That Ruskin was a genius of the first rank we know. But he was wise enough to know that what he knew had only come in largest measure from a determination to do whatever was needed to know what he still did not know.
In the late 1850s, then on the cusp of making his life-altering transition from art and architecture critic to one of society, having, a decade and more before, come to the realization that everyone had some gift to give the world (see Post 99: The Little Man and the Dragon, and/or Post 180: The Lovely Lady of Lyons), a view in marked contrast to that held by many of his elite contemporaries (who tended to think that those who labored for them were, as Dickens described them in Hard Times, “the hands,” he determined that he should do his part to help some of those who had been much less fortunate in life than himself to find, and then put into practice, their previously unknown talents. With such in mind, he joined a group of his contemporaries who were then teaching at “The Working Men’s College” in London. It had been founded in 1854 by F. D Maurice, and boasted among its early teachers, Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s School Days), and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti–about which there’s a very great deal to say; but not today.
Ruskin’s task at WMC was to teach, not surprisingly, art appreciation and drawing; not with any hope of finding a latent Turner, but as a way to sensitize his students to the importance of art in helping us see the beauty of the world (Post 95: Drawing (An Enticement). Among his early students at The Workingmen’s College was an innkeeper’s son by the name of George Allen. It wasn’t long before he discovered in him a young man possessed of a remarkable intelligence and eager curiosity, both of which, thus far, had been weakly tapped.
Not long after making his discovery, Ruskin, overburdened with work as always, decided to hire Allen to work as his assistant in carrying out various projects, not the least of which was the immense task of sorting through and cataloging the entirety of J. M. W. Turner’s immense “Gift to the Nation”–approximately 20,000 paintings and drawings the great artist had left at the time of his death. The work, carried out in The National Gallery in London, took months, and, to Ruskin’s delight, Allen proved an imaginative and efficient helper.
it was all new–and daunting–for the innkeeper’s son. But, once he saw how much there was to know that he didn’t know because of the paucity of education in his early life, Allen asked Ruskin how he might go about learning everything he would need to know to become a learned man. Recognizing the sincerity in the question, Ruskin decided to share with Allen the way in which he had learned to learn himself. To make yourself into someone truly learned was, he knew, no frivolous task. The road one had to travel was both taxing and intensely time-consuming. But, if you set yourself intently on it, in due course, you could become, by your own choice and effort, learned. Here’s what you will need to do, he explained to Allen in a letter posted in August, 1861:
Reading for education consists mainly in reading attentively, and only what you wish permanently to remember. Never pass a word, if you can help it, without understanding it, and, [everything important that is related to] it. Read always with maps, if possible, when you read about places [like, for example, India], and leave the book at every sentence if necessary to hunt down a difficulty. What does “Punjab” mean? Where is the district? How large is it? “Burma” where? “Afghanistan!” Where? And so on. What is a “Sikh”? How are Sikhs armed? What is the origin of their race?” [Regarding] Indian money: a “rupee” [is] how much? A “lac” of rupees, how much? Origin of the word, rupee? Pronunciation of it? Half a page read this way is worth more than half a volume read for amusement!
[The holograph of this letter is preserved at The Ruskin (Library, Lancaster University, in the UK. I read it not there, however, but in a pre-publication draft of a chapter in Paul Dawson’s forthcoming book on George Allen–who, as this important new volume will demonstrate in no uncertain terms, is not only an extremely important but a much underappreciated person in the Ruskin story.]
The innkeeper’s son took Ruskin’s sage advice and, in less than a decade, did indeed make himself into a remarkably well-educated man. So notable were his advances that, as the 1860s neared their end, Ruskin, unhappy for various reasons with his long time publisher, Smith, Elder, began to entertain the idea that Allen might become his exclusive publisher. Would Allen, he asked, as a first step, like to oversee the collating and printed of a new series Ruskin wanted to call his Collected Works (meaning those books he regarded as the most essential he had thus far published)? Knowing almost nothing about publishing, but willing to do whatever he might to please his master, Allen agreed.
