And so, good friends, we come around again to our annual recollection of the most auspicious day of the year for those who honor the spirit and cherish the work of John Ruskin–the anniversary of his birth. He was born in London on 8 February 1819 and died, as our last Post acknowledged and commemorated, on 20 January 1900, at his home, Brantwood, not far from the village of Coniston, in England’s lovely Lake District. Each year on this remembering day, I pick a passage which symbolizes for me not only Ruskin’s brilliance but his continuing significance as a guide to those of us still navigating our way through this still a-borning 21st-century. Today’s passage continues this tradition by presenting some of his thoughts about one of the most important elements of life – that energy field we commonly call “Spirit.” Given the significance of this force, I thought it might be best if we passed immediately to his thoughts on the matter, following which I will offersome reflections of my own.
It is of great consequence that you should fix in your minds – and hold, against the baseness of materialism on the one hand and the fallacies of controversial speculation on the other – the certain and practical sense of the word “Spirit;” – that sense in which you all know that its reality exists as the power which shaped you into your shape and by which you love and hate when you have received that shape. You need not fear, on the one hand, either that the sculpting of this loving power can ever be beaten down by the philosophers into a metal or evolved by them into a gas. But, on the other hand, do take care that you yourselves, in trying to elevate your conception of this word, do not lose its truth in a dream, or even in a word. Indeed, beware always of contending for words, even if you know them in several languages. As instance, this very word – “Spirit” – which is so solemn in your minds–is one of the most complex. In Latin, it means little more than breathing, and may mean merely “accent”; in French, it is not “breath”, but “wit,” and our Continental neighbors are therefore obliged, even in their most solemn expressions, to say “wit” when we say “ghost.”
The philosophers are very humorous in their wide sea of remarks about it. But the real interest of their discoveries is of very small import to humankind. It is quite true that the tympanum of the ear vibrates under sound and that the surface of water in a ditch vibrates, too. But the ditch hears nothing for all that; and my hearing is still to me as blessed a mystery and the interval between the ditch and me–remains quite as great. If the trembling sound in my ears was once of the marriage bell which began my happiness, and is now of the passing bell which ends it, the difference between those two sounds to me can never be counted by the number of concussions.
Beyond, and entirely unaffected by, any questionings of this kind, there are, therefore, two plain facts which we should all know. First, that there is a Power which gives their several shapes to things–or come capacities of shape; and second, that there is a Power which gives them their several feelings–or capacities of feelings; and that we can increase or destroy both of these at our will. By care and tenderness we can extend the range of lovely life in plants and animals; but, by our neglect and cruelty, we can arrest these and bring pestilence in their stead.
Again: by right discipline, we can increase our strength of noble will and passion, or destroy both. What precise meaning we ought to allot to expressions such as that regarding the prophecy of the Four Winds–that dry bones might be breathed upon and live–or why the presence of the vital Power of Spirit should be dependent on the chemical action of the air, as its awful passing is materially signified by the rendering up of that breath or ghost, we cannot at present know, and need not know at any time and need not, at any time, dispute. But what we assuredly know is that the states of Life and Death are different, and the first is more desirable than the other, and by effort attainable, whether we understand “Born of the Spirit” to signify having the breath of heaven in our flesh or its Power in our hearts.
Thus: Mr. Ruskin on “Spirit.”
My mother, Gladys Ramsay Spates, was born near the beginning of the last century in the middle of the Maritime province of Nova Scotia in Canada. My father’s family, then settled near Boston in the United States, hailed from the same locale before taking the decision to migrate to the great world society emerging to the South. As a consequence of this Northern inheritance, from the time I was very little, we would travel to Nova Scotia every summer: over gravel roads, through New Hampshire, Maine, and, once in Canada. through New Brunswick to Nova Scotia. The trip would take three days from Western Massachusetts. When we finally arrived, we would stay at my grandparents’ farm on a hill. I remember, very profoundly, my grandmother, Mary Ramsay, herself a mother of eight, saying often during her chore-laden days, that the most important thing in life was to always make the choice to “Keep the Spirit up.” On the few days when it rained during our visits and we all had to remain in the house and my spirits dampened, I remember my Grandma saying: “Well, you can’t do anything about the weather, Jamie (that’s what I was called when a boy.) But there’s no excuse for being glum. You/ve got to keep the Spirit up!”
