Ruskin's Praeterita is a strangely self-destructive autobiography. It was evidently written by a man who did not like himself. He measures his achievements, professional and personal, and concludes he is a failure. The book seems deliberately to refuse the minimum we expect from autobiography: a retrospective account of the writer's life which discovers some order, consistency, and purpose in past actions, a progress towards his present self. Praeterita lacks focus. There are no definable principles of inclusion. It is digressive in form. Unimportant people provide subjects for much anecdotal reminiscence, while many people of particular importance to Ruskin are barely mentioned or entirely omitted. The absence of introspection in all his memories is striking. Regret for lost opportunities is so frequent that it becomes obtrusive. The tone of discontent is pervasive. Praeterita is hardly adequate as personal history or apology. It is an apparently perverse undertaking, almost a sabotage of the self.

In place of a completed self Ruskin offers something much more tentative: a peculiar sensibility. A sensibility is not an achieved identity, but a given receptiveness. Friendships and accomplishments, even education, seem to have affected this core of identity very little. This, I think, is one reason why the expected autobiographical content of Praeterita. presented in chronological fashion, is often so unsatisfactory. Ruskin's minimal sense of self was powerfully touched by places, not people, and his accounts of certain scenes are the most emotionally charged passages in the book. These experiences do not, however, form a pattern of growth, a progressive development toward the achieved self of the moment of writing. They give us instead a series of repetitions and returns through which Ruskin's sense of his original identity, the peculiar sensibility of his "tadpole" self, is steadily intensified. These descriptive passages, closely linked by imagery and by conscious recall, give Praeterita a definite structure it first seems to lack.

That structure, depending on the metaphoric and affective connections between place and state of mind, is potentially a powerful one for autobiography—we think of Proust, of course. It was also closely fitted to Ruskin's habits of mind and attitudes toward himself. He had successfully used a similar structure in his critical writing for thirty years. But in the process of writing Praeterita Ruskin seems to have tried to follow two conflicting models for autobiography. On the one hand, he was drawing a portrait of a sensibility reflected in the scenes to which it characteristically responded. At the same time he was also attempting to discern a more traditional historical pattern: the growth of a mind in a single direction, marked by spiritual crisis revealing that direction, and culminating in a present identity confirmed by achievement. Ruskin's efforts to find a satisfactory form for his autobiography can be traced through three successive stages. Two opening chapters use landscapes to present characteristic mental states. In the body of the book, Ruskin writes a narrative or narratives which are intended to conform to a chronological scheme of development, but which are also structured by repeated ascents to the same emblematic view. Narrative breaks down in the final chapters, and place is again the principal focus. Threatened by madness, Ruskin nonetheless completes the formal structure of his book in two paragraphs which brilliantly recapitulate his presentation of a self defined by what it sees.

Ruskin is reluctant to assume the role of the self-conscious autobiographer. Like many of his contemporaries — Tennyson and Browning, for example — he condemns the self-absorption of his own childhood and the introspective habits that he and his contemporaries inherited from the romantics. In place of the ascent to vision through a voyage of self-exploration, he prefers "the science of aspects," visual study of the outside world.1 But autobiography demands both introspective and retrospective study. Ruskin's narrative in Praeterita, discontinuous and incomplete, especially cries out for the shaping presence of a self-reflective author. On rare occasions, he does allow his readers to glimpse his present self reflecting on the past, but even then he is almost always calling attention to the apparent shapelessness of his life. At the end of the first book of Praeterita, for example, he comments on the peculiar blend of feeling and ability in his eighteen-year old self:

But so stubborn and chemically inalterable the laws of the prescription were, that now, looking back from 1886 to that brook shore of 1837, whence I could see the whole of my youth, I find myself in nothing whatsoever changed. Some of me is dead, more of me stronger. I have learned a few things, forgotten many; in the total of me, I am but the same youth, disappointed and rheumatic. [220]

Nearly fifty years are wiped out; there is no growth, no progress, no change. Ruskin at sixty-seven and Ruskin at eighteen are like Childe Roland; the aging youth, disappointed when he arrives at a viewpoint, discovers only a heart which, if not blind, is at least diseased. "Looking back" is not illuminating; the distance travelled between past and present disappears. Identity is not life shaped by time, but something else whose "laws" are "chemically inalterable" by temporal or spatial journeying.

