Where did Ruskin’s genius originate? From the time he was a tiny fellow, it was obvious that he was always the brightest bulb in the room, a wattage that did not weaken until his death. An only child, his parents did not expect such a prodigy–but when he arrived and that characteristic brilliance began to manifest, they did hardly objected. Ruskin himself never quite understood his he had been inordinately gifted with such special qualities but, happily, he was wise enough to apply them. As ever, that quality we call genius defines comprehension. He was like Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Dante, always and remarkably “above and beyond.” Whether on the page or in life, it was a superiority profusely acknowledged by the many thousands he encountered over the span of eight decades.
He well remembered when it began. As this site has reported before, as his years advanced and his fame and hold on the cultural and intellectual life of his century began to wane slightly, his friends pressured him to write his autobiography. This, in the mid-1880s, he began to do, finding, as he moved along (installments were printed monthly by George Allen, his publisher) he quite enjoyed the process. In today’s passage, I reproduce for you, treasured reader, the few paragraphs where, in a relatively early installment of Praeterita – the enigmatic title he gave to his memoir which means essentially, “recollections,”–his delightful memory of the epiphanic moment when his path in life became clear to him.
A little context: On the occasion of his 13th birthday, A family friend presented him with a copy of Samuel Rogers’ collection of poems, “Italy”. He was transfixed, not so much by the poems, competent in their way (Rogers was well known poet at the time), but by the artistic vignettes that accompanied them, many of which had been created, by commission, by the artist J. M. W. Turner. The beauty of the pictures stunned him and he immediately asked his parents if they might go to some of the places where Turner had painted them, so he could see was his own eyes what it was that had so inspired the artist. The parents, always anxious to do whatever they could to satisfy his desires, agreed, and later that year they set out for an extended tour of the Continent. It was to be THE fulcrum event of his life. After crossing at Calais and paying requisite visits to Paris, Picardy, and various places in the northern part of France, one night they were approaching Schaffhausen, a medieval city on the border between Switzerland and Germany. 60 years later, Ruskin recalled these critical moments for the readers of his autobiography.
from Praeterita, Volume 1, Chapter 6 (The Consecration)
[It will be] difficult for [the reader of today] to imagine that old travellers time when Switzerland was yet the land of the Swiss and the Alps had never been trod by foot of man… Steam never yet heard of. The roads by land were safe, and, once entered into this mountain Paradise, we wound on through its balmy glens, past cottage after cottage, their lawns still glistening in the dew.
After mid-day, the hills became arduous. Once or twice we had to wait for horses, and we were still 20 miles from Schaffhausen at sunset. It was past midnight and we finally reached its closed gates. The disturbed porter had the grace to open them, but not quite wide enough, and we carried away one of our riding lamps in collision with a slanting bar as we drove through the arch. How much happier the privilege of dreamily entering a medieval city, even with the loss of a lamp, than the free ingress of being jammed between a dray and a tram car at the railroad station?!
It is strange that I dimly recollect the following morning. I fancy we must have visited some sort of church or other, and certainly, part of the day was spent admiring the bow-windows projecting into the clean streets. (None of us seem to have thought that the Alps would be visible without profane exertion and climbing. ) We dined at four as usual, and, the evening being entirely fine, went to walk–all of us, my father, my mother, and Mary [Richardson, Ruskin’s cousin, living and traveling with them at the time]. We must still have spent some time in town – seeing as it was drawing towards sunset when we got up to some sort of garden promenade – west of the town I believe–and high above the Rhine, so as to command a view of open country to both South and West. Which open country–of low undulation, it reminded me of one of our own [English]distances, say from Malvern to Worcestershire, or Dorking–when, suddenly!
There was no thought in any of us for a moment of their being clouds. They were as clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon sky, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun. In all that we had ever thought or dreamed!, the walls of Eden could not been more beautiful to us, nor more awful, around heaven, the walls of sacred death!
