February 8th was Mr. Ruskin’s birthday. His 195th. I intended to send out a Happy Birthday post (not everyone gets to 195!), but other obligations checked the plan. Then I thought that the next day would allow a window to open… and then… and then… Until today.
Birthdays are, or at least should be as I regard them through the lens of my advancing years, days of celebration, not only for those who are still with us drawing breath, but for those who, no longer having that corporeal distinction, remain with us by virtue of what they have done for us, which laudable doings cause us to remember them with pleasure and applaud them for their good services, even if that applause is manifested long after the doings were done.
As I’ve noted a number of times in previous posts, during his days, Ruskin was among the most famous of the Western world’s famous. It is difficult for us to imagine that level of fame these days, memory of what he did and tried to do being still dim in any wide sense. Nevertheless, as I hope those past posts have begun to make clear, there was very good reason for the respect and applause his contemporaries accorded. Not far below I reproduce some of it. But before I do so, here’s a little story I like. It appeared in W. G. Collingwood’s biography of our great Victorian (the first “Life,” and still one of the two best in my view). It was published in 1894.
It was Christmas Eve, 1875, and Ruskin, always under the “duties of daylight” (see last post), even on this special night, was writing a long overdue reply to a Scottish teacher who, because of his reputation as one of the worlds’ wisest men, had sought some words of wisdom which she might share with her students. Here is what he set down:
If you care to give your class a word directly from me, say to them that they will find it well, throughout life, never to trouble themselves about what they ought not to do. The condemnation given from the Judgment Throne…is all for the undones and not for the dones. People are perpetually afraid of doing wrong, but, unless they are doing its opposite energetically, they do it all day long, and the degree does not matter. Make your young hearers resolve to be honest in their work in this life. Heaven will take care of them for the other.
Given that sound advice for frame, the encomia which follow all focus, in one way or another, on what Ruskin had done for those paying him tribute. It is useful to note that the applause issues from folks whom we still know to have been great, but it also comes from people, more like ourselves, who never were thought of in that distinguished way. The point being that Ruskin changed lives both famous and not. A good thing. Here are the ovations:
(Writing of his legacy as a whole) Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all time…He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts (“les grandes pensees viennet du coeur”), and so he thought not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in future…[His] power of thought and expression is…such that—in spite of the unanimous opposition he met with and still meets with, especially among the orthodox economists…who cannot but attack him since he destroys their teaching at its very roots—his fame grows and his thoughts penetrate among the public. (Leo Tolstoy, Recollections and Essays, 1899)
(On his writing) The style in which page after page of Modern Painters is written takes our breath away. We find ourselves marveling at the words, as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure. (Virginia Woolf, The Captain’s Death Bed, 1950)
(On his writing) I know no writer who has such power to stimulate instantly. He opens a window. It may be to joy, it may be to sorrow, but is always something better than what one has been thinking about or doing. (Charles Lewis Hind, Diary of a Looker-on, 1908)
(On the significance of his social criticism) If you read sociology…you will find that the nineteenth century poets and prophets who denounced the capitalism of their own time are much more exciting to read than the economists and writers on political science who worked out the economic theory and political requirements of socialism…Ruskin in particular leaving all the professed socialists—even Karl Marx—miles behind in force of invective. Lenin’s criticisms of modern society seem like the platitudes of a rural dean in comparison…I have met in my lifetime some extremely revolutionary characters; and quite a large number of them, when I have asked, “Who put you onto this revolutionary line? Was it Karl Marx?” have answered, “No, it was Ruskin.” (George Bernard Shaw, Ruskin Centenary Addresses, 1919)
(On Ruskin’s influence on his life) The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you and, from you, I learned nothing but what was good. How else could it be? There is in you something of prophet, priest, and of poet, and to you the gods gave eloquence such as they have given to none other, so that your message might come to us with the fire of passion and the marvel of music, making the deaf to hear and the blind to see. (Oscar Wilde, letter to Ruskin, enclosed in a presentation copy of Wilde’s The Happy Prince, 1888)
(On the importance of reading Ruskin) This little incident of [World War I], told by a sergeant of the Fifth Lancers, ought to be remembered: “I came upon a wounded man of the Lancashire Fusiliers one day. He had two ghastly wounds in his breast. He was quietly reading a little edition of Ruskin’s The Crown of Wild Olive, and seemed to be enjoying it immensely. As I chatted with him for a few minutes, he told me that this little book had been his companion all through and that, when he died, he wanted it to be buried with him. His end came the next day. We buried the book with him.” (Anonymous note, Year File for 1900, Viljoen Papers, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York)
(On her enduring admiration for her subject after researching his life for four and a half decades) Following Ruskin’s footstep need not lead us into the mire, but can, rather, lead us into regions free from pettiness and ignominy—where the air is good for men to breathe. Always, following Ruskin, what one hears is varied in its strain and, not without the discords, poignant in its humanity. The words themselves are never vaporous. Even in the darkest moments, there is a sheen upon their wings. (Helen Gill Viljoen, “Ruskin and Science,” unpublished essay, Box E, Viljoen Papers, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York)
Late, but, by this point in our cybertravels devoted to Mr. Ruskin, I trust you will agree, well deserved applause. There is much more. I will share it in due course.
Be well out there in winter.