I have some sad news to report which bears on the subjects of this site–Mr. Ruskin and his estimable thought. But I shall save it for the end, for then what has gone before will provide a proper frame for it.
Once again, it has been a long time between posts. In that interim, however, I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about this particular offering, a milestone of sorts, the fiftieth in this series of which the intent is to stress the on-going significance of Ruskin’s thought for our modern days. Consequently, I thought that this number should highlight something which our subject would see as one of the most important aspects of his work.
So I have chosen what’s below: seven of the eight principles which Ruskin intended as axioms which should be accepted by anyone wishing to become a member of an organization he founded in the 1870s, an assembly he first called St. George’s Company. (The eighth article is specific to the Company.)
One of the things that is most admirable about Ruskin is the fact that, although he was defeated time and again in bringing his plans for making the world a more humane and loving place to fruition, he never abandoned the attempt, even in his saddest and maddest moments.
He announced the formation of St. George’s Company in the early 1870s in the Fors Clavigera letters he wrote for the working people of Great Britain, a time (the sadness already long resident) before the madness began their visits (the first came in 1878). Tired of hoping that people would resolve to take better care of their fellow human beings and nature as a result of reading what he thought he had so convincingly written, he had determined that real change would only arrive when a group of like-minded others came together to make it happen. And so, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution which was at the time despoiling both the environment and people of England, Europe, and America at breakneck speed, St. George’s Company, a band of living (not metaphoric) slayers of dragons, was born. Born, intentionally, on his hero’s, Turner’s, birthday (# 37: Mr. Turner), thatpeerless painter having already proven to be a slayer of dragons with few equals.
The Company’s task would be to make England habitable and beautiful once again, to create an island of kindness and natural living which, in due course, would supplant the degenerate state which had come to dominate his native land; largely, Ruskin believed, as a result of what he called his contemporaries’ unfettered “rage to be rich.” Instead of exploiting and polluting nature, the members of St. George’s Company would live in tune with it; instead of exploiting and crippling their neighbors for their own advantage, the members of St. George’s Company would work not only with themselves but with all others with whom they came in contact–for the mutual advantage of all.
Not long after its founding, Ruskin changed the name of his Company to The Guild of St. George, his thought being that its members, whom he called Companions, would operate more or less like one of the antique guilds of the Middle Ages, determining, collectively, as years passed, what was best, most life-affirming, for everyone its activities touched.
The Guild still exists–and thrives–not only in the UK but in North America. (To visit its website, click: The Guild of St. George, UK.) The Guild’s modern dragon-slaying logo is little changed from the image Ruskin chose for it all those decades ago, an image taken from Carpaccio’s famous painting of this epic, eternal, battle between good and evil (the original still hangs in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio di Schiavoni).
As said, those wishing to join the Company (or Guild) would accept as their own the principles Ruskin drafted (in his own inimitable, occasionally wry, way) in 1875. While our responses to the articles, a century and four decades on, may vary (we would probably wish to substitute less gendered language than that which Ruskin uses), I trust that, as you peruse them, you might agree that there is much in them which remains wonderful and useful. Certainly, I would hope you would agree that, in the capricious, often heartless, whirl in which we presently live, there is ample room for a set of resolutions such as these, edited or rephrased as we may prefer. It isn’t New Year’s yet but, then, why wait?
THE CREED OF THE GUILD OF ST. GEORGE
I trust in the Living God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things and creatures visible and invisible. I trust in the kindness of His law, and the goodness of His work. And I will strive to love Him, and keep His law, and see His work, while I live.
I trust in the nobleness of human nature, in the majesty of its faculties, the fullness of its mercy, and the joy of its love. And I will strive to love my neighbor as myself; and, even when I cannot, will act as if I did.
I will labor, with such strength and opportunity as God gives me, for my own daily bread; and all that my hand finds to do, I will do with my might.
I will not deceive, or cause to be deceived, any human being for my gain or pleasure; nor hurt, or cause to be hurt, any human being for my gain or pleasure; nor rob, or cause to be robbed, any human being for my gain or pleasure.
I will not kill nor hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty, upon the earth.
I will strive to raise my own body and soul daily into higher powers of duty and happiness; not in rivalship or contention with others, but for the help, delight, and honor of others, and for the joy and peace of my own life.
I will obey all the laws of my country faithfully; and the orders of its monarch, and of all persons appointed to be in authority under its monarch, so far as such laws or commands are consistent with what I suppose to be the law of God; and when they are not, or seem in anywise to need
change, I will oppose them loyally and deliberately, not with malicious, concealed, or disorderly violence.
And now for that news, news which it is most difficult to report.
…was a member of The Guild of St. George. She died two days ago, quite peacefully I’ve been told by her loving friends, after a very short illness. She was born and lived in Geneva, Switzerland. She had a second home in Mornex, about five miles from Geneva, just across the border into France. It was because of that second home that I met her. It was during the early summer of 2006. Having a few weeks to myself after my teaching responsibilities ended in May, I determined that I would travel on Mr. Ruskin’s Road, my goal being to visit as many of the places where he had lived and worked in France and Switzerland as I could in the time I had available.
