Ruskin died on January 20, 1900. As those of you who have followed this site since its inception know, each year, when that anniversary returns, I post something a bit different, something intended not only to honor Ruskin’s memory, but something which throws an alternative light on the brilliance which inheres and endures in his work. While I’ve missed that memorial moment by a few days this new year, it doesn’t mean I’ve not been thinking about what I might do to keep this brief tradition alive. Below is the fruit of that thought.
At the beginning of our last post, my tribute to the remarkable Ruskin scholar, Van Akin Burd who departed this mortal coil a bit more than two months ago, I cited one of the Ruskin passages I love most: his definition of “A Book.” Here it is again, as stunning as ever:
[A] book is essentially not a talked thing but a written thing, [a thing] written not with a view of mere communication but of permanence. [It comes to be] not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could, saying: “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “writing”; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a “Book.”
In that post, I explained that the sentences had been taken from one of his finest lectures, “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” a talk he delivered in Manchester in 1864. I told that he intended his royal metaphor to indicate books. Not just any books though. The greatest books, those “books for all time” which contain within their pages, in contradistinction to the many millions of volumes that have consumed ink over the centuries, the most brilliant posings of the questions with which each of us must wrestle as our lives pass, the books which force us to confront the issues of what it means to be a human being and what constitutes a meaningful life. Such books, Ruskin said, are the true treasuries of life, gold and silver paling in comparison. As I wrote these things thinking of the great life which was Van Burd’s, I wondered if I could find a way to share what I believe to be the abiding importance of this astonishing lecture of Ruskin’s. (If I could time travel, I would be in that audience!)
As the posts in this series have multiplied, I’ve shared only those passages which I believe to be among Ruskin’s most vital–extracts from his writings on society, nature, art, life in general. My goal has been to suggest that, even though he lived quite some time ago, his ideas remain as relevant to ourselves and our time as they were widely believed to be when he was alive. But, as I’ve often said, such excerpts can only transfer their relevance if we give them the attention they require if they are going to “take.” It is because I am acutely aware that, in our present fractured world of instant and often superficial communication, such attention giving is an ever rarer phenomenon that most of these excerpts have been fairly brief.
Even using this general guideline, it has happened more than once that I’ve received emails from readers telling me that my posts are too long. Keep it short, these folks say. We’re too busy. We don’t want to read that much. Ruskin is hard to read anyway. So if you want to get and keep our attention, post snippets, not lectures. While I understand and sometimes empathize with such suggestions, they run counter to what Ruskin himself thought we should do if, individually, we were ever to come to adequate grips with life’s most pressing issues, problems, and mysteries.
The primary goal his lecture “Of King’s Treasuries” was to make just this point. Profound thought can only grow slowly, Ruskin said. Like a beautiful butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, it appears only after adequate time has been given to gestation, after we have set aside sufficient time when reading the greatest books to reread, think, rethink, ponder, and reflect about them. That–and that only–is the process, he averred, which leavens us, which humanizes us, which makes us feel the vital concerns which affect ourselves, others, and the world. The other intent of his talk was to make it clear that, should we elect not to do such work–regularly read the world’s greatest books with burrowing care–our deepest humanity and earth’s well-being will be the sacrifice.
Given this, I thought that, for this “anniversary” post–and with apologies to those who prefer more concise entries–we’d test his argument by going down a more lengthy road. And so, what follows is a “summary” of “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” Ruskin’s transcendent lecture on reading and its signal importance for our lives. Here’s a picture of how he looked at the time.
By the time he mounted the stage at Rusholme Town Hall that evening in 1864, the “violent reprobation” of Ruskin’s writings on political economy had been raging for some time. For more than three years, the essays in Unto this Last (1860) and its successor, Munera Pulveris (1862), had been the object of a “torrent of invective.” For having had the temerity to publish arguments directly attacking the socially corrosive assumptions lying at the core of laissez-faire capitalism, Ruskin had been castigated (depending on which critique one read) for burdening his unsuspecting public with paragraphs laden with “intolerable twaddle” and “windy hysterics,” for sporting views of how we should trade if we wished to take care of rather than harm one another which amounted to a “perfect paradigm of blubbering.” The reason for such disparagement was not hard to unearth, for, in these works, Ruskin had shown no compunction whatsoever in accusing the majority of those who engaged in trade of regularly and willingly setting their greed before the common good, creating, in the wake of this “rage to be rich,” penury for millions, millions for whose desperate, unhappy lives they had nothing but contempt. Indeed, as Unto this Last and Munera Pulveris printed in two different intellectual journals of the day, the outcries voiced by those offended by Ruskin’s arguments reached such a fever pitch that the editors of these publications, collapsing under an avalanche of threatening letters, elected to censure Ruskin, telling him that, even though the series of essays they had promised to publish was not yet completed, more incendiary pages would not be welcome between their covers.