Those remarks made a deep impression. Throughout my Ruskin time, one of the traits I have most admired about him is his commitment, often exhibited under the most intense duress or trying circumstances, to keep his Spirits up–to, daily, as I have emphasized in previous posts–do what he could to move the needle towards the salubrious end of life’s spectrum. Early in the 1860s, after enjoying a couple of decades as England’s new genius writer on art, architecture, and nature, he found his new foray into political economy summarily, and often cruelly, rejected by the British public. Shocked by the reprobation, he fell into a deep depression but, in time, picked himself up and went on. Spirit. In 1864, he lost his father–with whom he had been inordinately close throughout life in a relationship both loving and fraught, to what we now suspect was prostate cancer. Much rattled by the experience, he again picked himself up and began again. Spirit. by 1870, he was convinced– not without reason – that most of his work, on which he had intensively and ceaselessly labored for over three decades – had failed in its goal of making the world a better place. More depression followed. Before long, however, he picked himself up and began again, delivering a series of profound public lectures and starting, in his new capacity as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, to publish his monthly letters addressed to the working people of England, a series to which he gave the name, Fors Clavigera. Spirit. In 1875, the love of his life, the much younger Rosa La Touche, mentally deranged and severely debilitated by what we now think was a severe case of anorexia nervosa, died in Ireland. He never got over it. Nevertheless, before long he began to work again, writing a series of books that had always been on his mind using the powers that still remained to him, among these, Proserpina, Deucalion, St. Mark’s Rest, and The Bible of Amiens. Spirit. In 1878, his mind gave way under the cumulative stress of years and his abiding sense of failure, and he suffered an attack of what was then called “brain fever,” a breakdown which left him more or less out of his right mind for weeks that stretched into months. Slowly he repaired, but the breakdowns repeated–at roughly 2 year intervals,. Between attacks, he continued to issue (until 1884) the Fors letters, and began publishing. again in monthly installments, his wonderful autobiography, Praeterita (the endeavor was never completed). In 1883, he delivered, in London, what is still widely-regarded as one of his greatest lectures (a “sunset masterpiece,” one of his biographers called it), “The Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century.” Sprit. Finally. in 1890, exhausted, mentally struggling and unable to write as he had previously, he retired to Brentwood where he lived peacefully for the last decade of his life. Spirit. An admirable life. A life admirable not merely because of the prodigious amount of work it produced that was conceived solely as a means for easing and improving the human condition, but a life which can serve as an enduring iteration of the quintessence of the human Spirit. Indeed, when I think of the trajectory of Ruskin’s life, I always think of him – although he would hate the metaphor – as a outmatched prizefighter who, despite being knocked down many times by a heartless opponent as the rounds passed, each time struggles to his feet to continue the contest. (The picture below is of our subject at Brantwood during his later years.)
Happy Birthday, Mr. Ruskin–and thank you for the Spirit embedded in all your days, doings, and words!
Stuart Eagles is a treasured and trusted friend. He has also been a committed and significant Ruskinian for some decades. For years he served as Secretary of the “Ruskin Society” of the UK; he is the author of After Ruskin, a book (Oxford University Press) which analyses how Ruskin’s thought profoundly influenced the many social reform movements which emerged in the UK and elsewhere in the latter half of the 19th century, continuing well into the 20th; a couple of years ago, he began his own blog dedicated to our great Victorian; and–for all this time–he has been involved in and supportive of all manner of projects dedicated to informing the wider public of Ruskin’s importance in world history. Following my stroke of two years ago, his support and encouragement were unconditional and regular and my own considerably challenged Spirit was much buoyed by his kindness. I wanted to single him out today, on this anniversary of Mr. Ruskin’s birth, to acknowledge his own remarkable Spirit. Finally, for reasons known only to the great Creator of this Universe, I wish to note that Stu has had to endure many trials and tribulations in his own life. That he is done so without complaint and, always, with abiding Courage, is highly worthy of our notice. He was, and remains, an inspiration. Just recently, and most happily, he was selected to deliver the Annual Keynote Address at the AGM of the Ruskin Society, an event which will occur in the next few days. Mr. Ruskin would have liked and admired him very much. Certainly I do. And so, in applause of your remarkable Spirit, Stu, I wish to take this moment to tout you on the day celebrating our mentor’s birth. Thank you so very much for all the significant work you have done for Mr. Ruskin over the years (may it continue long into the future!)–but, mostly, thank you for bring a Man of Spirit!!
if you’d like to visit Stu’s Ruskin blog. here’s the link:
if you’d like to read a copy of Stu’s book, After Ruskin, below’s a link to it. It’s expensive but well worth the outlay, but, more than likely, should you’d rather, it might be available through the interlibrary loan service offered by your local library.
Until next time, fine friends!
And, until that moment–as my dear Grandmother Ramsay always said–do, please, “Keep the Spirit up!
Thank you again, Jim. And may I say how much I agree with your comments about Stu Eagles? A beacon in a sometimes very dark world – like you!