It is not possible to imagine in any time of the world, a more blessed entry into life for a child of such a temperament as mine [he was 13]. True, the temperament was of the age: in a very few years – within the hundred prior – no child could have been born to care for the mountains or for the men that lived among them. Till Rousseau’s time, there had been no “sentimental” love of nature; nor, until [Sir Walter] Scott’s time, no appreciative love of “all source and conditions of men”– not in the soul merely, but in the flesh. St. Bernard of La Fontaine, looking out on Mont Blanc with his child’s eyes, sees above Mont Blanc the Madonna, St. Bernard of Talloiries sees not the Lake of Annecy but the dead between Martigny and Aosta. But for me, the Alps and their people were alike beautiful in their snow and their humanity; and I wanted, neither for them nor myself, sight of any throne in heaven but the rocks or of any spirits in between but the clouds!
Thus, in perfect health of life and fire of heart, not wanting to be anything but the boy I was, not wanting to have anything more than I had; knowing of sorrow only just so much as to make life serious to me, not enough to slacken its sinews, with just so much of science mixed with feeling as to make the sight of the Alps not only the revelation of beauty and the beauty of the earth, but the opening of the first page of its volume – I went down from that evening from the garden terrace of Schaffhausen with my destiny fixed in all that it was to be in it that was to be sacred and useful. To that terrace, and the shore of the Lake of Geneva, my heart and faith return to this day, in every impulse that is yet nobly alive in them, and every thought that has yet to be of help or generate peace.
One of the things one discovers when one reads Ruskin regularly is that he means what he says. From his earliest days, he dedicated himself to truth, would never publish anything until he was sure that he had found and set out the core truth of it. It was a writer’s responsibility, after all, to only publish those things which would allow them to trust him and his paragraphs. The same conviction applied to any portion of his life story he allowed into print. So when he tells us that his sight of the Alps from Schaffhausen that evening in the early summer was transformative, we can believe him absolutely. The fact of the matter is demonstrated again and again throughout his works. It was as though, after these critical moments had transpired, all the the sluice gates of the great reservoir of genius within him had been let loose and that, from that moment flowed all the great transfixing, works–the five volumes of Modern Painters, the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, The Seven lamps of Architecture, and all the great works on political economy and nature, including, Unto this last, The Ethics of the Dust, and Deucalion.–all untethered from their inner moorings, all destined to appear at their own proper maturational time.
There is no better demonstration of the importance of this evening in Schaffhausen than in the last paragraphs he wrote for publication in 1888, near the very end of his last tour on the Continent. He is in Chamonix overlooking its great Valley for what he knows to be the last time. On this particular morning he has ascended to his great rock, a glacial erratic high above the town, a spot where he can enjoy the magnificent view he cherishes so deeply. Before taking the trip he had been cajoled by George Allen to write a preface for a new edition of Modern Painters, a work for which there was still significant public demand. All throughout through France and Switzerland he has put the task off. But today, knowing that there will be no more tomorrows in this sacred space, his mind now reflecting over what has transpired over the course of the previous six decades, he composes the following paragraph, one of the best he ever set to paper, its words taking us all away back to Schaffhausen in the early evening of the summer day in his 13th year (Regular readers will forgive me for reproducing this passage from an earlier post and the photograph following it.)
From “The ‘Epilogue’ to Modern Painters (1889) [Ruskin’s last published paragraph]
All that is involved in these passionate utterances of my youth [the first volumes of Modern Painters] was first expanded and then concentrated into the aphorism given twenty years afterwards in my inaugural Oxford lectures: that “All great art is praise.” And on that aphorism was founded [this] yet bolder saying “So far from Art’s being immoral, in the ultimate power of it, nothing but Art is moral. Life without Industry is Sin, and Industry without Art, Brutality” (I forget the words, but that is their purport). And now, in writing beneath the cloudless peace of the snows of Chamouni what must be the really final words of the book which their beauty inspired and their strength guided, I am able, with yet happier and calmer heart than ever heretofore, to enforce its simplest assurance of Faith, that the knowledge of what is beautiful leads on, and is the first step to the knowledge of the things which are lovely and of good report; and that the laws, the life, and the joy of beauty in the material world of God, are as eternal and sacred parts of His creation as, in the world of spirits, virtue; and in the world of angels, praise.
Until next time!
Do continue well out there!