Look in the terrible mirror of the sky
And not in this dead glass....
Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
See how the absent moon waits in a glade,
Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,
Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.
— Wallace Stevens, "Blanche McCarthy"
n Scott's The Monastery, a monk is riding through a Scottish glen sometime in the late Renaissance. As the representative of a corrupted and oppressive Catholicism, he has just confiscated a Bible that was kept by a dying noblewoman in contravention of the Church's edict. He is about to ford a river when he notices a beautiful lady in the twilight, sitting on the shore and singing. He attempts to carry her across on his mule, but in the center of the river the water becomes dangerously deep, the woman's singing grows ominous, and he is overcome by a vague terror. All but losing consciousness, he finds himself on the opposite side. The woman and the Bible have vanished. Shortly afterward, Halbert, a poor relative in the house recently visited by the monk, sets out to recover the Bible. He climbs up the side of a ravine to a cloven rock from which springs one of the rivulets feeding the valley; the hour is noon and the "unwonted reflection of the sun was dancing in the pellucid fountain." Trembling with fear, his hair standing on end, the youth recites an incantation, and instantly there appears before him a woman clothed in white. "In the name of God, what art thou?" he cries. The White Lady replies:
"What I am I must not show,
What I am thou couldst not know.
Something betwixt heaven and hell,
Something that neither stood nor fell,
Something that through thy wit or will [17/18]
May work thee good, may work thee ill.
Neither substance quite, nor shadow,
Haunting lonely moor and meadow,
Dancing by the haunted spring,
Riding on the whirlwind's wing;
Aping in fantastic fashion
Every change of human passion,
While o'er our frozen minds they pass
Like shadows from the mirror'd glass." [Works XVII, 138: chap. 17]
Undeterred, the youth enters into dangerous alliance with the spirit power, first recovering the Bible she has concealed in a cavern beneath the earth, then learning to speak like a gentleman, then moving through various struggles in love and arms.
Ruskin said in after years that The Monastery was his favorite childhood book; its effect upon him is certainly beyond question. At age ten or eleven he began a verse synopsis that has survived, and he named his own mule "Shagram," after the beast that walked skittishly through the marsh the first time the White Lady appears (appropriately, to the child in the group). Themes from the novel reappear throughout Ruskin's work, In the repressive monks and the lewd, affected courtier, we recognize crude prototypes of the Ruskinian Renaissance, whom Scott pitted against the pious Protestant family devoted to the "Black Book," In Halbert, the youthful propitiator, we recognize Ruskin's own turning to the hills for their mysterious sources of comfort and strength. We find the ethereal maiden in many guises — as the fairy city of Venice, persisting like a shadow above her own ruin (as the White Lady, fading through the ages, lives as long as the aristocratic family of which she is the guardian); as Athena, whom Ruskin viewed as the animate concentration of her native element; and, at the last, as the child Rose walking beside the crystal stream in Praeterita. And in Modern Painters III Ruskin twice cites the White Lady in relation to his ideas of imagination.
In defining the grotesque, he writes that even healthy manifestations of the fancy, as in Ariel, Titania, and the White Lady, are hardly ever free "from some slight taint of the inclination to evil," but in the famous chapter on the landscape feeling, he associates the White Lady with the birth of his religious instinct. Scotland, he writes, was enchanted for him by "a general presence of White Lady everywhere." His boyish instinct, though without definite religious content, nevertheless rested on a "continual perception of Sanctity in the whole of nature, from the slightest thing to the vastest; — an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit .... it would often make me shiver [18/19] from head to foot with the joy and fear of it a sort of hearthunger, satisfied with the presence of a Great and Holy Spirit." It was a joy greater than any other he knew, "comparable for intensity only to the joy of a lover in being near a noble and kind mistress, but no more explicable or definable than that feeling of love itself" (V, 131, 365-368).
Yet this "sanctity" Ruskin also knew through books and local history, by association. The land he visited with his parents was the Scotland of the Waverley novels that his father read aloud at the fireplace and the dwelling place also of John's ancestors and relatives — including his beloved Jessie, who had ceased sporting on the banks of the Tay when John was only eight. Europe, more obviously, was already vivid before the family saw it with memories of Rogers, Turner's vignettes, and the dashing deeds of Byron's outlaw-heroes. In later years he was fond of challenging the value of all such human representations, quoting as Shakespeare's judgment on art Theseus' words, "The best in this kind are but shadows"; but he may just as often have had in mind Theseus' more famous speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream:
"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends....