And so began one of the most important relationships of both their lives, a relationship that would last until Ruskin’s death in early 1900 and far beyond as Allen would continue as the sole publisher of Ruskin’s reprinted works, of many books about him, as well as the monumental, 39-volume, Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin (approximately 17,000 pages!). After his own death in 1908, his sons would take over the publishing house, eventually merging it into “Allen and Unwin” in the second decade of the new century, transforming it, in time, into one of the greatest of English publishing houses. Hardly an insignificant accomplishment for an innkeeper’s son who, when he started down the taxing and time-consuming path of educating himself his employer had recommended to him, had no idea that either a Punjab or a Sikh existed.
1873. A dozen years have passed since Ruskin sent his eager young assistant, George Allen, the letter outlining how he could set about educating himself most efficiently. By this time, Allen, now living in a house he named Sunnyside, in Orpington in the English south, has indeed become his master’s exclusive publisher, printing and selling all of Ruskin’s recent books and, monthly, offering for public sale Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, his “Letters to the Workmen and Laborers of Great Britain.”
As for Ruskin, when he is not teaching at Oxford or traveling on the Continent, he is living at Brantwood, over three hundred miles to Allen’s north. Every morning after breakfast, he works for some hours on his most pressing projects and, after he had composed the required number of new pages and the holographs of same have been readied for posting to Allen in that afternoon’s mail, he sets to work reducing, at least somewhat, the daunting pair of piles labeled “in need of immediate reply” that lie on the floor next to his desk in his study. Sometimes he writes as many as thirty letters a day. In the afternoons, his head very much in need of clearing, he relaxes a bit, often going for long walks, sometimes into Coniston (where he often visits the schools), or, as today, with his faithful dog, Maude, gamboling beside him, through the nearby woods and up to the moorlands far above Brantwood.
Today, as he nears the end of his climb, he decides he will stop in at the Stalker farm to pay his respects. Mr. Stalker, a shepherd, he knows, will be out tending his flocks, but inside, he is sure that he will find Mrs. Stalker and her lovely nine-year old daughter, Alice. They have been comfortable acquaintances for years. As soon as he arrives at the door, Mrs. Stalker, as always delighted to see him, asks him to come in and sit down. She will make them all tea. Which she proceeds to do. Then, after they have chatted for a time, she returns to her kitchen work. Later, her guest will post a letter to his adored cousin, Joan Severn, then living in London with her husband, the painter, Arthur Severn, and their children in the Ruskin’s old family house on Herne Hill. In it, will recount his visit to Mrs. Stalker’s kitchen. The good lady of the house, he says,
was baking–a great lesson for me! A large pot hung over the hearth…[It] held six or eight small loaves side by side at the bottom… The bread [would be] baked in an hour Mrs.Stalker said, and I never saw anything that looked nicer! She had baked for twenty-two years, [so] I really shall know something worth knowing at last in this nice country.
But the most enjoyable moments of this visit were those spent with the delightful, energetic, always inquisitive, daughter of the house, Agnes (portrayed in the 50th and 51st letters, those for February and March, 1875). Over the course of several visits, he and Agnes have become good friends. Always, she asks him to tell her all about this or that, things which she knew nothing or very little about, believing that he would surely know the answers to her questions because he was, after all, a professor! Always, he does his best to respond helpfully, but, not infrequently, he finds himself flummoxed. He has learned that is is foolish, given her age, to tell her “everything” he knows about any given thing. Not long ago, responding to a question she had put to him about wood-carving, he had tried to make her see what made one woodcut a work of genius while the best that could be said of another was that it was “interesting.” He had brought a picture book form his library to prove his point. But after Agnes had looked at just one or two of these masterpieces, she had skipped over to her mother to help set the table for dinner! The experience had taught him was that what she needed was not some sophisticated example of something but an answer to her question that was simple, clear, and interesting. It was that sort of answer that satisfied her and, most importantly, kept her interested.
On this day, it had happened again. Agnes, with her usual curiosity and enthusiasm had asked him about bees. There were bees everywhere about the farm buzzing and flying, and landing; some landed here, she said (pulling Ruskin by the hand outside where she pointed to a group of bee-saturated purple flowers near the door to the house, but never there, she said, pointing to a different group of flowers near the barn. To make matters more complicated, she went on, some of the bees were yellow and small, while others were dark and large; some made a little noise when flying, but others were quite loud. And why did they like the flowers anyway, why didn’t any of them like wheat or parsley? Tell me about the bees please, Professor Ruskin! You surely must know all about them!
