Much more often than not, when you mention to someone that you work on John Ruskin and that, to boot, you think he was one of the greatest minds and writers who’s ever lived, they look at you, sometimes blankly, sometimes querulously, sometimes with eyes which seem to imply that you just might be a little daft and in need of sympathy, counseling, or both. Nevertheless, I stand by this elevated assessment. It is because of such reactions, however, that I especially delight in remarks about Ruskin which frequently emerge when reading other fine minds of his time, minds which applaud his signal brilliance and significance as an outgrowth of their own attentive consideration of his words and arguments. My dear friend Charlotte Hegyi calls these appearances, which she finds in not a few modern as well as antique sources, “Ruskin sightings.”
One important contemporary of our great writer was Mary Russell Mitford. Once I began reading Ruskin deeply, I decided to work my way through all the biographies which had been written about him. As I did, I discovered that, given his authorial fame, he knew and was known by “just about everyone” in Britain’s “elite society”–a “society” which, in due course (see approaching posts), he would come to believe was unconscionably oppressive and cruel to the millions who had been forced to live “below” the upper, extremely privileged echelons in the social class hierarchy (that many in such elevated positions were unaware of the harm inflicted by their “superiority” was, he believed, no excuse for the damage done; indeed, he thought such ignorance all the more blameworthy).
In these biographies, Mitford’s name almost always appears. As a consequence, I decided to order, using our fine interlibrary loan service, the book of hers that is most frequently mentioned: Recollections of a Literary Life, 1855. By that year Ruskin had already published two volumes of his Modern Painters series (in 1843 and 1846, respectively), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), an outline of the elements common to all of the world’s greatest buildings, and his three-volume epic, The Stones of Venice (1851-3), an exegesis intended to warn Britain from the money-besotted path it was galloping down before its fate became a latter-day version of that then fallen and disintegrating, but once noble and principled, great floating city on the Adriatic.
When it arrived, Mitford’s book proved delightful, chock-full, as its title suggests, of marvelous reminiscences generated by many years spent reading the literary giants of her era. There are chapters on Longfellow, Hawthorne, Whittier, Holmes, Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Brownings, many of whom Mitford knew as a result of her own widely-acknowledged reputation as a writer of rank (if you’re interested in finding out more about her, try: http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/mrmitford.html). What makes the book even more distinctive is that, in addition to expressing her views about why these writers had earned a place in the pantheon of literature, she includes passages from their works intended to demonstrate beyond any nagging doubt the truth of her claims. She saves her evaluation of Ruskin for last, introducing him this way:
Mr. Ruskin’s name is not unworthy of being included in this illustrious catalog. Nothing in modern literature was more remarkable than the appearance of the young Oxford graduate in the great field of art, attacking with fearless boldness all that had been consecrated by the veneration of ages: demolishing old idols; setting up new; often no doubt right, sometimes probably wrong. But always striking, always eloquent, always true to his own convictions and his own noble nature. I am too ignorant of his great subject to venture any opinion upon his particular decisions, but it is certain that nothing but good can result from drawing, as he has done, the attention of the English public to the merits of their living [artists] and sending the patrons of art from the picture-dealer to the painter. Nothing but good, either, to the taste or the heart, from his own written pictures–holy, and pure, and bright, like those of his favorite, Wordsworth–can result from this. Many passages of “Modern Painters” are really poems in their tenderness, their sentiment, and their grandeur. Who except a poet could, as he has done, put life into a flower, as in his exquisite description of the soldonella of the Alps, a coarse, common plant when seen in…a fertile valley, but rising into a touching, almost an ideal grace, when languishing through a faint and feeble existence on the extreme borders of those eternal snows, where it shows, like a memory of beauty, a consolation and a hope amid the horrors and desolation of a stern and barren world? But the greatest triumph of Mr. Ruskin is that long series of cloud pictures, unparalleled, I suppose, in any language, whether painted or written.
Such sentiments make it clear that “Miss Mitford” (as her name appears on the spine of Recollections) “got it” when it came to understanding why Ruskin was important to and for the world, that she recognized perfectly well what John Rosenberg, a century later, would identify, in the title of his fine collation of Ruskin’s writings, as The Genius of John Ruskin. Mitford “got it” because she had perused, carefully and critically, passages like the one below, which she inserts in her book immediately after the paragraph I quoted above. It comes from the first volume of Modern Painters (which appeared when Ruskin was 24). It is a passage of stunning beauty, a passage which helps us see again–or see, perhaps, for the first time–the marvels present and palpitating in the air within which we all live, move, and have our being.
A few last comments before the passage: First, it is important to remember that Ruskin, like everyone who wrote in the 19th century (including its heralded women authors), used “man” to signify human beings in general and “she” to denote nature. Second, Ruskin tells us, in words just shy of certitude, that a divine, unseen, presence has created the sky glory he extols, and further, has created it for our perpetual delight. Whether we agree with this view of the higher or not, it helps to keep in mind that, whether an “external, beneficent creator” is the originator of the air’s magnificence, that magnificence remains, patiently waiting, for us to notice it and, once that attention has been paid, will immediately bestow the delights described. The internal couplet comes from Wordsworth’s “She was a Phantom of Delight,” a title which Ruskin, aware that most in his reading audience would know the poem, intends to gently underscore his theme. That said, here’s one of Ms. Mitford’s favorite passages from Ruskin:
It is a strange thing how little in general people know about the sky. It is the part of creation in which nature has done more for the sake of pleasing man, more for the sole and evident purpose of talking to him and teaching him than in any other of her works, and it is just the part in which we least attend to her… [In fact,] there is not a moment of any day of our lives when nature is not producing scene after scene, picture after picture, glory after glory, and working still upon such exquisite and constant principles of the most perfect beauty that it is quite certain it is all done for us, and intended for our perpetual pleasure. And every man, wherever placed, however far from other sources of interest or of beauty, has this doing for him constantly. The noblest scenes of the earth can be seen and known but by few…but the sky is for all. Bright as it is, it is not
Too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food
It is fitted in all its functions for the perpetual comfort and exalting of the heart, for soothing it and purifying it from its dross and dust. Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two moments together, almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity, its appeal to what is immortal in us is as distinct, as its ministry of chastisement or of blessing to what is mortal is essential.
And yet we never attend to it, we never make it a subject of thought but as it has to do with our animal sensations…If, in our moments of utter idleness…we turn to the sky as a last resource, which of its phenomena do we speak of? One says it has been wet. Another, it has been windy. Another, it has been warm. Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and moldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves? All has passed, unregretted as unseen. Or, if the apathy be ever shaken off even for an instant, it is only by what is gross, or what is extraordinary.
And yet it is not in the broad and fierce manifestations of the elemental energies, not in the clash of the hail, nor the drift of the whirlwind, that the highest characters of the sublime are developed… It is in quiet and subdued passages of unobtrusive majesty, the deep, and the calm, and the perpetual, that which must be sought [before] it is seen, and loved [before] it is understood. Things which the angels work out for us daily, and yet vary eternally–which are never wanting, and never repeated, which are to be found always, yet each found but once. It is through these that the lesson of devotion is chiefly taught, and the blessing of beauty given.
Until next time. Enjoy the air and sky and breathe well out there.
P.S. (16 October 2017): When this post first made its way onto the web in late 2013, I did not remember having read Ruskin’s marvelous passage on the Alpine Soldanella, a passage which, appropriately, she extols for its beauty and symbolic significance to our lives. Recently I came across it again and, on rereading Mitford’s quote above, realized it was the lovely one she had noted. If you’d like to read it, the Sondanella appears in the 100th Post of this series, “The Master”: Post 100.