uskin's beholder has a history. His critical spectator— the traveler or the roving natural scientist—is a familiar figure in landscape art and literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is the man on horseback riding into the middle distance of Turner's Launceston or the sketcher taking a view under The Fall of the Tees —plates from Turner's England and Wales series of landscape engravings, which Ruskin greatly admired. The traveling geologist is a figure for both author and reader in H. B. de Saussure's Voyages dans les Alpes, Ruskin's favorite geology text. The eponymous hero and the speaker of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage are also traveling beholders, and so of course are both the speaker and the Wanderer of Wordsworth's The Excursion—two poems that influenced Ruskin's own earliest efforts at landscape literature.
Two plates from Turner's England and Wales series of landscape engravings: (left) Launceston, Cornwall. (right) The Fall of Tees, Yorkshire. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Ruskin himself learned to look at landscapes by following the footsteps of these travelers from literature and art. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, he and his family took yearly excursions through England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, and Italy, learning to see with Wordsworth, Turner, Saussure, and Byron. The visual habits Ruskin displayed and encouraged in the descriptions of Modern Painters I — the exploration of a scene or painting accomplished by moving through it, gradually accumulating studied details—are those of the traveling beholders whose examples he had followed. Indeed, much that has been described as idiosyncratic in Ruskin's way of looking at landscapes and buildings is merely an intensified version of the traveler's progressive perception.
Ruskin's experience was not unique. The pleasure tour in which scenery, monuments of art history, and nature itself were explored [67/68] was an increasingly common experience for middle-class English men and women in the early 1800s. If they did not travel themselves, they traveled vicariously, through the extensive literature of travel narratives, poems, descriptions, guidebooks, or volumes of illustrated views. Such works formed a staple of the book market from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Many characteristics of what Ruskin named, in Modern Painters III, the beholding imagination or the science of aspects were by 1856 familiar to his readers. Like Ruskin, they knew the traveler's episodic progress through unfolding, constantly changing scenery, or the desire to explore, recognize, and collect rocks, plants, artifacts, and views. They also knew the physical and imaginative exhaustion that this strenuous form of leisure activity could bring. Ruskin's "eminently weariable" beholder had plenty of counterparts among middle-class Victorian travelers. For Ruskin and his readers, there was nothing surprising about comparing the beholder's imagination to the traveler's, for their own viewing of scenery and paintings usually occurred in the context, actual or literary, of a tour. When Ruskin identified beholding with traveling, however, he was using personal and cultural fact to say something about the peculiar nature of the viewing experience. As I noted at the end of the last chapter, he wanted to make a clear distinction between the way an artist might look at a landscape, as exemplified in his art, and the way in which an ordinary spectator saw scenery or paintings. The literature and art of landscape that Ruskin and his readers knew provides the basis for such a distinction in the contrast it offers between two kinds of spectators, or two ways of looking at landscapes. The first way presumes a spectator constantly changing his perspective, accumulating a series of views—the moving spectator of a landscape garden, a gallery, or a tour. Most writers on gardens and travel, like artists who drew for books of landscape views, assumed this would be their readers' normal way of seeing. The same artists and writers recognized a second mode of sight: the intense, sudden confrontation between an isolated, stationary observer and a single view of overwhelming power. This way of seeing was understood to be exceptional and difficult. Where the first kind of viewer was depicted as a traveler looking, sketching, botanizing, or geologizing, the second was a lone figure lost in awed meditation or caught up in the throes of inspiration—typically a hero or a poet. Gray's "The Bard" or his "Elegy [68/69] in a Country Churchyard," Wordsworth's Winander Boy in The Prelude, and John Martin's The Bard are all examples of this second figure, the viewer inspired to profound reflection or high imaginative vision by the landscape.
Though these two ways of seeing were often contrasted, more attention was paid to the psychology and circumstances of the second. There are many terms for it—the imaginative, the grand, the poetic, the sublime—but no really adequate name for the first. The usual term for what the traveling spectator sees is "picturesque," originally meaning "like a picture" (specifically, like seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian landscape paintings). The term, later expanded to include particular picturelike qualities of landscapes, generally refers to the visual features of what is seen rather than to a mode of seeing.2 Focusing on visual features instead of mental experience, "picturesque" acquired—for Wordsworth, among others—connotations of the superficial and unfeeling. It seemed to presume a merely visual response to landscape. By the time of Modern Painters III Ruskin had begun to build his own distinction between artist and ordinary spectator upon the older contrast between two kinds of landscape viewer, but he did so by applying to the spectator of the picturesque the serious analysis of mental activity that earlier writers had devoted primarily to the spectator confronting the sublime. Ruskin was concerned not only with the specific visual or associative qualities of landscapes but also with the mental, physical, and social habits of perception that middleclass English spectators brought to nature and art. His spectator is potentially as mentally, emotionally, and imaginatively active as the spectator of the sublime—but in a different manner. Wordsworth provides a term for this manner of seeing when he describes "the mind's excursive power" (The Excursion IV.1263)—a form of mental activity growing out of the traveler's unique approach to natural scenery. I have adopted Wordsworth's term for its dual connotations of leisurely travel for pleasure and mental or verbal digression. Where sublime, poetic, or imaginative vision produces exceptional landscape experiences, excursive sight—the play of eye or mind moving leisurely through a scene or subject—produces the pleasures that earlier writers associated with the picturesque and Ruskin defined as the particular experience of the ordinary beholder.
Turner's two engravings, Launceston and The Fall of the Tees, capture [69/70] the distinction between the two ways of viewing landscape. The figure in the landscape, in each case, has a different perspective and a different way of looking at the scene from what the artist offers us as his own. The tiny man on horseback in Launceston is moving through the scene that the artist has comprehended in one larger view; the equally small sketcher in The Fall of the Tees studies and records a portion of what the artist has given as an emotionally and visually unified version of an impressive natural phenomenon. Turner may well be depicting himself as the traveler-sketcher in the landscape; he did in fact take sketching tours to produce books of views like the England and Wales series.3 But in the completed pictures he has—literally—distanced himself from the traveler-sketcher to create the work we see. The distinctions Ruskin makes in Modern Painters III between the painter-poet and the beholder-critic, between Wordsworth's poetic imagination and the critical science of aspects, have their roots in the distinction between two modes of experiencing landscape.
Salisbury from Old Sarum Intrenchment. from Turner's England and Wales series of landscape engravings [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
We can read Turner's pictures in two ways. On the one hand, they can be taken as implicit criticism of the picturesque traveler's limited perspective and response, the attitude expressed by Wordsworth in The Prelude. On the other hand, Turner's figures provide an avenue into the pictures for the ordinary beholder. Their presence suggests Turner's concern with the different perception of his viewers. Like the viewers of his pictures, the figures in them can at any one moment react to only a part of what Turner has grasped. The rest of Turner's England and Wales series bears out this second interpretation, for his figures are not artists or poets or heroes, but ordinary anonymous individuals (ills. 14, 15). It is through their depicted or imagined reactions to the magnificent landscapes in which they find themselves that we feel the power of those landscapes.4 This second way of interpreting Turner's picturesque figures, as indications of Turner's sympathy with ordinary men and ordinary beholders, was Ruskin's.
Plate 15. Stonehenge. from Turner's England and Wales series of landscape engravings [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Ruskin's own most important encounters with scenery took place when he traveled. Moreover, the landscape literature and art that shaped his taste and influenced his first endeavors in poetry, prose, or sketching also reflected the traveler's experience. To some extent his personal and social expectations or those of his parents account for the [70/71] excursive nature of his early experience. Ruskin's parents strove to educate him as a gentleman.5 Though they were proud of his precocious literary and artistic abilities and actively encouraged them, they did not see them as a potential vocation for their son. Most of Ruskin's exposure to and practice of art and literature took place within the framework of excursive, picturesque experience because that was appropriate to the gentleman who pursued art for pleasure. As a prosperous middle-class reader he would buy the popular illustrated travel literature of the day. As a leisured traveler he might produce sketches, journals, or poetic accounts of his tours, and as an amateur he might occasionally contribute poems or vignettes to literary annuals or send geological notices taken from his journal observations to natural history magazines. As a collector he might attend exhibitions of landscape watercolors recalling his travels and purchase some to hang on his walls. The young Ruskin did all these things with more than the usual energy and skill, but both the way in which he experienced landscapes and the models he followed for expressing his responses still identify his expectations as those of the amateur. The gentleman amateur took up his pen, but with a leisurely curiosity and limited ambitions toward imaginative invention. He was content to record what he saw, following picturesque and excursive models. He structured his accounts to reflect the experience of the traveler moving from detail to detail or view to view.
Expectations do not entirely account for the importance of excursive sight in Ruskin's early experience of landscape, however. In the 1830s, when Ruskin was growing up, landscapes still dominated much of the popular literature and art aimed at the middle class. The thirties were the great period for landscape illustrations in moderately priced books.6 Steel engraving and lithography, the chief media for reproducing pictures, permitted high-quality illustrations in much larger editions and at lower cost than earlier methods of reproduction (the aquatint or the copper engraving of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries). Landscape views made up the great majority of both the engraved and the slightly less popular lithographed illustrations—either as books of views, as illustrations to poetry or travel literature, or as the major attraction in the popular steel-engraved literary or landscape annuals. Almost all of these landscape views reflect and invite excursive looking, either by the manner in which they are [71/72] presented or by their style and subject. The Ruskins owned or knew most of the important examples of these illustrated books. John James Ruskin's account books for the 1830s list at least nine works in which engraved or lithographed landscape views represent the excursive experience of the traveler, and Ruskin refers to many more such works when he discusses contemporary landscape art in the first volume of Modern Painters.7 In fact, the modern painters who are his subject in that volume were the major producers of the landscape views engraved and lithographed in the 1830s.
Context did much to identify these views as excursive. Many appeared as illustrations to travel notes or a traveler's narrative, or to poetry set in particular places in England or on the Continent. Others, like Samuel Prout's Facsimiles of Sketches in Flanders and Germany (one of Ruskin's favorites), were titled and arranged in geographic sequence to suggest the tour. Even where title, text, or arrangement did not specifically establish a context of travel for these views, the artist's treatment usually identified them as excursive and picturesque rather than as imaginative or sublime. In the first place, they were likely to be topographic, that is, recognizable representations of particular places. Though these artists increasingly borrowed techniques from Turner, Girtin, and others to render their landscapes more expressive, geographical representation, within certain conventions of composition and style, remained more important than the evocation of a particular emotional mood. In the second place, though most of these views include human figures, the figures are generally not used to further the emotional response of the beholder (ills. 5, 6). They provide a sense of scale relative to the beholder and give a vague idea of the costumes or occupations of local inhabitants, but they generally are not depicted reacting to the landscapes in which they are placed. There are almost no single figures in these views; these are social beings, typically talking, resting, or strolling. They are neither isolated meditators, poets, or heroes, nor even greatly moved ordinary beholders. Their presence works against intense emotional involvement of the beholder in the pictured landscape.
