152: The Glorious Bow (and other nautical wonders)

For Jack Harris and David Barrie,
serious sailors on opposite sides of the Atlantic

There can be no doubt, and it is often said, that Ruskin was a polymath. I’ve never had much liking for the word, it always making me think of having been given much too much trigonometry homework. But it is apt. The OED, noting that the word descends from the Greek, defines a polymath as someone who has learned much (“math”) about many things (“poly”). Clearly, Ruskin.

Over the course of his life, almost everything attracted his eager eye and mind. Intrinsically beautiful and grandiose things, such as he rendered in “Rocks in Unrest,”  which he drew in 1853 on the St. Gothard Pass between Switzerland and Italy as an illustration for the fourth volume of Modern Painters (now in the Thaw Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York): a marvelous painting.

But, just as importantly, there were the tiny, almost always overlooked things, like these stunning “Dead Oak Leaves,” painted more than two decades later (now in the Collection of The Guild of St. George, Sheffield, UK):

Image result for Ruskin drawing dead leaves

If we would but attend, he always said, we would find that beauty was emodied in everything, even in those things that usually seem inconsequential to our dim sight. Here’s a brief passage from Modern Painters I which says this, but better. (Thanks to Doug Seiler for forwarding me this passage which–it will come as no surprise!–is to be found in Rose Porter’s wonderful Nature Studies from Ruskin (Post 150, Post 151)!

Though Nature is constantly beautiful, she does not exhibit her highest powers of beauty constantly, for then they would satiate us and pall upon our senses. It is necessary to their application that they should be rarely shown. Her finest touches are things that must be watched for, her most perfect passages of beauty are the most evanescent. She is constantly doing something beautiful for us, but it is something which she has not done before and will not do again, some exhibition of her general powers in particular circumstances which, if we do not catch at the instant it is passing, will not be repeated…

Below he reports on another unexpected example of beauty, a delight which has surely been missed by all but the most dedicated sailors among us.

I’ve often said that much of Ruskin continues unread. Perhaps one of the least read books in this lamentable category is 1856’s The Harbours of England. Its purpose, which will hardly surprise anyone who has followed this site for any time, being to celebrate the unparalleled genius of J. M. W. Turner (Post 37 Post 89, Post 121, Post 147), this time by extolling Turner’s exquisite paintings of boats and the sea.

Here is how he begins his small book: by drawing our attention to something wonderful that his polymath eyes have seen, and, having seen, has come to love for its greatly underappreciated beauty:

Of all things living or lifeless upon this strange earth, there is but one which, having reached the mid-term of appointed human endurance on it, I still regard with unmitigated amazement. know indeed that all around me is wonderful–but I cannot answer it with wonder; a dark veil, with the foolish words, “Nature of Things” upon it casts its deadening folds between me and their dazzling strangeness. Flowers open, and stars rise, and it seems to me they could have done no less. The mystery of distant mountain-blue only makes me reflect that the earth is of necessity mountainous. The sea-wave breaks at my feet, and I do not see how it should have remained unbroken.

But one object there is still, which I never pass without the renewed wonder of childhood–and that is the bow of a boat. Not [the bow] of a racing-wherry, or revenue cutter, or clipper yacht, but the blunt head of a common, bluff, undecked sea-boat, lying aside in its furrow of beach sand. The sum of Navigation is in that!

You may magnify it, or decorate it as you will; you do not add to the wonder
of it. Lengthen it into hatchet-like edge of iron, strengthen it with complex tracery of ribs of oak, carve it and gild it till a column of light moves beneath it on the sea, you have made no more of it than it was at first. That rude simplicity of bent plank that can breast its way through the death that is in the deep sea has in it the soul of shipping.

Beyond this, we may have more work, more men, more money, we cannot have more miracle. For there is, first, an infinite strangeness in the perfection of the thing as the work of human hands. I know nothing else that man does which is perfect but that. All his other doings have some sign of weakness, affectation, or ignorance in them. They are overfinished or underfinished; they do not quite answer their end, or they show a mean vanity in answering it too well.

