227: The Imagination Penetrative

Friends Fine,

In our last Post we considered the first of Ruskin’s three faculties of the Human Imagination as these are presented and explicated in separate chapters in his ground-breaking Modern Painters II (1846)–The Imagination Associative. I promised in that Post that, in the one following, we would continue with an examination of the second of these faculties–and consider his principal arguments about what, as his words make palpably clear, he considers the most important and powerful of the three facilities–the one he designates as The Imagination Penetrative. (To read this previous Post, click on the link to it on the right-hand side of this page [#226}.) our path to understanding this second faculty will be eased if we begin with his own words. As with the his description of the associative faculty, some attention will be required to absorb the gist, As a reward, and as so often with Ruskin, such an investiture of attention will result in the chance to luxuriate in some of his most wonderful paragraphs. I follow his words with some examples of the Imagination Penetrative, examples which most readers will recognize.

Thus far we have been defining the combining, that is, Associative, operation of the Imagination. It appears to be in a sort mechanical, yet takes place using inexplicable modes whether these be the order of conceptions submitted to it or some other relationship… We must now examine the dealings of the Imagination with regard to its other elements and endeavor to understand not only its principles of selection, but its modes of apprehension with respect to that which it selects.

[Penetration] is always the mode in which the highest imaginative facility seizes its materials. It never stops at crusts or ashes or outward images of any kind; it casts all these aside and plunges into the very central fiery heart. Nothing else will content its spirituality. Whatever semblances and various outward shows and phases its subject may possess go for nothing; it goes within all fences, cuts down to the root, and drinks the vital sap of that which it deals with. Once therein, it is at liberty to throw up what new shoots it will and bring them to fairer fruit than grew on the old tree. But all this pruning and twisting is work that it likes not and often does ill; its function and gift are in getting at the root; its nature and dignity depend on its holding things always by the heart. Take its hand from that and it will prophesy no longer. It looks not in the eyes, it judges not by the voice, it describes not by outward features. All that it affirms, judges or describes, it affirms from within.

It may seem to the reader that I am incorrect in calling this penetrating, possession-taking, faculty “Imagination.” Be it so, the name is of little consequence; but the faculty itself, called by what name we will, I insist upon as the highest intellectual power of man! There is no reasoning in it, it works not by algebra, nor by integral calculus, it is a piercing, pholas-lke mind’s-tongue that works and tastes to the very heart. No matter what the subject submitted to it, all is alike divided asunder–joint and marrow: whatever utmost truth, life, and principal it has, is laid bare, and that which has no truth, life, nor principle, is dissipated into its original smoke… It whispers at men’s ears; it lifts into visible angels vials that have lain sealed in a deep sea a thousand years; and unseals and brings out of them Genii.

Every great conception of poet or painter is held and treated by this faculty. Every character that emerges from the minds of such as Aeschylus, Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare, is, by them, whether speaking or seeming, fire from within, and is referred to that inner secret spring of which the hold is never lost for an instant; so that every sentence, speaking, or circumstance is seized by process from within, it has been thought out from the heart, opens for us a very steep and normal way down to the heart, leads us to the center, and leaves us to gather what more what more we may. It is the Open Sesame of a huge, obscure, endless cave with inexhaustible treasure of pure gold scattered in it. The wandering about in its pieces may be left to any of us–all can accomplish that; but the first opening of that invisible door in the rock is of the Imagination only.

Hence, there is an every word set down by the Imaginative Mind an awful undercurrent of meaning and evidence in shadow upon it of the deep places out of which it has come. It is often obscure, often half-told, he who wrote it, in his clear saying of the things beneath, may have been impatient of detailed interpretation. But if we choose to dwell upon it and trace it, it will lead us always securely back to that Metropolis of the Soul’s Dominion from which we may follow out all the ways and tracks to its furthest coasts…

Now, in all this, let it be observed,–for it is to that end alone that I have been arguing all along–the virtue of the Imagination is in its reaching by intuition and intensity of gaze…toward a more central truth than is seen at the surface of things. I repeat that it matters not whether the reader is willing to call his faculty Imagination or not; I do not care about the name. But I would be understood, when I speak of Imagination hereafter, to refer to this penetrative base whose authority and being is in its perpetual thirst for truth and purpose to be always true. It has no food, no delight, no care, no perception, except of truth; it is forever looking under masks and burning up mists. No fairness of form, no majesty of seeming, will satisfy it. The first condition of its existence is its incapability of being deceived; and, although it sometimes dwells upon and substantiates the fictions of fancy, yet its own operation is to trace to their fullest limit, the true laws and likelihoods –even of fictitious creation…