Ruskin's complaints of shapelessness, isolation, lost ways, stopped progress, and unreached goals go on to imply a criticism of the linear view of life as progress and achievement, and to suggest an alternative. Ruskin characteristically approached both literal and metaphorical paths as more than the shortest distance between two points. Digressing from a description of Herne Hill, in the second chapter of Praeterita, he laments the loss of a favorite walk down the ridge from his old home. The field through which it passed has been walled off, though the path itself remains. He remarks that "questions of right-of-way are now of constant occurrence; and in most cases the mere path is the smallest part of the old Right, truly understood. The Right is of the cheerful view and sweet air which the path commanded" (49). Ruskin cares far more for his view of the field than for his progress through it. He takes the same attitude in all his longer travels, which is why he prefers the more leisurely pace of the carriage to the efficient speed of the railroad. "We did not travel for adventures, nor for company," he says of his first trips to the Alps, "but to see with our eyes, and to measure with our hearts . . . even in my own land, the things in which I have been least deceived are those which I have learned as their Spectator" (119). When Ruskin envisions the course of his own life, he speaks not of roads, tracks, paths, or streams, but of fruitful fields: "my granted fields of fruitful exertion" (372), "the Holy Land of my future work" (167). Like Tennyson (In Memoriam, Sections 23-46), he finds it oppressive or impossible to pursue a single dreary way, and gives up the quest. He chooses instead the flowers and fruits of landscapes glimpsed by the way, and secured to him not as traveler but as Spectator.

The life described in Praeterita is a domain which Ruskin possesses visually, that he may labor to cultivate it by articulating his experience to others. That domain is first glimpsed in 1833 and not complete for several years, but it has already been imagined as the proper field of his vision by the child who watches the glittering springs of Wandel and asks to be painted in a landscape of blue hills. Ruskin's constant travelling is never progress; it is the means by which he revisits the territory of a visually extended self. Praeterita follows the course both of real journeys and of the voyages of memory that each new visit provokes. It is a history of continual return, of constant circling, a circumscription of a self identified with what it saw. Except for its dedication to his parents, Ruskin wrote in the preface, Praeterita would "have been little more than an old man's recreation in gathering visionary flowers in fields of youth" (11-12). The description is just, but it needs no apology. The fields of Ruskin's youth are the fields of his maturity and his old age, and he recreated their flowers and "sweet air" by a life-long series of mental and physical returns. The last of these revisits were accomplished in Praeterita.

Ruskin had no real model for an unprogressive autobiography. Even In Memoriam, with its wandering lyrics and self-enclosing rhymes, is a protest against an old mode rather than the straightforward creation of a new. Praeterita reflects several stages in Ruskin's struggle to make his book conform to the shape of his life and yet meet the demands of the older form of autobiography. The first two chapters were not written as part of an autobiography at all, but as illustrations for Fors Clavigera. Ruskin incorporated them into Praeterita with the addition only of titles and closing paragraphs. He commented on what he had done, pointing out the differences between these chapters and the body of his book:

I fear the sequel may be more trivial, because much is concentrated in the foregoing broad statement, which 1 have now to continue by slower steps; — and yet less amusing, because I tried always in Fors to say things, if I could, a little piquantly; and the rest of the things related in this book will be told as plainly as I can. But whether I succeeded in writing piquantly in Fors or not, I certainly wrote often obscurely; and the description above given of Herne Hill seems to me to need at once some reduction to plainer terms. [46-47]

Ruskin was aware that the two chapters bear an almost emblematic relationship to the life he must go on to recount "by slower steps" and in "plainer terms." They are remarkably unspecific about actual dates or chronology of events, recounting scenes from various periods of early childhood. And they clearly attempt to represent the essential experiences, not only of childhood, but of Ruskin's adult life as well: his fascination with water, his delight in the garden, his patient visual exploration of the patterns on his carpet, his role as removed spectator looking out at the world. Joining these chapters to a full account of his life, Ruskin is careful to note that not only will the rest of the account, progressive rather than emblematic, be slower and less "piquant," it will also, to some extent, be unnecessary. He said of his early travels that "although, in the course of these many worshipful pilgrimages. 1 gathered curiously extensive knowledge, both of art and natural scenery, afterwards infinitely useful, it is evident to me in retrospect that my own character and affections were little altered by them" (33). At this point in Praeterita Ruskin is clear that a progressive model will not reflect what is of most importance about him — the peculiar sensibility which time and events will not change.

