That Ruskin deeply inspired, we know. Testimonials, many and wonderful, abound (see, as instances, Post 112: On the Occasion of Ruskin’s 199th Birthday or Post 140: A Ruskin Eulogy) That he inspired millions to go to Venice is beyond question (Post 98: On Entering Venice’s Piazza San Marco). That he motivated many to draw, and that some of those who picked up pens and brushes went on to become fine artists we also know (Post 95: Drawing (An Enticement). That his short story, the only children’s tale he ever told, inspired a terrific piece of chamber music is a matter of record (Post 130: The King of the Golden River, A Composition for Tenor and String Quartet).
But that he was also an inspiration for not a few poems is less well recognized. Today we take a first step toward rectifying that gap, because one such poem, and a wonderful one it is too, is our subject.
It was around 1990. I had recently begun reading Ruskin in earnest, put onto him by my friend and colleague, Claudette Kemper Columbus, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where, for many years, we both taught. A month or so after grasping the level of my enthusiasm for this Victorian master, Claudette handed me a copy of Wallace Stevens’ “The Poem that Took the Shape of a Mountain.” I didn’t know anything of either Stevens or his poem. “It’s about Ruskin,” she said. “It’s a veiled homage, Stevens’ gentle applause acknowledging what his reading of Ruskin had done for him. You’ll see that in time if you go on reading Ruskin yourself.”
And so, today, three decades of my allotted Ruskin time having now slipped into memory, having learned some time ago that Claudette was quite right both in her assessment of and prediction about my understanding of this poem, I offer–as a result of a recent conversation that reminded me of it–its verses for consideration.
Stevens, as you may know, was and remains one of the acknowledged masters of twentieth century American poetry. The poem was publishe printed for the first time (I think) in his last collection, The Rock, in 1954. (He died in 1955.)
The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks, and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
Like all great poems, of course, this could be–surely is–about many things. But that it is a lyrical and heartfelt tribute to Ruskin has to seem beyond doubt to anyone who has read with any care the passage from Modern Painters IV where he describes “The Office of the Mountains” (Post 64) or his worshipful, unspeakably beautiful, paean to the clouds in Modern Painters I (Post 2: The Wondrous Sky)
But, just in case you might still entertain the thought that the poem might not really be a Ruskin tribute, hold onto that idea until you consider our next post.
Until that approaching moment, be well out there.