The title of this fors letter, 93rd in the series of called Fors Clavigera and dated, “Christmas 1883,” is “Invocation.” Ruskin began his series of Fors letters to “the working men and laborers of Great Britain “in 1871. From that first year, the last letter of the annum was always designated as a “Christmas letter.” specifically labeled as such. (To my knowledge, no one has ever collected the Christmas letters in one volume, though such would be a nice exercise or an enterprising scholar). My goal in this holiday Post is to present a series of excerpts from Letter 93 which, collectively, will give a sense of the letter as a whole. As I proceed, I will intersperse some comments which will hopefully make the 19th century context and the issues Ruskin was anxious to communicate to his readers manifest. The “Christmas Card” below (though dated1896) arrives via the generosity of an important English Ruskinian, Stuart Eagles, who was gifted a copy of the actual card by another important English Ruskinian, Robert Hewison. Stu kindly sent this image of the card to me in the context of our exchange of holiday greetings. The card was originally printed at William Morris’s famed Kelmscott Press. I reproduce it here with his permission.. Sweet.
The decade of the1880s, Ruskin’s seventh, was not a kind one for our subject. Fairly early in 1878, he experienced the first of a series of mental attacks that would, as they reappeared at roughly 2 year intervals over the coming years, bring his massive literary and humanizing efforts to their close. Although the attacks were excruciating to experience, including, as they usually did, days, and sometimes weeks, of psychotic mania, as he repaired–and thankfully he did to a large degree after each–he would resume work, rising each morning, however hampered to ask himself the question, as he had every morning since his teens, “What might I do today that will help my fellow human beings along their road?” Resuming regular publication of the Fors letters was one such doing, After the attack of 1878, instead of appearing each month as they had since their inception, the Fors letters had surfaced only sporadically as their author slowly regained his ability to write.
Such halting readiness was basically the context of the Christmas letter for1883. Although he had published a Fors letter in November that year, before that installment, the last contribution to the series had been that May. Ruskin began his holiday message as below (NB: the numbers preceding each of the passages were generated for my reference only.):
(1) My Christmas letter [for this year,), which I have the extreme satisfaction of entrusting to this little lady to present to you, comes, first, in the guise of my wish that the Companions of] the St. George’s Company, and all honest men, have as merry a Christmas as they can make up their minds to (under present circumstances, the merriment, it seems to me, should be tempered and the feasting moderate!) And, in the second place, [its intent] is to assure the Company both of its own existence, and of its Master’s– which said company might well have begun to have some doubt of … seeing that there has been no report made of its business, nor record of additional members, nor catalog of its additional properties offered since– I don’t know what day of – and I don’t know what year…
[At this point, Ruskin’s editors, in a footnote, indicate that such information had been last communicated d in a Fors letter of 1878. (Given his highly allusive style of writing, in what follows I have had to truncate a fair amount of the actual letter while trying to be as faithful to the original as possible. Readers are encouraged to check the original; the entirety of the Fors letters is easily available on-line.) The drawing to which Ruskin refers appeared at the top of the page of this letter and is Kate Greenaway’s, a London-based artist with whom he became very close in the 1880s; it is one of her many enticing drawings of children–some presented singly, as here, or, as often, in groups: children always delighting in life and not infrequently, dancing in joy– exactly the sentiments Ruskin thought we should all exhibit as we traversed our own days. The relevance of the drawing and the passages I have chosen to represent the gist of this “Invocation”– will become clearer as one reads on. As well and, as in numerous earlier posts, I have sometimes changed punctuation to enhance reading.]:
(2) In this letter, I must try to sum up what I have often had to repeat in private letters. First, that the St. George’s guild is not merely a sentimental association of persons who, in sympathy in a general endeavor to do good, is a body constituted for a special purpose: that of buying land, holding it inviolably, cultivating it properly, and bringing up on it is many honest people as it will feed.… [Although we never have had as many members as I would like,] I can’t see why there should not be plenty of people in England both able and willing to help us accomplish this end–people whom I once more and very solemnly call upon do to so as thereby exercising the quite healthiest and straightforwardest power of charity.
(3) And, I beg my readers alike, and the despisers of my former pleadings in [these] matters, to observe that all the recent agitation of the public mind concerning the abysmal dwellings of the poor, is merely the sudden and febrile (heaven be thanked, though, for such favor!) recognition of things which I have been these 20 years trying to get recognized,…– even to the actual printing of [some of] my pages in blood- red – to try if I could catch the eye at least when I could not catch the eye or heart… (Let the reader think, now, only what this single sentence meant which I quoted from The Evening News in the last fors I wrote before my great illness of March 1878: “The mother got impatient, and thrust the child into the snow, and hurried on, not looking back.”) Or consider the following passage, also taken from a newspaper, and also previously cited in a prior fors missive]: “For several months, the average earnings of [the people living in this area of London]’s have been six shillings a week, and out of that they have to pay for coal and house rent and expenses… leaving very little for food or clothing. In one district there are 130 families in distress; they have nothing but rags to cover them by day, and very little beside that wearing apparel to cover them on their beds at night; they have sold or pawned all their furniture, and everything else for which they could obtain the smallest sum of money; many of them are some days of every week without anything to eat, and nothing but water to drink…”
(4) And the double and treble horror of all this, note you well, is not only that the tennis-playing and railroad-flying public trip around the outskirts of it and fly over the roofs of it deaf and blind, but that the persons interested in the maintenance of it [for financial gain] have now a whole embodied Devil’s militia in their bound service… The worst form of service that ever human souls sank into – [a service] partly conscious of their lying, partly– by dint of daily petition– their believing in their own battle, and totally occupied, in every journal and penny magazine all over the world, in declaring that this present state of the poor [is] glorious and enviable as compared with what the poor have been. In which continual pother and paraquat lie…this 19th century stutters and shrieks alone in the long history of mankind. Whatever men did before now, of fearful or unfaithful act, they did openly…But your 19th-century Prince of shams and shambles sells, for his own behoof, the blood and ashes, and preaches, with his steam- throat, the Gospel of gain from ruin as the only true Divine, and fills the air with his darkness, the earth with his cruelty, its waters with its filth, and the hearts of men with his lies.
