropriately enough perhaps, is the last paragraph Ruskin wrote for publication. It was composed in the Swiss Alps in the old Union Inn in the Alpine village of Chamonix. Before he left England for the Continent that year (1888), our author was asked if he would sanction a new edition of his five volume masterwork, Modern Painters, for which there had been substantial demand for some time. Somewhat reluctantly – he always believed his earlier works to be flawed and one serious way or another – he agreed, agreed, too, to write a new “Epilogue” for the forthcoming edition. He  promised his editor, the heroic and long-suffering George Allen (185: How to Learn [Or, Discovering the (hitherto unsuspected) Connections between Ruskin’s Publisher, George Allen, Little Agnes Stalker, and those very Mysterious Bees]) that he would return the “Epilogue” to Allen in England by post at some point along his way through the Alps en route to Italy. For weeks, beset by internal worries and failing both mentally and physically to varying degrees, he put the job off. Finally, as he was nearing to the end of his time in Chamonix, he awoke to find himself in a glorious Alpine day, and decided he would undertake and finish the task. The “Epilogue” stands as one of the most remarkable expressions of his later life, and its last paragraph,  below, is one of the most magnificent he ever wrote; brimming over with the very quintessence of the “old Ruskin,” the Ruskin who had, by that time, for many decades, captivated readers in the UK, Europe, and North America. In just a few lines, he pays gracious tribute to all that has gone before, gives thanks for the strengths he has been blessed with all his life, and looks, as almost always in his works, toward a better, more loving, future:

The last time I saw the Fountain of Trevi [in Rome], it was from Arthur’s father’s room–Joseph Severn’s–where we took Joanie to see him in 1872. The old man [a fine painter] had made a sweet drawing of his pretty daughter-in-law…he himself then eager in finishing his last picture–of the Marriage in Cana–which he had caused to take place under a vine trellis, and delighted himself by painting the crystal and ruby glittering of the changing rivulet of water out the Greek vase, glowing into wine. Fonte Branda [in Siena] I last saw with Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it. We drank of it together, and walked together that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone!–through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still behind the gates of Siena’s heart, proclaimed with its still golden words: “Cor magis tibi Sena pandit”[“Siena opens her heart to you wider than her doors”]; and the fireflies everywhere in the sky and cloud, rising and falling, mixed with the lightening, and more intense than the stars.

Which brings  us to our final quote. By this moment in my life’s time, I have had the time, good fortune, and  privilege, to read, sometimes numerous times, many of the greatest works in what is called, “ Western literature.” What drew me to Ruskin from the start –  what draws me to him still – is a quality in his words he has in abundance, an abundance well-beyond almost all the other great thinkers: heart. Throughout his books – indeed always reverberating (if sometimes quietly) in every sentence, is his love of Life, Creation, and the human endeavor, however flawed this latter might be. Plato has some of this, but, in comparison to Ruskin, very little; In  Dante, you have to search carefully for it. But, in Ruskin, his heart is always worn on his sleeve, and, in this last quote, taken from the conclusion of the second essay of what he always regarded his greatest work, the four essays which comprise Unto this Last, is to me an instance nonpareil of this omnipresence of heart. Perhaps, after you’ve read it and thought about it you might agree.

The intent of Unto this Last was to remind his audience that there was a different way of doing business; that the true purpose of business was never to make excessive amounts of money, dominate our fellows, or gather around us the means for living opulently – in fine mansions, say, surrounded by expensive art, bedecked with rare jewels. Rather, the purpose of business was for each of us to use his or her strengths to serve those who came to us because we possessed these strengths, knowing that if those strengths were visited on them, that they would be better for it– in some manner, smarter, wiser, healthier.

A principal theme in the second of the four essays, “the Veins of Wealth,” is labor. People will work for us only, Ruskin says, if, in so doing, they are remunerated fairly for the efforts they expend in our behalf, if they receive, importantly, enough pay to meet their own needs and the needs of those others who depend on them. Thus, the eternal obligation of any employer is to pay those whom he hires sufficiently so these hires can sate their own true human needs– prime among these the necessity for adequate–not  opulent–food, clothing, and shelter. To not pay anyone who works for us less than the amount required to secure these essentials is exploitive and cruel– unjustifiable by any moral standard.

As he comes to the end of the second essay, Ruskin wants to reprise this argument, and chooses to do so by introducing an image from literature– from Valerius Maximus (4, 4). It is his use of this passage that struck me so forcefully when I first read it – and  strikes me still every time I reread it; it is seems to me to be an embodiment of his great heart, his sincere and abiding love, despite all the world’s tragedy, for human beings and their well-being. It is also a passage that foreshadows his great and justly-famed, line in the book, a line which occurs in the fourth essay, that “there is no wealth but life. 81: “There is No Wealth but Life” He writes:

Finally, since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and the more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth? Perhaps it may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth—that these pieces of gold with which we are in the habit of guiding them, are, in fact, nothing more than a kind of Byzantine harness or trappings, very glittering and beautiful in barbaric sight, wherewith we bridle the creatures, but that if these same living creatures could be guided without the fretting and jingling of the Byzants in their mouths and ears, they might themselves be more valuable than their bridles?  In fact, it may be discovered that the true veins of wealth are purple—and not in Rock, but in flesh– perhaps even that the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing of as many full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy- hearted human creatures. Our modern wealth, I think, has rather a tendency to consider  multitudes of human creatures not conducive to wealth, or, at best, conducive to it only by remaining in a dim-eyed and narrow-chested state of being.

Nevertheless, it is open, I repeat, to serious question–which I leave to the reader’s  pondering– whether, among national manufactures, that of Souls of a good quality may not at last turn out  to be a quite leading and lucrative one. Nay, in some faraway and yet undreamed of hour, I can even imagine that England may cast all thoughts of possessive wealth back to the barbaric nations among whom they first arose, and that, while the sands of the Indus and adamant of Golconda may yet stiffen the holdings of the charger, and flash from the turban of the slave, she, as a Christian nation, may attain to the virtues and the treasures of a heathen one, and be able to lead forth her sons, saying-

THESE are MY Jewels!”

Transportive!

INDELIBLE!

All of which seems to me to be a fitting way to bring this–our 208th!!–Post!–to a close.

Until next time. Please do continue well out there, and–until next we meet in cyberspace–may every dawn of morning be you as the beginning of a new life…!

🙂

Jim

Ruskin Plaque Chamonix

Ruskin Plaque, Brevant, Chamouni, French Alps

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