But on this December night such controversies seemed far away. At the time the richest city in England, the elites of Manchester had invited Ruskin to speak as an eminent widely known for his strong support of public libraries. Very much wishing to be seen as being in the vanguard of the modern, the city elders had decided to create such a library in the Rusholme Institute. The members of the committee in charge of the project were hopeful that, during his talk, he would pat them on the back for having such an advanced and humane vision. A public endorsement from “Ruskin!” could only add to the city’s stature. As it happened, by the time his last sentence ended, the good people of Manchester had received their coveted endorsement. Before that happy moment transpired, however, they had gotten much else, much they had not anticipated. For, between commencing and stopping, Ruskin, having elected not to leave his controversial social views at home when given a chance to address some of his country’s most influential citizens, had used his hour to tell those who had made the effort to come and hear him that they were ignorant, cruel, and the true source of all the ills besetting Britain.
He began innocuously enough, telling the doyens, scions, and captains of industry sitting before him that, in the minutes approaching, he wished to convince them of one thing only: of the importance of reading in a civil society. Not merely reading, however: reading, rather, the greatest things which could be read, the acknowledged best works of all time, the pages which, in the view of anyone who thought about such things carefully, would unquestionably belong in the category captured by his metaphor: “Kings’ Treasuries”—treasuries not of money, but of great ideas so persuasively set down that the readers of them would not only become more accomplished thinkers as they grappled with these idea, but would come to understand the things that were most important in life. What such books teach us, Ruskin said, is how we can “advance in Life,” in contradistinction to “advancing in Death.” All those who wrote Kings’ Treasuries had the imparting of such cardinal knowledge as their intent. They never wrote for cash. They never wrote for fame. They wrote to help us. So you see, he said, bringing these introductory remarks to a close, how vitally important the reading of such books is? As an example, he hoped they would take a moment to consider with him a few lines from Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem he was sure they all knew, a poem which, surely, they would agree belonged in the upper echelon of the Kings’ Treasuries, “A Book” in the truest sense of that word (it was here that he introduced the definition above).
After circulating the twenty-two lines he had chosen–on the crucial role of the clergy in human affairs—Ruskin started to unpack the deeper meanings hidden in the poem’s symbols, including an analysis of the sequence in which these images appeared and the carefully chosen words Milton used to convey their meanings. When he was done, he said it was now possible to conclude two things: First, that Milton held a very dim view of priests who, though carrying the scepter and wearing the cloths symbolizing their sacred role as ministers to the true needs of the members in their flocks), proceeded to do no such thing, preferring, instead, to pander to their own comforts and intrigues while “the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,/But, swoln [swollen] with wind and the rank mist they draw,/Rot inwardly–and foul contagion spread.” Which pernicious priesting, Milton would have us see, is not merely reprehensible, it must be, if we are true Christians (as all in his audience, Ruskin said, surely believed themselves to be), condemned for its infidelity and the harm that infidelity occasioned.
But the second point was even more important. One of the greatest of the world’s writers, Milton knew that his readers could only arrive at this conclusion after they had taken the time to read his lines carefully and deliberate each image, word, rhyme, and idea–as we have just done, Ruskin said. No “summary” (no “Spark Notes” version!) of Milton’s meanings could suffice, because, unless each of us took the time to tease these meanings out, any “conclusions” we might reach would be cavalier, be opinion, not knowledge. This is the great gift of the Kings’ Treasuries, he went on. When we read them as they require to be read, we become more thoughtful, more sensitive, more humane, more human. Only two things are necessary to reach such a fine outcome. First, we must adopt a willingness to be taught by those who are—it must be accepted!—smarter, deeper, higher than ourselves. We must choose to enter into their thoughts not to find our own reprised, which thoughts are often haphazardly grown, too quickly absorbed from the crowd. “If the person who wrote the book is not wiser than you, you need not read him,” Ruskin said, but “if he be, he will think differently than you in many respects.” And, in that encounter with profound thought, and that encounter only, lies the possibility of growth. Second, having faithfully attended to the thoughts of these greats, there is yet another step to take: You must, he said, “enter into their hearts. As you go to them first for clear sight, so must you stay with them that you may share at last their just and mighty Passion…The ennobling difference between one man and another, between one animal and another, is precisely in this: That one feels more than another… [W]e are only human so far as we are sensitive, and our honor is precisely in proportion to our passion.”