(5) …which the primary and all pestilentalist is the one formalized into wide European faith by [its] political economists, and [its] frantic clergyman – that you are not to give alms (any more than you aren’t to fast or to pray); that you are to benefit the poor entirely by your own eating and drinking, and that it is to their glory and eternal praise to fill your pockets and stomach –and themselves die–and be thankful. Concerning which falsehood, observe, whether you be Christian or not, this questionable market has of infinite horror, that the persons who utter it have themselves lost their joy in giving – and cannot conceive that strange form of practical human felicity– that it is more blessed to give than to receive… And that the practical life in the life of a “lady,” is to be a “loaf giver,” as it is of a Lord to be a “land-giver.”
(6) Now, therefore, my good Companions of the Guild–all that are, and all that are to be– understand this now and forever more: that you come forward to be Givers not Receivers in this human world; that you [gain] reward from [the fruits of] your labor so far as you can spare [such fruits] for the help of the poor and needy (they are not the same personages, mind: the poor are in constant, healthy and perpetual relation to you; the needy in conditions requiring change.[And realize forever, too,] that you are to work, so far as circumstances admit of your doing so, with your own hands, in the production of substantial means of life – food, clothes, house, or fire – and that only by such labor can you either make your own living or anybody else’s.
(7) And the main message St. George brings to you is that you will not be degraded by this work nor saddened by it – you who, in righteous will and modest resignation, take it upon you for your servant- yoke, as true servants, no less than as children, of your Father-in-Heaven; but, so far as it [includes] an acknowledgment that you are no better than the poor and are content to share their lowliness and the sanctity of it, without the sorrow or the danger; separating yourself from the world that [is their unhappy lot , only in their sin and their pain.
(8) But, above all, you are to separate yourself from the world and its sorrow. There are no chagrins so venomous as the chagrin of the idle; there are no pangs so sickening as the satieties of pleasure. Nay, the bitterest and most enduring sorrow may be borne through the burden and heat of the day bravely and tested to the time of death by a true worker. And indeed it is this very dayspring and font of peace in the bosoms of the laboring poor which, until now, has rendered their oppression possible. Only the idle among them revolt against their state; the brave workers die passively, young and old, and make no sign. It is for you to pity them, for you stand with them, for you to cherish, and save.
(9) [concluding:] My time fails me – my thoughts how much more? – in trying to imagine what this sweet world will be when the meek[do, as foretold,] inherit it, [when] the lowliness of every faithful handmaiden has been regarded by her Lord. For that day will come– the expectation of the poor shall not perish forever–not by night, not by power,–but by His spirit. The meek He shall guide in judgment and the meek He shall teach His way.
Thus, but a portion of Mr. Ruskin’s “Invocation” for Christmastime, 1883!
It is my hope that these compassionate words from this great teacher reach you during our own holiday time of 2021, almost a century and a half after they were first set down. (Given the ever tenuous and generally declining state of Ruskin’s health, there would only be three more fors letters before the series arrived at its terminal letter, the 96th, issued, appropriately enough, at Christmastime, 1884, a letter which would be introduced, again, appropriately enough, with another sweet Kate Greenaway drawing.
Until next time– do please continue well out there!!
My thanks to Joseph Clary for supplying the technical help I required to bring this Post to your screens.
Very timely! I am currently preparing a talk about Ruskin’s relationship with the dragon … and it is interesting to see the imagery of a lying ‘steam-throat’ and the ashes that it leaves behind. Also loved this image: ‘In which continual pother and paraquat lie…this 19th century stutters and shrieks alone in the long history of mankind.’ I had to look up paraquat, finding it to be a dangerous chemical pesticide, now banned.
Dear Jim- Thank you as always for this ‘Christmas’ message. How relevant the message still is, and how it shames me. How are we to deal with the knowledge that we have so much when so many have so little? How did Ruskin deal with this? Did he really wake each morning and ask himself the question “How can I make life better for others today?’
Jonathan, As always, I am buoyed by your responses to these posts. I have quite a few followers now on “WhyRuskin?” But I am well aware, that not all of them read all the posts. As to your question, there is no doubt in my mind that Ruskin did in fact riseevery morning to ask himself the question you mention or something very similar to it. Post 93 is evidence of that determination by itself, But there are dozens of letters and other comments that evidenced the same desire. In his mind, it was our responsibility, simply because we have been given the gift of life, to take care of others like ourselves. One of my favorite Ruskin stories, which I have never gotten into a post but should concerns woman coming up to him after a Lecture to tell him how much she had enjoyed his talk. He thanked her for the sentiment and then added, “yes, that’s all very well, but it did it do you any good?” His great sense of despair in the letter years of his life was occasioned primarily by his belief that he had failed in his efforts to make the world a better place. Few of us these days, I fear, entertain these thoughts on a regular basis. Thanks again! 🙂
Surely, a very timely and eloquent message from John Ruskin. Thank you, Jim, for fashioning this noble Christmas message.