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!" [v, i, 4-22]
And yet Ruskin, in whom the energies of the poet, the lunatic, and the lover were peculiarly strong and difficult to separate, devoted his career to ascertaining the grounds of imaginative veracity, fashioning for himself a dream like Adam's, from which a person wakes to find it true. The boy who brought a cyanometer with him to the Alps to measure the blueness of the sky and who returned with the most tangible specimens of that great world outside Herne Hill became the man who forever sought beyond the dreams of poets the primal love, as he put it, of the things for their own sake. Surely he is right to locate in the boy's sense of presence — erotic, primordial, and uncanny — some instinct prior to all books and histories, and to locate in the Scotland of his earliest vacations a region where the membrane separating this world and the next, the past and the present, the conscious life and the [19/20] archaic energies beneath, was transparent. In a well-known portrait, to which he contributed a detailed foreground rock, he stands in formal black by the cascade of Glenfinlas, with a gaze dreamy and intense, as though to contemplate some shape rising in the mist.
The ecstasies of Ruskin's childhood suggested the vision of total desire that his books continually attempt to realize. But the childhood that provided such opportunities also bequeathed him emotional contradictions that crippled him to the end yet at the same time generated the peculiar restlessness on which his greatness depends, an unceasing drive to synthesize and revise and synthesize again. He was, in other words, forever reconceiving the legend of his own childhood, which he projected onto both the personal and the historical past in a shape similar to Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. But as in all Fall myths, the disruptive element is also profoundly ambiguous: generally it enters late upon the scene yet sometimes seems to inhere within it from the start. To understand Ruskin, we need to understand the structure of that myth in relation to our knowledge of his childhood. Our major sources are his own writings — Praeterita, dating from the end of his career, and the productions of his precocious adolescence.
A brief account of Ruskin's childhood as scholars generally describe it might run as follows. In his parents' life the struggle with sin and the struggle with poverty were both won by effort and denial. But the child born into wealth and leisure had to divide his allegiance between a religious ideology that professed duty, work, and a contempt for sexuality and a social ideology that located self-affirmation in the symbols of material wealth. Deeper even than these cultural contradictions were the contradictions of a narcissistic parental love. Overencouraged for every effort yet overregulated by an anxious watchfulness, Ruskin was both prematurely an adult and too long a child, bred up to be at once a great man and the instrument of his parents' wishes. This family romance, so to speak, suffered no serious intrusions: marked out for a special but undefined destiny, John had little way of understanding who he was concretely — in regard, for example, to others of his age — and so remained overconfident yet uncertain, forever afterward preferring relationships of carefully defined subordination. Throughout life he remained haunted by his primal relationship with parents to whom he could not entirely submit and from whom he could never free himself, bound as he was to the dream of a sheltered and protected past, the gifts of which could be enjoyed only by relinquishing the changing world without — the world of independence and struggle and failure and a slow passage toward inexorable loss.
This account differs in some ways from the famous childhood chapters of Praeterita. Scholars have detailed some of the inaccuracies and distortions of that book; we must therefore come to terms all the more [20/21] clearly with the emotional meaning of those distortions. In the pages of Praeterita, Ruskin presents his boyhood chiefly as a pattern of release and restraint — the release of childhood vacations and romping by paradisal meadows and streams and the restraint of the Herne Hill regimen, with its well-known images of denial: the fruit in the garden that it was forbidden to touch, the child sitting at evenings in a niche tracing the patterns on the carpet, and above all the severe figure of Margaret Ruskin, instructing the boy in daily Bible lessons and struggling three weeks over the emphasis on a particular syllable of verse. In a late lecture, he recalled that she shut him in an upstairs room with some bits of wood and a bunch of keys and told him, "John, if you make a noise, you shall be whipped" (XX, 372). He was also whipped for crying, for not doing as he was bid, and for tumbling on the stairs (XXXV, 21). We know now from the family letters that the real situation was more complicated; there were toys and companions after all and, in the boy's own letters, a greater exuberance and variety of pleasures than we would expect from the studious and complacent child of Praeterita; see Van Akin Burd's introduction to The Ruskin Family Letters.