He uses the new titles and conclusions to the first two chapters to further underline their emblematic status. The method of composition was one which he had used often in his critical writing. "The Springs of Wandel" (as the first chapter is called) refers in the first place to the stream behind his aunt's house in Croydon. The chapter's concluding sentence, in characteristic fashion, moves from an incident in the past (the Ruskins' early carriage travels in England) through an indefinitely extending future of repeated travels ("in the course of these many worshipful pilgrimages") up to the present ("it is evident to me in retrospect" 33). The sentence goes on with a return to the early time, where "the personal feeling and native instinct of me had been fastened, irrevocably, long before," and comes to rest, finally, on a single detail, "the cress-set rivulets in which the sand danced and minnows darted above the Springs of Wandel." The focus on this detail is not entirely unprepared; the Croydon spring has been mentioned only once, in passing, but there are several other watery memories through which Ruskin has presented his childish fascination with watching water, in particular that of "the filling of the water-cart, through its leathern pipe, from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge; or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock, when he turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street" (21). Ruskin's responses to the Croydon spring and the water-cart are picked up and woven together in the final image of the springs of Wandel, which becomes emblematic of one aspect of the visual domain which his sensibility established. "The Springs of Wandel"—and puns are always intentional with this most word-conscious of writers—describes both source and spring-time of Ruskin's unique sensibility.

Chapter Two, "Herne Hill Almond Blossoms," ties an apparently loose collection of reminiscences to a single significant image of multiple repercussions by a similar procedure. The Herne Hill garden has been described earlier in the chapter as an Eden where all fruits were forbidden, and Ruskin returns in the last paragraph to state, in "plainer terms," what those fruits were and when they could be eaten. But he does not stop with the literal description. The forbidden fruits remind him "that the seeds and fruits . . . were for the sake of the flowers, not the flowers for the fruit" (50). The childhood experience is the seed of the adult love of visual beauty for its own sake. The fully-flowered thought dominates the concluding sentence, which makes the same imaginative excursion as the last sentence of the first chapter. The almond blossoms are part of "an unbroken order" of constant seasonal change repeated "for many and many a year to come." Memory moves forward on that wave of natural change to the present, and returns again to the past, praying for the protection of the fragile almond blossom.

The first joy of the year being in its snowdrops, the second, and cardinal one, was in the almond blossom,—every other garden and woodland gladness following from that in an unbroken order of kindling flower and shadowy leaf; and for many and many a year to come, -until indeed, the whole of life became autumn to me—my chief prayer for the kindness of heaven, in its flowerful seasons, was that the frost might not touch the almond blossom. (50)

The sentence combines temporal change with the stasis of perpetual motion, rhythmic progression with circular return. It summarizes neither life nor chapter, but it connects them to an image which it fills with new significance gathered in the course of a journey of circumspection. The structure reminds us of Proust, who recognized in Ruskin's prose many of his own strategies. Proust constructs even longer sentences, where a word or an image echoes repeatedly while it accumulates meaning, and repeats in miniature the process of affective memory which the book recreates.

Although Ruskin declares his intention to continue Praeterita in a different manner, the titles of most of his subsequent chapters also focus attention on a single scene. Usually the experience is one which is repeated many times — typically, a place which Ruskin visits often, like "The Simplon," or "L'Hotel du Mont Blanc." The responses Ruskin describes on any one visit are also habitual. Of the Hotel du Mont Blanc, he confesses "How to begin speaking of it, I do not know, still less how to end" (433). Where to begin or end is also a problem, for the chronological narrative itself is constantly interrupted by references to other visits at other times. The chapter's subject is less what happened in 1849, the point which Ruskin has reached in his narrative, than what the hotel means to him after many revisits. The place of the title becomes, in the course of the chapter, first the stimulus and then the emblem for a recurring state of mind. The cumulative effect of these chapters, where places become images for the responses they evoke, is to establish a discontinuous mental geography which takes the place of direct introspective analysis, the guided tour from past to present.