But the boat’s bow is naïvely perfect–complete, without an effort. The man who made it knew not he was making anything beautiful as he bent its planks into those mysterious, ever-changing curves. It grows under his hand into the image of a sea-shell, the seal, as it were, of the flowing of the great tides and streams of ocean stamped on its delicate rounding. He leaves it, when all is done, without a boast. It is simple work, but it will keep out water. And every plank thenceforward is a fate, and has men’s lives wreathed in the knots of it, as the cloth-yard shaft has their deaths in its plumes.

Then, also, it is wonderful on account of the greatness of the thing accomplished. No other work of human hands ever gained so much. Steam-engines and telegraphs indeed help us to fetch, and carry, and talk. They lift weights for us, and bring messages with less trouble than would have been needed otherwise. This saving of trouble, however, does not constitute a new faculty; it only enhances powers we already possess.

But, in that bow of the boat is the gift of another world. Without it, what prison wall would be so strong as that white and wailing fingeŗ of sea? What maimed creatures were we all, chained to our rocks Andromeda-like, or wandering by the endless shores, wasting our incommunicable strength, and pining in hopeless watch of unconquerable waves! The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat’s bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world. Their iron does more than draw lightning out of heaven, it leads love round the earth.

Tom Hopkins (1944-2011), an uncommonly fine Canadian painter, knew how marvelous bows were. Here, in his picture, “Lifeline, at Sunset,” is one proof.

And here, in “Lifeline, the Stranger” is another, this time with a view from the stern.

Tom Hopkins Dingy

Then there was Turner himself, whose skill with the brush and deep understanding of all that he painted, Ruskin was always trying to show us. Here’s one of the master’s images which Ruskin features in The Harbours, Turner’s drawing of the Port of Whitby (1825):

Turner, Ruskin tells us, grasped, like no painter before or after, what boats were, understood their significance in the world. Here’s another example, his rendition of Portsmouth harbor (1824-5). In viewing which, as in the picture of Whitby, we have the advantage of Ruskin’s readers, because they, poor souls, given the limited technology of the time, had to be content with black-and-white images. (Both Turner pictures are at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain, London): Portsmouth.

For our last example of the delights that previously underappreciated bows, ships, and harbors bestow, here is one of Ruskin’s own sketches–of a happy sailboat performing its appointed function in the lagoon of Venice on the 23rd of May, 1846. (The sketchbook is at The Ruskin Museum in Coniston, UK.) There is, of course, the glorious bow carving its way through the waves, while, at the same time, the sails and other elements of the vessel do their intended tasks, all illustrating the joy that always attends a good sail.

Ruskin Study of Foremost Sail (Sketchbook) Venice 23 May 1846 (Ruskin Museum)

Sail well out there.






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4 Responses to 152: The Glorious Bow (and other nautical wonders)

  1. Thanks very much, Jim. How that man could see – and write! The best description of boatly beauty in the language, I suspect. All good wishes, David

  2. Arjun Jain says:

    I must say, I had never before considered the beauty of the bow! But once, in childhood, with the help of my father, I built a model, I believe of HMS Bounty. The consideration of how the boat worked as a boat at the time did at least last a couple of months. I also have a question to ask, if I may? You quote Ruskin as mentioning steam engines and telegraphs, with their difference from the bow lying in the fact that the bow enables a new faculty, while the aforementioned, more modern items, merely enhance faculties which already he possesses. In his autobiography, Praeterita, in a passage on the importance of looking at of flowers, he admonishes against the use of microscopes and spectacles, using the very same argument, adding, moreover, that it might be immoral to use them, given that God, who made the flowers, gave ‘us’ ‘eyes’ to look at them. I am perhaps missing a very key point here, but can microscopes also not be said to have ‘constituted a new faculty’ in having opened the eyes to visions of the microscopic universe, as the bow has related us to the body to the sea? And by the same token, could it also not be thought ‘immoral’ to use a boat to unlock the secrets of the sea? Despite having called myself a physicist once, I do admit to having no especial affection for the microscope, but I have had this question for quite a while. Perhaps it is an issue, merely, of pace, and duration- of how long a certain object must take before it can readily be accepted as natural by the eyes.