But Ruskin does not reproach his parents for their discipline, which he found strict yet consistent and predictable. Instead, he lists four "calamities" of a different nature. First, he had nothing to love, so that "when affection did come, it came with violence utterly rampant and unmanageable, at least by me, who never before had anything to manage." Second, he had nothing to endure ("my strength was never exercised, my patience never tried, and my courage never fortified"). Third, he was taught no sociable manners. Fourth and chiefly, "the bridle and blinkers were never taken off me": "the little Creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself; set on the barebacked horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength. But the ceaseless authority exercised over my youth left me, when cast out at last into the world, unable for some time to do more than drift with its vortices" (XXXV, 45-46). At least three of these calamities center on the power of self-regulation, an emphasis consistent with Ruskin's mature conception of the moral life. For him wisdom is always essentially the channeling of spiritual energies in such a way that love, courage, and the experience of selfhood achieve their greatest fulfillment. The complaint in Praeterita is that the boy could not internalize his parents' predictable succession of pleasures and tasks before he was "cast out" into the vortices — a problem understandable enough in an overindulged child who was made abnormally dependent on parental protection. Only by implication, though clearly enough for all that, does Ruskin suggest that his parents starved his [21/22] affections and thwarted his will. Given the aim and mode of the book, we would expect him to blunt the force of his resentment; what is perhaps surprising is that he blunts the force of his love. He writes early on that he took his parents' presence for granted, as if they had been forces of nature. Throughout the memoir, we see them as kindly though erring people, whose son loved them dutifully and who now in old age offers them the garland of filial tribute. But the boy's first letters and poems, sent to cheer his father during the lonely trips through the country on which the elder Ruskin took orders for sherry, are excited and spontaneous in their affection — early evidence for the contention by Ruskin's editors that John James was his son's best friend. The father was also literary agent, adviser, intellectual companion, and receiver (before Charles Eliot Norton) of the son's frankest confidences. The father, in short, was the originator and guardian of the son's best self and so an overpowering as well as a beloved figure. But the emotional patterning of Praeterita placed serenity and order within the family unit, power of passion beyond it — in the travels and visits — until, that is, an adolescent girl suddenly appeared at Herne Hill. Then John learned that the enclosed world of Herne Hill was but an inexact symbol of the world outside: like the Lady of Shalott, when he turned to face the realities and not the shadows, he found himself under a prohibition he would never fully understand. To see that prohibition more clearly and not simply as a failure of "regulation," we must understand some of the emotional forces within Herne Hill that Ruskin dramatized through his love for AèIe Domecq.
John fell in love with Adèle, the eldest daughter of his father's Catholic partner, when she visited Herne Hill with her three sisters. John courted her in the only way he knew-by discoursing on provocative subjects (Waterloo, the Spanish Armada, and Transubstantiation) — which left him humiliated and mortified by his real or supposed social ineptness. As he explains with semicomic detachment in Praeterita: "I was thrown, bound hand and foot, in my unaccomplished simplicity, into the fiery furnace, or fiery cross, of these four girls, — who of course reduced me to a mere heap of white ashes in four days." Mrs. Ruskin found the prospect of this marriage impossible even to contemplate but was rather annoyed (to continue the fire image), "as she would have been if one of her chimneys had begun smoking, — but had not the slightest notion her house was on fire." The father, on the other hand, seemed to encourage the fancy and began publishing his son's romantic poems — as well as the prose tale "Leoni," which represented, Ruskin says, "what my own sanguinary and adventurous disposition would have been had I been brought up a bandit." He was no bandit, of course; what struck him the most in remembering the incident was that "I had neither the resolution to win Adèle, the courage to do without [22/23] her, the sense to consider what was at last to come of it all, or the grace to think how disagreeable I was making myself at the time to everybody about me" (XXXV, 183). Every feature of this affair — the exotic and unattainable object, the need to abstract and idealize her as a symbol, the excruciating emotion along with its prolongation, and the release of feelings through writing — suggests that, at this stage at least, the boy's aim was less to win ADèle than to construct a drama: on the one hand, the reenactment, or rather reendurance, of an earlier loss in love and, on the other, a signal of his need to his parents (to show them, for example, that the house is really on fire).