The mental landscape of individual views, flowery fields seen from the Right-of-Way, docs not provide Ruskin with a sufficient structure for his book, however. He acknowledges that an autobiography must above all be a chronological narrative. It is, he maintains, "my needful and fixed resolve to set the facts down continuously" (279). After his indulgence in "piquant" style in the first two chapters, he was determined to set his life out as a path and follow it. Praeterita was to consist of three books of twelve chapters, each book covering roughly twenty years. For the remaining ten chapters of Book I and most of Book II, Ruskin keeps his narrative plan very much in mind. Yet in spite of the pressure of the genre to select a single line of development, he cannot make his own life conform to that pattern. Praeterita's central chapters are peppered with apologies for narrative deviations. "Whether in the biography of a nation, or of a single person," Ruskin confesses,

it is alike impossible to trace it steadily through successive years. Some forces are failing while others strengthen, and most act irregularly, or else at uncorresponding periods of renewed enthusiasm after intervals of lassitude. For all clearness of exposition, it is necessary to follow first one, then another, without confusing notices of what is happening in other directions. [169]

In place of a single life, Ruskin discovers many different lives, each with its own time scheme. Autobiography threatens to splinter into multiple temporal narratives. Chronological structure is clearly disintegrating, with no very satisfactory substitute for the vital and literary unity it provided. And even multiple narratives may not be enough to cover everything essential. "I shall have to return over the ground of these early years," Ruskin warns, "to fill gaps, after getting on a little first" (49-50). A proliferation of paths is only a temporary expedient. Ruskin's real desire is to cover all the ground of these early years. He is most successful when he digresses from narrative travelling to take emblematic views like those his chapter titles suggest.

The record of facts continues, in spite of the signs directing us to broader views, but it is accompanied by notices of Ruskin's increasing discontent. He complains at the beginning of Book II that "for any account of my real life, the gossip hitherto given to its codling or cocoon condition has brought us but a little way." But progress still seems to promise the best solution, and Ruskin goads himself to run faster: "I must get on . . .'" (261). A few chapters later he expresses more serious dissatisfaction:

In my needful and fixed resolve to set the facts down continuously, leaving the reader to his reflections on them, 1 am slipping a little too fast over the surfaces of things; and it becomes at this point desirable that I should know, or at least try to guess, something of what the reader's reflections are and whether in the main he is getting at the sense of the facts I tell him. [279]

Chronological narrative gives us the facts, but not what the facts mean. Ordinarily we would expect the self-reflective author to help us, and Ruskin seems to announce just that: "I think it, however, quite time to say a little more fully, not only what happened to me, now of age, but what was in me" (281). But what follows is a series of passages from his diary contemporary with the events he is recording, not a statement of progress and direction from the perspective of the present. Eager to avoid the dangers of morbid introspection, the author refuses to speak up.

Even without the author's guiding presence, however, the narrative of his life can convey direction and purpose by recounting a moment of insight, the traditional resolution to a crisis of indirection in spiritual autobiography. Ruskin's letters and diaries indicate how ardently he had looked forward to such a moment, and how often he had been disappointed. On at least seven different occasions between 1845 and 1882 he thought he had achieved religious conversion, only to discover, in retrospect, that the turning had not been definitive.2 The middle chapters of Praeterita present a different series of illuminative moments. They are aesthetic rather than religious revelations in any traditional sense: Ruskin's first sight of the Alps at Schaffhausen in 1833; insights into leaf and branch design achieved at Norwood and Fontainebleau; his first real understanding of early Italian religious art at Lucca and Pisa, in 1845; further significant mountain walks in 1841, 1849, and 1860; and the blended impressions of music and color received in the Veronese gallery at Turin in 1858. Each experience stands out from the narrative by the intensity with which it is rendered. Ruskin himself also tells us we have reached a critical point, and his language on each occasion is very nearly the same: "blessed entrance into life" (115), "I had found my life again" (297), "I began the best work of my life" (474), "a new epoch of life and death begins" (485). Yet these passages span a period of seventeen years and refer to eight different occasions on which Ruskin says his "true" (167. 437), "best" (474), or "new" (485) life began. The conversion or turning point we expected has multiplied. Ruskin climbs the mount of contemplation again and again — "my most intense happinesses have of course been among mountains" (157) — but once there, he gains no simple prospect of the past or future course of his life. He knows only that it must lie among mountains. His vision is not of the road he will follow, but of the view he will continue to enjoy. That view is, it is true, progressively enriched with new details of fore- and middle ground. In the aftermath of each new revelation. Ruskin was disappointed to discover how limited the view, how small the change in the direction of his life. In writing Praeterita, however, he arranges this series of views to suggest, if not a linear pattern of development, at least a spiral movement rather than a totally unprogressive series of returns. With each repeated vision, the familiar view is amplified and Ruskin sees himself closer to a sense of his identity. The revelation is painfully gradual, not wonderfully sudden. The sequence of visionary moments in Praeterita does not show a dramatic development of identity or self-consciousness. It reveals instead a sensibility which remains fundamentally unchanged.

