Below are two examples of the sort of “aphorism” Mr. Ruskin was famous for during his era and for some decades after his allotment of what Milton called our “hasting days” came to their end. Because such small, but vital, thought-provoking, and moving sentences appeared in his works with great regularity, Ruskin became one of the most anthologized authors ever to write in English. Dozens of such books appeared, their very existence evidence of his importance in the wider cultural mind of his time. Here are some examples of the genre’s best, if you can find them: Maud Bateman and Grace Allen, The Ruskin Birthday Book (London: George Allen, 1883)–a lovely passage for every day of the year; presented, in tribute, to the author while he lived, and who, by that time, had come to believe that both his life and work were unconscionable failures; Rose Porter, Nature Studies from Ruskin (Boston: Dana Estes, 1900)–as described by its title, glorious selections which, slowly digested, lead you gently back to the reverence for nature and its wonders you had when a child; Rose Gardner, The Pocket Ruskin (London: Routledge, 1907) and A. C. Benson, Selections from Ruskin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1927)–both collators choose passages spanning his entire career; both, unlike some others who published these collections, thoroughly understood their man and what he was trying to do–highly recommended.
Such collections, however, even the best of them, had their good and bad aspects. On the good side, they made some of the greatest of Ruskin’s thoughts and paragraphs accessible to a much wider audience during an era when books were expensive, his even more dear because of his (very proper) insistences that these be printed on high quality paper and that their, often copious, illustrations be as perfectly reproduced as the technology of the age allowed. On the less positive side, such editions dissuaded many from reading the full-fledged arguments in which Ruskin’s wise words originally appeared, arguments which, for their author, were the entire reason for their being. Perhaps worse, such excerpts, over time, generated in the minds of not a few readers the idea that our subject’s greatest value lay in such sayings, adding yet one more reason for giving his admittedly more demanding essays a miss. Indeed, I worry a bit about this same “snipits problem” as I post some of Ruskin’s briefer brilliances on this website. I don’t want to create the impression that the greatness of or best in him can be gleaned in snatches, however insightful and inspiring such may be. (I’ll address this issue again in the next post.) On the other hand, given the nature of this kind of website, occasionally, if you want to get some of the most interesting ideas across efficiently, there seems to be little help for it but to use shorter passages. Such a format has another advantage: it allows, as in this case, a felicitous linking of thoughts set down by their creator over a distance of some years.
The first selection comes from a series of lectures Ruskin gave in London in 1859. Entitled The Two Paths, he was trying to tell his listeners that the way to the greatest art never lay in the direction of either popularity or cash, but always could be discovered if an artist chose to travel the road where his or her created images, whether expressed in painting, sculpture, or architecture, were intended to help their viewers think through some serious issue which either they had not been aware of before or had not considered carefully enough. Nevertheless, as so frequently the case, some of his sentences reached beyond his immediate subject into a broader arena.
We are all of us willing enough to accept dead truths, or blunt ones, which can be fitted harmoniously into spare niches, or shrouded and coffined at once out of the way, we holding complacently the cemetery keys, supposing we have learned something. But a sapling truth, with earth at its root and blossom on its branches, or a trenchant truth that can cut its way through bars and sods, most men, it seems to me, dislike the sight or entertainment of, if, by any means, such…vision may be avoided. And indeed it is no wonder: for one such truth, thoroughly accepted, connects itself strangely with others, and then there is no saying what it may lead us to.
The second, briefer, passage comes from the 77th of Ruskin’s “letters the workmen and laborers of Great Britain,” the collection to which he gave the enigmatic title, Fors Clavigera (I’ll talk about this in another post). Written in 1877, the object of this missive was to make it clear (as he had argued in many other places before) that there exist, in the very structure of the world, laws which pertain to human life, and that, if we chooseto follow them, we shall do well; if, contrarily, we choose to subvert or ignore these laws, we won’t. Since, whatever our capacity in life may be, we are all, like Ruskin’s readers, workers, there is, I think, some pertinence in the sentence, his setting down of another truth, a truth which, thoroughly accepted, will, in due course, surely connect itself with other truths, there being no way of knowing beforehand where such connectings may lead (to thoughts about the human meaning of the theory of evolution, perhaps, or to reflections on the real purpose of life).
Human work must be done honorably and thoroughly because we are now Men–whether we ever expect to be angels, or ever were slugs, being practically no matter.
Until next post. Be well out there.
Note: Above I said–in reference to finding copies of those books which have particularly fine selections from Ruskin’s works–“if you can find them.” Actually, thanks to one of the best aspects of the internet, such discovery isn’t as difficult as it once was. For years, I have used addall.com, a dedicated, international book search engine, to unearth elusive Ruskiniana (the site will ferret out the arcane and out-of-print writings of other authors too!). Just click on the “used books” button and enter whatever you wish. A much more personable and often cheaper bookfinder is my dear friend who lives in Ruskin’s village of Coniston in the English Lake District, Mike Salts. Mike’s been finding me superb Ruskin titles for at least two decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him I sent you.