No sooner did Adèle depart than Ruskin set out to celebrate her with a fit memorial, "a tragedy on a Venetian subject ... : the fair heroine, Bianca, was to be endowed with the perfections of Desdemona and the brightness of Juliet,-and Venice and Love were to be described, as never had been thought of before" (XXXV, 182). The world knows Ruskin's "white one" as the unfallen city of The Stones of Venice. The adolescent fragment, nameless in Praeterita and unpublished during his lifetime, is nevertheless the most remarkable of his attempts at verse and one of the most revealing works he ever wrote. Compared with the slightness and conventionality of the rest of his juvenilia, Marcolini is intricate in texture and richly imagined, developing in a way we can already recognize as Ruskinian. That is to say, it is densely unified yet appears to ramble; the writing proceeds not according to a preconceived plan (Ruskin obviously never worked out the plot in advance) but like a line drawing that circles back and back upon itself, gradually disclosing the features of the facade it is tracing.
The plot, too intricate to be described in detail, shows how much the boy absorbed of Byron, Shelley, and Shakespeare, especially the last. Count Orsino is in love with Bianca, but his plans are secretly undermined by the villainous Friuli, who attempts to destroy him by way of avenging his own father's death at the hands of Orsino's father. These themes suggest a fusion of Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, but if the setting is ostensibly Venice, the spiritual atmosphere is closer to Elsinore. Ruskin's Venice is a nightmarish region of duplicity and seeming in which every conversation is closely observed, every friend a potential traitor; as one character (a cynical melancholic named Giuseppe — the name recalls Shakespeare's Jaques) puts it, "half the world / Is in sharp enmity with the other half" (II, 490). Even thoughts are known: Friuli's intentions appear as vague presentiments to Orsino ("I fear my father's guilt") and as vivid dreams:
"A face looks out upon me, angry-eyed —
The face of an old man, always the same,
Motionless, marble-like, with severe lip, [23/24]
As it would speak, yet silent ... and sometimes beside
A countenance of a boy, exceeding pale,
And sad, so sad, and it looks ever on me." [11, 481]
Friuli, the false friend, 'is the shadow of the unexplated past upon the present, yet no one in this play is quite what he or she seems. Ruskin's twist is to add the title character, a witty, Mercutio-like figure who is Orsino's best friend yet secretly in love with Bianca and troubled by dreams of stabbing the count. Once again Giuseppe makes insinuations about the obscure, omnipresent evil that threatens Venice: "'Tis the work of a lighter hand — of a finger that had entangled as many friendships — as it has scorched hearts — and killed flies like you, my merry Sphinx Atropos" (II, 513-514). The more the movement of the play centers on Bianca and Marcolini, the closer they move to the consumation of their love and the deaths that almost certainly await it, and the darker become the implications of Giuseppe's loose tongue. By the obscure phrase "Sphinx Atropos," Giuseppe seems to fuse Marcolini's hidden self with the dark powers of a woman (perhaps Bianca's hidden self). Three pages later, at the scene when Bianca's mother determines to prevent her marriage to Marcolim, the fragment ends. There is no wonder that Ruskin chooses not to read that riddle and instead shears it off.