Ruskin also includes in Praeterita a number of false visions, similar experiences among mountains or before paintings which proved misleading. He describes, for example, an abortive conversion at Nyon in 1845 (378). He puts special emphasis on his early passion for Venice, as he quotes from an 1841 diary.

Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities. This, and Chamouni, are my two homes of Earth. [296]

But the Byronic vision of Venice is given only to be retracted as false. "Venice I regard more and more as a vain temptation" (296). The false visions cast further doubt on the usefulness of the "true" visions at Schaffhausen and elsewhere. Ruskin is too honest to leave out his wrong turnings, the roads which peter out, but by including them he blurs our sense of his progress or purpose.

In the last third of Praeterita the narrative structure breaks down. "This gossip has beguiled me till I have no time left to tell what in proper sequence should have been chiefly dwelt on in this number" (508), he confesses. Scattered memories of people and places distract him from his chosen course as he nears the end of Book II. The decision to give up his sequential plan was nevertheless deliberate. He recognized the signs of imminent mental collapse and felt himself running out of time. "Lest I should not be spared to write another [number of] Praeterita" (460), he determined to indulge "an old man's visionary recreation" without regard for further progress towards the present.

Except for the masterful account of his unconversion ("The Grande Chartreuse"), the last chapters of Praeterita are diffuse, even chaotic, but in them we find repeated an exchange of vividly seen space for chronologically reconstructed time as a principle of order. When Ruskin surrenders the artistic control he had exercised in the middle of the book he returns to something like the emblematic method of his opening chapters. Places continue to provide the connections, the guides for memory. Ruskin seems to have lost track of time, but he recurs again and again to the hills of Scotland. "And there is no other country in which the roots of memory are so entwined with the beauty of nature" (466), he explains. Such rooted memories, entwined with place, give "design and fixed boundaries" (636) to Ruskin's wandering. But the scenes he revisits do not become emblems — not, that is, until the brilliant last paragraphs of Praeterita. Before we reach these, however, we should take another look at the intended and actual structures of the book as a whole.

Ruskin originally planned to take his narrative down to the 1880s, but at an early stage in his writing he decided to end the account with the 1860s. The actual Praeterita follows this second plan through the first four chapters of Book III, when Ruskin was permanently silenced by a final attack of madness. The book remains, in one sense, unfinished. Yet according to his second plan, the story would not have continued much beyond the point where he was forced to end it. The last chapters of Book III were to have been a series of farewells to the places to which he felt himself most closely tied (634). They would effectively have turned the linear movement of the narrative back on itself, returning to the scenes of Ruskin's youth. They would also have shifted the book's emphasis from temporal progression to spatial views and reviews.

But place, not time, had determined the parts of Praeterita all along: all but seven of the 28 chapter titles — or 36 intended titles — ' are place names. And Ruskin found his titles before he wrote his chapters, as we see from the plans for the unfinished Book III. On the rare occasions when he directs his readers how to see his life, he gives them what was evidently his own procedure, suggesting emblematic views, not setting out road maps. "I must here, in advance, tell the general reader," he warns in Book I, "that there have been, in sum, three centres of my life's thought: Rouen, Geneva, and Pisa" (156; also 296, 371). The projected final chapters return to these scenes, Rouen in France, Geneva in Switzerland, and Pisa in Italy. They also include a return to a fourth "home," though at Dover he barely sets foot on English soil. The conclusion would not have altered the structure of Praeterita. It would have clarified a pattern which, though submerged in the chronological narrative, is already present.

Granted that Ruskin designs chapters around significant places, generally prefers views to paths, and tells us we should look for geographical centers of his thought; a string of locales organizes but does not structure the autobiography. There are, however, five chapters which receive special emphasis. "Schaffhausen and Milan," "The Col de la Faucille," "The Simplon," "The Campo Santo," and "The Grande Chartreuse" each present an experience of heightened visual and emotional intensity which gives the chapter its title, and is the subject of its opening or concluding paragraphs. No other chapters combine formal emphases with the same visual and affective intensity of description.