Well, as it happened, he didn’t, or, at least, he didn’t know very much. And so, after he has apologized to his young friend, he promises that, between that moment and the time when he next visits their farm–surely by the end of the week!–he will do his very best to get her good answers to the questions she has asked. Maybe he would even be able to find a book that had all the answers she needed. He would look. After hearing which, although it was clear that she was a bit disappointed, Agnes called Maude (who had been nicely curled up by the hearth all this time) and, after coaxing her into the yard, had a good romp with her.
A half hour after, the sun having started its descent toward the mountain on the other side of the lake called by everyone “The Old Man of Coniston” (Ruskin often felt like him these days!), and after he has thanked Mrs. Stalker profusely for her fine hospitality and given Agnes a goodbye hug, he and Maude begin to make their way down to Brantwood. As they come to the crest of the moor, it was not lost on the author of Modern Painters that the view to the west at this hour was beyond glorious. Maude, however, for reasons of her own that she does not deign to explain, does not seem to notice.
The next morning, after he has finished composing his pages for the day and has gotten them packed for posting to Allen, because his curiosity about bees is now high, Ruskin decides that he will eschew–for this day only, because tomorrow there will be a second pile labeled “must respond to” where now only one lies!–his letter writing and set to finding out what he promised he’d tell Agnes about when they visit next. “But this isn’t going to be easy,” he thinks to himself as he heads to his library and finds the section with his books on entomology, “I don’t really know much about bees!”
After contemplating the contents of the shelves for a few minutes, he pulls out a few volumes, carries them with him, sits in his favorite chair, and places them on the table before him. What would be of most use to little Agnes, he asks himself. What kind of a book would it be? Ruminating thus:
I don’t in the least want a book to tell her how many species of bees there are, nor what grounds there may be for suspecting that one species is another species, nor why Mr. B is convinced that what Mr. A considered two species are indeed one species; nor how conclusively Mr. C has proved that what Mr. B described as a new species is an old species. Neither do I want a book to tell her what a bee’s inside is like, nor whether it has its brains in the small of its back, or nowhere in particular, like a modern political economist [!], nor whether the morphological nature of the sternal portion of the thorax should induce us, strictly, to call it the prosternum…
But I [do] want a book to tell her, for instance, how a bee buzzes, and how, and by what instrumental touch, its angry buzz differs from its pleased or simply busy buzz. Nor have I any objection to the child’s learning, for good and all, such a dreadful word as “proboscis,” though I don’t, myself, understand why in the case of a big animal, like an elephant, one should be allowed, in short English, to say that it takes a bun with its trunk, and yet be required to state always, with severe accuracy, that a bee gathers honey with its proboscis! Whatever we are allowed to call it, however, our bee-book must assuredly tell Agnes and me, what at present I believe neither of us know,—certainly I don’t myself!—how the bee’s feeding instrument differs from its building one, and what either may be like.
I pause, here, to think over and put together the little I do know, and consider how it should be told. I am not sure, after all, that I should like her to know even so much as this. For, on inquiring, myself into the matter I find (Ormerod quoting Dr. H. Landois) that a humble bee has a drum in its stomach, and that one half of this drum can be loosened and then drawn tight again, and that the bee breathes through the slit between the loose half and tight half, and that, in this slit, there is a little comb, and on this comb the humble bee plays while it breathes, as on a Jew’s harp, and can’t help it. But a honey bee hums with its “thoracic spiracles, not with its stomach!
On the whole—I don’t think I shall tell Agnes anything about all this. She may get through her own life, perhaps, just as well without ever knowing that there’s any such thing as a thorax, or a spiracle. For, to my own mind, [all this generates] a somewhat grotesque series of imagery, with which I would not, if possible, infect her. The difference, for instance, in the way of proboscis, between the eminent nose of an elephant, and the not easily traceable nose of a bird… Then I wonder why elephants don’t build houses with their noses, as birds build nests with their
faces. Then, I wonder what elephants’ and mares’ nests are like when they haven’t got stables, or dens in menageries. Finally, I think I had better stop thinking, and find out a fact or two if I can from any books in my possession, about the working tools of the bee!