Moreover, these views tend to adopt perspectives and styles that invite the beholder to explore them visually, in imagination becoming a traveler through the landscapes they depict. In place of a selected focus on a single impressive natural phenomenon, deliberate obscurity, or [72/73] exaggerated recession—frequent characteristics of imaginative or sublime views—these pictures include a great variety of recognizable landscape features in an open composition, more or less distinctly represented in a fair degree of detail, without noticeable distortions of perspective. Either they are views of whole towns, important buildings, or natural phenomena taken from a point sufficiently distant to include a wide and varied landscape setting (ill. 5), or they are closer views that substitute detailed information about natural objects or local architecture (and often, local costumes and mores) for the more varied setting (ill. 6).
In either case, they tend to suggest complexities, whether of large-scale geography or of foreground detail, which will reward a beholder's exploration. Comprehensive views often include a road with traveling figures, leading from the foreground toward a distant object of interest. There are always enough twists and turns in the road so that the viewer is simultaneously invited to explore and prevented from discovering, at one glance, all the information that travel down the inviting road might provide. Similarly, closer views may give glimpses down twisting side streets and alleys, or suggest the same explorable half-hidden intricacy through the texture of crumbling stone, sprouting weeds, and elaborately carved ornament, or the clutter of half-open windows, irregular Gothic projections, and hanging laundry. The more skillful of such pictures seem precisely designed for Ruskin's weariable beholding imagination (5.181-86). They do not try to overwhelm the viewer with strong impressions or jarring thoughts. They arouse his sluggish faculties, enticing him to visual or imaginary physical exploration by providing varied, intricate details or intriguing glimpses of further views. They give a weak imagination "something to do," but they are not so tightly organized into a single whole that they omit "kindly vacancies, beguiling it back into action." Above all, the best of these pictures provide Ruskin's "pleasant and cautious sequence of incident," for they invite and even require gradual discovery of their parts.
Ruskin's exposure to this excursive landscape art went beyond the illustrated book. From at least as early as 1830 he went to the annual exhibitions the Old Water-Colour Society where he saw original watercolors by the artists whose work was engraved or lithographed—J. D. Harding, Copley Fielding, Samuel Prout, Clarkson Stanfield, David Roberts, and Turner. In 1832 his father bought the [73/74] first of many works from one of these artists (a Fielding); from then on, the walls of the Ruskins' home provided another place where Ruskin could daily encounter such landscapes. The same group of artists also shaped Ruskin's own drawings. His drawing masters and the major models for his drafting style, from his first lessons in 1831 through the early l840s, included Fielding, Prout, Roberts, and Harding, as well as Turner's engraved views.8 With the exception of Turner, these men were pen, pencil, and watercolor artists who avoided the grand imaginative conceptions of oil painters. Teaching amateurs like Ruskin, they provided lessons in the visual means of expressing, and inviting, excursive sight. Prout and Harding were perhaps the most important models for Ruskin of styles that encouraged visual exploration. Prout's linear style gave an impression of intricate texture and detail, though it was achieved by broken lines and dots that made accurate delineation of small details difficult (as Ruskin was later to object).
Two examples of Prout's urban picturesque: (left) Temple of Pallas. (right) Strassburg [image at right not in print edition] Click on these images to enlarge them.
Prout specialized in architectural scenes, particularly Gothic buildings of irregular shape set in enticing mazes of streets in the hearts of towns. Pedestrians in the foreground underlined the implied invitation to the spectator to explore the irregular spaces depicted. Harding, under whose influence Ruskin gradually abandoned his earlier Proutesque style in the early l840s, was still linear; he concentrated not on outlines or textures but on the intricacies of structure, especially in trees and foliage (see Benevuto immediately below). Harding (using Turner's Liber Studiorum as model) showed Ruskin how to use sinuous lines to trace natural patterns of growth without attempting to arrange them into complete compositions. The new style, with its insistence on natural design, was antipicturesque, but it was nonetheless excursive. Like the Proutesque style, it continued to treat each scene as an invitation to explore its parts. The intricacies of natural form-as-growth replaced the intricacies of irregular angles and textures arranged according to picturesque compositional rules.
Benevuto by James Duffield Harding. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The excursive approach to natural scenery was widespread in the verbal as well as the visual landscape art that Ruskin encountered.9 Still the most popular form of landscape writing was the travel narrative, essentially an eighteenth-century genre.10 The Ruskins owned several volumes of this type, including Joseph Forsyth's Remarks on the Antiquities of Italy (1802-03), William Rose's Letters from the North of Italy (1819), and Saussure's Voyages dans les Alpes (1779). These works [74/75] conveyed new historical, descriptive, or geological information about foreign sights through first-hand narrative accounts of actual tours. Books on foreign landscapes newly published in the thirties departed somewhat from this eighteenth-century narrative format, though they continued to use the fact or fiction of travel to instruct readers on a variety of subjects. Some, however, were more personal, even chatty, while others became much more factually detailed. The Ruskins bought many of these newer volumes, which tended to give more attention to medieval and Renaissance history, art, and architecture and to the Swiss Alps. Ruskin's interests followed the altered focus of the newer literature, though he remained more interested in natural scenery than in history or art history until the end of the decade. By the late 1830s, a new subgenre of travel literature, the guidebook, released the travel narrative from its increasingly heavy burden of facts. Most ofRuskin's travel in the thirties was made without the benefit of Murray's guides, however. His own landscape writing, though certainly highly personal, continued to provide much of the detailed description relegated by later writers to the guidebook.
most important change in the landscape writing of the thirties for Ruskin, however, was the increased use of illustrations. From at least 1833, when he acquired Rogers' Italy with illustrations by Turner, he seems to have regarded landscape art as an integral and essential part of travel literature, or indeed of any landscape writing: All his own first efforts, from 1833 on, were illustrated—or where they could not be (as in the first two volumes of Modern Painters), his constant references to and descriptions of paintings, or views presented as paintings, provided verbal versions of the illustrated literature he knew. Physical or mental excursions through landscapes were always visual excursions, too—and Ruskin later demanded of his own audience that they not only read but look and, if possible, draw. The illustrations in the landscape books of the thirties did affect the accompanying texts, but not to alter their excursive approach. Where plates were numerous, narrative continuity sometimes disappeared from the text, to be sustained by the sequence of pictures; descriptive prose also diminished. Some authors digressed more readily into anecdote or personal reflection (as did Leitch Ritchie, who wrote texts for Heath's Picturesque Annual in the early 1830s), thus expanding the personal narrative elements in landscape writing. Others, however, provided extra historical or [75/76] picturesque information about the places depicted in the plates (as did Thomas Roscoe Jenning's Landscape Annual or William Brockedon in his Illustrations of the Passes of the Alps or his Italy11).
Left: A gold-stamped green leather binding of Roger's Italy (1830). Right: Title-page with Harding's Verrex Val d'Aosta of Jennings's Landscape Annual for 1833. [Neither image in print edition] Click on these images to enlarge them.
Ruskin's own use of illustrations (or the verbal references and descriptions that were their substitutes) tended to folk the latter model. He used increased factual information to reinforce the invitation to explore. On some occasions he also used the fact or fiction of travel to structure his landscape writing (as in The Stones of Venice or in isolated passages in Modern Painters'), but in most of his work the underlying experience of travel no longer takes narrative form. As in the book of views of the 1830s, excursiveness becomes a way of seeing implicit in the views themselves; the narrative is no longer necessary to support the experience of excursive sight and thought. One might almost say that Modern Painters I is a wholly verbal version of an 1830s book of landscape views: excursive pictures in prose, accompanied by informational rather than narrative text.
A second form of landscape literature was equally important to Ruskin in the thirties. Though the best new landscape poetry Tennyson's first volumes appeared in 1830 and 1832—was not excursive, the Ruskins were reading an older generation of poets: Wordsworth, Byron, Rogers, and Scott. New editions of the work of all four were published in the thirties, the last three with landscape illustrations by Ruskin's favorite excursive artists.11 We may not think of these poets as primarily excursive writers, but in fact all four use descriptions landscapes experienced by traveling spectators as structuring feati of major poems—Wordsworth's The Excursion and his several "tour" sequences, Byron's Childe Harold, Rogers' Italy, and Scott's narrative poems such as Marmion. All could and did serve the Ruskins as guides to travel in the Lake Country, Switzerland, Italy, or Scotland. The landscapes these poets described were, like those depicted by the topographical artists, recognizable named places. Even where their speakers were not explicitly travelers, they experienced scenery from a series of shifting viewpoints that could be duplicated by a real-life traveler.
Wordsworth's, Byron's, and Rogers' poems were late examples of the long descriptive-meditative poem, an eighteenth-century form descending from James Thomson's The Seasons. As Thomson's poem makes clear, excursive habits of perception had been at first closely tied [76/77] to the eighteenth-century garden.12 The garden experience was still immediate for Wordsworth, who helped design one such garden, but so too was the extension of that progressive viewing experience beyond the boundaries of the garden into the surrounding countryside. For Byron, as for Ruskin and his readers, the excursive experience reflected in the long descriptive-meditative poem was that of William Gilpin's picturesque tours or of travel generally. Certain features of this kind of poem persist from Thomson through a host of followers to Wordsworth, Byron, Rogers—and into the prose descriptions of Modern Painters I .
Both the constant succession of different landscapes and the gradually unfolding aspects of any one view identify the, approach to landscape in these works as excursive. Prose or poems are structured not by the single unified view—as the prospect poems of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had been13—but by the moving beholder's changing experience. Variety is more important than unity to their aesthetic. That variety almost always comes less through an eye scanning a complete distant view than through the leisurely progress of a beholder who must penetrate space—moving into and through landscape—in order to discover what it contains. Whereas the tightly structured meditative poem, the long romantic lyric, follows a strict emotional logic and tends to use descriptive detail quite selectively, the excursive poem or prose description may have a structure and an emotional logic that are not readily discernible to either beholder or reader, may digress frequently, and will probably be lavish of descriptive detail. The excursive poem progresses by constantly renewed expectation and surprise, and by continuous contrasts between successive experiences. Its outcome is never predictable: no particular conclusion is built into its meandering structure. The majority of long descriptive meditative poems are disappointing. Mere visual succession, however richly elaborated, contrasted, and broken by meditative digression, is likely to end, as Ruskin realized, by exhausting or boring the reader. There is a monotony to continual surprise. But the examples of excursive poetry that Ruskin knew best, Byron's Childe Harold and Don Juan and Wordsworth's The Excursion, are also the most successful. They fuse unpredictable progress through landscapes with mental and emotional progress into a single action. Mind, eye, and body are exercised together, so that the wandering sage in The Excursion can serve as [77/78] both mentor and travel guide, and the traveler's exploration of landscape in Childe Harold become a model for the beholder's exploration of self and culture. For Ruskin these literary examples, read, reread, and imitated in the 1830s, were of the first importance as models of excursive writing. Yet as his comments in Modern Painters III make clear, Ruskin did not wholly adopt these literary models. Wordsworth and Byron transformed excursive sight into "the mind's excursive power." Ruskin never accepted this subordination of eye to mind. The mental and verbal energy of Modern Painters I, as we have seen, remains inseparable from the visual energy of perception—an energy that is inspired by and in turn expresses a vitality in the landscapes it explores.
