Ruskin and "The Hinksey Diggers"

THOSE of us who came in the seventies under the personal spell of “the Master,” as we have ever since called him, have never been able to think of the teacher otherwise than in that mood of hopefulness which seemed to have given new life to him, both in private talk and in public utterance.

This hopefulness was born at Oxford. He had entered upon his work as Slade Professor, and had — at least that was the impression he gave me — been thankfully astonished to find not only that such old friends as Sir Henry Acland and the Dean of Christchurch rallied round him, but that the young undergraduate life had been attracted to him beyond expectation.

One recalls how, before the hour appointed for bis lectures in the museum, every corner of the theatre was crammed ; and this not only by the young men who would most naturally have been expected to be there, but by a medley of men who would have been found on the running path or in their college barges, — men of whom Philistia might have been proud and glad. Ruskin felt then for the first time that his message was indeed for young Oxford, and his spirit rose within him.

One remembers how on one occasion, in the Taylorian Institute, whither, for the better accommodation of the crowd, he had adjourned, he seemed vexed, and vented his indignation in no measured terms upon certain of the fairer sex who had congregated to the exclusion of the undergraduates. “ I came here,” he said, “ with a message to my young men, and I am entirely troubled to find that, by reason of so many fair bonnets and befeathered hats, I cannot so much as see their faces.” And though it is true he apologized at the next lecture, in most knightly fashion, for having said anything that should have seemed unkind to the fairer sex, he maintained that his business was not so much to tickle the ears of the ladies of Oxford as to fulfill a solemn obligation to Alma Mater in getting at the hearts of her young men.

In one of these lectures he let fall pregnant words about the waste of time he noticed in the Oxford world of athletics. He could not but believe that the same training of muscles might be turned to better account, if only the young men, as they labored to increase the muscle of their biceps and forearms, would try to help others round about them to a happier life. It was a pity, he thought, that men could not see the worth of adding to the joy of gaining health of body the gladness of health of mind, which would assuredly come to them, if they would put their muscles to some work of benevolence for the nation. He instanced the need of good roads for the poor in a neighboring village ; the possibility of making a village green fair and fit for man and beast, as the kindly practical work which the rowing man and the athlete might undertake for posterity, and gain at the same time joy in muscular vigor as they labored.

His words came home to many of us. It was a new idea. The same week, it chanced that a young Scotchman of Balliol, a personal friend of Ruskin’s, was calling on the professor at Corpus. They fell to talking over the suggestion made in the lecture, and Ruskin unfolded his plan. The pathway from the ferry to Hinksey was uneven and full of holes, and the poor folk of Hinksey were naturally the sufferers. He wished undergraduate friends would volunteer for the work of its reconstruction, but he dared not move in the matter during his first term of Slade Professorship, lest peradventure the academic mind might cry out that he was crazy, or think that he had turned to this experiment of engineering because he could not do the work of his chair. My friend and now near neighbor, the Scotchman, — whose name is known to all who have read the careful addition to St. Mark’s Rest he made, at Ruskin’s wish, when he described in detail the great picture by Carpaccio in the church of San Giorgio dei Schiavoni at Venice, — had with him, at this interview, a young friend, now eminent in the Scotch Church. They both expressed a timid regret that there should be delay and postponement of the plan. I have seen the touching letter of thanks for their sympathy which was written on the following day, February 20, 1873, in which Ruskin determines to take heart of grace, and begin at once with his plan of road-mending near Oxford.

But how was the scheme to be propounded ? Ruskin knew it would mean a certain amount of running the gauntlet of criticism, and that young men were very sensitive. His idea was to invite a certain number of men, whose spirits might be supposed to be able to bear the strain, to meet him, every week or fortnight, at breakfast in his college rooms, that he might thus personally get into touch with them. He left to my Scotch friend the selection of the men. And so it came to pass that on March 16 twelve men, all from Balliol College, and all of very various ways of looking at most things, met the professor at breakfast, heard his plan, and swore their allegiance.

Ruskin had soon after gone down to Brantwood, and after having arranged the breakfast for a certain date was obliged to postpone it. He wrote playfully that, “ however faithless it might seem, he was not Browning’s lost leader, but would yet meet his guests, and claim leadership of a cause that was not lost” In one of the letters to my friend to whom Ruskin had intrusted the selection of the diggers, under date of February 28, he wrote of his Hinksey plan : “ I am very desirous that all men should feel it is no desire of notoriety for myself, or any fantastic scheme of self-humbling or sacrifice for them, but in the most simple conviction that one can be happy in bodily industry only when it is useful; and that all the best material part of education and scholarship must begin in agriculture and such other homely arts, undertaken for public benefit.”