And now, after spending just a few brief moments with Milton, we can easily see the benefits for “advancing in Life” that come from reading with care just 0ne passage of just one of the Kings’ Treasuries, Ruskin continued while contemplating his elegantly dressed, drivers-and-footmen-waiting-by-their-carriages-outside” audience. But here we come to another, even more difficult issue, he said, arriving at his central (but, by his audience, very unexpected) point. For the truth is, he said (we must give up all pretense regarding the matter), the truth is–you know I am right in saying this!–that almost none of us reads this way. You read–when you read! if you read!–newspapers, opinion pages, sensationalistic novels, poor poems, political tracts. While many of what we are calling here tonight Kings’ Treasuries assuredly are in your homes, they are not read there. They lie on your coffee tables or are set on nearby shelves with their titles and writers’ names prominently displayed so that you may impress your visitors and make them imagine that you read them! [The library in the very popular television series “Downtown Abbey” serves as a case in point!]
The reason for all this is obvious: you simply do not wish to read in the way we have been speaking of because, in truth, you have absolutely no idea how important it is to do so and are much distracted otherwise. Let me say it unambiguously: It “is simply and sternly impossible for the English public at this moment to understand any thoughtful writing, so incapable of thought has it become in its insanity of avarice.” Let me say it even more bluntly–for it is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for more than a moment: Today in England we are nothing other than a “money-making mob,” and no reading of the sort we have been discussing “is possible for a people with its mind in this state.” The consequences of this are grievous. Because you disdain these great and helpful books, you never encounter their life-giving lessons. As a consequence of that, all of you—and I use the next word accurately—DESPISE literature, science, art, nature, and compassion! Do you think me harsh or wild in saying this? I will prove the reality of these “despisings” to you, one by one.
And this he proceeded to do, showing, as he progressed from one subject to the next, how perverse was their approach to each. That they despised literature had already been made clear; the only science they were interested in was that which helped them discover new ways to make more money; the only art they were interested in was that which had been touted as “good” by bad critics, they themselves never have given a moment’s time to ascertaining what made one piece of art good and another rubbish; that they despised nature could be seen any moment of any day, all they needed do was look about them.
Manchester, mid-19th Century
Compassion he discussed last: Finally, I say–and here I once again refuse to mince words–that you “despise compassion. There is no need of words of mine for proof of this. I will merely read you one of the newspaper paragraphs I am in the habit of cutting out…[this] from The Morning Post of an early date of this year…[I]t relates only one of such facts as happen now daily…[When this lecture is published] I will print the paragraph [I will read] in red. Be sure the facts themselves are written in that color, in a book we shall, all of us, literate or illiterate, have to read our page of, some day.”
An inquiry was held on Friday by Mr. Richards, Deputy Coroner…respecting the death of Michael Collins, aged 58 years. Mary Collins, a miserable looking woman, said [at the inquest] that she lived with the deceased and his son in a room [in one of the poorest slums in London]. Deceased was a “translator” of boots. Witness reported that she went out and bought old boots. Deceased and his son then made them into good ones. [After which,] witness sold them for what she could get at the shops, which was very little indeed…for the people in the shops said, “We must have our profit.” Deceased and his son used to work night and day to try and get a little bread and tea and pay for the room so as to keep the home together…[T]he family never had enough to eat… In winter they made not half so much. For three years they had been getting from bad to worse… Five years ago deceased had applied to the parish for aid. The relieving officer gave him 4 lb. of bread and told him if he came again he would “get the stones” [that is, would be made to do useless work–moving stones from one pile to another]…[Things] got worse and worse until last Friday week when they had not even a halfpenny to buy a candle. Deceased then lay down on the straw and said he could not live till morning… Son sat up the whole night to make “translations” to make money, but deceased died Saturday morning… The witness began to cry… Dr. G.P. Walker said deceased died from syncope [fainting caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure], from exhaustion, and want of food…There was not a particle of fat on the body. There was no disease but, if there had been medical attendance, he might have survived the syncope… The jury returned the following verdict: “That deceased died from exhaustion from want of food and the common necessaries of life; also through want of medical aid.”
