[This post is a continuation from the end of Post 187: The Despisings (Or, The Not Altogether Pleasant Consequences of Not Reading) If you haven’t read it or the offering before it (Post 186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops), it might be useful to spend some time with them before reading what’s below.
The picture that Ruskin wished to share with the audience (its image turned away from their view) now safely resting on the easel beside him, he began speaking again. He reminded them briefly of the “despisings,” those remarkably unpleasant outcomes that had come to be because of their willed disdain for reading, or, better said, studying, the greatest works of world literature; he reminded them (he could see from their faces that they didn’t like the reminder) of how that dereliction of this, their duty, as the accepted elites of their society, had also eventuated in a strange and most unfortunate dissipation of the national soul, of how it was the case now that few among them had any sense of what was of true value in life or what should be done to make their and others’ lives better; reminded them of how, as a substitute for this lack of purpose, many of them had devoted their lives–as if it were an important thing to do!–to accumulations: of ever larger chests filled with precious metals, to the building of ever-larger houses which they outfitted with the most expensive furniture and stocked with the best wines (his father, who died earlier this year, had sold such wines). It was, he said–first and finally–always a question of what you chose to give your attention and energy to. Continuing, as follows:
When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the color-petals out of a fruitful flower. When they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole…energy into the false business of money-making, and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly… The justice we do not execute, we mimic in the novel and on the stage. For the beauty we destroy in nature, we substitute the metamorphosis of the pantomime, and–the human nature of us imperatively requiring awe and sorrow of some kind–for the noble grief we should have borne with our fellows, and the pure tears we should have borne with them, we gloat over the pathos of the police court, and gather the night-dew of the grave.
It is difficult to estimate the true significance of these things. The facts are frightful enough… We permit, or cause, thousands of deaths daily, but we mean no harm. We set fire to houses, and ravage peasants‘ fields, yet we should be sorry to find we had
injured anybody. We are still kind at heart, still capable of virtue–but only as children are. [Reverend Thomas] Chalmers, at the end of his long life, having had much power with the public, being plagued in some serious matter by a reference to public opinion, uttered the impatient exclamation: “The public is just a great baby!”
And the reason that I have allowed all these graver subjects of thought to mix themselves up with an inquiry into methods of reading, is that, the more I see of our national faults or miseries, the more they resolve themselves into conditions of childish illiterateness and want of education in the most ordinary habits of thought.
It is, I repeat, not vice, not selfishness, not dullness of brain, which we have to lament–but an unreachable schoolboy‘s recklessness, only differing from the true schoolboy‘s in its incapacity of being helped, because it acknowledges no master!
Here Ruskin paused, turned, walked over to the easel. After turning the painting’s image so that it faced toward toward those in the hall, he returned to the lectern. As they studied the painting, he started by saying that this wonderful picture depicted the place he had alluded to earlier, the place to which he wished to “take” them in this last part of his lecture: to Kirkby Lonsdale, a small town in one of the sweetest areas of the English north. Surely some of them had been there? If so, they could not help but agree with him when he described the view of the valley of the Lune that could be had from an overlook near the parish church, as “one of the loveliest scenes in England–and therefore in the world.” [Fors Clavigera, Letter 52, 1875]. He had been reminded, he said, as he was preparing for the talk he would give this evening, of this remarkable picture,and thought he might share it with them. “It is…
one of the lovely, neglected works of the last of our great painters…a drawing of Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard, and of its brook, and valley, and hills, and folded morning sky beyond. And, unmindful alike of these, and of the dead who have left these for other valleys and for other skies, a group of schoolboys have piled their little books upon a grave–to strike them off with stones.
So, also, we play with the words of the dead that would teach us, and strike them far from us with our bitter, reckless will; little thinking that those leaves which the wind scatters had been piled, not only upon a gravestone, but upon the seal of an enchanted vault—the gate of a great city of sleeping kings, who would awake for
us and walk with us, if we knew but how to call them by their names. How often, even if we lift the marble entrance gate, do we but wander among those old kings in their repose, and finger the robes they lie in, and stir the crowns on their foreheads?