The wrathful Friuli, the dashing Orsino, the melancholy Giuseppe, and especially the amiable and witty Marcolini (who, like his author, is safe as long as he remains merely lovesick) all bear some resemblance to Ruskin himself, yet no character, as I have suggested, is really distinguishable from the others; the play's center and focus is the disordered world of Venice, unredeemable by Bianca and divided against itself. Among other things, its psychic dynamics suggest that Ruskin's "Puritan" execrations — against idleness and vulgarity and sensuality and corruption — will be ways of combating the terrors and secret guilts of Marcolini, converting them into a foulness that can be expelled. The morbidity and disorder of the play's milieu further suggest why Ruskin so strongly needed a helping hand from without, in the present case through alliance with a supportive father who in the unconscious past had played quite another role. 4 [24/25]
Not surprisingly, when Ruskin began publishing The Poetry of Architecture more than a year later — in the fall of 1837 — he announced as his ruling aesthetic principle "unity of feeling, the basis of all grace, the essence of all beauty" (I, 9). In moving from the morbid introspection of romantic tragedy to the brighter mode of architectural criticism, the young author retains a similar conceptual schema: instead of a city presented as secretive, divided self, he presents buildings and their settings as expressions of unified character in the dimension of time. For Ruskin cottages, expressing "national" character, and the villa, the castle, the fortress, and other forms, expressing "individual" character, correspond to two stages of development, childhood and adulthood, the former standing for a period of primal modesty and harmony. (In announcing his section on villas he writes, "We shall have less to do with natural feeling, and more with human passion; we are coming out of stillness into turbulence, out of seclusion into the multitude, out of the wilderness into the world" [I, 73].) Ruskin, of course, is writing from this same transitional stage during his first and second years at Oxford, but the problem of harmony is not, as with Marcolini, the reconciliation of incompatible emotional impulses but the adjustment of disparate moral and intellectual interests into a defined, independent self. In one long, mocking paragraph Ruskin satirizes the eclectic taste of an English nouveau riche builder by proposing a list of "Ideas and materials" that includes a garden with dancing nymphs, an American wigwam for the front door, Egyptian hieroglyphics for the windows, and a section like Kenilworth Castle with a room at the top for drying plums, all for one building (I, 129). 5 Inevitably one senses a relationship between the cacophonous villa and the heterogeneous interests with which Ruskin was forever cramming his mind (to say nothing of The Poetry of Architecture itself which contains a long chapter about chimneys in its discussion of cottage styles) and more seriously, the bewildering multiplicity of possibilities produced by his parents' ambition.
In Praeterita he recalls that in his father's eyes John was to "enter at [25/26] college into the best society, take all the prizes every year, and a double first to finish with; marry Lady Clara Vere de Vere; write poetry as good as Byron's, only pious; preach sermons as good as Bossuet's, only Protestant; be made, at forty, Bishop of Winchester, and at fifty, Primate of England" (XXXV, 185). But what was this amazingly gifted, overencouraged, intellectually omnivorous young man to become in fact? Part of that self in formation would surely be a young man worthy of an ideal love like Adèle. It turned out, soon enough, that Ruskin almost failed to graduate at all (although he did win the Newdigate upon a third try) and that he lost Adèle to boot. In 1839 he saw Adèle again at Herne Hill and his passion flared up with renewed pain and longing. No doubt the increased pressure at Oxford and the renewed attachment to an old affection were related, but instead of receiving the pledge of her love, he was cut off from her irrevocably (she was already engaged to a young baron) and repressed his grief by returning to an increasingly desperate struggle for academic distinction. A poignant record of this conflict is his decision to divide the diary for 1840 into separate headings for Head and Heart. For the first time there opened up a double breach between his parents' wishes — the intellectual and social ambitions that were his own as well — and his heart's deepest need. He developed a hemorrhage of the lungs, and in spring of 1840 his doctor ordered, him and his family to Italy.
He overcame his despair in the manner that was to become characteristic of him, by gradual purgation. His Italian diary shows him using sexual disgust and religious bigotry to work out a struggle between desire and relinquishment. In Rome, the historical center of Adèle's religion, the attitude in the diary shifts page by page and sometimes sentence by sentence: "Gorgon-haired wretches crawling about the gate of the chapel....I shall take care to be at our own English service next Sunday." "I felt more completely on hallowed ground than I have yet. Hallowed! — built over with masses of bad brick by a set of brutes and sensualists — what next!" On his last day in Rome, he wrote of feeling surprising regret at leaving, "more so than I thought — there is something about it which will make me dread to return. Farewell, Rome mia!" But when the family arrived in Venice the agitation of Rome dramatically subsided:
Thank God I am here! It is the Paradise of cities.... I am happier than I have been these five years — so happy — happier than in all probability I shall ever be again in my life. I feel fresh and young when my foot is on these pavements, and the outlines of St. Mark's thrill me as if they had been traced by Adele's hand. This and Chamouni have become my two bournes of earth; there might have been another but that has become all pain. Thank God I am here! [Diaries, I, 129-130] [26/27]
The city of ruined grandeur, the ambiguous seat of love and death and beauty and corruption — the Venice of Byron and Rogers, of Marcolini and later of The Stones of Venice and Praeterita — here loses one-half of its nature to Rome in order to merge with the "glory and the freshness of a dream," a geographical split corresponding to Ruskin's splitting of Adèle herself. Thus purged, Adèle could now be possessed as a virginal spirit, or rather as an architectural world. This moment is the turning point of Ruskin's cure. In the next years, he took up the cause of Turner, and through him returned to the nonhuman world of nature, a world where the analytical eye could leave the sorrows of the heart behind and where the spirit could feel once again its native freedom and strength. But the breach within Herne Hill was never really healed. In Praeterita he described the deaths of his playmates, making us understand that their losses were also losses of parts of himself: "While the course of my education was thus daily gathering the growth of me into a stubborn little standard bush, various frost-stroke was stripping away from me the poor little flowers — or herbs — of the forest, that had once grown, happily for me, at my side" (XXXV, 86). In the symbolic structure of that book, these deaths culminate in the loss of Adèle, which in turn represents the final loss of Ruskin's child self, marking once and for all the division between the undisturbed, harmonious life of childhood and the turbulent, aimless life of adulthood. The loss of Adèle became the pattern for later, less tangible frustrations, until Ruskin at last directed the full force of his desolation against the very parent he had once revered so much, in a letter he wrote near the end of his father's life: "Men ought to be severely disciplined and exercised in the sternest way in daily life .... but they should never have their hearts broken.... Mama and you ... fed me effeminately and luxuriously . . . , but you thwarted me in all the earnest fire of passion and life" (XXXVI, 461). But this interpretation too arose from a particular experience, which we will consider again in its place.