Here the fifty-five year old student picks up from the table an old favorite from his own formative years, William Bingley’s Animal Biography (1802). He scans quickly through the table of contents until he finds the chapter on bees, goes there, and begins reading a passage where the author is describing a sub-species he calls “worker bees,” who, he says, as they build
are so eager to afford mutual assistance (bestial, as distinct from human competition, you observe!), Ruskin adds–taking a not uncharacteristic shot at the competitive economic system of his day of which he heartily disapproves), and, for this purpose, so many of them crowd together, that their individual operations can scarcely be distinctly observed.’ (If I rewrite this passage for Agnes, that last sentence shall stand thus: ‘That it is difficult to see what any one is doing.’)…
Here I pause again, ever so many questions occurring to me at once! And of which, if Agnes is a thoughtful child, and not frightened from asking what she wants to know by teachers who have been afraid they wouldn’t be able to answer, she may, it is probable, put one or two herself. What are a bee’s teeth like? Are they white or black? Do they ever ache? Can it bite hard with them? Has it got anything to bite? Not only do I find no satisfaction in Mr. Bingley as to these matters, but in a
grand, close-printed epitome of entomology lately published simultaneously in London, Paris, and New York [which he now picks up], and which has made me sick with disgust by its descriptions at every other leaf I opened, of all that is horrible in insect life, I find, out of five hundred and seventy-nine figures, not one of a bee’s teeth, the chief architectural instruments of the insect world! And I am the more provoked and plagued by this, because, my brains being, as all the rest of me, desultory and ill under control, I get into another fit of thinking what a bee’s lips can be like, and of wondering why whole meadows full of flowers are called
“cows’ lips” and none called “bees’ lips.”
And finding presently, in Cassell, Petter, and Galpin [The Insect World, 1872], something really interesting about bees’ tongues–that they don’t suck, but lick up honey…[!} I shake myself at last together again, [and] refer to a really valuable book—Dr. Latham Ormerod’s History of Wasps, which, if I could cancel all the parts that interest the Doctor himself, and keep only those which interest Agnes and me, and the pictures of wasps at the end, I would make it a standard in St. George’s Library… I find…a diagram of a wasp’s mouth! But, as it only looks like what remains of a spider after being trodden on and, as I find that this “mandibulate form of mouth” consists of “a, the labium, with the two labial palpi; b, the maxilla, whose basilar portions bear at one end the cardo, at the other the hairy galea and the maxillary palpas; c, the labrum, and d, the mandible,” Agnes and I perceive that, for the present, there is an end of the matter for us; and retreat [back] to our Bingley, there to console ourselves…
[There, we are asked to consider] the history of [a] larger animal which I call a humble, but Agnes, a bumble, bee. Not, however, clearly knowing myself either what the ways of this kind are, or why they should be called humble, when I always find them at the top of a thistle rather than the bottom, I spend half my [afternoon] hunting through my scientific books for information on this matter, and find whole pages of discussion whether the orange-tailed bee is the same as the white-tailed bee, but nothing about why either should be called humble or bumble. [In time, I take matters into my own hands and find that “humble” derives] from the Teutonic “hommolen”… which means to hum or give forth a buzzing… Next, [to] Chaucer, [who] uses “humbling” in the sense of humming or muttering: “like to the humblinge after the clap of a thunderinge,” so that one might classically say—a busy bee hums and a lazy bee humbles!… [But] then, the next thing I want to know, and tell her, is, why they are so fond of thistles!
A Humble (Bumble?) Bee
[Before I can discover this, however, I go] on with my Bingley, [wherein] I find four more species of bees named which I should like to tell Agnes all I could about–namely, the Mason Bee; the Wood-piercing Bee; the one which Bingley calls the Garden Bee, but which, as most bees are to be found in gardens, I shall myself call the Wool-gathering Bee; and the Leaf-cutting Bee.