The clearest evidence of how much the excursive approach to landscape influenced Ruskin's way of seeing in the 1830s comes from his own early literary and artistic efforts. The Ruskins did take up the invitation of the views and poems they examined, traveling frequently throughout England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, and Italy and returning to consult still more travel books.14 Throughout the 1830s, Ruskin's most extensive writing and drawing were occasioned by these tours. At the age of eleven he kept a prose journal of his trip to the Lake Country and returned to write a long verse account. "Iteriad" describes a succession of views connected by a humorous running account of the trials and joys of travel. Wordsworth's The Excursion and his several tour poems were Ruskin's models for the more serious descriptive passages. He did not attempt the structures of mental action or the meditative passages of Wordsworth's poems, but even at eleven he recognized these as essential to the genre:
Now were I,—oh, were I a proper lake-poet
—Although you will say, " 'Tis in vain, that;"—I know it!
But I cannot do what I know that I should,—
Pop in an address to the nymph solitude. [2.309]
He knew, too, the excursive poet's temptation to vary endless description with digression: "I am digressive! Oh, pray do not blame me! / . . . You know that description alone, it would be, sir, / A tedious thing that would tire you and me, sir" (2.310). Two years later he turned to new models for his "Account of a Tour on the Continent" [78/79] (1833-34): the illustrated books of the thirties, particularly Rogers' Italy, with vignettes by Turner. Like that volume, Ruskin's "Account" is a mixture of poetry and prose with carefully done illustrations imitating steel-engraved vignettes. Here the prose passages take some of the burden of sustained description from the poetry, and both the prose and the vignettes help to divide the poetic portions into manageable units and to introduce a further mode of variation. The format remains that of exploration. Most of Ruskin's attention is again given to visual description, but there is a new dimension of historical allusion for which he could have found precedents in both Rogers and Rogers' own immediate source, Byron.
In 1835 Ruskin went directly to Byron for his "Journal of a Tour through France to Chamouni," which he later described as "a poetic diary in the style of Don Juan, artfully combined with that of Childe Harold" (35.152). Ruskin's arrangement of his verse into stanzas and cantos is Byron's, and so is his tone, or rather tones, for the serious reflections on past and present of Childe Harold are oddly rather than artfully combined with the irreverent digressiveness of Don Juan. Visual and emotional responses are seldom fused in Ruskin's version of Byron's excursive styles. Buildings and monuments receive increased attention, but Ruskin's account is still predominantly concerned with the description of natural scenery. Like Byron's Childe Harold, Ruskin's excursive poem was written while he was actually traveling. At the same time, however, Ruskin also kept two additional accounts:
a very full prose journal, with extensive, detailed descriptions of rocks and clouds; and a large collection of sketches, many of buildings and towns in a Proutesque style. Though Ruskin did not do so, these sketches might have been brought together to form a volume of views like that of Prout's which had so impressed the Ruskins (Facsimiles of Sketches in Flanders and Germany). Where his 1833-34 "Account" had tried to combine prose, drawings, and poetry into a single work, the 35 journey prompted three separate records, each focusing on a different aspect of his experience. By 1835, then, Ruskin had acquired not one but three modes of recording his excursive experience of landscape: poetry, prose, and sketching.
Ruskin's major landscape writing in the thirties (and his first substantial published work) was a series of prose essays, illustrated with woodcuts made from his own drawings, on the relation of houses to [79/80] their landscape settings. The Poetry of Architecture (1837-38) was suggested by travel, but here for the first time Ruskin drops the first-person travel narrative, without discarding the excursive approach. In both their assumptions and their terminology these essays indicate his growing interest in an aesthetics and psychology of excursive viewing inherited from the eighteenth century.
Though Ruskin does not offer an account of an actual tour, travel is both a fact he assumes in his readers ("the reader who has travelled in Italy," "what every traveller feels to be") and a fiction he uses to move from one subject to another ("Let us now cross the Channel," "on leaving Italy"). Ruskin does not study landscape settings for the houses he describes from the inhabitant's perspective (inside looking out), but from the traveler's (the house seen as a distant feature in a landscape). The fact and fiction of travel are indications of fundamental visual assumptions that show up even when he describes the effect of mountain cottages or lowland villas on a stationary spectator. Describing the houses he finds most pleasing in their settings, he posits an "eye" that is introduced, attracted, conducted, or drawn, beguiled, and guided by a connected variety of shapes, lines, textures, colors, and emotional associations. Ruskin assumes, that is, that aesthetic pleasure comes through visual exploration: scenes that encourage and reward a moving eye. This processive vision is repeatedly captured in the structuring verbs of his descriptions. Before one exemplary landscape, "The glance of the beholder rises ... it meets, as it ascends . . . till it rests" (1.98); before another "the eye passes over ... it trembles . . . but it finds ... it climbs . . . and there it finds" (I.110-11). The emphasis Ruskin initially places on unity of feeling, a single character for every landscape, and starting trains of meditation (1.5,8-9,67-72)—good associationist criteria pointing back to Archibald Alison—should not mislead us. For Ruskin, unity of feeling is achieved through a thoroughly picturesque variety of visual effect, because he consistently brings excursive habits of seeing to his experience of landscape and architecture.
The Poetry of Architecture is Ruskin's first systematic attempt to define the criteria for his aesthetic judgments. Not surprisingly, he seems to have gone back to prose discussions of excursive sight among late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers. Ruskin's essays most obviously echo Wordsworth's one prose work on excursive [80/81] aesthetics, his Guide to the Lakes. He repeats not only Wordsworth's interest in the local character of natural scenery as it affects the mind and feelings, but also some of Wordsworth's specific opinions about the best color, materials, or locations for Cumberland cottages. Yet Ruskin's language and ideas also connect his essays with the earlier writers who first defined the particular pleasures of excursive seeing. For example, one essay discusses at length Hogarth's "line of beauty." The choice is interesting, since Hogarth set himself against the main current of eighteenth-century aesthetic preferences to advocate a version of progressive sight.
For most eighteenth-century writers on aesthetics, unity, simplicity, subordination of parts, and a single clear focus established by lighting, subject, and theme were essential ingredients of the highest kind of art: the grand style in painting or poetry, the beautiful, and of course the sublime. To some degree almost all the literature, from Addison through Reynolds to Alison and Hazlitt, also recognizes a second kind of aesthetic pleasure derived from variety, intricacy, and novelty, which are not subordinated to a unified impression. But this kind of pleasure, often associated with the picturesque, tends to be less highly valued by those who write about the fine arts of painting and poetry.15 Alexander Gerard, for example, opens his Essay on Taste (1759) with a chapter on novelty but in the next chapter declares, "Grandeur or sublimity gives us a still higher and nobler pleasure."16 Gerard's praise of novelty is tied to a discussion of the pleasure of exercising tile mind by introducing "moderate difficulty" into what is conceived of as an extended process of perception. "Witness the delight with which antiquaries bestow indefatigable pains on recovering or illustrating ancient fragments . . . This is in general the cause of our pleasure in all inquiries of mere curiosity" (pp. 4-5) Gerard's discussion of the higher pleasure of sublimity, on the other hand, specifies simplicity and unity as necessary to what is viewed as a much more immediate experience: not the exercise of recovering parts or fragments, but the single full moment of an expanded mind: "filled with one grand sensation, which totally possessing it, composes it into a solemn sedateness, d strikes it with deep silent wonder and admiration" (p. 12). Burke's Enquiry is almost wholly concerned with the aesthetics of the single impression, particularly the intense impression of the sublime. Lord Kames devotes considerable space to novelty and surprise, praising the [80/81] great pleasures of variety provided by natural landscapes, but reminds us, "A picture however, like a building, ought to be so simple as to be comprehended in one view."19 Reynolds urges aspiring artists to imitate the simplicity and single impressions of Raphael's grand style, not the multiple distracting beauties of the ornamental style of Venetian colorists or northern realists.20 Hazlitt prefers the ideal vision of Poussin, which "satisfies the mind" and "reposes on itself—an art of "harmony and continuity of effect"—to the picturesque, which surprises the mind and induces a "progress" in the eye through discrimination and contrast.21
Hogarth is the one real exception to the consistent association between the "higher pleasures" of art and the unified impression or single point of view. While he recognizes the value of this appeal (especially in his discussions of light and shade), his Analysis of Beauty (1753) lays greater stress on the intricacy and variety of the serpentine line—the line of beauty that for Ruskin epitomizes the aesthetic pleasures explored in The Poetry of Architecture. Hogarth's description of the pleasure provided by intricacy and variety makes it quite clear that he has in mind experience in which immediate comprehension in one view is replaced by a gradual unfolding through multiple perspectives. He celebrates pleasures that come through process or pursuit, where difficulty and delay are relished more than immediate grasp.
[The] love of pursuit, merely as pursuit, is implanted in our natures, and designed, no doubt, for necessary, and useful purposes. Animals have it evidently by instinct ... It is a pleasing labour of the mind to solve the most difficult problems; allegories and riddles, trifling as they are, afford the mind amusement: and with what delight does it follow the well-connected thread of a play, or novel, which ever increases as the plot thickens, and ends most pleas'd, when that is most distinctly unraveli'd?
The eye hath this sort of enjoyment in winding walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, whose forms ... are composed principally of what I call, the waving and serpentine lines.
Intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be that peculiarity in the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind ofchace, and from the pleasure that gives the mind, intitles it to the name of beautiful..22
The pleasures of pursuit are closely related to the pleasures of Gerard's antiquary, who loves the difficulty of putting together fragments that [82/83] do not immediately suggest a whole. Hogarth's relish for this kind of mental and visual pleasure, though it is uncommon in discussions of painting and poetry in the mid-eighteenth century, is characteristic of three genres or kinds of art mentioned in his examples: allegorical or emblematic art (not very highly regarded) and two new and rather popular, if "lower," art forms, the comic novel and the landscape garden.23 The last of these was of particular importance for a group of eighteenth-century writers with whom Ruskin, in The Poetry of Architecture, has many tics.