To an obsessive degree, Ruskin experienced life in terms of a past that was serene and intact, a future fulfillment that was forever about to be, and a present forever embodying the gap between fulfillment and desire — a present, moreover, that had to be lived in a fallen world of corrupted passions, vain ambitions, and the presence of death. I assume the ultimate cause of that melancholy to be an experience of unassuageable deprivation too early for us to seek, except in the landscape hunger Ruskin describes so poignantly, but it first dramatized itself in his love for Adèle. My reading of that experience has focused on two interpretations by Ruskin himself, one a memoir and the other a fiction that, though full of borrowed conventions, is probably no less autobiographical. Marcolini describes a complexly divided world in which the impulses of desire are checked by multiple conflicts and are darkened by the imminence of death. Praeterita describes the youth's [27/28] love as both an overwhelming need and a catastrophe visited from without — like an illness or a fire someone has set, in either case a symptom that the family finally cures with mixed success. The same book attributes that catastrophe in part to a failure to shepherd his desires and to incorporate the regulated pattern his parents had set for him, but we can recognize that what the boy could not incorporate was a set of conflicts, conscious and unconscious, built into the structure of the very childhood he afterward mourned as a period of simplicity and serenity.
Yet there is a sense in which that serenity was no mere fantasy. "That which [a man] projects ahead of him as his ideal," Freud wrote, "is merely his substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood — the time when he was his own 1deal" (IV, 58). In several texts, of which The Stones Of Venice is the most important, Ruskin opposes the self-fulfillment of childhood to the vain cravings of adulthood which he usually calls "pride" or "knowledge." We can locate in his actual past a time when he felt loved for himself and not for what he had to achieve as a condition of that love, a time, therefore, in which he was already his parents' ideal — that is, as a child, which was also the time before his parents' will and his heart's need were drastically opposed. The chief emotional task his work expresses is the problem of how such a self can be recaptured in the world of adult experience. That peculiar restless vacillation by which he moved from position to position and from project to project, that perpetual shifting of the mind and feelings without center or determinate definition, reflect the pursuit of an ideal self before which he would forever feel inadequate, such as Turner or his own symbol of St. George, and the pursuit also of an ideal sexual other without whom he would forever feel incomplete. Most people learn to live with a "good" self sufficient to master inner reproaches and destructive wishes; Ruskin, in whom those darker energies raged with unusual force, did indeed, I believe, live with a sufficient self for most of his career partly because of overwhelming experiences of imaginative ecstasy that he could occasionally recapture in the purgative rhythms of his emotional life. He could not of course ever become St. George or possess Rose, because these are figures of his imagination. But even these wishes express symbolically a more general desire. We saw that fulfillment is impossible in Marcolini because its human elements contradict each other, like the discordant villa that has no "harmony of feeling." I suggest generally that the internal contradictions Ruskin inherited were so harsh and complex that he could not affirm or become himself except by ceaseless additions and internal alliances, strengthening [28/29] some elements and expelling others; and that he sought to incorporate this ideal of psychic integration, projected in the form of a world-as-a-self, with a hunger primitive in its intensity and spiritual in its exaltation — an ideal that also drove him to see human objects of desire abstractly, as symbols of a self to be completed.