And still they are silent to us, and seem but a dusty imagery, because we know not the incantation of the heart that would wake them—which, if they once heard, they would start up to meet us in their power of long ago, narrowly to look upon us, and consider us. And, as the fallen kings of Hades meet the newly fallen, saying: “Art thou…also become one of us?” [Isaiah 14: 10] So would these kings, with their undimmed, unshaken diadems, meet us, saying: “Art thou also become pure and mighty of heart as we…? Mighty of heart, mighty of mind—―magnanimous?” To be this, is indeed to be great in life. To become this, increasingly, is indeed to “advance in life”—in life itself—not in the trappings of it.
My friends, do you remember that old Scythian custom when the head of a house died? How he was dressed in his finest dress, and set in his chariot, and carried about to his friends‘ houses; and each of them placed him at his table‘s head, and all feasted in his presence? [Herodotus IV: 73] Suppose it were offered to you in plain words, as it is offered to you in dire facts–that you should gain this Scythian honor; gradually, while you yet thought yourself alive. Suppose the offer were this: “You shall die slowly. Your blood shall daily grow cold, your flesh petrify, your heart beat at last only as a rusted group of iron valves. Your life shall fade from you, and sink through the earth into the ice of Caina. [Dante, Inferno, Canto 32: xxxii; the first and outermost ring of the frozen circle, which holds those who have done violence to their own kindred, is called Caina, after the first murderer.]
But, day by day, your body shall be dressed more gaily, and set in higher chariots, and have more orders on its breast, crowns on its head if you will. Men shall bow before it, stare and shout round it, crowd after it up and down the streets, build palaces for it, feast with it at their tables‘ heads all the night long. Your soul shall
stay enough within it to know what they do, and feel the weight of the golden dress on its shoulders, and the furrow of the crown-edge on the skull—no more.
Would you take the offer, verbally made by the death-angel? Would the meanest among us take it, think you? Yet practically and verily we grasp at it, every one of us, in a measure. Many of us grasp at it in its fullness of horror.
Every man accepts it, who desires to advance in life without knowing what life is–who means only that he is to get more horses, and more footmen, and more fortune, and more public honor, and—not more personal soul. He only is advancing in life, whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living Peace.
And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth—they, and they only. All other kingships–so far as they are true–are only the practical issue and expression of theirs. If less than this, they are either dramatic
royalties—costly shows, set off, indeed, with real jewels, instead of tinsel—but still only the toys of nations. Or else they are no royalties at all, but tyrannies, or the mere active and practical issue of national folly… Visible governments are the toys of some nations, the diseases of others, the harness of some, the burdens of more.
But I have no words for the wonder with which I hear Kinghood still spoken of, even among thoughtful men, as if governed nations were a personal property, and might be bought and sold, or otherwise acquired, as sheep, on whose flesh their king was to feed, and whose fleece he was to gather; as if Achilles‘ indignant epithet of base kings, “people-eating,” were the constant and proper title of all monarchs, and the enlargement of a king‘s dominion meant the same thing as the increase of a private man‘s estate!
Kings who think so, however powerful, can no more be the true kings of the nation than gadflies are the kings of a horse; they suck it, and may drive it wild, but do not guide it. They, and their courts, and their armies are, if one could see clearly, only a large species of marsh mosquito, with bayonet proboscis and melodious, band-mastered trumpeting in the summer air–the twilight being, perhaps, sometimes fairer, but hardly more wholesome for its glittering mists of midge companies. The true kings, meanwhile, rule quietly, if at all, and hate ruling… [Plato, in The Republic (Book III), argued that if anyone wanted to be king, we should watch out: all true kings were uninterested in the job and had to be begged to take it.]
Yet a visible king may also be a true one, some day, if ever day comes when he will estimate his dominion by the force of it—not the geographical boundaries. It matters very little whether [the River] Trent cuts you a cantel out here, or Rhine rounds you a castle less there [see Henry IV, Part I, Sc. 1]. But it does matter to you, king of men, whether you can verily say to this man: “Go,and he goeth”; and to another: “Come and he cometh.” [Matthew 8:9]… It matters to you, king of men, whether your people hate you, and die by you, or love you, and live by you. You may measure your dominion by multitudes, better than by miles; and count degrees of love-latitude, not from, but to, a wonderfully warm and infinite equator.
