1. A Static Spectator Viewing Movement
Ruskin in the Alps
I remember once, when in crossing the Tête Noire, I had turned up the valley towards Trient, I noticed a rain-cloud form on the Glacier de Trient. With a west wind, it proceeded towards the Col de Balme, being followed by a prolonged wreath of vapour, always forming exactly at the same spot over the glacier. This long, serpent-like line of cloud went on at a great rate till it reached the valley leading down from the Col de Balme, under the slate rocks of the Croix de Fer. There it turned sharp round, and came down this valley, at right angles to its former progress, and finally directly contrary to it, till it came down within five hundred feet of the village, where it disappeared; the line behind always advancing, and always disappearing at the same spot. This continued for half an hour, the long line describing the curve of a horse-shoe; always coming into existence and always vanishing at exactly the same places; traversing the space between with enormous swiftness. This cloud, ten miles off, would have looked like a perfectly motionless wreath, in the form of a horse-shoe, hanging over the hills. [Modern Painters, volume 1; 1843]
Ruskin thus sets us before his Alpine scene, permitting us to observe the movement of a single element within it. After he has concluded his examination of the moving cloud, he moves us farther away and tells us what it would look like — how we would experience it.)
2. Animating the Landscape with Stong Verbs
Arriving at Torcello
Seven miles to the north of Venice, the banks of sand, which nearer the city rise little above low-water mark, attain by degrees a higher level, and knitthemselves at last into fields of salt morass, raised here and there into shapeless mounds, and intercepted by narrow creeks of sea. One of the feeblest of these inlets, after winding for some time among buried fragments of masonry, and knots of sunburnt weeds whitened with webs of fucus, stays itself in an utterly stagnant pool beside a plot of greener grass covered with ground ivy and violets. [The Stones of Venice, volume 3; 1853]
As my italicizing several words in this passage reveals, Ruskin infuses even this quiet, desolate scene with energy by here relying on active verbs and generally avoiding passives. These verbs provide a movement that leads the eye into the scene even as it creates it, and having created before the reader's eye the island of Torcello, Ruskin then self-consciously places himself and his reader in that scene.
3. A Moving Center of Description — Ruskin's Proto-Cinematic Parables of Perception
On this mound is built a rude brick campanile, of the commonest Lombardic type, which if we ascend towards evening (and there are none to hinder us, the door of its ruinous staircase swinging idly on its hinges), we may command from it one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours. Far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen grey; not like our northern moors with their jet-black pools and purple heath, but lifeless, the colour of sackcloth, with the corrupted sea-water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels. No gathering of fantastic mists, nor coursing of clouds across it; but melancholy clearness of space in the warm sunset, oppressive, reaching to the horizon of its level gloom.[The Stones of Venice, volume 3; 1853]
Not long ago, I was slowly descending this very bit of carriage-road, the first turn after you leave Albano . . . . It had been wild weather when I left Rome, and all across the Campagna the clouds were sweeping in sulphurous blue, with a clap of thunder or two, and breaking gleams of sun along the Claudian aqueduct lighting up the infinity of its arches like the bridge of chaos. But as I climbed the long slope of the Alban Mount, the storm swept finally to the north, and the noble outline of the domes of Albano, and the graceful darkness of its ilex grove, rose against pure streaks of alternate blue and amber; the upper sky gradually flushing through the last fragments of rain-cloud in deep palpitating azure, half aether and half dew. The noonday sun came slanting down the rocky slopes of La Riccia, and their masses of entangled and tall foliage, whose autumnal tints were mixed with the wet verdure of a thousand evergreens, were penetrated with it as with rain. I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration. Purple, and crimson, and scarlet, like the curtains of God's tabernacle, the rejoicing trees sank into the valley in showers of light, every separate leaf quivering with buoyant and burning life; each, as it turned to reflect or to transmit the sunbeam, first a torch and then an emerald. Far up into the recesses of the valley, the green vistas arched like the hollows of mighty waves of some crystalline sea, with the arbutus flowers dashed along their flanks for foam, and silver flakes of orange spray tossed into the air around them, breaking over the grey walls of rock into a thousand separate stars, fading and kindling alternately as the weak wind lifted and let them fall. Every glade of grass burned like the golden floor of heaven, opening in sudden gleams as the foliage broke and closed above it, as sheet-lightning opens in a cloud at sunset. [Modern Painters, volume 1; 1843; follow for an extended discussion of this passage.]
Reading and Discussion Questions
How does Ruskin's word-painting relate to that created by Radcliffe, Wordsworth, Dickens, Woolf?
In what ways do these three passages embody Romantic conceptions of art; or, to rephrase this question, how does Ruskin use image, sentence structure, and detail differently from Johnson? How do these differences control what his style can and cannot say? What, finally, does Ruskin's choice of, say, detail and word-painting itself imply about his conception of reality and the province of literature?
What links can you discern between Ruskin's word-painting and the ideas expressed in his sage writing?
Last modified 1994