Like William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight, Ruskin in 1837-38 concerned himself less with criteria for the artist or architect than with instruction in seeing and feeling for the amateur, the patron, or the beholder. The object, he reminded his readers, "is not the attainment of architectural data, but the formation of taste" (1.29). Like those authors, too, Ruskin focused not on the independent creations of painting or poetry, but on those "embellishments by which the efforts of man can enhance the beauty of natural scenery" (i.ll). In this early essay Ruskin openly espouses the picturesque. He not only repeatedly invokes the term but also employs a whole vocabulary of other painterly terms to describe the properly embellished landscape—effect, composition, tone—terms that link him to the earlier picturesque writers. His interest in embellishing natural landscapes with buildings that will bring out their particular natural character is a version of the picturesque landscape gardener's—or the picturesque tour sketcher's—enterprise. Indeed, for all his professed allegiance to Wordsworth's mind and feelings over the more purely visual interests of Gilpin, Price, and Knight, Ruskin in these essays invokes the eye far more frequently than the mind or heart.
Though Gilpin, Price, and Knight do not make perception the basis for their definitions of the picturesque, they are aware of the connection between the picturesque garden or tour and a particular, excursive way of seeing. They describe their own mode of sight by contrasting it with the sublime or poetic encounter. The first and dominant source of pleasure that Gilpin finds in travel is pursuit, with the expectation of novelty that it encourages.24 He distinguishes this pleasure, derived from the analysis or successive discovery of parts, from that of the comprehensive view in which we examine objects "under the idea of a whole"; "when some grand scene . . . strikes us ... and every mental [83/84] operation is suspended" as we are stopped and caught up by some strong effect on the imagination (pp. 48-50). Gilpin's decision to focus on the pleasures of pursuit, not stasis, is expressed as a real aesthetic preference by Price. He describes the pleasure of picturesque garden exploration by comparing it favorably with the experience of sublimity. Such exploration is like "the excitement produced by the intricacies of wild romantic mountainous scenes [where] curiosity prompts us to scale every rocky promontory, to explore every new recess . . . by its variety, its intricacy, its partial concealments, [the picturesque] excites that curiosity which gives play to the mind, loosening those iron bonds with which astonishment chains up the faculties."26 Price makes the free play of excursive exploration permitted by the picturesque sound far more attractive than the iron bonds of astonishment imposed bv the sublime. Knight repeats Gilpin's and Price's preferences for visual exploration excited by the picturesque, maintaining, unusually, that progressive sight can on occasion create effects as strongly imaginative as, but far less constricting than, the sublime.27
Like these picturesque writers to whom he seems to have turned for his essays on landscape and architecture, Ruskin too, and for the first time, consciously draws the distinction between two ways of seeing and chooses to employ picturesque or excursive sight. Defending English landscape, he notes: "I have always rejoiced in the thought, that our native highland scenery, though, perhaps, wanting in sublimity, is distinguished by a delicate finish in its details" (1.50). English hill scenery, he goes on to say, is picturesque. Unlike Wordsworth, who expressed a similar preference for English highland scenery over the sublimity of the Alps,28 Ruskin does not restrict himself to English landscapes, but when he gets to the more rugged country of Europe he will not consider the possibility of fitting houses to sublime landscapes. The experience of sublimity, he reminds his readers, is incompatible with the progressive sight of the ordinary beholder:
it is a well-known fact that a series of sublime impressions, continued indefinitely, gradually pall upon the imagination, deaden its fineness of feeling, and in the end induce a gloomy and morbid state of mind . . . consequent, not upon the absence of that which once caused excitement, but upon the failure of its power. This is not the case with all men; but with those over whom the sublimity of an unchanging scene can retain its power for ever, [84/85] we have nothing to do ... It is not of them, but of the man of average intellect, that we are thinking throughout all these papers. [1.160]
By the time Ruskin wrote The Poetry of Architecture his increased familiarity with the aesthetics of excursive sight had introduced him to the distinction that eighteenth-century writers constantly drew between excursive and imaginative or sublime sight. What had been, for the younger Ruskin, an unconsidered exercise of excursive habits of perception began to be a matter for deliberate choice.
Though Ruskin's visual habits are strongly excursive in the 1830s, this was not the only way he could look at a landscape. Indeed, when he wrote that there were those "over whom the sublimity of an unchanging scene can retain its power for ever," he may well have considered that he was just such an observer. We glimpse Ruskin's intense responses to nature, and especially to mountains, throughout his early years. Moments when his eye is arrested, fixed on a spot from which he receives a sudden overwhelming impression, occasionally interrupt the flow of his excursive verse. In these moments the expectation of movement or change is forgotten, and Ruskin (in the jingling rhymes of age fourteen) can "look on the Alps by the sunset quiver / And think on the moment thenceforward for ever!" (2.367) Yet for most of the decade he makes little effort to express these moments of intense vision in any way that distinguishes them from the succession of other sights presented in his travel narratives. From the late thirties until 1845, however, sublime views inspire ambitious new efforts in all three of his expressive media: in poetry, where he uses landscapes to evoke and express strong emotions; in drawing, where he imitates the expressive exaggerations of Turner's more imaginative landscapes to illustrate his poetry; and in prose, where he begins in 1840-41 to record in his diaries not only daily observations of rocks or clouds but also emotionally charged landscape experiences.
These new efforts testify less to a new way of looking than to Ruskin's expanded creative ambitions. In The Poetry of Architecture he accepts an inherited distinction between "the man of average intellect" and the man who can sustain an encounter with the sublime. That distinction apparently encourages him to try his own hand at a sublime, imaginative landscape art. Ruskin may also have been responding to [85/86] what had become a common myth of poetic maturation: that excursive sight is the youthful prelude to the sublime vision of the romantic artist or poet. To take an early and minor example (but one important for Wordsworth), in James Beattie's poem "The Minstrel" (1771-74) a young poet, still in a formative stage of sensibility and fancy, is described as a voracious wanderer:
Meanwhile, whate'er of beautiful, or new,
Sublime, or dreadful, in earth, sea, or sky,
By chance, or search, was offered to his view,
He scanned with curious and romantic eye.
. . . still keen to listen and to pry.29
The prying, visual curiosity of the sensitive observer in pursuit of the novel, sublime, or beautiful is replaced in the second half of the poem, where the poet reaches maturity, by the metaphorical ascent of the "comprehensive mind" to a truly sublime bird's-eye view, from which the poet arranges the beauties of nature "to frame / Those forms of bright perfection" "in one form sublime" (Beattie, II, lviii, lv). Wordsworth gives a similar account of poetic maturation in "Tintern Abbey" (and again in Book XII of The Prelude, though Ruskin could not have known that poem before 1850). Ruskin himself later understood Turner's early artistic development in the same terms, tracing his emergence from picturesque work before 1800 to the sublime oils of the first decades of the nineteenth century.31 In the late thirties and early forties, Ruskin seems to have considered that he himself might evolve from the excursive observer of nature to the imaginative poet or artist of sublime vision.
For his new poems and drawings Ruskin turned to different models: in art, to Turner's oils; in poetry, to the romance and the romantic lyric, particularly those of Shelley and Coleridge. In later years Ruskin looked back to Turner's vignettes for Rogers' Italy, which he acquired in 1833, as a revelation of the power of landscape art. But neither Turner's vignettes nor Ruskin's early imitations of them suggest that Ruskin then thought of Turner as someone who saw landscapes differently from other picturesque and topographical artists. Ruskin found another Turner when he looked at the oils exhibited in the Royal Academy. By 1836, when he defended these paintings [86/87] against the attacks of the Reverend Eagles, he makes a distinction between them and the warercolors or engravings he had previously known. The oils, he claims, are not representations of nature at all. Turner paints not nature but imagination (3.637). The vignettes with which Ruskin illustrated his own romantic lyrics in the early l840s, with their focusing swirls of light and cloud and dizzying recessions, imitate Turner's grander oil landscapes far more than they do his excursive illustrations or books of views.32
Ruskin also thought of the poetry that these vignettes of sublime landscapes were intended to accompany as imaginative rather than descriptive. His 1836 defense of Turner's oils compares them to "the finest works of imagination of our poets"— specifically (for modern examples) Coleridge's "Christabel" and "The Ancient Mariner" and Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" (3.637). His own "The Broken Chain," begun in 1836 in imitation of Scott's Marmion, was completed in 1841 and 1842 on the model of "Christabel." Between 1843 and 1845 Ruskin composed seven shorter landscape poems in the sublime mode, all set in the Alps and strongly recalling Coleridge's and Shelley's poems on Mt. Blanc.33 In this last group of poems especially, Ruskin abandons a poetry of excursive sight for poems based on a single, immediate, and powerful impression. Like much of the most successful landscape poetry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Ruskin's poems employ the topos of the stopped traveler— siste viator— or invoke a "spirit of place" to which his own poetic energies respond.34
Neither Ruskin's landscape lyrics and romances nor his illustrations in the sublime mode are successful. The feeling in both seems forced and flat; the poet or artist does not convince us of any more intimate connection between himself and the spirit of place than that of the dutiful (and well-read) traveler. Ruskin himself quickly realized his failure: by 1842 he had stopped trying to be a Turnerian artist of imagination, and in 1845 he relinquished his poetic ambitions as well. His letters to his father from Italy during that year accept, though somewhat reluctantly, what he sees as a significant change in his mental habits, a reversal of the evolution from critical curiosity to imaginative vision experienced by Beattie's minstrel or by Wordsworth: "my mind is strangely developed within these two years, but it is developed into something more commonplace than it was, into a quiet, truth-loving, [87/88] fishing, reasoning, moralizing temperament—with less passion and imagination than I could wish, by much."35 "The habit of criticising hardens one," he notes. The habit of criticizing that he consciously employed as he traveled through Italy was an extension of his old excursive habits. He tried above all to get details and proportions correctly, from which he could build an accurate version of the whole (Shapiro., pp. 144, 85; also p. 197). He climbed on ladders to explore sculpture and frescos from as close as possible, moving, when he could, not only around but up and down and through the buildings he was observing and sketching. He went from building to building and town to town, "writing as I go, all I can learn about the history of the churches, and all my picture criticism," not stopping to turn the running narrative of his discoveries or his careful sketches of architectural details into unified impressions. "I am getting far too methodical," he concluded, "to write poetry" (Shapiro, pp. 54, 107).