(1.) The mason bee, it appears, builds her nest of sand which she chooses carefully grain by grain, then sticks, with bee-glue, as many grains together as she can carry (like the blocks of brick we see our builders prepare for circular drains), and builds her nest like a swallow’s, in any angle on the south side of a wall; only with a number of cells inside, like—a monastery, shall we say?–each cell being about the size of a thimble. But these cells are not, like hive bees’, regularly placed, but anyhow—the holes between filled up with solid block building. And this disorder in the architecture of mason bees seems to be connected with moral disorder in their life. For, instead of being “so eager to afford mutual assistance” that one can’t see what each is doing, these mason bees, if they can, steal each other’s nests, just like human beings, and fight, positively like Christians..
(2.) The wood-piercing bee cuts out her nest in decayed wood, the nest being a hollow pipe like a chimney, or a group of such pipes, each divided by regular floors, into cells for the children. One egg is put in each cell, and the cell filled with a
paste made of the farina of flowers mixed with honey, for the young bee to eat when it is hatched. Now, this carpentering work, I find, is done wholly by the wood-piercing bee’s strong jaws. But here again is no picture of her jaws, or the teeth in
them; though the little heaps of sawdust outside where she is working “are of grains nearly as large as those produced by a handsaw,” and she has to make her floors of these grains, by gluing them in successive rings from the outside of her cell to
the center. Yes, that’s all very well; but then I want to know if she cuts the bits of any particular shape, as, suppose, in flattish pieces like tiles, and if then she glues these sideways or edgeways in their successive rings.
But here is the prettiest thing of all in her work. It takes, of course, a certain time to collect the farina with which each cell is filled, and to build the floor between it and the nest; so that the baby in the room at the bottom of the pipe will be born a day or two before the baby next above, and be ready to come out first; and if it made its way upwards, would disturb the next baby too soon. So the mother puts them all upside down, with their feet—their tails, I should say—uppermost; and then when she has finished her whole nest, to the last cell at the top, she goes and cuts a way at the bottom of it, for the oldest of the family to make her way out, as she naturally will, head foremost, and so cause the others no discomfort by right of primogeniture.
After which, of course, Agnes’ professor goes on to tell us–his Fors readers–in great detail about the two other bee types Professor Bingley has denoted, adding it all to his growing cache of new bee knowledge for his next visit to the Stalker farm and the moments he is sure to spend with Agnes. While he hasn’t discovered all he wanted to know about these curious insects, he has learned some things. Most will be of little use to Agnes because they are couched in the strange language of scientists who, Ruskin knows, by the very fact of employing such language, miss the entire point of bee-ness in the world (he must, he thinks, write a book about this issue some day! (Post 179: The Amaxing Adventure of the Marvelous Cypripendiium Reginae). But some of what he has read has been useful. Relayed well, it surely will delight the curious little girl and help her to love and, as importantly, look carefully and appreciatively at the tiny flying creatures that buzz–or hum!–about her during their, and her, short summer season. Above all, he thinks as he imagines their approaching chat, before I see her, I have to determine how I am to tell her of the Goodness and wisdom of God [for having made] such amiable and useful insects!
It is two years later, and George Allen is opening his mail at Sunnyside, hundreds of miles south of Brantwood. As almost always happens, there is a packet from Ruskin, likely, Allen thinks, his manuscripts pages for the next Fors installment. Opening it, he finds he is right, and starts the always arduous process of deciphering his master’s hand. It tells the story, he finds, of Ruskin’s friendship with a little girl, Agnes Stalker, who, it seems, lives with her family high on the moor above Brantwood. Soon he comes to the part telling where Ruskin tells his readers about Agnes’ intense interest in bees, and relays the fact of her professor’s unconscionable ignorance of same. Reading further, Allen learns much he did not know–about probosci, mason bees, wood-piercing bees, a little bit of Chaucer, and something the surprising difference–he had never thought about it!– between humble and bumble bees; finds too, as he arrives at the holographs’ end, that, despite all this new information, Ruskin reports that, despite it all, he still doesn’t know as much as he should about what he calls these “amiable and useful insects.”
Allen sets the pages down, a smile on his face. He glances up and, across his desk, in a little frame neatly placed on a little easel, he looks, as he frequently does, at a particular paragraph in a letter Ruskin had sent him years before, a paragraph which had so changed his life, he had had it framed, framed because it had taught him, in just a few sentences, how to learn.
Until next time,
Please continue well out there.