If we examine those views to which Ruskin gives special weight, we discover that although they are geographically distinct, they are visually almost identical. "Schaffhausen and Milan" is memorable for its description of Ruskin's first sight of the Alps:

We must still have spent some time in town-seeing, for it was drawing towards sunset, when we got up to some sort of garden promenade—west of the town. I believe; and high above the Rhine, so as to command the open country across it to the south and west. At which open country of low undulation, far into blue, — gazing as at one of our own distances from Malvern of Worcestershire, or Dorking of Kent, — suddenly — behold — beyond!

There was no thought in any of us for a moment of their being clouds. They were clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon sky, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun. Infinitely beyond all that we had ever thought or dreamed, the seen walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful to us; not more awful, round heaven, the walls of sacred Death. (115)

Though the mountains dominate this view, the city's "garden promenade" in the foreground, and the river and plain across which the unsuspecting eye travels, are essential elements in Ruskin's visual experience of Alpine glory. At Milan, later in the chapter, the experience is twice repeated: the distant Alps are seen once through the ornate pinnacles of the cathedral, and a second time, at sunset, from a park which looks across the town. "The Col de la Faucille" concludes with a magnificent prospect of the Alps across the lake and valley of Geneva — a vision, Ruskin says, of his Holy Land. The foreground of garden and city and Gothic tracery, missing from this prospect, is supplied by a lengthy, almost cinematic exploration of the town of Abbeville at the beginning of the chapter. The reader, traversing the intervening time and space imaginatively as "the modern fashionable traveller" (153), forms a composite prospect. When Ruskin reaches "The Campo Santo" — literally the holy land — he discovers a familiar and satisfying view at both Lucca and Pisa: sunset walks, marble towers, a city at his feet, and clouds and mountains in the distance. "The Grande Chartreuse," recounting Ruskin's unconversion, opens with his disappointed expectations of the same scene at the Carthusian monastery, and closes with his discovery of it in an unexpected place, the city of Turin. There, when Ruskin leaves the viewless grey Waldensian chapel, he climbs to an upper gallery with an open window. The afternoon light brings out a glow of "perfect colour" (496) in the Veronese painting which is his richly sensuous foreground. Accompanied by music, bathed in rosy light, opening on a view of remembered, if not literally seen mountains, the secular Veronese painting in the gallery of Turin is justified and sanctified as it takes the place of natural and religious art in the foreground of Ruskin's visual domain.

The most extensive description of that domain occurs in the chapter which would have fallen almost at the center of Praeterita. "The Simplon," third in order of the five chapters which present this landscape most intensely, describes the prospect of and from Geneva. Our first view of it is from the Simplon, "that mighty central pass" through the Alps (320), and it reveals

this bird's-nest of a place, to be the centre of religious and social thought, and of physical beauty, to all living Europe! .... It rules them, — is the focus of thought to them, and of passion, of science, and of control social .... Saussure's school and Calvin's — Rousseau's and Byron's, — Turner's, — And of course, I was going to say, mine .... [321]

There is no mistaking Ruskin's intention. We are to see Geneva as more than geographically central; to regard it as the focus of a mental landscape which is both public ("to all living Europe") and personal. The seven pages that follow present the city exclusively in visual terms, but Ruskin's description is charged with such energy that we read it as a mythical landscape of desire.3

On every side of this island city, surrounded by gardens and approached by "the delicatest of filiform suspension bridges" (323), he discovers variations of an ideal view. From bridge, terrace, or "sycamore-shaded walk," he shows us now an expanse of lake, now of orchard and vineyard, which carry the eye up to more "ghostly ranges of incredible mountains" (325). Finishing his circuit of the town, he turns inward to examine the foreground of this visual feast more closely. In the high, dark, secluded center of the town, we are admitted to Mr. Bautte's, the jeweler whose workmanship in "purest gold" achieves a unique "subtlety of linked and wreathed design" (326). We come away from this sanctum sanctorum "of treasure possessed" —the visual treasure of intricate pattern which was the first and nearest of Ruskin's private domains. From there we move outward to the great river which encircles the town. The "not flowing, but flying water" has in it "the continuance of Time" (326). But this is time which is never wasted, never exhausted, motion which is constant and therefore never progresses, and never ends.

