Ruskin as a Lecturer

WE were among those who were privileged to attend the last course of lectures given by Mr. Ruskin as Professor of Fine Arts at the university. With characteristic love of picturesque titles, the author of Sesame and Lilies called these lectures The Pleasures of England. They can be read among his published works. Even while they were delivered, their rather rambling eloquence gave less delight to the hearers than the striking personality of the speaker. The following notes of face and manner were taken at the time : —

“ The picture of Mr. Ruskin which unconsciously grows up in the minds of readers of his earlier books is that of a gentle, sensitive, dreamy man, who is essentially the student. To one who has this picture in mind, the cordial but not noisy applause which goes round the room promptly at the lecture hour is necessary to identify the actual Professor Ruskin with the Ruskin of imagination. The first look at Mr. Ruskin goes far toward helping one to understand his affinity for Carlyle. In appearance he is the Scotchman, equally removed from Irish facileness and flexibility and from purely English floridness. Ruggedness and alertness are the first striking characteristics of the personal appearance of the man whose thought and its expression reach almost the perfection of grace and delicacy. He is a man much below medium height, with peculiarly formed high shoulders, which, though his carriage is erect, make him appear bent and stooping. This effect is increased by his stoutness. In spite of his fine brown hair and thick gray beard, the outline of his head is clearly shown : it is a large head, shaped so as to indicate the strength which is natural to him, rather than tho symmetry which he has in some measure acquired. His forehead is of the squarely rounded type, and his eyes are a clear, steady blue. It is by the sparkle or the keenness or the sadness of his eyes, changeful and expressive notwithstanding the shagginess of the brows above them, as well as by the variations of his voice, that one soon learns to interpret Mr. Ruskin’s mood.

“ So far as an inventory of details can describe a man, this is Mr. Ruskin ; but it is through and under these details that the author of The Stones of Venice reveals himself. The representative picture of Mr. Ruskin should be an etching or engraving rather than a painting. Fineness of line and firmness of tone would show the man better than would the most careful manipulation of color.

“ Like all speakers, Mr. Ruskin has a few characteristic peculiarities of utterance and delivery. He has a French objection to the sound of th, which he softens into a lisping modification of the Frenchman’s z, and he has an invertebrate substitution of w for r. It is his habit again and again to break off suddenly in his lecture, and, with a direct, sympathetic gaze that seems to take the whole audience into his confidence, to tell some personal anecdote, or to defend himself by anticipation against some possible charge which his immediate topic suggests. The mislaying of his spectacles and the forgetting of a locality in Hebrew geography are embarrassments from which every one of his listeners feels eager to help him. These little asides, and the longer parentheses during which he walks back and forth behind his desk, following up some favorite tangent, give one a feeling of personal acquaintance with him which would be an impertinence toward the cold didacticism of many lecturers. And yet this sympathy does not take the form of a desire to shake hands with the great man, and to ask his views on polities. One understands and respects a few words which Mr. Ruskin has recently said of himself : ‘ It is a prettier attention to an old man to read what he wishes to say, and can say without effort, than to require him to answer vexing questions on general subjects, or to add to his day’s appointed labor the burden of accidental and unnecessary correspondence.’

“ The suggestions of Mr. Ruskin’s character in face and manner are not difficult to define. There may be difficulty in describing them in terms of bearing and expression, but not in recognizing them or in being satisfied with what they represent.

“ The prevailing expression, which gives confidence to trust all the occasional ones, is that of absolute simplicity and truthfulness. There is no suggestion of casuistry or indecision in his quick, direct glance, as he looks up from his paper now and then to scan his audience. Keen and dogmatic he may be, but there is nothing dreamy or uncertain about the man who, with clear, strong emphasis, tells you, ‘ Judge as you will, but never doubt.’

“ Mr. Ruskin’s manner has a happy mixture of force and gentleness, but in spite of memories of Ethics of the Dust the force makes itself felt first. Yet, while force is constant, vehemence is only occasional, and a manly gentleness always controls it. The one surprise which a face - to - face auditor of Mr. Ruskin must feel is the strength of his sense of humor. We do not expect that the author of The Queen of the Air will take an obviously keen delight in the humorous aspect of a situation, and it is, we confess, with a sense of relief that, when we hear the merciless invective of Mr. Ruskin’s mediævalism against the modern spirit, we see its delivery accompanied with a twinkle of the eyes and a good-natured curve of the lips that modify its sting. Last of all, Mr. Ruskin’s face is a repressed face. It has a tone of sadness, but of sadness gentle rather than stern. He is the Ruskin of The Mystery of Life.

“ Gentleness, humor, keenness (which it would be better here to call insight), force, truthfulness, — the list may not be complete enough to represent an ideal teacher, but, so far as he can be briefly described, it represents the man who has done more than any other living Englishman to realize and to teach a pure and complete interpretation of nature, art, and life.”