I knew that, for much of the last half of 1862 and most of the first half of 1863, he had lived in the little village of Mornex on the southeast-facing slope of the lesser of two contiguous mountains known locally as “The Saleve.” Knew, too, that he had selected that particular vantage because, from an prior visit, he had noted that a few of the houses in the village afforded a magnificent view of the central peaks of the Mont Blanc range in the far distance. Although my French was (and remains) laughable, on this particular day, somehow I had made my way to the house where he had lived. (I carried a picture of it taken during Ruskin’s time; the shopkeepers, not understanding anything I said, kindly pointed.)
Because the main part of the house was well above the street, there was no front entrance. Walking around, however, I discovered a door in the garden wall on the house’s east side. Hearing some gentle digging going on behind the wall, the garden where, once, Ruskin had walked, I knocked. The digging stopped. Moments later, from the other side, I heard: “Qu’est ce?” (I knew that!) “Ruskin!” I said loudly. “Qui?” (Knew that, too!) “Ruskin!” I repeated, still louder. Then a brilliant thought! I added: “Ruskin…Recherche!” Another pause. “Ah!” came back. Another pause. Then: “Un instant!” Then came the sound of stairs being climbed. Moments later, above me, to the left above the wall, I found a lovely face peering down at me, trying to decide, I later learned, if the enquirer might be a wolf in American clothing. “What do you want to know?” the fine face asked in fine English. Surprised, I said: “I’m a Ruskin scholar. I’m trying to visit places where he lived. I believe he lived in this house for about a year a century and a half ago.” “Ah,” came the response: “I believe you are right.” The face vanished and, once again, the sound of feet negotiating stairs reached my ears.
Seconds later the door opened and a smiling Suzanne Varady welcomed me into the garden. Immediately we toured it, with Suzanne showing me all the different flowers she had planted, the crowning achievement being the beautiful wisterias she had caused to grow in such a way that they formed an arbor over some of her more sun-sensitive flowers. Then came the piece de resistance (my French was getting better!): the incredible view of Mont Blanc looming above the Valley of the Arve, the view which had so captivated the tenant of so long ago. Next we were in the house where Ruskin had slept and worked! As we talked on, Suzanne kindly (she was always kind!) made us tea and lunch. I was thrilled! We talked deep into the afternoon, with, as the shadows lengthened, some fine rose wine supplanting the tea.
As it turned out, Suzanne knew almost nothing of Ruskin other than the fact that he had lived in her house. But I quickly learned that she was an accomplished classical musician and, for that reason, had become a walking encyclopedia on the life and music of Richard Wagner, another eminent who had lived in her house for a time, a decade before Ruskin.
And so began a truly wonderful friendship. You know how it is, you meet someone for the first time and feel you have known them all your life. You leave, come back two years later, and pick up the conversation just where you had left off the night before. That kind of friendship. Linked souls.
As it happened, Suzanne was delighted to listen to my (many!) stories about the “other famous person” who had lived in her Mornex house; was delighted, as time passed, to receive numerous postings from America, packages containing articles and books about this remarkable Englishman; was happy, too, in later summers, to travel with myself and other Ruskin folk, and, even later, with my wife, Jenn, to and through the French Alps (not far from Mornex), through most of the loveliest places of France, Switzerland and Northern Italy (Siena, Florence, and Venice!), all places beloved by Ruskin. And, as all these good miles and days passed, she was always our delightful, good-spirited, good-hearted guide, translating, asking directions, enjoying herself–and (I like to think) us–immensely. Wonderful times! Times full of wonders!
It was as if, across the years, a continent, and a language, Suzanne had been waiting for Mr. Ruskin and his ideas to make their appearance. So great was her appreciation, some years after we met, I asked if she might like to become a Companion of The Guild of St. George. Immediately, eagerly, she said, “Yes!” And so, on the sixteenth of November 2013, at the Annual General Meeting of The Guild in Sheffield, England, it happened. With myself standing proudly nearby as her sponsor and devoted friend, she signed the Guild’s book making her Companionship official.
But, in a way, that signing was almost unnecessary because, not long after our first meeting, I knew that Suzanne, although she was completely unaware of him, had always been a student of Ruskin’s and a life-long subscriber to the principles (though she might have changed a word here and there) he had set down as The Creed of St. George because, for her, these articles for living had always been the articles she held sacred in her own heart.
Along this path of life, I have been fortunate enough to meet any marvelous people. In that company, experience has taught that there are few who are as intrinsically good of soul as Suzanne. For all of us who knew her, she was a gem brightly shining through pebbles and stones. I loved her. Jenn loved her. All who knew her loved her! How could we not? Had he known her (he may now!), Ruskin would have loved her. She was a living, breathing example, an archetype, of what he termed, in the second article of St. George’s Creed, “the nobleness of human nature.”
Suzanne in the Garden of her House in Mornex
The View of Mont Blanc from Suzanne’s Garden
Suzanne and Jim at Ruskin’s Rock, Chamouni (Chamonix), France
Until next time, be well out there.