58: Four

Ruskin long; Ruskin medium; Ruskin short.

Whenever and wherever you enter the mine, gems appear in the tunnels and veins. Of late, the wellspring has emerged from the longer and medium tunnels. So today, for variety’s sake, we’ll not go so far, will be contented with some “lesser” jewels, slighter adornments useful for brightening an hour, a day, a week (even, should we decide to remember them, a lifetime). Four. All, in my experience, true.

The first comes from the 25th letter of Fors Clavigera, which Ruskin wrote in 1873.

It does not at all follow that one must be doing a right thing (that will depend on one’s sense and information), but one must be doing deliberately a thing we entirely suppose to be right–or we shall not do it becomingly.

The second, concerning the way we can ensure that our work will be of the best quality of which we are capable, is taken from the 92nd letter in the Fors series. It was set down a decade later, in 1883:

A small chamber, with a fair world outside. Such are the conditions, as far as I know or can gather, of all greatest and best mental work. At heart, [we need] a monastery cell always…

That same year (1883), Ruskin decided to put out new editions of some of his Modern Painters books. So that he might do so without undue embarrassment, before the volumes reprinted, he assiduously went through his old words page by page, adding footnotes when he became disturbed either by his untempered youthful utterances or by things he had said which he now thought in error. This nice little bit–which belongs in the former category–comes from a footnote inserted in Modern Painters I, the book which astonished the English reading public and made his reputation. MPsI was published in 1843 when he was 24, forty years earlier. (Who among us wouldn’t like to retract much of what we said forty years ago? 🙂 ) It nicely anticipates the glad spring marching our way!

I find I overwork the epithet “golden” in most of my descriptions–not because I like guineas, but because I like buttercups and broom.

The last–saved for this position expressly because I know that some of you, having taken to heart the message of Post 53,  have set aside a goodly portion of the weekend all but upon us to continue your reading of Bleak House–comes from a (still unpublished) letter Ruskin sent his father on the 18th of January, 1863. He was staying at Mornex, a small mountain town not far from Geneva, Switzerland; John James Ruskin was in London, at the family home, Denmark Hill. Here’s what his subject looked like about this time.

Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell Frith. London, England, 1859

Dickens in 1859, age 47 (photograph by William Powell Frith)

I quite agree in your estimate of Dickens. I know no writer so voluminously and unceasingly entertaining, or with such a store of laughter, legitimate, open-hearted, good-natured laughter. Not at things merely accidentally ridiculous or at mere indecency, as often even with Moliere and Le Sage–and constantly in Aristophanes and Smollett–but at things inherently grotesque and purely humorous. If he is ever severe–as with Heep [David Copperfield], Stiggens [The Pickwick Papers], Squeers [Nicholas Nickleby], etc.–it is always true baseness and vice, never mere foibles, which he holds up for scorn. And, as you most rightly say of his caricature, the fun is always equal to the extravagance.

His powers of description have never been enough esteemed. The storm in which Steerforth is wrecked in [DavidCopperfield, the sunset before Tigg is murdered in Martin Chuzzlewit, and the [description of] French road from Dijon in Dombey and Son–and other such bits, are quite unrivaled… 

And so, fortified by these four, I do very much wish you the very happiest of week ends.


Until next time.



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3 Responses to 58: Four

  1. trevor says:

    True gold indeed! Thank you for these and more. I do believe it’s time for more Dickens.

    • jimspates says:

      Trevor, if you are speaking of another Dickens for your fine self, here’s a thought. I finished, not long ago, another reading of COPPERFIELD, another of this great one’s masterpieces, the book of his its author loved more than any other because it was the most autobiographical. Its portraits of people, their strengths, foibles, and twistings, is just breathtaking–and it’s often pretty funny too, as Mr. Ruskin notes. I don’t think it’s as great as BLEAK HOUSE, which in my view is the masterpiece among the masterpieces, but it is very great, indeed, captivating from first to last. And, after that, there’s NICKLEBY, and then… 🙂 

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