Yet Ruskin had not simply returned to the excursive looking of the amateur poet and sketcher, nor even to the systematic excursive explorations of The Poetry of Architecture. Modern Painters I has more passion and imagination than any of his earlier work, even though it rejects poetry and drawing—excursive or sublime—for prose. Part of this, of course, is a result of the confusions of identity and intent discussed in Chapter 1. The juxtaposition of his own work with Turner's or Claude's, the careful framing of his more elaborate descriptions, the rearrangement of experience to create full Claudian compositions, the introduction of his own controlling metaphors, the implied similarity between great artists or poets and those who fully understand their work—all these indicate that in 1842 and 1843 Ruskin had not given up his ambition to rival the great imaginative poets and painters, in prose if not in their own media. But there is something else going on in the descriptive prose of Modern Painters I. More than in any of his earlier excursive writing, Ruskin expresses a visual and emotional excitement and demonstrates an imaginative activity evoked by progressive, methodical examination of details. The express! veness comes less from Ruskin's attempt to rival Turner or the poets in sublime sight than from a new conviction that passion and imagination are not incompatible with excursive sight. Once again it was Turner's work, understood now in a different way, that precipitated this change in style. [88/89]
Ruskin records in Praeterita two experiences of 1842 that renewed his delight in visual exploration (35.311-15). At Norwood and again at Fontainbleau, he set out to draw, without any imaginative ambition, stray bits of natural detail (ivy twisting around a thorn, an aspen tree) only to discover an unlooked-for pleasure. As he records ivy or aspen, line by line, he finds an unexpected beauty in the pattern of leaf and branch. His initial languor is replaced by a growing energy and enthusiasm, as he pursues the design unfolding before him. Ruskin remembers these experiences as revelations of a new beauty, but surely they are also rediscoveries of an old pleasure. Ruskin himself links his discovery closely to his mistaken efforts to create imaginary Turnerian landscapes "out of my head" during the preceding several years (35.302). The more humble efforts at Norwood and Fontainbleau are not just a turn from imagination to nature; they are also a return from imitating sublime conceptions of unified views to his earlier excursive habits, to the pleasures of gradual discovery expressed in the travel poems, diaries, and sketches of his youth.
The renewed pleasure in unambitious, excursive sight is only half the revelation of 1842. Ruskin's pleasure is also legitimated as an imaginative activity. He discovers that Turner does not paint his sublime landscapes out of his head. Two events lead Ruskin to this perception. First, he begins, late in 1841, to take lessons from a new drawing master, J. D. Harding, whose specialty is trees (35.308-09). Harding insists that intricate branchings are in themselves beautifully designed and have no need of picturesque embellishment. It was, presumably, as a result of Harding's tutelage that Ruskin began his drawing exercises at Norwood and Fontainbleau. Harding used Turner's Liber Studiorum to enforce his point about naturally pleasing ramification. Ruskin's experiments at Norwood and Fontainbleau, then, convinced him that Harding was right, at the same time that they recalled his earlier pleasure in faithful exploration of rocks or clouds or changing views. They also suggested that the careful patterning of foliage or rocks or water in Turner's work might be nature's design, not Turner's.
A second event confirmed Ruskin's suspicions: he saw the watercolor sketches of Swiss scenes—including some of Turner's grandest conceptions—which Turner had prepared in 1842 as preliminary drawings. This examination of first sketches convinced him that Turner's grand imaginative landscapes were indeed "straight impressions from nature—not artificial designs" (35.310). If Turner follows nature, and [89/90] natural design can be discovered by progressive looking, then the visual habits Ruskin had acquired through travel and the imitation of picturesque landscape artists will be, after all, a rewarding way of looking at even Turner's grand landscapes. Though Ruskin had to acknowledge that his own efforts at sublime composition were not successful, the experiences of 1842 provided compensation for the disappointment of his artistic ambitions. The prose descriptions of Modern Painters I reflect both his rediscovered pleasure in excursive looking and a new confidence that such looking constitutes an adequate and legitimate response to Turner's sublime landscape art.
The descriptions of Modern Painters I imitate Turnerian landscapes in excursive prose. Yet Ruskin does not claim that Turner's grand landscapes are themselves built up through excursive sight. He does not fully work out the relation of excursive to sublime sight until Modern Painters IV ("Of Turnerian Topography"), though he begins to explore this issue as early as 1845, when he studies his own topographic sketches of various Turnerian subjects to try to discover what Turner has done. But the conclusion Ruskin reached in Modern Painters IV —that Turner relies on his phenomenal memory to include material discovered through excursive looking in the instantaneous imaginative visions on which his works are based—confirms an assumption already implicit in Modern Painters I. Turner was for Ruskin of unique importance among landscape artists because he exemplified sublime vision while encouraging excursive looking in his viewers. He created unified, impressive views, altering or exaggerating literal facts to express his sustained encounter with the sublime. Yet he was nonetheless so true to the principles of natural structure, change, and growth in foliage, rocks, water, clouds, or light and color, grasped down to the least detail, that lie must be approached by a beholder in exactly the way nature itself must be approached by anyone of ordinary imaginative powers: excursively. Turner's work thus combined the virtues of excursive or picturesque landscape art—inviting and rewarding careful, progressive study by the beholder—with those of the great imaginative art he had recognized in Turner's oils—awing the beholder with his unified, emotionally charged vision, his "wildly beautiful imagination."
The artist who could accomplish both these ends of landscape art in the same works could serve not only as exemplar of the sublime [90/91] response to landscape but also as a guide for the ordinary, excursive beholder. Turner the teacher is an important figure in Modern Painters I, where Ruskin is himself trying out the new role of teacher and critic. Indeed, though Ruskin praises Turner in almost apocalyptic language for his godlike vision, he spends relatively little time giving examples of it (the descriptions of The Slave Ship or Snow Storm are exceptional, and even there, of course, Ruskin unfolds Turner's sublimity to us only gradually).
Left: Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying -- Typho[on]n Coming On Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Right: Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth. Oil on canvas. 1842 The Turner Collection, Tate Britain, London. [Neither image in print edition] Click on these images to enlarge them.
Much more frequent are progressive descriptions of isolated passages in works which, if we actually go back and look at them, are likely to strike us at first more for their grandeur of conception than for their detailed truth to nature. Chain Bridge over the Tees, for example, is one of Turner's more impressive images of natural sublimity in the England and Wales series.
Chain Bridge over the River Tees by J. M. W. Turner. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The minute figures of a hunter and his prey, a nest of ducks, are overwhelmed by the enormous sweep of the mountain waterfall that separates them. Ruskin makes no direct attempt to tell or show us the effect of the whole picture. Instead, in discussions scattered throughout the volume, he uses three different passages in the picture, cited as "standards" of rock, water, and foliage drawing, to teach readers to see the significant lines of structure, growth, movement, or change—nature's design—in these phenomena. His descriptions of "the properties and forms of vertical beds of rock" around the stream (3.489), or the "passiveness and swinging of the water" expressed in undulating lines (3-554-57) or "the complexity, entanglement, and aerial relation" of the thicket in the lower right-hand corner (3.587) do acknowledge Turner's imaginative achievement, but only indirectly, through the excitement, even passion, that Ruskin's prose conveys. This excitement is partly the pleasure of surprised discovery from moment to moment, but it also suggests Ruskin's anticipation of what there is still to find. Excursive looking, in the case of Turner's landscapes like Chain Bridge, can carry the beholder very far indeed, eventually leading him to a comprehension of greatness. But for large parts of Modern Painters I Ruskin concentrates on a more immediate task, and uses Turner for a different purpose—as an instructor in the beholder's, not the artist's, mode of seeing.
Ruskin's discovery, in 1842, that both nature's and Turner's compositions could be explored excursively led naturally to the particular argument that Ruskin made about Turner in Modern Painters I, begun, [91/92] later the same year: the defense of Turner's truth to nature. But joined to Ruskin's disappointment at his own efforts to imitate Turner's imaginative art, these discoveries apparently had a still more important effect—to precipitate a decision to write about Turner, rather than simply to imitate him. Ruskin's original impulse to defend Turner as a great imaginative artist goes back to 1836, but in Modern Painters I that has been supplemented with another intention. Turner's work, as Ruskin had discovered, requires of the beliolder a more active, energetic, and emotionally responsive version of excursive sight. Displaying this kind of seeing in his prose descriptions of Turner's work, Ruskin joins imitation to a new aim, to teach Victorians how to see both nature and Turner. This educative enterprise was not very well articulated, and Ruskin had not yet accepted criticism as his permanent vocation, but the impulse to teach is already strongly there.
etween 1843 and 1856 Ruskin grew much more sure of his critical vocation. In 1845 he gave up his remaining poetic ambitions. When he returned to Modern Painters after a ten-year break, he took the beholding imagination as one of his principal subjects, carefully distinguished his own way of seeing from that of the romantic nature poet as exemplified by Wordsworth, and continued to invoke Turner, whose sublimities could instruct and satisfy the excursive beholder. But Turner was not Ruskin's only teacher in this period. Ruskin's attacks on Wordsworth in 1856 hide a debt he elsewhere acknowledges freely. There is a line in The Excursion that Ruskin quotes, directly or indirectly, on at least a dozen separate occasions: "We live by Admiration, Hope, and Love" (IV.763).38 In 1875 he cites it as "my literal guide, in all education" (28.255), but he has already quoted it in crucial passages in Modern Painters II and III, Unto This Last, and on numerous occasions in the l870s, and will cite it again in Praeterita. The particular interpretation Ruskin puts on the line is less important than the debt he repeatedly expresses to its author as his "guide, in all education."
Unlike Turner, Wordsworth did not serve Ruskin simultaneously as an example of imaginative vision and an instructor in excursive sight. Ruskin saw these two aspects of Wordsworth's endeavor as distinct and even contradictory. Wordsworth himself offered considerable support [92/93] for this view. It is not surprising that Ruskin chose to express his own decision to give up poetry for critical prose through a critique of Wordsworth's poetry, for Wordsworth, as Ruskin knew him, seemed also to have decided that he could only instruct and reform his readers by exchanging his identity as a poet of sublime encounters for the role of the wandering sage. In this role, as the principal character in The Excursion, Wordsworth became Ruskin's second important teacher, guiding his efforts to encourage and reform the excursive power of the beholding imagination.
