159: Recomposing the Pines

Good Folks,

In our last post (# 158: The Poem that took the Shape of a Mountain), I left the door open to the possibility that perhaps Wallace Stevens might not have had Mr. Ruskin in mind when he set down his fine verses, adding that I would come back to this thought. 

In the meantime, I did a little searching on the web and found that a number of literary essays on Stevens which note that he did indeed read Ruskin. Good. But the case I was making didn’t really rest on such evidence. It was based, first, on my friend, Claudette Kemper Columbus’ assessment that the  poem was about Ruskin and my own subsequent readings of him which, as I tried to show with references to earlier posts on this site that included passages Stevens must have read and been so affected by that he inserted allusions to them in his lines.

Today, we’ll look at another of Ruskin’s wonderful writings on nature which, as I see it, makes Claudette’s case all but indubitable.

You’ll recall that, early in the poem, Stevens tells us that his subject “recomposed the pines.” As indeed Ruskin did in the marvelous passage which appeared in Modern Painters V (1859). As his description develops, note how he does what Ruskin alone can do–makes this usually underappreciated citizen of the woods come alive in our imagination, and as it does, he teaches us reverence for it. Stevens must have seen and felt similarly when he read these sentences, for, had he not, why would he have included his lovely recompositional phrase in his verse? Admittedly, the passage is a bit long but, as always with Ruskin, if you give it some concentrated attention, you will find that it lights up–to pick an image at random–pines do when the sun rises behind them in the morning.

The Pines

Of the many marked adaptations of nature to the mind of man, it seems one of the most singular that trees intended especially for the adornment of the wildest mountains should be in broad outline the most formal of trees. The vine, which is to be the companion of man, is waywardly docile in its growth, falling into festoons beside his cornfields, or roofing his garden-walks, or casting its shadow all summer upon his door… [But the] pine, placed nearly always among scenes disordered and desolate, brings into them all possible elements of order and precision.

Lowland trees may lean to this side and that even though it is but a meadow breeze that bends them or a bank of cowslips from which their trunks lean aslope. But let storm and avalanche do their worst, and let the pine find only a ledge of vertical precipice to cling to, it will nevertheless grow straight! Thrust a rod from its last shoot down the stem: it shall point to the centre of the earth as long as the tree lives. Also, it may be well for lowland branches to reach hither and thither for what they need, and to take all kinds of irregular shape and extension, but the pine is trained to need nothing, and to endure everything. It is resolvedly whole, self-contained, desiring nothing but rightness, content with restricted completion. Tall or short, it will be straight. Small or large, it will be round.

It may be permitted also to these soft lowland trees that they should make themselves gay with show of blossom and glad with pretty charities of fruitfulness, [but the pines] have harder work to do for man, and must do it in close-set troops:  to stay the sliding of the mountain snows which would bury him; to hold in divided drops…the rain which would sweep away him and his treasure-fields; to nurse in shade among our brown fallen leaves the tricklings that feed the brooks in drought; to give massive shield against the winter wind which shrieks through the bare branches of the plain. “Such service must we [pines do for] him steadfastly while we live. Our bodies, also, are at his service. Softer than the bodies of other trees (though our toil is harder than theirs). Let him take them as pleases him for his houses and ships. So also it may be well for these timid lowland trees to tremble with all their leaves, or turn their paleness to the sky, if but a rush of rain passes by…or to let fall their leaves at last, sick and sere. But we pines must live carelessly amidst the wrath of clouds. We only wave our branches to and fro when the storm pleads with us, as men toss their arms in a dream. And finally, [do not miss that] these weak lowland trees may struggle fondly for the last remnants of life, and send up feeble saplings again from their roots when they are cut down. But we…perish boldly. Our dying shall be perfect and solemn,.. We give up our lives without reluctance, and forever.”

[Now] I wish the reader to fix his attention for a moment on these two great characters of the pine: its straightness and rounded perfectness, both wonderful, and in their issue lovely… I say, first, its straightness. Because we constantly see it in the wildest scenery, we are apt to remember only, as characteristic examples of it, those which have been disturbed by violent accident or disease. Of course, such instances are frequent. The soil of the pine is subject to continual change; perhaps the rock in which it is rooted splits in frost and falls forward, throwing the young stems aslope, or the whole mass of earth around it is undermined by rain, or a huge boulder falls on its stem from above, and forces it for twenty years to grow with weight of a couple of tons leaning on its side. Hence, especially at edges of loose cliffs, about waterfalls, or at glacier banks, and in other places liable to disturbance, the pine may be seen distorted and oblique.

[For instance, consider] Turner’s “Source of the Arveron,” [where] he has–with his usual unerring perception of the main point in any matter–fastened on the means of relating the glacier’s history. The glacier cannot explain its own motion, and ordinary observers saw in it only its rigidity, but Turner saw that the wonderful thing was its non-rigidity. Other ice is fixed. This ice stirs. All the banks are staggering beneath its waves, crumbling and withered as by the blast of a perpetual storm. He made the rocks of his foreground loose, rolling and tottering down together. The pines, smitten aside by them, their tops dead, bared by the ice wind.

