Good folks working out there in various somewheres and circumstances,
It’s been some time since the last post. Busy. In the interstices between then and now mulling over new offerings, most serious: more on why Turner was so great; something on poverty and its consequences during Ruskin’s day and now (the same, miserable: especially for the poor).
But then, yesterday, spring arrived and all those plans just melted away! After the winter we have just had, it was as welcome as the robins, who, with their usual promise, showed up about two weeks ago, sporting their orange breasts (never got that “red” reference; never described our birds!), then, here, had to shiver forward with the rest of us. If you don’t believe me about this winter, have a look at this view of the area where we live. It comes from outer space! (Shared by a dear friend, Mara O’Laughlin. Thanks!) It’s easier to look at now that we’ve thawed. In the center you’ll find, just above Seneca Lake, “Geneva,” the small city we sometimes wryly call, “The Other Geneva!” It’s the place from which all these posts have come. Note that, with the exception of the northern heads of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes (deeper than the rest), all the other lakes are frozen solid! Y-shaped Keuka Lake, for example, seen just to the left of Seneca, looks like a snow-covered branch dropped from a tree of the same description.
And, just in case you doubt my claim about the arrival of spring (this being the season of that infamous doubter, Thomas), look at some proof positive: the springing out of the crocuses from the detritus of winter. Two days ago! In the small garden in front of our house! Wonderful.
Which marvel brings us back to Mr. Ruskin. Last year at this time, you’ll remember that I sent out one of Ruskin’s loveliest descriptions of spring’s arrival (#16). Today’s the chance for another. (We must celebrate as and when we can! Time is short!) But before I give that passage, I’d like to share some other lines recently read (thanks, Tim Rawson) from Wallace Stevens’ lovely poem, “The Dove in the Belly,” composed some 92 years ago. They’re about what this post is about. Stevens asked, I believe in some amazement himself:
How is it that
The rivers shine and hold their mirrors up,
Like excellence collecting excellence? [Incredible line, that!]
How is it that the wooden trees stand up
And live and heap their panniers of green
And hold them round the sultry day? Why should
These mountains being high be, also, bright
Fetched up with snow that never falls to earth?
Wonderful. Full of wonder. As, I submit, is this approaching passage by our subject, describing an oft-missed place in the French Alps some 40 miles south as the crow flies from where, “last year” he saw the spring flowers, for very love, reaching out to touch each other in the Jura Mountains not far from “The Real Geneva.” His sentences (actually, as so often the case with JR, not many sentences!) reward if they are read slowly and the images are allowed to float in and out of your awareness as they do when you turn your head as you gaze around a particularly lovely place.
But first, I digress. I came to know and love this passage in a special manner. Years ago, I bought, sight unseen, having been enticed by a UK bookseller’s description, a small, handwritten notebook. It was written by Mary Murray McGrigor (b. 1848, Lanark, Scotland, the web tells me). On its initially blank sheets, she had copied her favorite selections from Ruskin’s works. When she was finished, she had transcribed, in nearly perfect, eminently readable hand, just short of 160 pages of quotations. She did all this so that she might make a present of her little book to her niece, Caroline Elizabeth Jowett (b. 1897; daughter of Abbott Jowett, son of Benjamin Jowett, the Oxford professor famous for his English translations of Plato’s dialogues; Ruskin didn’t like them.). To make the present even more wonderful, she had the notebook covered in dark blue felt and had Caroline’s initials embroidered on the cover in true “Ruskin lace” style. (I have never found out how these ladies were connected, whether McGrigor did the embroidering herself, or whether she was aware that Ruskin always wore a dark blue cravat.) Here’s what the cover looks like:
And now here’s what a pair of her pages look like. (I haven’t opened to today’s passage because, given that I regularly read these selections, I am ever more aware that the binding, now surely on the edge of being a hundred years of age, is becoming brittle. However! If you look closely at the left hand page, you’ll find the conclusion of Ruskin’s marvelous description of Turner’s “Slave Ship,” a passage given in full in our last post.) It’s a beautiful, inspiring, heart-warming thing, this little book. Just the sort of hand work Ruskin recommended so highly because of its unique ability to intimately connect the creator with both the work and those for whom the work was done. Most recently, me.
I’m not sure exactly when Mary McGrigor transcribed these passages for Caroline, but, in her turn, Caroline thought her little book so precious that, in 1928, she gave it to her niece, “K.,” as we learn from a letter which arrived inside an envelope inside the book. It read: “My very dearest K, I want someone I love to possess this book of Ruskin’s thoughts which dear Mary McGrigor wrote entirely herself.” Such admiration of Ruskin was not uncommon during his day and for decades after his death. Here’s why: (from Mary McGrigor’s book) a description of another springtime in the Alps. (It comes originally from the fourth volume of Modern Painters, published in 1854.)
I do not know any district possessing a more pure or uninterrupted fullness of mountain character (and that of the highest order), or which appears to have been less disturbed by foreign agencies, than that which borders the course of the Trient between Valorcine and Martigny. The paths which lead to it out of the Valley of the Rhone, rising at first in steep circles among the walnut trees, like winding stairs among the pillars of a Gothic tower, retire over the shoulders of the hills into a valley almost unknown…The irregular meadows run in and out like inlets of lake among these harvested rocks, sweet with perpetual streamlets that seem always to have chosen the steepest places to come down, for the sake of the leaps, scattering their handfuls of crystal this way and that, as the wind takes them, with all the grace, but none of the formalism of fountains; dividing into fanciful change of dash and spring, yet with the seal of their granite channels upon them, as the lightest play of human speech may bear the seal of past toil; and closing back out of their spray to lave the rigid angles, and brighten with silver fringes and glassy films each lower and lower step of sable stone. Until at last, gathered altogether again—except, perhaps, some chance drops caught on the apple-blossom, where it has budded a little nearer the cascade than it did last spring—they find their way down to the turf and lose themselves in that silently, with quiet depth of clear water furrowing among the grass blades, and looking only like their shadow, but presently emerging again in little startled gushes and laughing hurries, as if they had remembered suddenly that the day was too short for them to get down the hill.
Green field, and glowing rock, and glancing streamlet, all slope together in the sunshine towards the brows of ravines, where the pines take up their own dominion of saddened shade; and with everlasting roar in the twilight, the stronger torrents thunder down, pale from the glaciers, filling all their chasms with enchanted cold, beating themselves to pieces against the great rocks that they have themselves cast down…
And here those hurries are, in this picture taken not far from where what we have just read was first seen by Ruskin before he turned it into lovely springtime prose intended to help make our springtime days more delightful.
Until next time. Be well out there!