But the spring term was close to an end, and Ruskin went off to Italy. The work, however, was all carefully thought out, and it was arranged that Downes, the gardener at Brantwood, should come up to Oxford and superintend the digging, and have a plentiful supply of picks and spades and barrows ready for “ the young gentlemen ” for the beginning of the summer term.

How deep and real was Ruskin’s interest in the plan is evidenced by the minute and careful instructions he penned at Genoa and Rome as to the work he wished to be done by his volunteers. He gave up the idea of mending the ferry path across the vale, and determined to tackle the road through Hinksey village, and the adjacent three-cornered bit of village green. The triangle of the green had cottages on two sides of it, and a road on the third.

This road was “ foundrous; ” that is to say, it was so full of ruts and depressions that the carts avoided it, and following their own sweet will over the village green, made it unsightly with deep ruts, and useless to the children for their play. I remember the broken pots and rubbish that partly filled the ruts. A more untidy, hopeless-looking village green I had not seen in Merrie England, when we began upon the mending of the road that bordered it.

Ruskin’s instructions relate first to the filling up of certain hollows, to the putting in of certain drains, to the turfing and planting of certain banks with wild flowers ; but he asks for special care for the mosses and ferns that are, he remembers, growing in certain cottage steps, and suggests that some one shall be told off to be the peculiar guardian angel of all gentle life of flower and moss and fern which it is desirable to conserve. The filth in the back streets and by the walls of Genoa only makes him more determined, evidently, to see to it that the squalor of Hinksey shall be removed, that so village life in decency shall be possible ; and in one of his letters he urges that men shall endure hardness, for that part of the gain to all the workers will be the having had to run the fire of criticism and mockery for a great idea.

In another letter, written from Rome, he says that, standing by St. Paul’s tomb, the thought had come over him how fatally the Apostle’s teaching about faith had been misinterpreted, and how sure he was that if St. Paul could come on earth to-day he would approve all honest attempts to show forth faith by works. In a later letter he expresses a hope that his diggers may some of them band themselves together, one day, and go out in a kind of Benedictine brotherhood, to cultivate waste places, and make life tolerable in our great cities for the children of the poor. I fancy he hardly foresaw that Toynbee Hall of to-day would so soon realize his dream in this direction. The gospel he had taught, “ All great art is praise,” seemed now to have another gospel added to it, All useful work is praise.

To return to Oxford. Our overlord was absent in Italy. We had hardly met to tackle the Hinksey road, when news came to us that the lord of the manor had seen a paragraph in the local paper which had seared him. He had at once written to Dr. Acland to say that he had seen it reported that Ruskin and his army were about to begin their social experiment upon his land, and he begged for an explanation. It redounds not a little to Dr. Acland’s credit that, in the absence of the Master, he should so have been able to come to our rescue as to disarm the lord of the manor’s possible objections, and it is infinitely to the credit of the lord of the manor that he withdrew any veto he might have felt necessary. The Hinksey diggers have come to thank the timely championship of Dr. Acland, and the good-natured kindliness of Harcourt of Nuneham. Our Hinksey digging went on through the summer term. Sixty men, in relays of twenties, on two days in each week, handled pick and barrow and spade, and obeyed the instruction of their absent Master, I learned then much of the monotony of navvy work, and something of its fatigue. Next term, the winter term, the Master was with us ; and I can see him, in blue frock coat and blue cloth cap with the earflaps pulled about his ears, sitting cheerily by the roadside we were improving, breaking stones not only with a will, but with knowledge, and cracking jokes the while.

Not the least pleasant part of the Hinksey day’s work was the walk to and fro with the Master across the Oxford vale. It was in these walks that, taking one by the arm, he would speak seriously of his hopes and his aims ; and yet there was great sadness about him. It was noticed that he still wore the black tie in place of the blue one, that was in memory of “ the dearest earth that was ever returned to earth,” — his mother ; and a heavy domestic sorrow was at the same time hanging upon him, — so much so that nature seemed almost to have lost power of charm for his soul.

