My Good Friends,
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to recall that your blog master is always delighted not only when he posts Ruskin’s magnificent descriptions of nature, but, particularly with those offerings which showcase Ruskin’s enduring love of flowers–from the–still underappreciated!–“foxglove” and “lady slipper,” 179: The Amazing Adventures of the Astonishing Cypripendium Reginaa), to the excitement of reemergent flowers and life reawakening in spring (223: Seeing: Ruskin’s Genius, for Spring!), to the brilliant passages telling of flowers luxuriating in the fullest moment of their lifecycle in summer– (131: “Flowers are for Joy!”)? In such renderings we, his readers, are invited to share in the ecstasy that has resulted from his simply seeing and coming to understand the inner life of a flower; and we can fairly imagine him dancing about the room of his study overlooking Coniston Water and the nearby mountain known, because of the recumbent shape it resembles, as “The Old Man,” as the exultant sentences flow from his pen (199: Ruskin is 202 Today! The Story of his “Sacred Sister”– Francesca Alexander (PART ONE)!
What then of the fading flowers in Fall, that season when the delighting life force withdraws into its plant as it readies itself the long months of quiet before the spring arrives again? In this context, and, perhaps not surprisingly, as one reads Ruskin over time, one finds that there are very few great passages describing the advent and deepening of Fall. Today’s brief passage is one of those few. , In it, our subject (again, not surprisingly) provides us with an insight of great value to us all concerning the gradations of life surrounding us and then illustrates that observation with a few remarks on falling flowers.
[You will find, as you consider, that it is] impossible to separate the idea of gradated and vital power. Things are not wholly alive or wholly dead. They are either less, or more, alive. Take the nearest, most easily examined instance: the life of a flower. Notice what a different degree and kind of life there exist in the calyx and the corolla. The calyx is nothing but the swaddling-clothes of the flower. The child- blossom is bound up in it hand and foot; is guarded by it, is restrained by it until the time of birth. The shell is hardly more subordinated in the germ in the egg than the calyx is relative to its blossom. At last, the flower bursts forth, but it never lives as fully as the corolla does. The corolla may fall at all the moment its task is fulfilled, as in the poppy; or wither away gradually, as in the buttercup; or persist in a kind of ligneous apathy, as in the rose, or harmonize itself to share in the life of the real flower, as in the lily. But it never shares in the corolla’s bright expression of life!
And the gradations which exit between the different members of organic creatures, exist no less between different ranges of organism. We know no higher or more energetic life than our own, but there seems to me to be this great good in the idea of a gradation of life. It admits the idea of a life above us–in other creatures much nobler than ourselves as our life is nobler than that of the dust.
Regarding the final image below I had some pause before deciding to include it. One of Ruskin’s most powerful convictions was to never accentuate the negative. Although he was surrounded by the detritus of life and evidence of human ignorance and degradation everywhere, he took it as his authorial task to uplift his readers in what he wrote. In one famous passage in The Stones of Venice he describes one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Four Saints,” which hangs (still and beautifully) in the small church of San Zachariah in Venice not far from the Piazza San Marco.
To illustrate his agreement, which is to provide incontrovertible evidence for Venice’s long fall from grace as the Renaissance continued, he turns his readers’ attention to another small church nearby, Santa Maria Formosa, on the south facing side of which there has been mounted an image of a sculpted, but particularly ugly, head, complete with lolling tongue and decaying teeth, an image that in no way illustrates (as was always the case with the greatest of Renaissance churches) any important religious principle. He briefly describes the offending had but, even though it was possible for him to do so, declined to include an illustration of the head in his book on the principle that it was so ugly it would spoil the book.
But, despite this reticence Ruskin was anything but a Pollyanna. He knew The Dark existed in life and that 210: “All Things Must Pass”; indeed he always contended that the darkness was necessary so that we could properly see the light. For this reason, pace his reservations about including an image of the ugly head in The Stones of Venice, I decided – hopefully with Mr. Ruskin’s approval – to include the following image of a falling flower–another yellow rose–so that, hopefully, we can take the time to reflect on life in all its stages – its gradated stages. .
Until next time!
Please be well out there!