J. M. W. Turner, “The Source of the Arveyron below the Glacier du Bois and Mer de Glace, Chamonix, French Alps, 1802. (Tate Britain)

Nevertheless, this is not the truest or universal expression of the pine’s character. I said long ago, even of Turner: “Into the spirit of the pine he cannot enter.” He understood the glacier at once. He had seen the force of sea on shore too often to miss the action of those crystal-crested waves. But the pine was strange to him, adverse to his delight in broad and flowing line. He refused its magnificent erectness. Magnificent! Nay, sometimes, almost terrible! Other trees, tufting crag or hill, yield to the form and sway of the ground, clothe it with soft compliance, are partly its subjects, partly its flatterers, partly its comforters. But the pine rises in serene resistance, self-contained.

Nor can I ever, without awe, stay long under a great Alpine cliff, far from all house or work of men, looking up to its companies of pine as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of the enormous wall in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it—upright, fixed, spectral, as troops of ghosts standing on the walls of Hades, not knowing each other, dumb forever. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them. Those trees never heard human voice. They are far above all sound but of the winds. No foot ever stirred fallen leaf of theirs. All comfortless they stand, between the two eternities of the Vacancy and the Rock, yet with such iron will that the rock itself looks bent and shattered beside them—fragile, weak, inconsistent–compared to their dark energy of delicate life and monotony of enchanted pride: unnumbered, unconquerable.

Then note, farther, their perfectness. The impression on most people’s minds must have been received more from pictures than reality so far as I can judge, so ragged they think the pine. Whereas its chief character in health is green and full roundness. It stands compact, like one of its own cones, slightly curved on its sides, finished and quaint as a carved tree in some Elizabethan garden. And instead of being wild in expression, forms the softest of all forest scenery. Other trees show their trunks and twisting boughs, but the pine, growing either in luxuriant mass or in happy isolation, allows no branch to be seen…

Nor is [the pine] softer, but in one sense [it is] more cheerful than other foliage. For it casts only a pyramidal shadow. Lowland forest arches overhead, and checkers the ground with darkness… [The pine’s] gloom is all its own. Narrowing into the sky, it lets the sunshine strike down to the dew. And if ever a superstitious feeling comes over me among the pine-glades, it is never tainted with the old German forest-fear, but is only a more solemn tone of the fairy enchantment that haunts our English meadows… 

And. [lastly, there is] then the third character which I want you to notice in the pine: its exquisite fineness. Other trees rise against the sky in dots and knots, but this in fringes. You never see the edges of it, so subtle are they. And for this reason, it alone of trees, so far as I know, is capable of the fiery change…[when] the sun rises behind a ridge crested with pine (provided the ridge be at a distance of about two miles and seen clear), all the trees, for about three or four degrees on each side of the sun, become trees of light, seen in clear flame against the darker sky and dazzling as the sun itself. I thought at first this was owing to the actual lustre of the [needles]. But I believe now it is caused by the cloud-dew upon them, every minutest leaf carrying its diamond! It seems as if these trees, living always among the clouds, had caught part of their glory from them, and, themselves the darkest of vegetation, could yet add splendor to the sun itself.

A “recomposing of the pines,” was how Stevens described these paragraphs. A perfect phrase, don’t you think? poets being, perhaps, more sensitive to such marvelous things than we more prosaic souls. As Ruskin notes more than once in what he writes, we have all been taught by our culture to regard pines in a particular way, that way being something along the lines of “interesting perhaps, but hardly important.” Knowing this, Ruskin gives us a new way to look at these tall marvels, gives us, quite literally, new eyes for appreciating them–not unlike the new appreciation he made possible for Charlotte Bronte when, after finishing the first volume of Modern Painters, she wrote a friend, W. S. Williams, in July, 1848, ““I have lately been reading Modern Painters, and I have derived from the work much genuine pleasure. Hitherto, I have only had instinct to guide me in the judging of art and the viewing of nature. I now feel as if I had been walking blindfolded. This book seems to give me eyes.” And so here: knowing our enculturated view to be, at best, a squinting one, Ruskin recreatesthe pines for us, so that, as we go forward, they can be a source of joy rather than an incidental experience.

The Pines

Pines near Ruskin’s Rock on the Brevant Mountain, Chamonix, French Alps

Pines and Mt Blanc from Lac Vert 2016

Pines framing Mont Blanc from Lac Vert, French Alps


By the mid-1880s, Ruskin’s sweet friendship with Susie Beever, like him a resident of Coniston in the Lake District, was a decade old. Susie cherished his work and told him that, even though she knew he disliked the idea of excerpting his thoughts from the contexts that had generated them, he should collect the best passages of his Modern Painters books into a single place; people would love it. When he evinced a decided disinclination to undertake the project, she asked if she might do it. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed and Frondes Agrestes (“the leaves of the field”) was published in 1884. (Copies can be easily found on the web.)

One of the passages (you won’t be surprised) that Susie selected was “The Pines.” Before her collection went to press, Ruskin read her selections and occasionally inserted interpretive notes to frame a given entry. Regarding “The Pines,” he wrote: “Almost the only pleasure I have, myself, in re-reading my old books, is my sense of having at least done justice to the pine.”

“Recomposed the pines,” Wallace Stevens might have said.

Until next time.

Be well out there!


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