I remember saying to him, as we walked down the beautiful Long Walk at Christchurch, how full of wonder that living arcade of elm-tree boughs was; and he replied sadly, “ My dear Rawnsley,” with that peculiar dwelling on the R, so that it seemed half burr, half roll, “ I have lived to find that none of this beauty has any power to help a broken heart.”

It was the same thought he afterward exjxressed in the touching sentences : “ Morning breaks over the Coniston fells, and the level mists, motionless and gray beneath the rose of the moorlands, veil the lower woods, and the sleeping village, and the long lawn by the lake shore. Oh that some one had but told me in my youth, when all my heart seemed to be set on these colors and clouds that appear for a little while, and then vanish away, how little my love of them would serve me, when the silence of lawn and wood in the dews of the morning should be completed, and when my thoughts should be of those whom by neither I was to meet more! ”

I have dwelt on this because I sincerely believe that the joy and enthusiasm of discipleliood which those Hinksey diggings gave the Master did really bring into his saddened life, at this time, deep consolation. It was not only that we repaired the Hinksey road ; we helped also to mend a well-nigh broken heart.

But it is the memory of the delightful fortnightly breakfasts at Corpus which most abide with one. The professor always breakfasted beforehand, in order that he might put himself unreservedly at the service of his young guests ; and some one of his trusted attendants was with him, to get this book, or that Turner drawing, or this mineral specimen, or that photograph, to illustrate at a moment’s notice the point under discussion. And the cheeriness of it all! The welcome with both hands outstretched, the sort of enchanting manner in which he made you believe that you were really the dearest friend he had in the world, — as indeed at the time you were.

“ For he looked with such a look,
And he spoke with such a tone,
That one almost received his heart into one’s own.”

The personal magic of the Master upon his guests was evidenced by the way in which some of the unlikeliest men in the world fell under its spell, and, to the amazement of their friends, took to digging ; this magic was felt in the lecture hall almost as much as in his own breakfast room.

When one tries to analyze what the power of the teacher was, in those Oxford days, one finds that it consisted in making his hearers believe that he existed only for them, and was entirely their humble servant. The marvelous humility of the man who spat fire at all things mean, and was with Tom Carlyle for God and Queen and Country, one of the doughtiest gladiators of the time, — this it was that impressed us all. But there was also a delightful unconventionality about him, so unlike the stiff and starched method of the ordinary Oxford don. The lecture hall was crowded. In he would come, and here and there would shake hands and thank some young scapegrace for honoring him with his presence. Then, giving his black silk gown a hitch on his left shoulder, and putting his hand behind his back and gathering his gown up with it, he would launch straightway into a kind of personal explanation of why he had changed his subject at the last moment, and why he hoped for forgiveness.

These prefatory remarks were generally brimful of joyous humor, sometimes of sarcasm ; very trenchant, too, but relieved of bitterness by the evident sense of fun and good temper beneath it all. The undergraduates would cheer a point here and there, and one could see how the Master’s spirit rose within him at the encouragement; and then suddenly his manner would change, and putting his hands in front of him, almost in the attitude of one praying, and leaning forward over the desk, he would, by the gentle uplifting and raising of his clasped hands, add much of emphasis to his words. Very deliberately would he then speak. His voice would rather chant or sing than say what his heart felt, and, with such rhythmic utterance as it has not been my lot to hear since, he would drive home his prophet’s message, and leave us all ashamed of our selfishness or ignorance.

I have heard his voice spoken of as harsh. It is a libel. His voice was tender and full of tears, and that curious roll of the r, which in such words as “ entirely ” or “ uttermost ” or “dear ” was specially noticeable, seemed always to lend the charm of individuality to his public speech, while it betrayed his northern breed.

One other thing that astonished the undergraduate was Ruskin’s power of taking unlimited pains in his behalf. The lectures were not only most careful in their language, but most profusely illustrated by objects of art, by precious pictures and photographs, brought together at risk and cost for the hour’s lecture.

It was a royal road the Master took to the young heart, this road of delight to be the young man’s humblest and gladdest and most painstaking servant. The affectionate self-surrender of Ruskin to his pupils made them captives to his will and word.

I do not wonder that, of all the men who are in any humble way carrying out Ruskin’s ideas in the world to-day, there are none more earnest and more grateful to him who taught them the joy of true service than those disciples who rallied to his call, and became the Hinksey diggers of 1873.