Although there has been little time for the last, wonderful Ruskin paragraph in the previous post to be considered, I didn’t want to let this day pass without sending out something, because, on this date–20 January–114 years ago, John Ruskin, then just a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday, died, of influenza, at his home, Brantwood, in England’s lovely Lake District. The end was blessedly fast and not painful. (He had earned that!) With him at the time of his death, as she had been for almost all of the three previous decades, was his cousin, Joan Ruskin Severn, wife of the painter, Arthur Severn, who, with their children, lived with him at Brantwood.
I said in the first of these posts that one of my goals in launching this website was to give anyone accompanying me on this journey some idea of how important and revered Ruskin was in his time. It is no exaggeration to say that he was regarded by virtually everyone, including his opponents, as one of the geniuses of the age, his teaching having become the basis of life-transformation and guidance for tens of thousands of his readers. Though he had been declining for years, living in relative seclusion at Brantwood, writing nothing of note after 1889–when the last chapter of his autobiography, Praeterita, was published, its title “Joanna’s Care,” a tribute to his beloved cousin–he was still, throughout his quiet 1890s, very much on many other’s minds. People wrote Joan regularly inquiring about his health, wishing him well, and desirous that she tell her “Cos,” as he was affectionately called, how much he had meant to them in their own lives.
And so, when the end finally came, it was followed by an avalanche of sympathetic mail. Literally thousands of letters came to Brantwood, arriving daily for weeks and months at the now, considerably sadder house which overlooked the long, lovely, glacial lake below, both of these, lake and house, under the watchful eye of the considerable mountain opposite, known then and now, but most appropriately during these grieving days, as “The Old Man of Coniston.”
As a remembrance of the significance of this passing, I’ve reproduced, below, from the nearly overwhelming many which arrived, two tributes which were mailed to Joan to ease her passage. Both record not just the grief being experienced by their authors, their love of Joan, and their recognition of her decades-long service to her greater cousin, but testify to the profound effect for good Ruskin had had on their lives.
The first was sent by Octavia Hill, with whom Ruskin had worked on housing projects designed to lessen the burden of London’s poor some decades earlier. (A major figure for social reform in 19th Century England, you can read more about her at: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1356393664070/.) “My dear Mrs. Severn,” she began,
I have just seen that dear Mr Ruskin is gone before. The earth seems indeed sadder & poorer that such a man lives on it no more. What your loss must be I can but faintly guess. To me, the news brings up such a crowd of holy & lovely memories of all that he was & did in the faraway years, that I am lost in the sense of tender reverence. That penetrating sympathy, marvelous imagination, that noble generosity, that grasp of all that is beautiful, that wonderful power of expression, that high ideal of life, have not only blessed his friends, but have left their mark on England. His thoughts have so pervaded thousands of homes that England is better, greater, & more attuned to noble ideas than she could have been but for his life & writings.
To me personally, the loss is irreparable… I know that for him the gain is great. He has passed to the great beyond, all his noblest aspirations opening before him, the incompleteness passed away, the companionship of the great dead around him, the love fulfilled, the peace completed, the work accomplished, the blessing of thousands upon him.
The second letter was written by Georgiana Burne-Jones, wife of Edward Burne-Jones, the remarkable Pre-Raphaelite painter. For decades, Ruskin had loved them both. They returned the sentiment in abundance. For more on her, as remarkable a person in her very different way as Octavia Hill, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgiana_Burne-Jones. “O, my dear, dear, Joan,” Georgie (as she was always called) began,
I have heard of the setting free of that glorious spirit, and I give thanks with every breath that it ever came amongst us! But I grieve to think of the empty place in your heart. He must have gone very suddenly? I hope you were with him. A faithful and a loving Joan you have been to him and no one else in all the wide world of his…friends has been able to do for him what you have done.
Only yesterday I was looking at a photograph of him taken long ago and recalling the magic of his personality. And then, in the evening, I heard of his departure. To me, he has long been out of the land of the living [a reference to the prior decade when he had been all but incommunicado with the world], but his thoughts and his words are amongst the daily food of my soul! It is to him that I owe the beginning of almost every lasting thought of good that has helped me through my life. He seems to have said all that needs to be said about most things.
The other day, dusting a volume of The Stones of Venice, I opened it on words which might have been written for the present moment—about the difference made between private & public morality—and I wanted them proclaimed from the housetops by trumpet! People will turn again to listen to him a little now that they know that his glorious voice is silenced. And as long as the world lasts, his words will be true.
I cannot mourn his bodily death. I hope you do not, for him. O Joan, if he has met those who went over the stream before him! He has been one of God’s best gifts to the world…
Reverential thoughts, these.
And, as perhaps we have some sense by now, given our posts past, some inkling, there was much to miss. As an instance, it might not be a bad idea if I printed out the glorious last paragraph of Ruskin’s autobiography (mentioned above), a paragraph the author knew to be the last his prolific pen would ever write for publication, a comment at once about the wonder which is life, its transience, its permanence: “How things bind and blend themselves together,” he began:
The last time I saw the Fountain of Trevi [in Rome], it was from Arthur’s father’s room–Joseph Severn’s–where we both took Joanie to see him in 1872. And the old man [a fine painter] 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 they 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, 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.
Passing thoughts, these.
Be well out there.