237: Ruskin–The Man and The Spirit (Moving the Needle at the beginning of 2023)

Happy New Year, Good Friends,

One of the lovely things about spending time with Ruskin is that the longer that companionship lasts, the more deeply you come to feel that, among human beings, he was one of the best. Over the course of his life, especially after his fame grew, he met thousands of people–with not a few of them he became friends and–of these, many left records of their impressions of the man in writing.

One was a Harvard professor, Charles Eliot Norton. Ruskin met Norton him in the 1850s in London and immediately the two took to one another. In the summer of 1856 both were traveling on the Continent and, by chance, met each other. Sometime not long after, Norton set down his recollections of Ruskin and–I am glad to report–they are typical of many such rememberings. Today seemed not a bad idea to share these impressions with you as we begin a new year. As always when I read such reminiscences, I am uplifted by the sentiments expressed: it seems as if Ruskin, the man, was an exemplar of the kind of person he thought we should all strive to be. I follow Norton’s portrait with a picture of our subject which I do not believe I have used previously, one taken at approximately the same time that Norton was setting down his thoughts.

His abundant, light brown hair, his blue eyes, and his fresh complexion gave him a young look for his age [37]; he was a little above middle height, his figure was slight, his movements were quick and alert; his whole manner had a definite, attractive, individuality. There was nothing of the common English reserve and stiffness, no self-consciousness or sign of any consideration of himself as a man of distinction but, on the contrary, an unassuming self and an almost feminine readiness of sympathy. His features were irregular, but his look had the expressiveness of his full and mobile lips… The tone of dogmatism too often manifested in his writing was entirely absent from his talk. In spite of all that he had gone through regarding suffering, in spite of the burden of his thought and the weight of his renown, he had an almost boyish creative spirit and liveliness of humor, and always a quick interest in whatever might be the subject of the moment. He never quarreled with a difference of opinion, and often attributed too much value to a judgment that did not coincide with his own. I have not a memory of these days in which I do not recall him except as one of the pleasantest, gentlest, kindest, and most interesting of men.

As we have also learned over the course of these posts, Ruskin seems to have been born with a pen in his hand, The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, as noted earlier, runs to over 6 million printed words encased in 39 volumes, each averaging well over 400 pages. Although the letters which survive possess are not quite so voluminous, they are extensive and many have been published over the decades. Often, he would write as many as 40 missives a day–some, depending on the recipient, brief notes; others more extensive; some, by any estimation, lengthy. In these, as in his own professional writings, he did not hold back his views or sentiments. Always he was trying to communicate something to his readers something about the wonders of life and this world. The brief excerpt below, taken from a letter sent a young woman friend in the 1880s, is as good an example as any. I offer it as I have Norton’s recollections as a kind of substantive frame for thinking about why Ruskin remains for us, in our several 21st century guises, “a man for all seasons!”

By the Word, or Voice, or Breath, or Spirit, the heavens and earth, and all the host of them, were made; and in It, they exist. It is Life, and It speaks to you always as long as you live nobly; dies out of you as you refuse to obey it, and leaves you to hear and be slain by the “word of an evil spirit…” This [beneficent] Spirit may come to you in books, come to you in clouds, come to you in the voices of men, come to you in the stillness of deserts. You must be strong in evil, if you have quenched it wholly…

Until next time:

Do continue to be well out there, fine friends, and may 2023 be, for us all, a notable needle-moving year!



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