114: The Value of My Work


It is 1881 and Ruskin is ready to write again. In early 1878, he experienced the first of what would become a series of mental attacks, described by his doctors as “brain fevers.” Recurring at approximately two-year intervals, they would plague him (and those nearest to him) over the course of the next eleven years, until the moment arrived in 1889 when he retired to his home, Brantwood in the Lake District. Save for one brief outing, he would never leave Brantwood again, remaining there until his death in early 1900 (Post 110). The retirement to Brantwood would also put an end to his writing. The five-decades long torrent of books, essays, and lectures came to an abrupt stop. Although he had hopes and plans to publish much more, it was as though a dam had been erected in his brain to still their flow.

Each of the “brain fevers” would have a psychotic period, sometimes these would last a few days, sometimes a few weeks. During them, he would be literally out of his mind. Happily, in their own due course, the manias would ease and he would return to a kind of normalcy, a time when he would be, more rather than less, himself.

This moment in 1881 occurred during one of these “recuperated periods.” Feeling  well after his second attack of the year before had dissipated, he had picked up his pen so that he might continue with Proserpina, his book on flowers, a much-loved project left unfinished at the time of the first attack in 1878. But there was now an urgency to his work which, before, had not been present. No one, not his doctors, his friends, even himself, had any surety that his life would last much longer.

In which context, it is perhaps not surprising that, as his flowery paragraphs advanced, he took some moments to compose a few sentences that reflected on the meaning of all he had written over the previous decades. What, he asked himself (and his readers) in the midst of a Proserpina chapter on the loveliness of violets, was the value of all he had done? What was the use of all those words? Answering himself as follows:

“[T]he only power I claim for any of my books is that of being right and true as far as they reach… They tell you that the world is so big, and can’t be made bigger, that you yourself are also so big, and can’t be made bigger, however you puff or bloat yourself, and that, on modern mental nourishment, you may very easily be made smaller. They tell you that two and two are four, that ginger is hot in the mouth, that roses are red, and smuts black. Not themselves assuming to be pious, they yet assure you that there is such a thing as piety in the world, and that it is wiser than impiety. Not themselves pretending to be works of genius, they yet assure you that there is such a thing as genius in the world, and that it is meant for the light and delight of the world… [T]hey are written in honest English… [and] the things they tell you are comprehensible by any moderately industrious and intelligent person…

Which, to me, seems to be a pretty fair assessment. And one, looking back on the line of posts which have preceded this one, that I believe aptly captures the essential message contained in all of them. Written in “honest English,” each is an attempt to illumine that fine path that takes us closer to the lovely, the life-enhancing, and the true. Good values all.

Ruskin in the early 1880s


Until next time.

Be well out there!



This entry was posted in Life, Ruskin's Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 114: The Value of My Work

  1. satwood8 says:

    This is an excellent passage you’ve chosen to highlight, Jim. The world is (still) in need of the sort of truths that Ruskin describes.

  2. Michelle Lovric says:

    ‘Honest English’ – even those of us who write for a living lose sight of that sometimes. It is good to be reminded. Thank you, Jim. x

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