Gustav Dore: “The London Poor” (1872)
“It may be well,” Ruskin went on immediately after finishing the account of Michael Collins and his family, “to preserve beside this paragraph another [newspaper] cutting out of my store [of same]–from The Morning Post of about a parallel date…
“The salons of Mme. C–, who herself did the honors with clever imitative grace and elegance, were crowded with princes, dukes, marquises, and counts… Some English peers and members of Parliament were present and appeared to enjoy the animated and dazzingly improper scene. On the second floor, the supper tables were loaded with every delicacy of the season. That our readers may form some idea of this dainty…demi-monde, I [offer a list of the wines] served to all the guests (about 200)… Choice Yquem, Johannisburg, Lafitte, Tokay, and champagne of the finest vintages were poured most lavishly… After supper [which supper had included 16 different varieties of hors d’oeuvres, inexhaustible quantities of salmon, filets de boeuf, timbales milanaises, elegant foie gras, salade venetiennes, white jellies with fruits, and an uncountable variety of cheeses,] dancing was resumed with increased animation. The ball terminated with a chaine diabolique and a cancan d’enfer…”
Gustave Dore, “At the Ball, Mansion House, London” (1872)
Now, having said all this, I wish to make one other point, Ruskin said, revealing the deeper reason for his choice of the earlier discussed lines from Milton’s “Lycidas”: Putative Christians are no better than putative priests. This dead Mr. Collins and the millions like him who live in privation in cities all across this nation, whether we are speaking of London, Leeds, Birmingham, or your lovely Manchester (you will pass many of these people, will you not, as your carriages make their leisurely way home tonight?)–are your flock! Are you not required, is it not one of the two great Commandments set down by the founder of your professed religion, to love your neighbor as yourself? And, if you are not the ones who should be doing this caring for these suffering others–I earnestly ask you to tell me!!–who might be? You who have come here this night have all the prestige, all the power, and all but a pittance of the money. Mr. Collins, his wife, and son, working ceaselessly day and night, going blind in the process, are starving to death, slowly and excruciatingly: they can’t do anything. They are the ones drawing what Milton termed “the rank mist,” the ones who “rot inwardly,” the ones who “foul contagion spread” while you, in your “profusion of pitiless wealth,” concentrating “your souls on Pence” barely even know they exist. Is it not correct to say of ourselves now that our “national wish and purpose are only to be amused? Our national religion is the performance of church ceremonies and preaching of soporific truths (or untruths) to keep the mob quietly at work while we amuse ourselves. [Meanwhile, the consequence of] this amusement is fastening on us as a feverous disease of parched throat and wandering eyes, senseless, dissolute, merciless. How literally that word Dis-ease—the Negation and Impossibility of Ease—express the entire moral state of English Industry and its amusements!” You despise compassion.
After which (it is a useful exercise to imagine ourselves in the audience), Ruskin returned to the Kings’ Treasuries in a final attempt to convince those who had come to hear him of the importance—for Manchester, for England, for humanity—of reading these works, stressing once more their ability to transform us for Good if we read them regularly and well: “He only,” he said, coming to his conclusion,“is advancing in Life whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living Peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth, they and they only.” Ending: And, yes, it is a good idea to build a public library, not to mention libraries of similar sort all over Britain, as long as their shelves are stocked with Kings’ Treasuries.
One of the greatest of Ruskin’s lectures this, a ranking member in the pantheon of Kings’ Treasuries in its own right. If I have had any luck in writing what’s above, I have provided some sense of its greatness and, I trust, some sense of the lecture’s ongoing importance for those of us who still read. Nevertheless, as I set down every sentence, excepting only for the excerpts from Ruskin himself, I was acutely aware that, in the very act of doing so, I was proceeding directly against Ruskin’s recommendation, underming the deepest value of the lecture for helping us to advance in Life. For, whatever the usefulness of this post might be, it is but a different kind of “Spark Notes,” a summary of something which cannot, should not be summarized. Only the talk itself, read many times, bestows the remarkable gifts it contains. I know I am right in saying this.
And so, to rectify this offense, I am going to close with a link to the lecture in its entirety, so that, after you have opened it and printed it out, you will be able to read for yourself what I have left out (much! all but a smidgen of Milton’s lines, for one thing!). As mentioned in the first post in this series (see the link to that entry in the introductory paragraph at the top of this post), when I professed for a salary, something of Ruskin’s would be found in every course I taught. In one upper level course–“Moral Sociology and The Good Society”–I began by having my students read “Of Kings’ Treasuries” with care, hoping that, by doing so, they would become ready, willing, and able for read what was to follow: all of Plato’s Republic, all of Dickens’ Bleak House, all of Ruskin’s Unto this Last. So that they might have their own copies to mark up, I scanned Clive Wilmer’s version of the lecture, scanned as well his impeccable interpretive notes to the text (essential for understanding Ruskin’s nineteenth century references). We took a week’s worth of classes to unpack it. Here is that scan. Do tell me what you think after you’ve read it.
Lastly, as a contemporary verification of everything Ruskin said about the importance of real reading for those of us who breathe a century and a half after he spent his hour and a half on the stage at the Rusholme Town Hall signifying something, try reading Ceridwen Dovey’s recent essay in The New Yorker (10 July 2015): “Reading as a Form of Therapy.”
Until next time. (when, maybe, snippets will stage a comeback!)
Be well out there.
PS: I have recommended Wilmer’s collection of some of Ruskin’s most important writings on society before. It is still easily available on Amazon and similar sites. Here’s the full reference: Clive Wilmer, editor, Unto this Last and Other Writings of John Ruskin. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1985.