236: Fictions

Fine Friends,

One of the delights in reading Ruskin is that he constantly surprises you, introducing, not infrequently unexpectedly, something you have thought only a little about, or even thought about not at all, but which, once you read his commentary, you realize you had not allotted sufficient consideration to the subject.

Ruskin’s brain teemed with ideas. As his age advanced and he knew his time was becoming more sharply limited, his ruminations turned to things he’d always wanted to say but felt he had not yet set to paper. When he was a boy, the novelist we now know as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was at the height of his considerable international reputation. Ruskin’s parents delighted in his work and, after dinner was completed, on many evenings the little family would repair to the parlor in their London home and the son’s father, John James, would read Scott’s works. Ruskin loved the writer, reveling in works like Waverly, Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and Waverly. All his life, he regarded Scott as a moral, aesthetic, and intellectual paragon. So great was his admiration, after he bought his own home, Brantwood, in 1869, he would frequently treat his guests to his own reading of Scott’s novels after dinner. For a number of years he planned to write a biography of the writer, convinced that the story of his life would carry a message and model forward to his own readers of how to use one’s powers to the fullest. Despite some fits and starts of a beginning, however, the project never was finished. Nevertheless, as was his habit, we can see bits of the project emerging in many of the things that Ruskin did commit to print during his later years. Today’s passage, which follows a lovely portrait of the writer and an image of his famous series, The Waverly Novels, provides an illustration.

We all know what fiction is–don’t we? Here are Ruskin’s views on this considerable matter.

Do you know what a play is? Or what a poem is? What a novel is? That is to say, do you know the perpetual and necessary distinctions in literary aim which have brought these distinctive names into use? We had better, first, for clearness’ sake, call all three ‘poems,’ for all the three are so when they are good– whether written in verse or prose. All truly imaginative account of man is poetic. There are three essential kinds of poetry–one dramatic, one lyric, one epic.

Dramatic poetry is the expression by the poet of other people’s feelings, his own not being told; lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings; epic poetry is an account given by the poet of other people’s external circumstances and of events happening to them, and only expresses their feelings or his own as he thinks may be conveniently added to his account.

The business of dramatic poetry is therefore with the heart essentially; it despises external circumstances. Lyric poetry may speak of anything that expresses emotion in the speaker, while epic poetry insists on external circumstances, and no more exhibits a heart-feeling than as may be gathered from these.

For instance, the fight between the Prince of Wales and Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV corresponds closely in the character of the event itself–to the fight of Fitz-James with Roderick in Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the subject is strictly dramatic, while Scott’s is strictly epic. Shakespeare gives you no account whatever of any blow or wound; his stage direction is, briefly, “Hotspur is wounded and falls.” But Scott gives you an accurate account of every external circumstance, along with a finishing touch of botanical accuracy: “Down came the blow but, in the heath, the erring blade found bloodless sheath.” Scott makes his work perfect as epic poetry. And Scott’s work is always epic, and it is contrary to his very nature to treat any subject dramatically.

That is the technical distinction, then, between the three modes of fiction. But the gradation of power in all three depends on the degree of imagination with which the writer can enter into the feelings of other people. Whether in expressing theirs or his own, or whether in expressing their feelings only or the circumstances surrounding them, his power as a writer depends on his being able to feel as they do. In other words–on his being able to conceive character. In literature which is not poetry at all, which is essentially unsentimental, or anti-poetic which is produced by persons who have no imagination, and whose merit (for, of course, I am not speaking of bad literature) it is their wit or sense, instead of their imagination, that matters.

Until next time, be well out there as you wend your way toward our annual holidaze!


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2 Responses to 236: Fictions

  1. Jack Harris says:

    Thanks, Jim! And did Ruskin have anything to say about dogs? I mention this because our little doggie, Maisie (named after Henry James’s novel, What Maisie Knew) is of a breed celebrated by its association with Sir Walter Scott. The Dandie Dinmont Terrier, formalized as a breed in the mid 1700s in Scotland, was a favorite of Scott. Known colloquially as Pepper and Mustard Terriers, they came to be famously known as Dandie Dinmont’s Terriers after Scott featured them as the pack of a minor character, the farmer Dandie Dinmont, in his sold-out 1815 illustrated novel, Guy Mannering. The possessive was eventually dropped. The breed is the only one named after a fictional character and the only one that has its own tartan, that of Sir Walter himself, by Scott’s descendant, the Duke of Buccleuch. Our little beastie, as you know, is epic in her fierceness, otherwise balanced by the poetry of her gentle disposition.

  2. Peter O’Neill says:

    Thanks for this post, James. I wonder to what extent John Ruskin, a great admirer of Thomas Carlisle, was influenced by Carlisle’s ideas about sir Walter Scott.

    Best, Peter O’Neill

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