219: Remembering a Passing

Good Friends,

We rapidly approach 20 February, the day on which, not long into a new century, John Ruskin left this life while resting quietly in his bedroom in his beloved Brantwood home in the lovely English Lake District. His eminence being as great as it was, the news was quickly reported to the wider world and, in short order, hundreds, even thousands, of cards and letters began arriving at the small post office in the nearby village of Coniston, each demonstrating in its own way, the reverence its writer had for Ruskin and the profound influence for good he and his works had had on their lives.

When you think of it, this it is a relatively strange practice we have – this of remembering the dead on the annual anniversary of the day they set out for that country from whose bourn no traveler returns. But, all told, it is a good practice, for  such rememberings reprise in our minds the reasons why the person who has departed was important to us and, in  so doing, revivifies the positive elements of his or her effect on our personal, and sometimes our national and international, consciousness.

In a number of previous posts, I cited the works of some who so admired Ruskin that they compiled many pages of the quotations from his works that had meant the most to them, the most recent being, Thoughts from Ruskin, by Henry Atwell (see 213: Henry Atwell’s Ruskin). But, there were also those to whom he was not only a great and inspiring writer, but for whom he was a guide to life itself. One such was J .Marshall Mather. Indeed, the influence Ruskin had on Mather’s life was so profound that, quite a few years before Ruskin’s death , he published a small volume entitled The Life and Teachings of John Ruskin (Manchester, Tubbs, Brook, and Chrystal, 1883; also; London, Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.); in it, he set forth his reasons for reasons for revering the Brantwood master as highly as he did. Although Ruskin would live another 17 years after his book found print, I have no idea if he knew of it. Nevertheless, as these things go, it is a good book and I recommend it as a quick summary if you can find a copy. But it is because Mather understood Ruskin and his work so well, it occurred to me that a few paragraphs from his effort might serve us well for this post where it is my intent to recollect for us the genius that was Ruskin. Here they are (I have taken them from different pages; I hardly need add that I agree wholeheartedly with Mather’s assessments and sentiments.)

This little book is intended neither as a systematic exposition nor a defense, but, rather, as a brief outline of the principal teachings of John Ruskin. For the last 10 years [In my case this influence is now on the cusp of a fourth decade: Jim] the writings of Ruskin have been a source of unspeakable delight, the stimulus to much of my endeavor, and the chief inspiration for much of my thinking. Most of us, at some during our brief passage, recognize a Master–or, at least, someone who has been our teacher above all others… [In my life, John Ruskin has been that Master.]

We are often told that his power over his readers lies in his style–and, in some measure, this is true. Undoubtably he is the most fascinating writer of the age. But if this is the only, or even the chief, element, of his power in our minds, it betrays a superficial acquaintance with his teachings. It is quite true that there are many who have turned to his works not so much for what he has to say, as for the way in which he says it; and this has been and continues to be a source of deep regret to him, and largely accounts for the change in style of his later writings. About his early writings he has said: “People used to call me a good writer. Now, they say, I cannot write at all, because, for instance, if I think somebody’s house is on fire, I only say “Sir, your house is on fire!” Whereas, formerly, I might have said, “Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the most delightful days of your youth is in a state of inflammation.” And, in those earlier passages, everybody liked the effect of the two p’s in ‘probably passed’ and the two d’s in ‘delightful days’! What a waste of time!

There may be some truth in this jocular self-criticism, particularly in the image it presents of the writer and his readers. But those who have felt fascination in the inspiration of Ruskin’s earlier writings will never forget their effect on their minds; they are the outflowings of a young soul full of admiration, hope, and love. They are imbued with the early life which comes from the womb of the morning; they are fresh with the new dew of life; there is a frankness and enthusiasm, and a passion in them; they transform the reader, inflame the student, and move the heart of the long-time critic. In his later writings, there is an increase in severity, an enlargement of the strength that comes from such restraint, of the sadness which is the inheritance of years; yet this restraint and sadness are the elements which lend the point and power which we fail to find in some of the writings of the earlier years.

Both these styles are peculiarly Ruskin’s own. It is true he acknowledges his indebtedness to Hooker and Herbert whom he made his early models, and then later cites Carlyle and Helps whom he has chosen as guides for much of his later thinking. Nevertheless, all he says bears his own image and superscription. In all his writings, the prophetic and poetic elements are discoverable. In the same sentence, the moral and aesthetic sides of truth are regularly seized – a stroke of his pen puts before us what we are to do as well as what we are to love, and it may be said of him as a writer, that “strength and beauty are in his right hand”–a clearness and power patent to all which seizes the imagination and wins the heart; these are characteristics which most writers lack and which all attentive readers discover repeatedly as they turn his pages.

His writings are characterized also by a spirituality of tone. They are free from the materializing influences present in so much of the teaching of our present age; the overwhelming tendency of his words is to purify and ennoble, to enthrone duty, to reveal goodness and encourage us in “admiration, hope, and love.” He seeks to rescue us from an engrossing spirit of greed and from a life of triviality and fashion… His enduring aims are simple and unpretentious: he seeks to cultivate the heart, train the hand, improve the environment, and strengthen the bond of brotherhood between us. Such is the greatness and genius of John Ruskin.

The above being, sufficient, I trust, unto this day of recollection.

Until next time, be well out there!



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