I usually have a number of possible posts running around in my head at any given moment, and then something else of Ruskin’s edges them out because it seems more immediately important. Today’s post provides an example of such an intruder. I hope you’ll agree that it was worth whatever was coming, although you’ll have to wait until the next offering to judge!
As earlier posts have mentioned, Ruskin was a lover of nature like almost no one before or anyone after (if you want to look at these posts, go to the right hand side of this page, open the “Previous Posts by Category” window, and choose the “Nature” option; they’ll all come up). His ability to make the world in which we live and breathe come alive in new ways was without parallel. So, since it is beautiful summer and the subject of his life-long love is in full flower about us every day, and also because I recently came across the bits below during my usual morning minutes reading on our wonderful porch overlooking wonderful Seneca Lake (which, on many mornings, looks like this⇓⇓shortly after sunrise), I offer them in “substitution.”
In the mid-1880s, knowing his useful time was rapidly coming to its close, Ruskin began, as I’ve mentioned, an autobiography, Praeterita, a record of the things which, over the course of his life, had given him the most pleasure. It published serially. As he completed a chapter, it was issued in pamphlet form, only much later being collected into a single volume. It is a stunning book still, truly a joy to read, so glorious are its descriptions of his days, his friends, his travels, of art, of nature. Of Praeterita, John Rosenberg, in The Genius of John Ruskin, his superb collection of some of the best of its subject’s paragraphs and essays (easily, and relatively cheaply, available at addall.com), says that it is “the most charming autobiography in English,” adding that Ruskin’s “late voice is rich in all the nuances of speech, capable almost of physical gesture. We, its readers, become oblivious of the printed word and follow instead the elusive soliloquy of a mind so habituated to solitude that we seem to overhear it thinking aloud. Nothing else is quite so daringly inconsequent, so immediate, so capable of communicating the music of consciousness itself. Joyce’s interior monologues are, by comparison, contrived declamations.” (If you are interested, Francis O’Gorman has just published, with Oxford University Press, the first complete version of Praeterita to print in over a century, his version full of marvelously helpful editorial notes.) Unfortunately, Ruskin never finished his story because, as the 1880s progressed, he did not. His periodic mental attacks became more frequent and more debilitating and, after June 1889, he never again used his pen for anything more than a few letters to friends. (However it is worth mentioning, especially in this context, that the last thing he ever wrote for print was Praeterita‘s “concluding” chapter, “Joanna’s Care,” a touching tribute to his adoring cousin, Joan Severn.)
With that, hardly veiled, suggestion for summer reading finished (just imagine what various folks, friends, and neighbors would say to find you deeply engrossed in Praeterita on the beach!), let’s return to Ruskin’s love of nature, our immediate subject. I offer what comes next in reverse chronological order, the idea of the later (earlier) bits being proof of the case Ruskin makes in the first (later) passage, that being, specifically, from Praeterita‘s ninth chapter–astonishing and beautiful, as I hope you’ll agree:
The living inhabitation of the world–the grazing and nestling in it–the spiritual power of the air, the rocks, the waters–to be in the midst of it, and rejoice and wonder at it, and help it if I could (happier if it need no help of mine), this was the essential love of Nature in me, this the root of all I have usefully become, and the light of all that I have rightly learned.
(“Ruskin’s View,” Kirkby Lonsdale, England)
A quarter century before, in 1860, he had written what comes next. It appears near the end of Unto this Last, his scathing attack on the inhumanities visited, in one guise or an another, on everyone by laissez-faire capitalism:
As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary–the wild flower by the wayside, as well as the tended corn, and the wild birds and creatures of the forest, as well as the tended cattle–because man doth not live by bread only, but also by the desert manna, by every wondrous word and unknowable work of God.
(Wildflowers near Geneva, Switzerland)
Earlier still, in 1856, writing on subjects at some remove from political economy in Modern Painters III, we find the next passage, explaining, in certain terms, the vital importance of nature in our lives:
If we take full view of the matter, we shall find that the love of Nature, wherever it has existed, has been a faithful and sacred element of human feeling…[When it is present, it] will be found to bring with it such a sense of the presence and power of a Great Spirit as no mere reasoning can either induce or controvert… [Indeed,] it is precisely the most healthy element which distinctively belongs to us, and that, out of it, cultivated no longer in levity or ignorance, but in earnestness and as a duty, results will spring of an importance at present inconceivable; and lights arise which, for the first time in man’s history, will reveal to him the true nature of his life, the true field of his energies…
(View of a village in the Valley of the Cluse, France)
And finally, completing the retreat, we have this from Modern Painters I, written in 1842 when he was but 24. As always with Ruskin, even a very young Ruskin, it is good to take every word and phrase seriously, as he means exactly what he says:
Ideas of beauty are among the noblest which can be presented to the human mind, invariably exalting and purifying it according to their degree…[T]here is not one single object in Nature which is not capable of conveying them, and which, to the rightly perceiving mind, does not present an incalculably greater number of beautiful than of deformed parts, there being, in fact, scarcely anything in pure, undiseased nature like positive deformity, but only degrees of beauty, or such slight and rare points of…contrast as may render all around them more valuable by their opposition–spots of blackness in creation, to make its colors felt!
(The Aiguilles of Mont Blanc, from “Ruskin’s Rock,” Chamouni, France)
Thus, working backwards, we find abundant evidence establishing the truth of our first quote of today: the importance for Ruskin, throughout his life–and perhaps ours–of being in tune with and reverencing “the living inhabitation of the world.”
Enjoy summering (and, of course, that special book on the beach!).