Measure! Nay, you cannot measure! Who shall measure the difference between the power of those who “do and teach” [Matthew 5:19] and who are greatest in the kingdoms of earth, as of heaven—and the power of those who undo and consume—whose power, at the fullest, is only the power of the moth and the rust [Matthew 6: 19-21]? Strange! to think how the Moth-kings lay up treasures for the moth, and the Rust-kings, who are to their peoples‘ strength as rust to armor, lay up treasures for the rust, and the Robber-kings, treasures for the robber.
But how few kings have ever laid up treasures that needed no guarding! Treasures of which, the more thieves there were, the better! Broidered robe, only to be rent; helm and sword, only to be dimmed; jewel and gold, only to be scattered!…
Suppose there ever should arise a [new] order of kings, who had read, in some obscure writing of long ago, that there was [another] kind of treasure [again see Matthew 6: 19-21], which the jewel and gold could not equal, neither should it be valued with pure gold. A web made fair in the weaving, by Athena‘s [Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom] shuttle; an armor, forged in divine fire by Vulcanian force–a gold to be mined in the very sun‘s red heart, where he sets over the Delphian cliffs: deep-pictured tissue; impenetrable armor; potable gold! The three great Angels of Conduct, Toil, and Thought, still calling to us, and waiting at the posts of our doors, to lead us, with their winged power, and guide us, with their unerring eyes, by the path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture‘s eye has not seen! [Job 28: 7] Suppose kings should ever arise, who heard and believed this word, and at last gathered and brought forth treasures of—Wisdom—for their people?
Think what an amazing business that would be! How inconceivable, in the state of our present national wisdom: that we should bring up our peasants to a book exercise instead of a bayonet exercise! Organize, drill, maintain with pay, and good
generalship, armies of thinkers, instead of armies of stabbers! Find national amusement in reading-rooms as well as rifle-grounds; give prizes for a fair shot at a fact, as well as for a leaden splash on a target. What an absurd idea it seems, put fairly in words, that the wealth of the capitalists of civilized nations should ever come to support literature instead of war!
Have yet patience with me, while I read you a [pair of sentences] out of the only book, properly to be called a book that I have yet written myself [for Ruskin’s definition of “A Book” (presented at another point in “Of Kings’ Treasuries”) see the P.S.], the one that will stand (if anything stand), surest and longest of all work of mine. [The reference is to Unto this Last; the passage appears near the end of the fourth and last essay, “Ad Valorem” (“Of Value”).]
“It is one very awful form of the operation of wealth in Europe that it is entirely capitalists‘ wealth which supports unjust wars. Just wars do not need so much money to support them, for most of the men who wage such, wage them gratis. But for an unjust war, men‘s bodies and souls have both to be bought, and the best tools of war for them besides, which make such war costly to the maximum–not to speak of the cost of base fear, and angry suspicion, between nations which have not grace nor honesty enough in all their multitudes to buy an hour‘s peace of mind with…the modern political economist[‘s] teaching covetousness instead of
truth. And, all unjust war being supportable, if not by pillage of the enemy, only by…the covetousness of the whole nation, rendering it incapable of faith, frankness, or justice, and bringing about, therefore, in due time, his own separate loss and punishment to each person.”
Now suppose, instead of buying these ten millions‘ worth of panic annually, they made up their minds to be at peace with each other, and buy ten millions‘ worth of knowledge annually; and that each nation spent its ten thousand thousand pounds a year in founding royal libraries, royal art galleries, royal museums, royal gardens, and places of rest…
It will be long, yet, before that comes to pass. Nevertheless, I hope it will not be long before royal or national libraries will be founded in every considerable city, with a royal series of books in them, the same series in every one of them; chosen books. The best in every kind, prepared for that national series in the most perfect way possible. Their text printed all on leaves of equal size, broad of margin, and divided into pleasant volumes, light in the hand, beautiful, and strong, and thorough as examples of binders‘ work; and that these great libraries will be accessible to all clean and orderly persons at all times of the day and evening…
I could shape for you other plans, for art-galleries, and for natural history galleries, and for many precious—many, it seems to me, needful—things. But this book plan is the easiest and needfullest, and would prove a considerable tonic to what we call our British constitution, which has fallen dropsical of late, and has an evil thirst, and evil hunger, and wants healthier feeding…[feeding on] better bread—bread made of that old enchanted Arabian grain, the Sesame, which opens
doors; doors not of robbers‘, but of Kings‘ Treasuries.