The Wordsworth Ruskin knew was not the Wordsworth we know. Both Coleridge and Hazlitt encouraged the view—which has become ours—that the Wordsworth of stopped encounters and sublime experience is the true Wordsworth, the poet of imagination.39 Ruskin's Wordsworth was both a poet of sudden, imaginative encounters and a poet of excursion. Moreover, he was a poet who apparently had concluded by 1815 that the vision of the former was not a model for ordinary men, and henceforward adopted excursion as his preferred mode. The Prelude, written early but continually revised throughout Wordsworth's lifetime, reaches a contrary conclusion: the "spots of time" that interrupt excursions or the ordinary progress of time and the poet's narrative turn out to be the hidden sources of his mental power. What is more, The Prelude offers the poet's mind as a model for all minds, his experiences of nature as those to be sought by all men. But Ruskin, of course, did not know the unpublished Prelude in the thirties and forties when his conception of Wordsworth was formed. If we subtract The Prelude from Wordsworth's works, we are left with a poet who writes in two modes, exemplifying two kinds of experience very like the imaginative and ordinary perception described by Ruskin. On the one hand, Wordsworth records intense encounters with rural landscape and rural inhabitants, encounters transformed by memory and imagination into poetry. This is the poet of "Resolution and Independence," "The Highland Reaper," "Nutting," "Tintern Abbey," "The Thorn," "The Simplon Pass," and "There was a Boy"—all "Poems of the Imagination" in the editions Ruskin knew. On the other hand, Wordsworth also records the experiences of the spectator on tour and, in his most ambitious published poem, represents the education of wandering spectators by a wandering sage. [93/94] This is the youthful author of Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, but it is especially the mature poet of the tour poems, the prose Guide, and The Excursion.
Moreover, the Wordsworth Ruskin knew indirectly encouraged the association between intense encounters and a privileged, poetic perception, on the one hand, and excursive experience and ordinary sight, on the other—apparently deciding to give up the one for the other partway through his career. In his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth wants to abolish the sharp distinction between poetic and ordinary modes of seeing, but the 1815 preface and supplementary essay suggest that he has changed his mind. In the earlier preface Wordsworth's stated purpose is "to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement" (Prose, I, 126). The project is presented as a response to a contemporary threat to ordinary perception. Modern art and events provide "gross and violent stimulants" that "blunt the discriminating powers of the mind . . . unfitting it for all voluntary exertion [and] reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor" (I, 128). Wordsworth characterizes the poet's habits of perception in this early preface in order to contrast them with this corrupted perception. He concludes that the difference can be overcome if the poet, through poetry, can reshape the perceptual habits of readers. When the poet's mind is rightly disciplined, it can "describe objects and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated" (I, 126). The discipline that should form the minds of both poet and ordinary perceiver is, Wordsworth insists, the same. The high imaginative experience of the arrested spectator and the traveler's digressive experience are two aspects of the mind's interaction with nature, but both are available to people of healthy perception. Because this faith in a single mental discipline is the faith of The Prelude, too, we see this as a continuing, fundamental basis of Wordsworth's poetry. But without The Prelude, the essays of 1815 would indicate that Wordsworth gave up that faith. [94/95]
In 1815, Wordsworth was far less optimistic about his effect on readers. The preface of 1815 is almost exclusively concerned with poetic powers, with no indication that these are to become the reader's habits.
The distance between the "original imaginative genius" of the poet (a phrase frequently repeated in varying forms in the supplementary essay) and the usually unresponsive reader seems all but unbridgeable. Like Ruskin, Wordsworth insists that good readers must be active readers ("without the exertion of a co- operating power in the mind of the Reader, there can be no adequate sympathy" with poetry [III, 81]). But when Wordsworth analyzes the potential audience for the poet of imagination in the supplementary essay, he finds that youth will be easily deluded, the middle-aged out of practice, the religious-minded receptive but narrow in their sympathies, and even those who have made a life study of poetry—the one fit audience—often too full of their own prejudices to make good readers. Thus he concludes:
in everything which is to send the soul into herself . . . wherever life and nature are described as operated upon by the creative or abstracting virtue of the imagination; wherever the instinctive wisdom of antiquity and her heroic passions uniting, in the heart of the poet, with the meditative wisdom of later ages, have produced that accord of sublimated humanity, which is at once a history of the remote past and a prophetic enunciation of the remotest future, there, the poet must reconcile himself for a season to few and scattered hearers. [III, 83]
Ruskin, who drew on Wordsworth's prefaces for his own chapters on imagination in Modern Painters II, had come by 1856 to share his concern with contemporary threats to ordinary perception and his desire to counter them through modern culture. For Ruskin, Wordsworth's 1815 pessimism about the reforming power of sublime landscape encounters would be directly expressed in his poetic practice. Though Wordsworth continued to add a few poems to those "of the Imagination," most of his published work between 1814 and 1850 is in a different mode. In particular The Excursion, the major published poem of this period, concerns itself explicitly with the perceptual problems of ordinary people who are instructed by someone who is not a poet; the form of both instruction and poem is explicitly excursive. The Excursion was Ruskin's constant favorite among Wordsworth's poems.45 In 1843, when Ruskin wrote to his old teacher comparing Coleridge and Wordsworth, he praised that poem above all, but he wrote that its author was perhaps not so great an imaginative poet as Coleridge, though infinitely greater as a man.46 On the evidence [95/96] of both published poetry and prose, then, Wordsworth was to a reader in the 1840s a poet dedicated to reforming ordinary perception who decided that such reform could best be accomplished, not by encouraging the reader to share the poet's vision, but rather, as in The Excursion or the Guide, by taking a distinctive reader's or spectator's mode of perception as subject and attempting to reform that. This of course is the approach Ruskin had chosen by the 1850s. When he criticized Wordsworth in Modern Painters III , he criticized the poet of imagination. The Wordsworth of The Excursion, who spoke not as the imaginative poet but as the Wanderer, continued to be Ruskin's guide.
Wordsworth's handling of the imaginative poet of place, the arrested spectator, and above all the ordinary traveler spoke directly to Ruskin's concerns in the 1840s and '50s. Wordsworth apparently shared Ruskin's conviction that the habits of the beholder differ from those of the poet. The poetry of Ruskin's Wordsworth offers models both for the poet's distinctive experience (the instantaneous grasp of wholes) and for the beholder's (the progressive unfolding of parts). I would like to look in some detail at representative examples of Wordsworth's poetry in the sublime and the excursive modes. Whether or not Ruskin ever read The Prelude— there is no evidence in the published works and diaries that he did—he probably knew the twenty lines from Book VI that recount Wordsworth's passage through Gondo Gorge, for these were published separately as "The Simplon Pass" under "Poems of the Imagination" in 1845. "The Simplon Pass" has become the favorite passage for modern critics writing on the Wordsworthian imagination. What sets this passage apart from passages with which Ruskin could compare it—like those recounting the traveler's experience in Books I and IV of The Excursion.
Nature in Gondo Gorge is first perceived as an "intense unity" and then reduced to essential "characters," literally linguistic signs. Both the intense impression of unity and the reduction to significant characters are common features in Wordsworth's poetry of encounters with nature or rural characters where imagination has subsequently been at work. Neither is an aspect of landscape experience in The Excursion. In Gondo Gorge sensory contrasts are heightened but held in a dynamic stasis. The familiar passage is always worth quoting:
The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed, [96/97]
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And everywhere along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that mutter'd close upon our ears—
Black drizzling crags that spake bv the wayside
As if a voice were in them—the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.47
The contrasting elements in this passage are not presented as a simple sequence of opposites, like those in the picturesque Descriptive Sketches, for example. The connicting natural forces—unending corruption, stationary blasts, winds thwarting winds—contribute to a final impression not of contrast but of unity, the unity of a locked struggle of matched powers.48 The mixture of sensory perceptions, sight and sound especially, reinforces the impression of an experience whose parts cannot be separated or analyzed. The perceiver is bewildered, giddy, even sick with the unsuccessful effort to separate these mingled natural powers. It is just this kind of experience that Wordsworth characterized as sublime in a prose fragment written about 1811 or 1812 (intended as a preface to his Guide to the Lakes). "For whatever suspends the comparing power of the mind and possesses it with a feeling or image of intense unity, without a conscious contemplation of parts, has produced that state of the mind which is the consummation of the sublime" (II, 353-54). In the same fragment he distinguishes three components of the sensation of sublimity: "a sense of individual form or forms; a sense of duration; and a sense of power." In the natural sublime, Wordsworth says, the sense of form and duration must be combined With "impressions of power, to a sympathy with and a participation of which the mind must be elevated—or to a dread and awe of which, as listing out of itself, it must be subdued" (II, 351-52). In the Simplon description, form and duration are in fact negated even as they are expressed, [97/98] in order to convey a unified impression of power. There is no attempt to establish a sense of continuous physical space, no sense of the perceiver's location in the passage; almost every visual element is plural, and the spectator is somewhere in the midst of woods, waterfalls, winds, torrents, rocks, crags, clouds. The balance of opposed forces creates an indefinite moment when the effects of physical action seem suspended and time is abolished—the woods decay always and never, the water falls forever and not at all. As Wordsworth explains in the prose fragment, the conflicting elements are "thought of in that state of opposition and yet reconcilement, analogous to parallel lines in mathematics, which, being infinitely prolonged, can never come nearer to each other; and hence . . . the absolute crown of the impression is infinity which is a modification of unity" (II, 357). The first movement in this passage, then (the first twelve lines), is a grasp of unity where visible form and duration are perceived only to be reduced to a timeless, formless monotone (quite literally, as sound gradually replaces sight). This process is characteristic of other famous Wordsworthian passages of emotionally charged landscape experience, including those where natural power is less in evidence—for example, the opening lines of "Tintern Abbey," where the individual forms of cliffs and hedgerows are finally replaced by the single column of the hermit's smoke: a reduction of many details to the significant one.52 This comprehensive mode of seeing is identified in the prose fragment with the sublime; in "Tintern Abbey" (and The Prelude), with the imaginative responses of the poet's rightly disciplined mind.
