Recollections of Ruskin


I RECALL the attitude of mind with which a girl fresh from an American college looked forward, at Oxford, in the autumn of 1884, to attending a course of lectures by John Ruskin. She was to hear and see a wonderful man : of that she was sure. He was the man who had thrown wide to her awakening soul the portals of the temple of Beauty ; who had taught her to read the declaration of the glory of God in the heavens, and to tread in the spirit, if not in the flesh, the secret places of the sacred hills. Through many a long hour of summer reading among the pastures of New Hampshire, he had opened her mind to study and cherish the self-expression of the Christian world in painting and architecture. And she knew that what he had done for her he had done for the English-speaking race.

Yet it was with mingled feelings, in which apprehension clashed with eagerness, that she waited for the lectures. She knew little of Mr. Ruskin’s later books ; and her ignorance was shared, at that time, by many of the most ardent lovers of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. But uncomfortable rumors were in the air. The art critic and the painter of words, the purveyor of new and choice delights alike to the religiously and to the æsthetically minded, had, it was vaguely felt, gone wrong. There had been eccentric if not discreditable developments in his career. He had taken to meddling with political economy, and of course he could not know anything about it. Political economy was a recondite subject, concerning itself with the iron laws that governed the important but disagreeable phenomena associated with the making of money. An idealist ought to be ashamed of himself if he were interested in such a matter: a passion for cathedrals or for Turner’s paintings incapacitated a man for economics. Mr. Ruskin was writing books about this dismal science, books with queer titles and preposterous ideas. He had quite lost his balance. He had been known to question the very foundations of enlightened society, — taking interest on money, and knowing how to read. He hated railways, he objected to machinery ; he wanted to call back the Middle Ages. He was an aristocrat, he was a socialist; he did n’t know what he was, himself. He abused his own times, and civilization in general, in a manner really hysterical and shocking. He would write no more lovely descriptions of sunsets or Venetian palaces for our delectation, except when his natural impulse of genius overcame his perversity. It was a shame !

Not all people, of course, felt in this unintelligent way, but a great many did. Twenty-five years earlier, Ruskin had turned a sharp corner from art toward social science ; but in a quarter of a century he had not, at least in America, won an audience, far less a sympathetic audience, for his social writings. It was therefore with an instinct of criticism. almost of antagonism, as well as with keen interest, that eyes were fixed on the lecturer, as he passed quietly from a group of his friends to the lecture platform.

Now, the first impression conveyed by Mr. Ruskin’s face and bearing was that of reserve strength ; the next, of sadness, — sadness very still and deep, and by no means incompatible with a sense of fun ; the last and most abiding was that of self-mastery. One had hoped for the presence of a graceful, ardent, sensitive person, bent on revealing beauty ; one had feared the presence of an unstrung fanatic ; one found one’s self in the presence of a prophet.

Those were hard days, we learned afterward, for Mr. Ruskin. The question was pending of the endowment at the university of a physiological laboratory where vivisection should be practiced, and his whole nature was in a state of recoil and fear. (The deed was done, by the way, and a little later Ruskin resigned his professorship in consequence.) Friends, anxiously watching him, feared a return of his malady. That autumn was probably a time of as great mental excitement as he ever knew. It was evident to all of us that something was happening beneath the surface, especially when, before the end of the course, the announcement came that readings from his early works would take the place of the last lectures. The truth was that Ruskin had been persuaded, doubtless wisely, to suppress these lectures, which were full of severity and sorrow.

Yet, to an audience ignorant of the situation, the impression conveyed by the lecturer was not one of weakness. His presence was life-communicating, potent. Probably the presence of greatness always is. I do not know how any one could have seen or heard Ruskin without feeling him to be a great man. In three other cases, that subtle intuition which penetrates with so awful a swiftness through words and aspect to personal quality has brought back to me the report of greatness : with Emerson, with Phillips Brooks, and with Renan. All these men were gentle, but Ruskin was perhaps the gentlest of them. One takes their force for granted. There were gravity and breadth, there was the humorous quality that so sweetens greatness, there was childlike simplicity, there was poise, there was wisdom won through sorrow, in the personality of Ruskin.

The lectures ? One does not remem ber much about them. The great mind was obviously past its prime, though the character remained intact. They were historical lectures, and they left one with a breathless sense of the speaker’s immense stores of knowledge, — knowledge not confused, but synthetically held in a remarkable fashion. Ruskin was not reducing the scale of this knowledge for ignorant minds, on this occasion, as he could do so charmingly in his popular books : he was letting us see in native proportion a detail here or there of the great illumined whole of history and art as it lay in his mind. This was his favorite method, especially in his later writings, and it accounts for the somewhat discursive and chaotic aspect his books present to the average reader, unfamiliar with his thought in its entirety.

But it was when Ruskin left his manuscript, and spoke straight to his audience, flashing appeal, sympathy, reprobation, from under his shaggy brows, that strange things began to happen in the mind of one, at least, of his hearers. Apart from what he was saying, the man inspired a singular trust. At times, indeed, he would break into mournful invective, with a grim felicity in vituperation fairly startling, if taken literally ; but it was evident that Ruskin himself did not so take it, for an air of unmistakable artistic pleasure in his vocabulary and of whimsical amusement would often accompany the sharpest abuse. More often, these personal interludes were in the form of searching questions, very gently put to the puzzled and half-conscience-smitten audience. Sometimes, a sort of indrawn monologue of compassionate meditation on some phase of modern human loss or sorrow would show us the man’s inmost heart. He revealed to us the two central springs of his nature : unswerving rectitude, intellectual and moral, and profound tenderness, or, as he would himself have described them, the instincts of order and kindness.

Listening, dreaming, an entirely new order of questions began to form in his hearers’ minds. Were political economy and art so far separated, after all ? Could either be wisely considered apart from the laws of righteousness in life ? Could a nation play beautifully that did not as a whole work healthfully ? Did the modern nations work healthfully ? Could art flourish as the monopoly of the privileged ? Is it delicate, is it courteous, is it Christian, is it even just, to rejoice contentedly in pretty descriptions of nature or in the contemplation of art, while vast throngs of those to whose labor we owe our fine sensibilities and the leisure to indulge them are shut off from art and nature alike ? What ought idealism to play upon, — dreams, abstractions, the study of the past, or the big crude world of modern fact ? These questions are obvious, trite enough, now : they meant to many a hearer, fifteen years ago, an absolutely new point of view.

To Ruskin, in those days, every line of thought, however seemingly remote, was a path of access to the actual life of men. Before the hours in his presence were over, one felt the unity that underlay all seeming inconsistencies and changes in his dramatic career. The Ruskin of Modern Painters, with England admiring at his feet, was one with the Ruskin of Fors Clavigera, with England jeering at his elbow. To hear him lecture deepened and solemnized the impression derived from his books. Many a passage, even in the earlier works, once read for cadence or image or private sentiment, now gathered new seriousness of meaning. The books were delightful, but the man was larger and wiser than his books, even in his decline. Below his opinions one saw into the experience which explained the opinions; and slowly one understood that this slightly bowed form, this face, rugged in mass, but delicate in line, belonged to a man who gathered up into himself the life movement of half a century. More than one of his hearers came away from those lectures to turn with eagerness and reverence to the social writings of Raskin ; and to find there, brushing away, as may easily be done, all vaporous error, the light of the eternal stars that guides the race in its slow pilgrimage toward justice.