Decorative Initial A lthough there was adequate occasion for Ruskin to defend painting by allying it with poetry, the alliance was not easy to effect because changes in critical theory had destroyed some of the old points of comparison. As long as critics considered poetry a mimetic art, its natural analogue was painting; but once it became an art whose central operation and purpose were expressive, poetry's natural analogue became music, and in fact Ruskin, who states that "Music rightly so called is the expression of the joy or grief of noble minds for noble causes" (19.175), also makes it one of the sister arts. His discussions, however, rarely concern themselves chiefly with music, and his frequent mentions of the art serve in most cases to draw simple analogies between music and her sisters or to emphasize the irrational, hidden nature of imaginative creation. Ruskin, who believes color the embodiment of feeling, writes of "playing on a colour-violin . . . and inventing your tune as you play it" (15.416). He also mentions that "the painter's faculty, or masterhood over colour" is "as subtle as the musician's over sound" (20.203), and that "no musical philosophy will ever teach a girl to sing, or a master to compose; and no colour-philosophy will ever teach a man of science to enjoy a picture, or a dull painter to invent one" (15.433).

Changes in theories of the imagination also tended to dissolve the alliance of the arts: eighteenth-century theories of the imagination which considered it an image-making faculty had supported the parallel of painting and poetry, but the growth of notions of the sympathetic imagination in the late eighteenth century did not serve the same function. The gradual shift from the imagination as maker of images to the imagination as creator of emotional states or sympathies tended to divide the two allied arts.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were the chief sources of the belief, so widely encountered in eighteenth-century critics, that the mind deals with visual images. There was in reality nothing new about Locke's idea that "sight [is] the most comprehensive of all our senses, conveying to our minds the ideas of light and colours, which are peculiar only to that sense; and also the far different ideas of space, figure, and motion." That the eye was the most important link between the mind and the external world had been a commonplace long before Palamon cried to Arcite, "I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye into myn herte" by sight of Emelye. The novelty is in Locke's theory that there are no ideas innate to the mind; for if the mind is at origin a tabula rasa, all knowledge must enter from without. Since the sight provides most of the impressions that enter the mind, it thereby becomes the most important of all faculties. In addition to the emphasis on sight created by this predominantly visual epistemology, a further emphasis was made by the Hobbes-Lockean psychology which regarded ideas as visual images, or, in the words of Hobbes, as "decaying sense." Ernest Lee Tuveson has suggested that one major influence of Locke on English poetry was a new emphasis on visual qualities. Addison, an important popularizer of Locke, stressed the importance of the visual faculties in his first Spectator on "The Pleasures of the Imagination" (1712):

Our sight is the most perfect and most delightful of all our senses. It fills the mind with the largest variety of ideas, converses with its objects at the greatest distance, and continues the longest in action without being tired or satiated with its proper enjoyments.... It is this sense which furnishes the imagination with its ideas; so that by the pleasures of the imagination or fancy (which I shall use promiscuously) I here mean such as arise from visible objects, either when we have them actually in our view or when we call up their ideas into our minds by paintings, statues, descriptions, or any the like occasion. We cannot indeed have a single image in the fancy that did not make its first entrance through the sight; but we have the power of retaining, altering, and compounding those images.

John Baillies's Essay on the Sublime (1747) specifically uses this theory of the imagination for describing poetry: "What, indeed, is Poetry but the Art of throwing a Number of agreeable Images together, whence each of them yields a greater Delight than they could separately." By the time that Dr. Johnson writes his "Life of Cowley" (1778), the idea that the poet should write in visual images has become such a critical commonplace that he censures Cowley and the metaphysicals for failing to write thus: "One of the great sources of poetical delight is description, or the power of presenting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shows not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested." Both Dr. Johnson's conception of the imagination and his ideal of description depend upon theories that language conveys or summons up images within the mind.

In his work on the critical history of Thomson's Seasons, Ralph Cohen has detailed the shift from a picture-theory of language to a language and description concerned with effects on the mind. The earlier picture-theory of language had begun to die out with the growth of theories of the sympathetic imagination. In 1751 James Harris's universal grammar, Hermes, had attacked the picture-theory of language, and the far more influential Edmund Burke's On the Sublime (1757) attempted to confute what the writer held to be the usual view of language:

It is not only of those ideas which are commonly called abstract, and of which no image at all can be formed, but even of particular real beings, that we converse without having any idea of them excited in the imagination.... Indeed so little does poetry depend for its effect on the power of raising sensible images, that I am convinced it would lose a very considerable part of its energy, if this were the necessary result of all description.

A few pages later Burke's notion of language is the basis of an opposition of painting and poetry:

Poetry and rhetoric do not succeed in exact description so well as painting does; their business is to affect rather by sympathy than imitation; to display rather the effect of things on the mind of the speaker, or of others, than to present a clear idea of the things themselves.

Burke's attitude generally held sway in the next century. William Hazlitt, for example, who wrote extensively on both painting and poetry, felt that the two arts should be strongly contradistinguished: "When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting, they show that they know little about poetry, and have little love for the art. Painting gives the object itself; poetry what it implies." Hazlitt's other writings confirm what this passage suggests — that while Hazlitt accepted a conservative imitative theory of painting, he believed that poetry was, as he put it, "only the highest eloquence of passion."

Ruskin, on the other hand, holds that both painting and poetry are expressive arts, but he supports his romantic version of ut pictura poesis with some conservative ideas. Most important of these is that like Locke, Addison, and Johnson, whose writings he knew very well, Ruskin believes in a visual imagination. Although Ruskin's ideas of the imagination were heavily influenced by the writings of British moral philosophers, such as Dugald Stewart and Sydney Smith, who described the imagination as working with sympathies and emotional states, Ruskin believes that the imagination works with images. In The Two Paths (1859) Ruskin describes the visual nature of the imagination: "We all have a general and sufficient idea of imagination, and of its work with our hands and in our hearts: we understand it, I suppose, as the imaging or picturing of new things in our thoughts" (16.347). In an 1883 note to the second volume of Modern Painters, which contains his longer discussions of the various aspects of imagination, he stated: "I meant, and always do mean by it, primarily, the power of seeing anything we describe as if it were real" (4.226n). While his knowledge of Locke and eighteenth-century writers supported his belief in a visual imagination, this belief was largely derived, one feels, from what Ruskin himself described in Praeterita as a "sensual faculty of pleasure in sight, as far as I know unparalleled" (35.619). This autobiographical remark is the proper note to strike in a discussion of Ruskin's relation to earlier and to contemporary critical writings. It is a highly personal factor that enables and encourages him simultaneously to draw both from neoclassical theories of painting and from romantic theories of poetry in order to formulate his own view of the allied arts.


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Last modified 25 July 2005