But here was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil; but alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun was up, the everanswering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue. glass of a painted window melted in the sun, and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it for ever from her snow. [327]

It is the perfect visual stasis of living natural design, as Mr. Bautte's gold and enamel brooches are a Byzantine perfection of artistic invention. In this ideal city, art and nature are interchangeable: the river has "currents that twisted the light into golden braids, and inlaid the threads with turquoise enamel" (327). It is itself "one lambent jewel" (326). And here the jewel and gold change places, and "the dear old decrepit town" with its golden center is embraced by the river "as if it were set in a brooch of sapphire" (327-28).

At the center of his book, Ruskin's landscape of desire is realized in its most perfect form. "Foreground" and "background" are no longer adequate to describe it, for the spectator is now at the center of a view which extends outward in every direction: from the city, the nearest perfection of timeless natural and artistic design, across the plains of human dwelling and cultivated garden, and up and out into the infinite rosy distance of mountain, cloud, and open sky. The eye finds no limits to its motion, but the spectator remains fixed and motionless. From Geneva one travels everywhere, but need never leave home. It is the perfect image for Ruskin's life, and the antithesis of Christian or romantic pilgrimages: perpetual travelling, for the sake of the view; a series of circular journeys, with no direction and no goal; total visual possession of a universe whose center is completely human, yet completely impersonal. The unseen spectator loves what he sees passionately, and he becomes what he loves. In Praeterita, he is what he sees, and the landscape of "The Simplon" is the geography of a self, a geography perhaps not wholly conscious, but quite consciously placed at the center of the autobiography.

Had Ruskin ended Praeterita as he wished, he would evidently have given us four more views of his visual universe, returning to the landscapes he had come to possess since his first European trip in 1833. The larger structure of the book, with its center at Geneva, would have been a circle connecting the end of Part III with the middle of Part I, abolishing the temporal distance between the 1830s and the 1860s or '80s. The intended design could not be completed; perhaps, I am tempted to propose, it would have been left without conclusion even had madness not intervened. Ruskin had encountered the same difficulty bringing an equally digressive work to an end twenty-nine years earlier. "Looking back over what I have written," he began the last chapter of Modern Painters,

I find that I have only now the power of ending this work, — it being time that it should end, but not of "concluding" it; for it has led me into fields of infinite inquiry, where it is only possible to break off with such imperfect result as may, at any given moment, have been attained. [7.441]

Ruskin's life had led him into fields of infinite inquiry too, and though was time that it should end, its unprogressive course so far suggested no point at which it could arrive which would feel properly final. But Ruskin did end his autobiography. Praeterita's two closing paragraphs give it a formal completeness which the planned four chapters of review would not, for in the actual Praeterita Ruskin finds his way back, not only to the familiar European landscapes of his middle years, but to the founts and springs of perception emblematically presented in the first two chapters.

"I draw back to my own home . . . permitted to thank Heaven once more for the peace, and hope, and loveliness of it," the first of these last paragraphs begins (560). The home to which he now returns is Denmark Hill in 1869, but the scene which he recalls combines the crystal waters of "The Springs of Wandel" with the pink-blossomed garden at Herne Hill. Combines—but improves; the child was lonely in his Eden of forbidden fruit, but in this return Ruskin takes his

Elysian walks with Joanie, and Paradisiacal with Rosie, under the peach-blossom branches by the little glittering stream which I had paved with crystal for them. I had built behind the highest cluster of laurels a reservoir, from which, on sunny afternoons, I could let a quiet rippling film of water run for a couple of hours down behind the hayfield. where the grass in spring still grew fresh and deep. There used to be always a corncrake or two in it. Twilight after twilight I have hunted that bird, and never once got glimpse of it: the voice was always at the other side of the field, or in the inscrutable air or earth. And the little stream had its falls, and pools, and imaginary lakes. Here and there it laid for itself lines of graceful sand; there and here it lost itself under beads of chalcedony. . . . Happiest times, for all of us, that ever were to be. [560-1]

The glittering stream absorbs Ruskin's gaze like "the gay glittering" Rhone of his Geneva landscape (327). But the lovely peace of this paradise is nearly all foreground. Only the voice of the unseen bird for an instant leads the eye to "the other side of the field, or in the inscrutable air or earth"; it returns to lose itself in the "falls, and pools, and imaginary lakes" of the little stream under the peachblossoms. Vision is contracted, as if to the child's perspective; the stream forms a landscape in miniature. The distant heights to which the man's eye travels exist as yet only in the child's imagination. We remember what Ruskin told us at the end of his first chapter:

. . . that the personal feeling and native instinct of me had been fastened, irrevocably, long belt re, to things modest, humble, and pure in peace, ... by the cress-set rivulets in which the sand danced and minnows darted above the Springs of Wandel. [33]

From 1889, by way of 1869, Ruskin has returned to his earliest memories, the peaceful foreground of his visual domain.