  3. jimspates says:

    Good questions, Arjun. For them, thanks. Some responses. I think the key is in your sentence that God gave us eyes to see the beauty of this world. The reason he disliked microscopes, etc., was that they took us away from the natural beauty of the world that those eyes were created for. As well, machines (steam-boats, trains) did the same, making us into speeding packages who simply could not enjoy what we were passing by. Not to mention the noise and air pollution (which he certainly WOULD have mentioned! Much better to walk and stop and look at the flowers and the shapes of the hills. And he resigned his Oxford Professorship for the last time in the mid-1880s because of the university’s support of the practice of vivisection.
    Still, as some have pointed out, he was not entirely consistent about all this. In the Italian Alps one winter he hunted intensely for what we could call sunglasses so that he could see what the great glare of the sun on the snow hid. (I don’t recall if he found them.) And he often took the trains because, whatever their distortions, they made his work easier.
    As for the worlds that the microscope made possible for us to see for the first time, you are right, much of it is not only new but beautiful beyond all telling. I’m not sure, but I suspect his position would have been that it would be better to comprehend fully what our God-given eyes allowed us to see–which we did not then and still do not–before we went on to other levels. To put it in another context: to go to the Moon and Mars is an impressive thing, but there are still a lot of people here who don’t have enough to eat and the polar ice caps are melting at a terrifying pace. Jim

    • Arjun Jain says:

      Thank you, Jim. I had indeed read your answer yesterday evening itself, but found myself compelled to be thinking about it all day long again today, before being able to write a proper response. You are clearly right about the various kinds of pollutions, and on the point about priorities; I wholeheartedly agree. There has been, however, a doubt in my mind regarding the being given of our eyes, by God, to see the beauty of the world; for has He Himself not also given us the mind to be able to invent such tools as will distract us from it, even, it appears today, destroy it entirely? Reflecting upon a ‘tree-hunting’ expedition I went on yesterday morning, and those particular lessons, I felt, I learnt on it, I thought today whether it wasn’t perhaps the increase in difficulty that such means or machines as the microscope put in the way of our being able to derive morals from whatever we care to see, and not perhaps to appreciate beauty alone, that was the reason, perhaps subconscious, of Ruskin’s antagonism towards them- because, essentially, they deprive us from opportunities for moral upliftment. I do not think that humanity has so far advanced, in general, for it to be able to see in nature a teacher, as Wordsworth wrote, by way of a microscope; the views on offer are much too alien. Even whilst I was studying physics- nuclear physics- the only morality I could teach myself, come to think of it, lay not in the peculiar study of ‘nuclei’ per se, but in fact in those background processes of ‘studying’ them. To illustrate my point, again should I refer to that expedition yesterday: the lesson I learnt- relearnt- was that ‘to every thing there is a season’. Now I know that there exist certain mobile applications as well, that can recognise a tree from a photograph instantly, be it in season or not; but I do not, at all, think I could have arrived at the very same conclusion thereby. – An American professor of mine, a few years ago, related to me that children- at least in California- were no longer required to study geometry in school; I am of course aware, also, of the wholesale acceptance of calculators in the West, which no longer are seen as threats to students’ mathematical capabilities; I was astonished, also, to see how few people in England cared for Latin anymore. Surely, not the very best of signs, I should say.
      As regards Ruskin’s inconsistencies, I was thinking today again upon the time mobile phones started becoming as ubiquitous. Though I myself can perhaps not survive without one today, I remember being the last, at least amongst my friends, to buy one. Of these matters, or technologies, I have only been able to conclude this: that they aren’t indeed principally good, or required, but I must continue to partake of them, should I want to go on living in the world. It is as with the wearing of clothes, I sometimes think, ha!

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