Finally, it is evident that…Imagination must be fed constantly by external Nature…. This may seem but a truism, for it is clear that to exercise the penetrative faculty, a subject of penetration is necessary. But I note it because many [artists] of powerful mind have been lost to the world by their suffering the restless writhing of their Imagination’s cage to take the place of its healthy and exulting activity in the fields of nature. The most imaginative men always study the hardest and are the most thirsty for new knowledge. Fancy plays like a squirrel in a circular prison and is happy; but Imagination is a pilgrim on the earth – and her home is in Heaven! Shut her from the fields of the celestial mountains–bar her from breathing their lofty sun and warmed air and we may as we will well turn upon her the last boat bolt of the Tower of Famine and give the keys to the keeping of the wildest surges that wash Capraja and Gorgona [the first, an island off the coast of Italy, the second, an island off the coast of Colombia, South America]

Wonderful words, these! And now, as promised, a few illustrations (there are, happily, many!), which, to my mind, illustrate perfectly Ruskin’s concept of this powerful Imagination Penetrative. Each will be recognized as an example which the wider world has also agreed belongs in the pantheon of of the world’s greatest creative efforts.

The first is my favorite piece of music–the second movement, the Adagio, from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, a piece which one of my dear friends once described as something which could only have been composed by “someone who was hardwired to the Deity.” It takes you down to the heart’s deep core as do all instances of the Imagination Penetrative. Here is a link to a fine performance of it:

The second example also comes from the world of music. The glorious “Ode to Joy “from Beethoven’s last, ninth, symphony. If there is a greater celebration of the spirit Ruskin revered as Life, I do not know of it. Click on the link or listen below, relax, and be swept away!

Our third instance comes from the world of sculpture, a creation that many regard as the greatest ever imagined and realized, a single piece of carved marble that, for all time, embodies the suffering and indescribable emotions that follow the death of a beloved one: Michelangelo’s “Pieta”(1550), currently in the Vatican in Rome:


And then there is Painting–and I would be remiss if I did not include in this list of examples of  the Imagination Penetrative–one of Ruskin’s appreciations of what the world regards as one his idol’s–Turner’s–greatest works, the epic and eternal battle between Good and Evil as depicted in his “Apollo and Python” (1811). Today, it can be viewed at the National Gallery in London:

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Readers of Ruskin’s books would have to wait until the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860) for his analysis of this painting, but what follows get to the fiery, central heart of it, as given us by George Landow, one of the greatest of contemporary Ruskinians, on a page from his Victorian Web, of which he has been webmaster for many years: Wrote Professor Landow:

“Before we consider the validity of Ruskin’s brilliant, if perhaps surprising, reading of this [other Turner] painting, let us examine his similarly complex interpretation of “Apollo and Python”, the second canvas to which Ruskin  devotes a chapter in the fifth volume of Modern Painters. This chapter, “The Hesperid Aegle,” opens as Ruskin compares this later work to the one he has just discussed at length: “Five years after [Turner’s “Garden of he Hesperides” was] painted, another great mythological subject appeared by Turner’s hand. Another dragon — this time not one triumphant but in death-pang, the Python slain by Apollo”. This painting, which Ruskin had earlier described in his notes to the Turner Bequest (1856) as “one of the very noblest of all Turner’s works” is far simpler than the “Garden of the Hesperides.” The nude Apollo, the sole figure in the picture, kneels, his head radiating light, and watches with arrow in hand, the cataclysmic writhing of the dying Python, whose death pangs have splintered trees and sent huge rocks crashing down behind him. As Ruskin’s chapter title emphasizes, this is essentially a picture of triumph and light, not gloom–for whereas the keynote of his discussion of the “Garden of the Hesperides” was the dragon,…he here emphasizes the Hesperid Aeglé — the nymph who embodies “Brightness.”… Although he does not go as deeply into the literary sources of this picture as he did in the Hesperides, since he expects the meaning of this battle will appear obvious, he reads it by explicating not only the physical and moral significance of the work but also its meaning as an emblem of Turner himself and of the beauties of art in general. Employing the term “type” in an extension of its figural sense, he comments that “The picture is at once the type, and the first expression of a great change which was passing in Turner’s mind. A change, which was not clearly manifested in all its results until much later in his life; but in the coloring of this picture are the first signs of it; and in the subject of this picture, its symbol, the victory of god over serpent, which represents in physical allegory the victory of sun and light over mist and darkness, further signifies, in the moral sense, the victory of love, life, and purity over sin and death.” Ruskin also takes it as the perfect emblematic representation of Turner’s increasing discovery of the joys and beauty of color, and as such it raises the problem of the role of color in art. He explains that Turner had begun by faithful declaration of the sorrow there was in the world. It is now permitted him to see also its beauty. He becomes, separately and without rival, the painter of the loveliness and light of the creation. . . . of its light: light not merely diffused, but interpreted; light seen pre-eminently in color”. Thus, although Turner did not fully develop his coloristic gifts until after 1820, this picture, exhibited in 1811 already foreshadows the artist’s coming victory over the gloom of his predecessors and the brown violin of Sir George Beaumont. Telling the story in brief of Turner’s artistic development,… Ruskin explains how the artist “went steadily through the subdued golden chord, and painted Cuyp’s favorite effect, ‘sun rising through vapor,’ for many a weary year. But this was not enough for him. [Turner] must paint the sun in his strength, the sun rising not through vapor. If you glance at that Apollo slaying the Python, you will see there its rose color and blue on the clouds as well as gold; and if then you turn to the Apollo in the Ulysses and . . . you see he is not ‘rising through vapor,’ but above it; — gaining somewhat of a victory over vapor, it appears.” 

Often noted in descriptions of “the Apollo,” is the fact–represented clearly in the painting–that although the exhausted Apollo has clearly emerged victorious, at its top of, and out of the dead creature, a wormlike image rises, symbolizing that although this particular phase of the battle is over and that good has emerged with a victory, in truth, the battle between the two great forces of light and dark, good and evil, is eternal. in due course, the dark will rise again, and the evil will have to be engaged–and hopefully vanquished–although Turner gives us no assurance that such triumph is assured.

The last example I will share of The Imagination Penetrative is my one of my favorites among William Butler Yeats’ poems. I have long been an admirer of Yeats and his work and this heart-warming effort is one of his last and best.

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The time of its composition is the latter half of the 1930s. Excruciating and horrific war has recently destroyed much of Europe and the world, and now, less than two decades later, the great worm of Evil, not definitively slain as so fervently hoped just a few years before, has arisen anew from the millions of corpses and threatens to engulf all again. Seeing all this clearly, Yeats, though dying (he knows it, his friends and family know it). sets to work one on what he knows will be his final poems. creating in this process one the great reflective poems of the world, a reassessment of his life and what it has meant, of what the tortured history of Ireland has meant, of what it has meant to be a human being who has drawn breath on this earth and what it all  portends for an unknown, ineluctably unfolding future. The poem is called “Under Ben Bulben,” this central symbol being a mountain situated north of the city of Sligo in the West of Ireland and much in its stanzas is sited in a local churchyard where Yeats knows that, before long and before very many more breaths have been drawn, where, at his direction, he will be laid. (He died in January, 1939.)  Here it is:

Benbulbin - Wikipedia

Under Ben Bulben

Swear by what the Sages spoke   
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,   
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women,   
Complexion and form prove superhuman,   
That pale, long visaged company
That airs an immortality
Completeness of their passions won;   
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here’s the gist of what they mean.
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man dies in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard
`Send war in our time, O Lord!’
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate
Know his work or choose his mate.
Poet and sculptor do the work
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Quattrocento put in paint,
On backgrounds for a God or Saint,
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky
Resemble forms that are, or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That Heavens had opened.
                                        Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard, Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
               Cast a cold eye
               On life, on death.
               Horseman, pass by!
Drumcliffe Churchyard, County Sligo. Ireland
Grave of W. B. Yeats, Drumcliffe Churchyard, County Sligo. Ireland

Until next time, friends fine! DO continue well out there!



This entry was posted in Truths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 227: The Imagination Penetrative

  1. It really is so wonderful to be receiving these, Jim! Keep them up! Thank you!

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