George Sampson was, as I said in our last post, when it came to an accurate understanding of Ruskin, both brilliant and insightful. The sentences we read, within which he summarized our subject’s life and work were accurate, crisp, and revealing at the same time, all but dancing off the pages on which they appeared. Marvelous!
But of the man who composed them, George Sampson himself, I knew nothing other than that he was the author of this magisterial book, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, in which his terrific paragraphs appeared and which Gabe Meyer had put into in my hands during a recent Ruskin trip to California.
In the post, I lamented this lack of information. Happily, not long after, another George, Landow, the indispensible and indefatigable editor of another magisterial work, The Victorian Web (click here), [do check out its extensive Ruskin section!] sent me an obituary, published shortly after Sampson’s death in 1950. As it turns out–rather importantly in light of what follows–he was not a professor, even though, for quite some time, he was headmaster of a higher-grade school in the UK. Written by Sydney C. Roberts and revised by John D. Haigh, the obituary informs us that Sampson drew his first breath in 1873 and that, over the course of his nearly eight decades of life, he said and did some things of which Mr. Ruskin would have approved heartily. Here’s some of the obituary:
As a schoolmaster, Sampson worked for the improved teaching of English in the spirit of a crusader. In May, 1919, he was appointed a member of the distinguished departmental committee on the teaching of English and served as general secretary of the English Association. In 1921, he published English for the English, a passionate plea for better teaching based on two principles: first, that “it is the purpose of education not to prepare children for their occupations, but to prepare children against their occupations [!!];” and second, that “a sound educational system must be based upon the great means of human intercourse, human speech in spoken and written word.” The book was a tract for the times, but became a minor classic, its memorable dictum that “every teacher is a teacher of English” being widely quoted. After many reprints, it appeared in a new edition in 1952.
With this pioneering work as a teacher Sampson combined a continuous activity as editor and critic. He edited George Berkeley’s works in 1897–98, and this was followed by editions of many authors, including Edmund Burke…, Thomas More, George Herbert, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, William Wordsworth, and William Hazlitt. Some of these were designed for use in schools and universities, but all bore the mark of an individual critical mind. This was recognized by the University of Cambridge, which made him an honorary MA in 1920. The width and catholicity of Sampson’s reading, supplemented by a pungent style, qualified him in a notable way as a literary historian… In 1941 he triumphed on a much larger scale. Twenty years before, he had been invited to write a one-volume epitome of The Cambridge History of English Literature. Its completion was delayed by ill health, but when it was published it was rightly hailed as a tour de force. It was designed primarily as a handbook for students, but Sampson was one of nature’s scholars, and the book is as readable as it is informing. Throughout the long labour of condensation he retained an individual freshness, and his supplementary chapter on the post-Victorians is a powerful piece of criticism… His opinions were strongly held and he did not aspire to be an essayist of gentle charm… After his retirement Sampson went to live at Hove where his later years were darkened by persistent insomnia. He died on 1 February 1950…of a coronary thrombosis.
Quite a fellow, then, this Sampson, because, in what we have just read, we can clearly see that Messrs. Roberts and Haigh have presented us with all we need to know to understand why Mr. Sampson wrote so smartly and accurately about Mr. Ruskin.
Sometime ago, in Post 68: Vital Energy of the Heart, I quoted the brief passage which appears below. It is taken from Ruskin’s only effort (probably a good thing!) at creating a Platonic dialogue, The Ethics of the Dust, a series of semi-fictional tea-time talks that transpired between an “Old Lecturer” and a group of girls and young women who, at the time, were enrolled in a “finishing school” in England’s north. At one point in one of these chats, the Old Lecturer told his admirers about this rule of life:
Briefly, the constant duty of every man is to ascertain his own powers and special gifts, and strengthen them for the help of others. Do you think that Titian would have helped the world better by denying himself and not painting, or Casella by denying himself and not singing? The real virtue is to be ready to sing the moment people ask us.
Since most of us are likely to have some idea of Titian and, as a result, some sense of why Ruskin chose to use him as someone who was always ready to sing whenever his talents were requested, it is probably enough if I reproduce an image of one of the handful of works which are regarded by those who know most about these things as belonging among his greatest. It hangs in The National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. If you’d like to learn more about it, here’s a start: “Titian’s Three Ages of Man”
Casella, however, Ruskin’s other reference in his pasage, is probably, like George Sampson was before our previous post, less immediately recognizable. Happily, a little web research goes some distance toward lessening his obscurity. For one thing, Casella was one of the greatest singers in Italian history. For another–and this is likely why Ruskin chose him as example–Dante (whom Ruskin loved and read over and over again), in the second canto of The Purgatorio, reports that, not long after entering this strange, intermediate stage between hell and heaven, he met Casella’s “shade”–a spirit who is required to spend a goodly amount of time purifying his soul in purgatory before being allowed to enter Paradise. Having met Casella, Dante, who is intently aware of why he was revered by so many during his lifetime, implores the ghost to sing a lovely song in hopes of soothing his own disquieted soul. Like Titain, Casella is always at the ready to use his great talent when requested, and so starts to sing. His voice and delivery are so beautiful, everyone present is mesmerized. Here is how Dante describes the moment (as it is recounted in Longfellow’s translation of The Divine Comedy):
Forthwith began he so melodiously,
The melody within me still is sounding.
My Master [the Roman poet, Virgil], and myself, and all that people
Which were with him appeared as satisfied
As if naught else might touch the mind of any.
We all of us were moveless and attentive
Unto his notes…
And here’s a Gustave Dore drawing of the mellifluous moment (in it, Virgil is kneeling):
Which brings us back to Mr. Ruskin’s good words. The duty of each of us, he tells his charges us there, is to develop our special talents so that, when the time arrives when someone else is in need of the blessing they can bestow, we will be ready to sing. When that happens we all profit (in the true sense of that almost always misused word). Certainly, Dante, Virgil, Titian, Casella, and Ruskin worked assiduously so that they would always be ready to sing. So too, it seems to me, did the largely unheralded but marvelously talented Mr. Sampson, whose sweet song of praise to Mr. Ruskin recently re-emerged from the pages of his now (mostly forgotten) Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Applause to him for doing his duty. Thanks to Gabe for re-discovering the evidence of his efforts. And thanks to John Zawakis for letting me know that the fine drawing of Casella’s helpful moment was Dore’s.
Until next time.
Be well out there!
P.S.: I note that I still, despite some intense searching on the web by myself and a few others, haven’t been able to find a picture of our good headmaster. If ever you do, please send it my way.