Some time ago, I sent out a post about Ruskin’s Old Road and said something there about how important that antique passage–through Northern Europe and through the Alps before heading down into Italy–had been for his thought and work over the course of the six decades he lectured and wrote (Post 121). As that post was going up, four of us were on the cusp of a European tour which, as its three weeks went by, would take us to many of the places he had visited. My fantasy was that I would send out posts describing, in his words, these marvelous places as the road brought us to them. But then the Old Road itself, replete with its seductive wonders, took over, absorbing all of our days and evenings, with the result that the idea of sending out a series of on-site posts vanished. But the thought that it would be a good idea if, eventually, I shared something about these marvelous places remained.
So today I begin that postponed series of posts–to appear every now and then–which will take us to parts of the Old Road that Mr. Ruskin loved so very well, using him as our guide. When his paragraphs describing these incredible places first published, the passages he had composed transfixed his readers. Even if they had been to the sites themselves, they had not seen them as he had seen them. Then they had been but tourists, dutifully visiting what they had been told they must visit, deriving from such visits a modicum of pleasure to accompany the knowledge, which they eagerly wished to share with their friends, that they had “been there.”
But Ruskin’s descriptions were something else entirely. Some readers, who had not been to the places he described, were inspired to travel there so that they might see for themselves what he had seen. But even for the sedentary majority, those who stayed home, there were wonderful benefits, as today’s selection will make palpable.
It first appeared in Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita. At fourteen, with his parents, he made his first trip on what would soon become the Old Road, passionately desirous of seeing the sites that Turner had chosen to inspire his indescribably beautiful Continental watercolors. En route, after disembarking at Calais, the little entourage, bound for Italy, stopped at all the great cities, Rouen, Paris, Lyons, Geneva. Ruskin loved the last best. To him, Geneva was the epitome of what a city should be: delightful to the eye, easily accessible to anyone able to walk, and quiet, as its well-mannered citizens went about their daily duties. Most of all, he loved how the Rhone, fresh from its plunge from the high Alps, made its brisk way through the city just before beginning its long descent to Marseilles and its extinction in the Mediterranean. One day while they were in Geneva, Ruskin walked to the river’s edge so that he might study the flowing river, later describing the experience as follows.
(There are, as regular readers of this site know, a plethora of marvelous Ruskin passages extolling the wonders of nature. This is surely one of the greatest. I am stunned when I realize I have not posted it before!)
For all other rivers there is a surface, and an underneath, and a vaguely displeasing idea of the bottom. But [in Geneva] the Rhone flows like one lambent jewel. Its surface is nowhere, its ethereal self everywhere, the iridescent rush and translucent strength of it is blue to the shore, and radiant to the depth. Fifteen feet thick–not of flowing, but flying, water. Not water, neither: melted glacier rather, one should call it! The force of the ice is with it, and the wreathing of the clouds, the gladness of the sky, and the continuance of Time.
Waves of clear sea are, indeed, lovely to watch. But they are always coming or gone, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But here the river iss one mighty wave that is always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil, but, alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun is up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue, glass of a painted window melted in the sun–and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it forever from her snow.
The innocent way, too, in which the river used to stop to look into every little corner. Great torrents always seem angry, and great rivers too often sullen. But there is no anger, no disdain, in the Rhone. It seemed as if the mountain stream was in mere bliss at recovering itself again out of the lake-sleep, and raced because it rejoiced in racing, fain yet to return and stay. There were pieces of wave that danced all day…there were little streams that skipped like lambs and leaped like chamois. There were pools that shook the sunshine all through them and were rippled in layers of overlaid ripples, like crystal sand. There were currents that twisted the light into golden braids, and inlaid the threads with turquoise enamel. There were strips of stream that had certainly, above the lake [of Geneva] been millstreams, and were looking busily for mills to turn again. There were shoots of stream that had once shot fearfully into the air, and now sprang up again laughing that they had only fallen a foot or two. And in the midst of all the gay glittering and eddied lingering, the noble bearing by of the midmost depth, so mighty, yet so terrorless and harmless, with its swallows skimming instead of petrels, and the dear old decrepit town as safe in the embracing sweep of it as if it were set in a brooch of sapphire.
And if, during a week in a now imagined future, it happens that you stop in Geneva and make it a point to walk to the Rhone and stand by it as you re-read this passage (as thousands, Praeterita in hand, in Ruskin’s day, did) you will find, as his words mimicking the river flow, that what you are reading is not merely a breath-taking piece of prose, but an utterly accurate description of the evanescent, iridescent blue-green waters, will find too, as this first realization settles in, that, in these few sentences, Ruskin has shown you something inordinately beautiful which, previously, even if you have spent some time in Geneva, you have missed, has made you aware of just one of an infinitude of lovelinesses that inhere in the natural scenes which daily envelop us, and—most importantly—grasp that he has helped move your consciousness to a higher level of appreciation, a level of enjoyment which, before, you were not aware existed, and that, in doing so, he has made you a happier human being. No small feats, these. But the best recognition is the awareness that you don’t have to go to Geneva to gather his gift of the Rhone: all that is needed are a few quiet moments during which, while you read, you allow his wondrous words to fashion the scene for you in your imagination, a bestowing beyond price.
Until next time!
Be well out there while fall makes its expected, and usually lovely, advance.