The second movement in the Simplon passage is also associated, elsewhere in Wordsworth's work, with a valuable poetic way of seeing. The power in this passage is primarily nature's until the last five lines, when the reader must recognize the power of mind that has rendered the inarticulate mutterings of rocks, winds, and water as legible signs, the written characters of the ancient Book of Nature, an apocalypse. After the mind has grasped the scene as an intense unity, some of the definite elements of sight or sound are endowed by the mind with a new power, the power of written language. They become mnemonic signs that tell a story of personal or collective experience now connected with the particular place. The same term, "characters," recurs in Wordsworth's accounts of other extraordinarily impressive landscape experiences, always to indicate the final status [98/99] of visual detail that has become mnemonic sign. After the skating episode in Book I of The Prelude, for example, the poet talks about how - these haunting experiences "Impressed upon all forms the characters / Of danger or desire" (1.471-72 ). The first of the spots of time in Book XII presents a kind of allegory of this movement of the mind—trans forming visual details into linguistic signs—though the young Wordsworth does not yet recognize the process as a mental one. The lost boy comes on the place where a murderer had once been hung. All visible signs of the deed have disappeared: "The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones / And iron case were gone." The scene is emptied in Wordsworth's description of it, except for the "monumental letters" of the murderer's name carved in the turf. "The characters were fresh and visible" ("to this hour," Wordsworth had first written, putting the line in the present tense: XII.237-38, 241-45 ) In what happens next the same process is shown operating in the mind of the boy: only three visual details from the scene he next perceives remain with him, the repeatedly invoked pool, beacon, and girl. The mind invests them with the power to serve as just such "fresh and visible characters" to remind him, in later years, of the incident and emotions felt by the boy. The pool, the beacon, and the girl are not simply the chief objects in one visual scene; as characters they recall not a single visual composition but the whole story of the boy's wandering.55
Wordsworth's "Essay on Epitaphs" describes another instance when "visible characters" recall an emotionally affective history to the spec tator, a gloss on the characters of "The Simplon Pass" which Ruskin would have known. The epitaph carved on a gravestone is visible charr acter in two senses: to read the written signs should be, Wordsworth says, to read the character of the buried man (II, 56-60). Wordsworth's description of how the dead should be commemorated in a good epitaph corresponds closely to the way, in his poetry, selected details of an emotionally affecting scene become mnemonic signs by which scene and emotion are recalled. The situation of the spectator in the graveyard is very like that of the spectator of the sublime: the epitaph ought to evoke "sublimity of sentiment" and "awful thoughts," the grandeur of "the most serious and solemn affections of the human mind"—religion, time, eternity. The occasion should be one of intensity; the writer of epitaphs ought "to give to universally received truths a pathos and spirit which shall re-admit them to the soul like revelations [99/100] of the moment" (II, 88, 93, 84, 56, 76, 83). To convey this sublimity of sentiment, to create the intensity of immediate revelation, the epitaph must avoid a detailed comparison and analysis of its subject's virtues and faults. A "balance of opposite qualities or minute distinctions in individual character . . . will, even when they are true and just, for the most part be grievously out of place" because "the understanding having been so busy in its petty occupation, how could the heart of the mourner be other than cold?" (II, 59). The epitaph should not appeal to the curiosity of those who love to trace "the intricacies of human nature." In the epitaph, as in the sublime experience of landscape, what is desired is an intense unity of impression, not a conscious contemplation of the parts. Wordsworth describes the unifying perception that the epitaph reflects, and evokes, in a significant visual metaphor:
The character of a deceased friend or beloved kinsman is not seen,—nor ought to be seen, otherwise than as a tree through a tender haze or luminous mist, that spiritualizes and beautifies it; that takes away, indeed, but only to the end that the parts which are not abstracted may appear more dignified and lovely; may impress and affect the more (II, 58).
Affection here, like imagination in The Prelude and the Guide, is thought of as an "unfathered vapour" that helps to create an independent, unified impression of its subject by suppressing many individual details.60 The mist or "medium of love" also enables the mind to isolate a few details and turn them into mnemonic signs—the commemorative epitaph, visible characters of a more inclusive history. The epitaph, Wordsworth insists, is not a portrait—just as the landscape description, in "The Simplon Pass" or "Tintern Abbey," is not a landscape painting (Prose, II, 58, 81). The relation of characteristic or visual detail to the unified impression is not that of parts to a whole so much as it is of signifiers to a signified. The details have become "types and symbols" of a temporal experience, the mourner's affectionate relationship with the dead or the spectator's imaginative relationship with a place. These visible characters are an important part of the extraordinary sublime or imaginative experience in "The Simplon Pass" or "The Essay on Epitaphs" (the lofty forms or the hermit's smoke in "Tintern Abbey" serve a similar function) because it is through them that Wordsworth arrives at the act of poetic creation. By means of his transformation of [100/101] sensory detail into linguistic sign, Wordsworth calls up memory, establishing both for himself and for his readers his roots in the place with which his poetic genius is to be identified, and where it must return in order to act. The visible characters are both mnemonic signs for Wordsworth himself and public signs, inscriptions that testify to Wordsworth's presence, in the past of his childhood and in the present of his poetic maturity.62
There is one further indication that "The Simplon Pass" is an encounter with the sublime: its form. To Ruskin it was a fragment, published as a poem. It recounted experience identified as the traveler's, but presented as the prolongation of an intense moment rather than the unfolding of sequential scenes. Its form—the frag nient— was yet another method of marking the different quality of the experience it recounts from what the ordinary traveler might find. (When Wordsworth published the passage as part of an excursive account of a walking tour, in Book VI of The Prelude, he had to substitute various strategies of narrative disruption for the fragment form to mark its character as extraordinary, sublime experience.63)
Ruskin's descriptions of the power of natural scenery in Modern Painters I impress us very differently from Wordsworth's. There are some similarities, which may help to explain the ambiguous status of the observer depicted in those descriptions: they stand out from the surrounding prose both by their careful internal structuring and by their greater excitement, intensity, and energy; they are also deliberately framed as separable pieces of experience. Yet Ruskin's descriptions do not share two of the most important features that distinguish Wordsworth's sublime spots: Ruskin's reflect a progressive mode of experience, not a single prolonged moment of intense unity, and they exhibit none of Wordsworth's efforts to turn visual detail into njJiemonic and public signs of a poetic observer's presence. Indeed, Ruskin's visual details resist reduction to linguistic sign, and Ruskin's narrator is hardly there at all. The powerful impression of an isolated, imaginative observer is largely absent. When the observer is present, as in the view of the Alps at the end of the cloud chapter, he is not alone. The crowd on top of the mountain includes Turner, Ruskin, and the reader whom Ruskin explicitly invites along. As we saw, Ruskin specifically criticizes Wordsworth, in Modern Painters III, both his lack of respect for purely visual detail and for the too oppressive [101/102] presence of the poet himself in his landscape. At a much later period (beginning at the end of the l850s) Ruskin did become interested in the inscriptions that artists and poets left upon landscape, and eventually found a way to leave his own. But these later inscriptions deliberately avoid the Wordsworthian sublime fusion of poet and place.
If Ruskin did not follow, in Modern Painters I, Wordsworth's siste viator encounters with landscape in "Poems of the Imagination," he did apparently learn from Wordsworth's different procedure in The Excursion. In "Tintern Abbey" (or The Prelude) the speaker is identified as Wordsworth, the poet; "The Simplon Pass" is also a first-person poem. In The Excursion the spectators are not identified with Wordsworth; they are not poets but simply travelers. The landscape experiences in The Excursion do in fact differ in several important respects from those extraordinary experiences recounted by the arrested traveler or the poet-spectator of the Sublime.
The title of Wordsworth's poem puts it firmly in a familiar context for the reader in the early l800s. Between the early seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, according to the OED, not only the noun "excursion" but also the now obsolete adjective "excursive" carried both a literal and a figurative sense: literally, a leisurely ramble — for health or pleasure—away from a fixed point or a direct route, always undertaken with an intention to return; figuratively, an extended digression, play, or variation in the direction of thought or interests^ "Excursive" seems to have not only described a frequent and familiar experience for middle- and upper-class English consumers (the tour of a garden, gallery, or region), but also referred to a recognized mode of experience that might be mental and verbal as well as physical and visual. Wordsworth's poem is about a literal excursion—a walk through the Lake Country; it is also an excursion in relation to the planned poem, "The Recluse"; but above all it is a celebration of "the mind's excursive power" for which the Wanderer's movement and the poet's digression are the enabling occasion. The mental action into which the Wanderer draws the speaker (in Book I) and the Solitary (in Book IV) retains connotations of a valued experience attached to the literal term: this going out from the self is a progressive experience undertaken for health and pleasure. When Wordsworth took excursion, in all its senses, as his subject, [102/103] he apparently focused directly on the nature of the spectator's or reader's perceptions. Where "Tintern Abbey" invites the reader to follow the growth of one poet's mind. The Excursion offers the examples of four minds, three of them engaged in an archetypal spectator's or consumer's experience, and two of these—the speaker and the Solitary—in the reader's own position, needing excursion for the sake of mental and moral health. In this poem Wordsworth does not try to transform his spectators into poets or fixed genii of place. He offers a different kind of sublime experience, more compatible with excursive seeing, and he also demonstrates how purely picturesque seeing can be deepened into more significant experience without altering the distinctive progressive movement, focus on details, and changing perspectives of the excursion. The Wanderer is indeed described as one of the many "Poets that are sown / By Nature" (1.77-78), but even he differs from the poet of "Tintern Abbey"; such natural poets as he do not write poetry, nor do they ever "take unto the height / The measure of themselves" (1.87-88), and self-consciously proclaim their imaginative power in the places they visit. And the Wanderer, despite his undoubted roots in the country he visits, is a visitor, one who passes through but does not remain. Imaginative and sublime experience have a place in The Excursion, but whether for the speaker, the Wanderer, or the anonymous shepherds of ancient Greece or recent Cumberland, such experience does not end with the transformation of sensory detail into linguistic sign and hence the writing of poetry.
A passage from Book IV illustrates the difference between the poet's and the ordinary perceiver's imaginative experience of sublime landscape. The speaker interrupts the Wanderer, who has just been urging the Solitary to "Quit your couch—/ Cleave not so fondly to your moody cell . . . climb once again, / Climb every day, those ramparts" (IV. 481-82, 493-94). The Wanderer urges the Solitary to exchange the taper of his solitary self-regarding intellect ("unseasonably twinkling . . . like a sullen star / Dimly reflected in a lonely pool") for the "unconsuming fire of light," imagination and feeling turned outward (IV.485-488,1065). The implicitly social use of imagination to which the Wanderer encourages the Solitary already suggests that the high poetic sublime is not in question here. At this point the speaker breaks into the Wanderer's very long speech with the following description of a sublime experience: [103/104]
Oh! what a joy it were, in vigorous health,
To have a body (this our vital frame
With shrinking sensibility endued,
And all the nice regards of flesh and blood)
And to the elements surrender it
As if it were a spirit!—How divine,
The liberty, for frail, for mortal, man
To roam at large among unpeopled glens
And mountainous retirements, only trod
By devious footsteps; regions consecrate
To oldest time! and, reckless of the storm
That keeps the raven quiet in her nest,
Be as a presence or a motion—one
Among the many there; and while the mists
Flying, and rainy vapours, call out shapes
And phantoms from the crags and solid earth
As fast as a musician scatters sounds
Out of an instrument; and while the streams
(As at a first creation and in haste
To exercise their untried faculties)
Descending from the region of the clouds,
And starting from the hollows of the earth
More multitudinous every moment, rend
Their way before them - what a joy to roam
An equal among mightiest energies;
And haply sometime with articulate voice,
Amid the deafening tumult, scarcely heard
By him that utters it, exclaim aloud,
"Rage on, ye elements! let moon and stars
Their aspects lend, and mingle in their turn
With this commotion (ruinous though it be)
From day to night, from night to day, prolonged!" (IV.508-539)
Some features of the passage correspond with the account of Gondo Gorge: the description follows an interruption of sequence; in fact it is not something seen in the course of the three men's walk. The distinctive forms perceived by the spectator are notably elusive, the "shapes and phantoms" called out by "flying, and rainy vapours." Those shapes and streams, coming at the spectator m their midst from [104/105] all directions, convey an overall impression of multitudinous energies gathered into a single roar — a tumult or commotion the observer can imagine, and desire, as extending indefinitely: "From day to night, from night to day prolonged." The narrator-observer is also alone, roaming among unpeopled glens. But instead of converting some details from this intense, unified impression of nature's power into visible characters, to be recalled by the poet and read by the reader in future times, the speaker simply adds his own voice—albeit an articulate one—to the uproar. He is one among the many after all, and one scarcely heard even by himself. The speaker demonstrates what the Wanderer, in passages to follow, characterizes as an imaginative perception of supernatural presence in nature, but that perceptionthrough-participation does not lead to mnemonic inscription and hence to an explicitly creative and poetic act. In The Excursion version of sublime experience, there is no added dimension of mental time; we do not see the spectator withdrawing from experience, turning it into writing, and later reading that writing and creating poetry from it. The spectator makes no claims to the spot. This immediate, participatory, almost self-forgetful experience was, as we shall see, closer to Ruskin's experiences of sublimity and to the versions of sublimity he eventually discussed for both spectators and readers.