And with this he was done, having come, in his last sentences to the subject that everyone sitting before him thought he would have spent the entire time talking about: the need to create and maintain, throughout the civilized world, wonderful public libraries. An effort with which–he trusted he had made it clear!–he wholeheartedly agreed.
The applause which followed was polite, but not, he thought, far above tepid. After it died away, the vast majority started filing out quietly, not a few sharing bent-necked whispers, as they made their way toward the elegant carriages that had been waiting, with their caparisoned teams and uniformed footmen, right outside for the last two hours and more, at the ready, as always, to ferry them home to their large houses, warm hearths, and fine last-of-the-evening glasses of (his father’s?) sherry. A few made the effort to come up to thank him for his lecture. But all, he quickly registered, were women.
After they had left, he took care to wrap Turner’s precious painting in a heavy waterproof cloth so that he might protect it from the snow, a window told him, now falling outside. Overall, he thought it had gone well. Indeed, he had thought for some days it was the one of the more important of his lectures. He had thought so well of it, in fact, he had subjected his great friends, Sir John and Lady Jane Simon, to a complete reading of it a few nights before in London. But, he also was aware that the had told those who had come out to hear him on this inclement evening some things they had not been particularly glad to hear. But they had been true things, things which these particular people, and many others who were like them and living all over Britain, had needed to hear, in hopes that, having heard them, they might start to take some responsibility to begin redressing those marvelous and vital things they had so thoughtlessly come to despise. Still, he mused, given what he guessed to have been a generally irritated audience reaction, he did not expect that the owners of Manchester’s bookstores would soon be expressing great astonishment at the many requests they suddenly received for copies of Herodotus, Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Milton’s “Lycidas.”
As a boy he had read often and well the brilliant essays of Dr. Samuel Johnson in The Idler. He had loved them and all his life credited the good doctor with having given him invaluable guidance, the sort of guidance that had kept him firmly on the path of truth, the sort of guidance one could regularly expect from one of the kings’ treasuries. So beautiful and important had been some of the doctor’s passages, he had committed them to memory. One returned now as, carrying the folder that held his lecture notes and, well-secured under his arm, the priceless Turner, he made his way toward the main entry door of Rusholme’s new Town Hall:
Of these learned men, let those who aspire to the same praise imitate the
diligence, and avoid the scrupulosity. Let it be always remembered that life is short,
that knowledge is endless… Let those whom nature and study have qualified to teach mankind, tell us what they have learned while they are yet able to tell it, and trust their reputation only to themselves.
Mighty of heart, he thought, that. Mighty of mind: Magnanimous.
Until next time.
Please do continue well out there!
P.S.: Ruskin’s definition of “A Book”:
[A] book is essentially not a talked thing but a written thing, [a thing] written not with a view of mere communication but of permanence. [It comes to be] not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could, saying: “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “writing”; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a “Book.”
P.P.S.: I have, in these last three posts, tried to give readers a sense of what they might have heard had they had the great good fortune of being in the audience on that long ago December evening in Manchester. To my mind–and there remains an ocean of them we have not yet touched!–it is the greatest of Ruskin’s lectures. If there exists another appeal to the importance of reading, often and deeply, the greatest works of the world’s literature for the benefit of both the soul and the well-being of humanity, I do not know of it (but would be glad to). If you would like to read the lecture entire, along with Clive Wilmer’s superb interpretive notes designed to accompany it, you will find that it rewards much and, on re-reading, and re-reading yet again, rewards much again and yet again. Click here: Of Kings’ Treasuries.
P.P.P.S.: Ruskin quotes this passage from Dr. Johnson in his autobiography, Praeterita, citing it there as one of the signal influences on his life.