But the book does not end here. There is no single completed circle, no simple joining of end and beginning, in memory. "How things bind and blend themselves together!" the second of these last paragraphs opens. The "glittering stream" at Denmark Hill led him back to the "spring of crystal water" at Croydon, but memory does not stop when it has found its source. The last paragraph of Praeterita recapitulates the process it has just articulated. Memories of fountains and crystal waters multiply: Trevi of Rome, 1872; Brande of Siena, 1870; the Brande of Dante's poetry; "the crystal and ruby glittering" of water changing into wine in Joseph Severn's unfinished "Marriage at Cana." Visual similarities — light playing on water in the foreground of a larger scene — bind and blend together disparate experiences which neither simple chronology nor purposeful progression can adequately connect. The visible fountains accumulate emotional significance. When their source is discovered and all are revisited, they come to designate an aspect of the self: "the personal feeling" which is "fastened ... to things modest, humble, and pure in peace." But behind that single foreground feature, Ruskin recreates a familiar view, a landscape which places "the personal feeling" attached to sunlit water in a perspective we now recognize. From the Fonte Brande Ruskin walks to the hills above Siena. Glitter and movement continue to occupy his foreground, though now they come not from light on water but from fireflies at sunset in nearby dark thickets. Beyond this living design the town of Siena is seen through its gates. Behind gates and city rise "mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky," the furthest reaches of the Holy Land which Ruskin visually occupies.

As Ruskin again creates the same view. Pater's description of the only possible self-consciousness is graphically realized.4 The fabric which is perpetually woven and unwoven has a visual counterpart in Praeterita: the landscape which Ruskin dissolves into its elements, so that he may trace them to their sources in memory and recompose them into landscape again. The web of consciousness which emerges is always the same. Pattern and self correspond, but they can be known only through the process by which they recreate themselves.

There is a change in the Siena view, however, and it brings autobiographical recreation of the Paterian kind to its only possible end. Ruskin's eye moves from fireflies to clouds and sky, but it also returns, by Siena's gate, to his foreground, if not to his heart, there to lose itself forever among those tiny, glittering lights. For the first time, foreground overwhelms background; perspective disappears. Ruskin's visual space collapses to a single plane of moving lights. How like, and yet how different, from the sun that Turner saw at his death, or the stars that close Dante's great visions.

How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as 1 entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit," and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightening, and more intense than the stars. [562]

For all their wonderful brilliance, the fireflies are very small, and very near.

Ruskin was what he saw; Praeterita continually recreates that self as he sees again all that he loves most deeply. As long as memory leads and the eye responds, there can be no end to that perpetual recreation. But in Praeterita's last paragraph, Ruskin reverses the visual movements of a lifetime. From background, he returns to foreground; from the brilliance of sunset cloud, to the tiny lights of fireflies; from the intense happinesses of mountains, to the pure peace—perhaps—of home. The Spectator has lost his view, and with it his hold on self-consciousness.

The record of Ruskin's development and achievements is unfinished, but the formal symmetry of Praeterita is completed in its brilliant ending. In the Paradisiacal walks we have already returned to the emblematic scenes of the book's beginning. The fireflies of Siena take us there too, but only after we have seen the child's foreground placed in the larger visual domain of the book's middle chapters. The last two scenes perfectly balance the first two chapters, but they revolve no less about the book's real center, Geneva, and the landscapes which resemble it.

Like Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson, Ruskin had for years pursued in imagination the questing Ulysses. Praeterita bears the marks of his long vigil for the Ulysses in himself. But like the poets, again, Ruskin was not faithful to a marriage which proved uncongenial. Praeterita abandons purpose and chronology, and when it does a new kind of self-consciousness takes over. The patterns it creates may not have fulfilled Ruskin's expectations, but they are none the less there. The man reviewing his life still looked for the wandering Ulysses, but the artist, bringing his book to an abrupt close, was sufficiently aware of the form he had created to tie up the threads of his Penelopean web and leave it whole.


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Last modified 23 July 2012