The chief emphasis in The Excursion, however, is not on such extraordinary moments. The Wanderer notes that the Solitary probably does have such momentary revelations (and the speaker tells us, in Book I, that the Wanderer has known such moments too, 1.125-162), but the Wanderer is a sage primarily b ecause he can use the picturesque, scientifically observant, excursive mode of experience to make "living things, and things inanimate, I . . . speak, at Heaven's command, to eye and ear, / And speak to social reason's inner sense, / With inarticulate language" (IV.1204-1207). Inarticulate speech, not writing or poetry; the speech of things, not of the poet himself; speech addressed to the social reason, not overheard by the solitary reader. The first words the Wanderer utters in the poem are addressed to a speaker who has already revealed himself, through his description of the scene, as a picturesque observer. The Wanderer tells him, "I see around me here / Things which you cannot see" (I.469-470)64 and proceeds to show the speaker, and through him the reader, how to reform picturesque perception. The Wanderer tells a [105/106] moody cell . . . climb once again, / Climb every day, those ramparts" (IV.481-82, 493-94). The Wanderer urges the Solitary to exchange the taper of his solitary self-regarding intellect ("unseasonably twinkling . . . like a sullen star / Dimly reflected in a lonely pool") for the "unconsuming fire of light," imagination and feeling turned outward (IV.485-88,1065). The implicitly social use of imagination to which the Wanderer encourages the Solitary already suggests that the high poetic sublime is not in question here. At this point the speaker breaks into the Wanderer's very long speech with the following description of a sublime experience: [103/104] story that gives the picturesque details encountered by the spectator a particular human and social meaning. His story is a further verbal digression from the physical excursion. Like the picturesque mode of seeing itself, the story, especially because it is oral, unfolds its meaning gradually (the listener, in the poem at least, can't skip to the end). Its effect on the listener-speaker's perception in the poem, as we see at the end of Book I, is not to allow him to look at the scene and comprehend it as a visual whole, but to give him an additional perspective from which to view its parts. Before he listens to the Wanderer, the speaker sees the cottage garden and spring this way:
It was a plot
Of garden ground run wild, its matted weeds
Marked with the steps of those, whom, as they passed,
The gooseberry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants, hanging from their leafless stems,
In scanty strings, had tempted to o'erleap
The broken wall. I looked around, and there,
Where two tall hedge-rows of thick alder boughsv Joined in a cold damp nook, espied a well
Shrouded with willow-flowers and plumy fern. [1.453-62]
The close-up focus on detail, the emphasis on a primarily foreground wildness and visual intricacy, visual richness directly connected to the abandoned and decaying state of the garden, are quite conventionally picturesque observations. The Wanderer, when he first looks at the same scene, is no more comprehensive in his view, but the picturesque detail on which he focuses—"The useless fragment of a wooden bowl, / Green with the moss of years, and subject only / To the soft handling of the elements" (1.493-95)—directly speaks to him of Margaret's history and its effect on him. At the end of the book, the speaker-listener can see what the Wanderer saw in the picturesque details that earlier caught his attention:
Then towards the cottage I returned; and traced
Fondly, though with an interest more mild,
That secret spirit of humanity
Which, 'mid the calm oblivious tendencies
Of nature, 'mid her plants, and weeds, and flowers,
And silent overgrowings, still survived. [1.925-930]
There is one more dimension to the deepened mode of picturesque or excursive perception. To this reading (the Wanderer's term) of "the forms of things" as reminders of Margaret's death, the Wanderer juxtaposes another reading from the past:
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the griefv That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream . . . [1.942-52]
The Wanderer's memory serves what, to Ruskin, would be an important function: it corrects the tendency to a simply pathetic—and fallacious—reading of nature. The plumes and weeds still remind him of Margaret's story and his uneasy thoughts of sorrow and despair, but they also have an independent voice; they convey an image oftranquillity. Here again, as in the Wanderer's earlier perception of the scene and in the speaker-listener's perceptions, the mode of seeing is the same: the perceiver is tracing out details in a close view of a foreground; he is not taking in a comprehensive impression from huge forms, a wide prospect, or a monotone voice of natural-poetic presence. Book I works to reform picturesque perception by multiplying perspectives on visual details through additional excursions, first into the more public past of the Wanderer's tale and then into the personal past of the Wanderer's memory. These additional excursions provide a context in which detail becomes meaningful—in which, that is, it suggests a whole. But the whole is neither a visual composition nor a poetic one: sensory details "speak" but with inarticulate voice, and about their life and a stranger's. They do not become linguistic signs and cannot be made to serve as inscriptions testifying to the poet's presence.
The lesson in perceiving in Book IV is essentially similar to that of Book I, and I will not examine it in detail. The kind of perception that [107/108] is being reformed is, however, somewhat different: it is scientific perception, associated with the Solitary's exposure to the kind of rationalism that also produced the French Revolution. Like picturesque perception, the scientific observation Wordsworth attacks examines details comparatively or analytically; it pries and pores, "Viewing all objects unremittingly / In disconnection dead and spiritless; / And still dividing, and dividing still, / Break[s] down all grandeur" (IV.960-964). Scientific perception is for Wordsworth a much more dangerous perversion of the nonpoetic mode of seeing than the picturesque to which it is clearly related, but it too can be reformed, and the cure is the same. In fact the attack on scientific perception was originally joined to the attack on picturesque perception in Book I. Passages celebrating the healthy excursive power of the mind which would cure both were taken from earlier versions of Book I ("The Ruined Cottage") and used in Book IV.65
From these imaginative heights . . .
Acknowledge that to Nature's humbler power
Your cherished sullenness is forced to bend . . .
Then trust yourself abroad
To range her blooming bowers, and spacious fields,
... be our Companion while we track
Her rivers populous with gliding life . . .
Roaming, or resting under grateful shade
In peace and meditative cheerfulness;
Where living things, and things inanimate,
Do speak, at Heaven's command, to eye and ear,
And speak to social reason's inner sense,
With inarticulate language. [IV.1187-1207]
The habitual (a key term) contemplation of these humbler forms under the varying perspectives provided by personal and collective human experience—memories and traditionary tales (1.163-164)— the Wanderer confidently expects, reform scientific perception so that the perceiver will remember that "its most noble use, / Its most illustrious province, must be found / In furnishing clear guidance, a support / Not treacherous, to the mind's excursive power" (IV.1260-1263). [108/109] The Wordsworth of The Excursion apparently addressed Ruskin's chief concern: teaching the ordinary spectator how to see. The Wanderer sets out to reform picturesque and scientific perception, not to convert readers to a specifically poetic way of seeing. It is the mind's excursive power that picturesque and scientific perception— Ruskin's traveler and natural scientist—support. Wordsworth's 1815 preface and essay, as we have seen, encourage a distinction between this kind of mental power, accessible to ordinary readers and spectators, and the mental powers of the poet, "the creative or abstracting virtue of the imagination" which only the few will comprehend. Coleridge's assessment of Wordsworth's strengths and weaknesses, in chapter 22 of the Biographia (which Ruskin probably read between 1843 and 1846), reinforces this distinction—though Coleridge does not value Words worth's experiments with ordinary perception as Ruskin did.
Coleridge praises "the natural tendency of the poet's [Wordsworth's] mind ... to great objects and elevated conceptions" and claims for Wordsworth, as poet, "the gift of IMAGINATION in the highest and strictest sense of the word."66 He accepts without question Words worth's apparently reluctant conclusion, that his audience must be fit but few. But Coleridge's sense of the word imagination does not extend to all the powers displayed in The Excursion; it is The Excursion from which Coleridge quotes when he objects to Wordsworth's "matter-of factness," a "laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects," and when he censors Wordsworth's choice of a common and unpoetic character like the Wanderer (whose history must be exten sively described to explain his speaking abilities) as his mouthpiece. Col eridge objects, too, to a "prolixity, repetition, and an eddying" of thought which he attributes to strength of feeling operating through the unpoetic minds Wordsworth perversely chooses as his characters (Biographia, II, 101-109). In both style and point of view, according to Coleridge, Wordsworth I strays from his proper domain in The Excursion. Coleridge isolates with precision just those characteristics of the poem which, I have been arguing, would be familiar to the reader as signs of a picturesque or excursive mode of experience, and which interested both Ruskin and Wordsworth in their common enterprise to reform ordinary perception. Coleridge's account of the effect on the reader of progressive description-by-detail is just what Knight relishes and what Wordsworth and Ruskin take as the starting point of their own excursive styles:[109/110]
Such descriptions too often occasion in the mind of a reader, who is determined to understand his author, a feeling of labor, not very dissimilar to that, with which he would construct a diagram, line by line, for a long geometrical proposition. It seems to be like taking the pieces of a dissected map out of its box. We first look at one part, and then at another, then join and dove-tail them; and when the successive acts of attention have been completed, there is a retrogressive effort of mind to behold it as a whole.(Biographia, II, 102).
But Coleridge does not recognize this mode of experience as legitimate in art. "The poet should paint to the imagination." In one respect, of course, Coleridge was right: Wordsworth wrote better poetry when he illustrated the workings of a poetic imagination. Here Ruskin may have profited from Coleridge's comments. When Wordsworth took the reader's mind as his subject, he created for Ruskin a model not of poetry but of criticism.
Last modified 11 February 2013