When Ruskin began writing his series of monthly letters to the laborers and workmen of Great Britain– Fors Clavigera–in 1871, he had no fixed plan for what he would say every month. By that time in his life he had come to accept the idea that the experiences of life and his creative unconscious would lead him to the subject matter he would need to remark upon in any given letter. The only criterion for the series was that whatever he would say would “move the needle,” would provide attentive readers of his pages with some new insight into the world and elevate their appreciation of their existence in the process.
Over the course of his work with paintings and drawings, he had met, in London, .a picture restorer and framer by the name of Henry Merritt. They hit it off and, one day, conversation led them to a point where Merritt recounted for Ruskin the tale of the first flower he had known, studied, and loved– a tiny spring crocus. Ruskin loved the story and asked Merritt to write it out for him; Merritt did; sending his pages to Ruskin shortly thereafter. And thus it happened that, in the early months of 1873, when Ruskin was casting about for what he might write in his next fors, he remembered Merritt’s story and asked his friend, it being on the cusp of Spring in the UK, whether he might use the touching tale in his February missive, 26th in the series. Merritt agreed, and so, the present week being the first of that regenerative season in today’s UK and North America–exactly one century and a half after Ruskin’s fors crocus letter appeared–I thought you might enjoy it as the centerpiece of today’s Post. Throughout, as shall be immediately apparent, Merritt’s love of the natural world and its manifold gifts positively vibrates. Thus:
It is impossible to describe the delight which I took in my first flower–it was only a poor, peeky little sprouting crocus. Before I begin the story, however, I must, in two lines, make known my needy state at the time when I became the owner of the flower. I was in my eleventh year, meanly clothed, plainly fed, and penniless–an errand boy in receipt of one shilling and sixpence a week, which sum I consumed in bread and shoe leather. Yet I was happy enough, living in a snug cottage in the suburbs of Oxford–within sight of its towers, and within hearing of its bells.
In the back yard of my home were many wonders! The gable end of a barn was mantled with ivy centuries old and sparrows made their home in its leafage; an ancient wall, old as the Norman tower at the other end of the town, was rich in gilly-flowers; a wooden shed, with red tiles, was covered by a thriving “tea tree”–so we called it–which, in summer, was all pendant mauve-colored blossoms. This tree managed to interlace its branches among the tiles so effectively as in the end to lift off the whole roof in a mass, and poise it in the air. Bees came in swarms to sip honey… I noticed small civilised hive bees, and large ones whose waxen cells were hidden in mossy banks in the woods. These latter had crimson and saffron-tinted bodies or, for variety, hairy shapes of somber green and black. I was never weary of my wall-flowers, and the bees, and the butterflies…
It happened that I caught a glimpse of a college garden about the end of February or the beginning of March, a moment when its mound of venerable elms was lit up with star-like yellow flowers. The dark earth was robed as with a bright garment of imperial, oriental splendor. It was the star-shaped aconite…whose existence as a flower is brief but glorious, when beheld (as I beheld it) in masses. Henceforth, if Old Fidget, the gardener, was not at the back gate of [the encircling fence], I peeped through the keyhole at my yellow garden bed which seemed flooded with sunlight, only broken by patches of rich black earth, which formed strange patterns, such as we see on Japanese screens of lacquer and bronze–only that the flowers had a glory of their own! Well, I looked through the keyhole every time I passed…that was four times daily, and always with increased interest for my flowering aconite. But oh! trouble upon trouble, one day I found the keyhole stopped, and there was an end to my daily joy, and of the interest which had been awakened in me, in a new way, for the wonders of nature.
My love of flowers, however, only increased–and I found means to feed my love. I had often observed Old Fidget and his mates, bring out wheelbarrow loads of refuse from the shrubbery and flower beds and throw them in a heap along the garden wall without, where a long deep trench had become the well-known receptacle for rubbish. Such places were common in town suburbs in those days. The rubbish consisted of cuttings of shrubs and plants, and rakings of flower-borders, but, more beautifully, of elm leaves, and the cast-off clothing of chestnut trees, which soon lay rotting in flaky masses, until I happened to espy a fragment of a bulb, and then, the rubbish of the garden–which concealed sprouting chestnuts–knew no rest! I went, one holiday, and dug deep, with no other implement than my hands, and began sorting through this matted mass. I labored, till at length, in a mass of closely pressed leaves, I came upon a perfect crocus. It lay like a dead elfin infant in its forest grave. I was enchanted and afraid to touch it, as one would fear to commit a piece of sacrilege. It lay in its green robes, which seemed spun from dainty silken threads unsoiled by mortal hands. Its blossom of pale flesh tint lay concealed within a creamy opalescent film, which seemed to revive and live when the light penetrated its darksome tomb, and enlivened its contrasting emerald robes and silken, pliant roots. At length, I lifted the flower from its bed and carried it to my garden plot with breathless care. My garden plot, not much larger than a large baking-dish, was enclosed by broken tiles, a scrubby place, unsuited to my newly discovered treasure.
I broke up the earth and pulverized it with my fingers, but its coarseness was incurable. I abandoned it as I thought of some mole hills in a neighboring copse, and soon my plot was filled deeply with soft sandy soil fit for my flower. And then came the necessity of protecting it from the searching March winds, which I did effectually by covering it with a flower-pot. The season wore on and soft, mild days soon set in apace, and my flower, which was ever uppermost in my thoughts, whether sleeping or waking, began to show signs of life as, day by day, I permitted the sun to look at it. Until at length, one sunny, silent, Sunday morning, it opened its glowing, golden, sacramental cup, gleaming like a light from heaven which had dropped in a dark place, living light and fire. So it seemed to my poor vision, and I called the household and the neighbors from their cares to share my rapture.
But alas! my dream was soon ended–for the flower had no fascination for those who came at my call. It was but a [little] crocus to them. Some laughed, some tittered, some jeered me, and old Dick Willis, poor man, who got a crust by selling soft water by the pail [about town], only rubbed his dim eyes, and exclaimed in pity, “God bless the poor boy!”
“Little thinking.” Ruskin adds in his brief postscript to this story, “how much he was already blessed—he—and his flower!”
Until next time, good friends!
Revel in the birth of life Spring provides and do, please, continue well out there!
Dear Jim- The story told by Henry Merritt is so perfect! Thank you and thank John Ruskin for bringing it to us. The boy who consumed his weekly wage in shoe leather and food shows us the joy of simplicity. His ability to see came from the heart quite as much as much as the eye. People laughed at him for sharing his love, but his story lives on and comes to us across time and continents through means he could not have dreamed of. It reminds me of the rose loved by The Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s immortal tale.