One of my concerns in the pages that follow will be to read Ruskin's works as profound analyses of psychic discordance and passionate visions of psychic integration, visions that are not only the aims the books champion but also the process they enact, In this view of his achievement, the adolescent poet, who populated a fanciful world with melodramatic exploits and fair heroines, is father to the great critic of art and society. The mature work constructs personas in the form of schools of art, nations, buildings, and general "spirits" or tendencies until, in the later mythopoeic books, they resume their original form as personifications. Ruskin's contributions to the cultural life of his nation are energized precisely by the fact that his internal contradictions are cultural as well, as he himself noticed with the clarity of moral genius. (For example, earthly goods are temptations, yet devoutly to be desired; God's will is to be obeyed, yet the approval of society is worth more than gold; we must give to the poor, yet we must labor to be rich; virtue is inward, yet the fruits of it are material and open to display). And he was able to reshape so many areas of thought because of his astonishing mental absorptiveness, his capacity to ingest the exhaustless stream of the phenomenal world into the surprisingly consistent structures of his thought and feeling.
The totality of the incorporable world, divinely infused and integrated, is of course Nature, Ruskin's first and last subject. Selfhood can always be known through communion with the divine world, which is also a self, but under the temporal conditions of life, that communion can only be an event, recaptured and lost again. In the Wordsworthian poem that provided Ruskin with the myth of his own childhood, a special connection once prevailed between self and world that was not subject to temporality in this way. The child who could sense the White Lady everywhere in the dales and rising mists and glittering streams of Scotland was himself compact of what Arnold said adults experience as a "buried life," which for Ruskin was possible in its pure form only in youth: "for all care, regret, or knowledge of evil destroys it; and it requires also the ... conscious strength of heart, and hope" (XXXV, 219). But a "fallen" experience of nature succeeded to this first mistress imitating the structure of Ruskin's lovesickness for Adèle, when the object is lost almost in the very act of possession and so is made precious and poignant by the imminence of its vanishment. Instances of this feeling are as numerous in Ruskin as they are well known. An early diary entry, for example, remarks: "I was tormented with vague [29/30] desires of possessing all the beauty that I saw, of keeping every outline and colour in my mind, and pained at the knowledge that I must forget it all; that in a year or two I should have no more of that landscape left about me than a confused impression of cupola and pine. The present glory is of no use to me; it hurts me from my fear of leaving it and losing it." (Diaries, I, 437.) In Modern Painters III he asks his readers to imagine what they would not give for "the power of arresting the fairest scenes ... to stay the cloud in its fading, the leaf in its trembling, and the shadows in their changing; to bid the fitful foam be fixed upon the river, and the ripples be everlasting upon the lake; and then to bear away with him no darkened or feeble sunstain ... but a counterfeit which should seem no counterfeit-the true and perfect image of life indeed" (V, 40). Two recurrent images show how this desire, a mere fancy in itself, can be made good — treasure and water.
Every reader of Praeterita knows that the fruit at Herne Hill, first described as jewels ("clustered pearl and pendant ruby joyfully discoverable under the large leaves that looked like vine"), was forbidden, but that the flower could be "devoured" or possessed visually, so that ,"my chief prayer for the kindness of heaven, in its flowerful seasons, was that the frost might not touch the almond blossom" (XXXV, 36, 50). Visual possession had advantages more than compensatory: we enjoy something without exhausting it, appropriating it as something other than ourselves yet part of ourselves. Pleasure and therefore the feelings are regulated. Thus, in his adolescence, Ruskin took to incorporating the natural world by reproducing and gathering its fragments (as minerals and flowers and ferns, as sketches and poems preserved as memoranda), constructing from transient experiences an ego territory or gilded environment. To treasure the world, therefore, is to see it perpetually in symbolic terms. But he had learned from the Bible that there are good and bad forms of treasure and that Mammon, the ruler of the present world, opposes the pearl without price, which is immortal life. The crucial thesis for Ruskinian economy, the economics both of passions and of nations, is that all treasure is a true or false symbol, and that some true symbols are good in themselves. One class of such symbols is aesthetic objects, but natural phenomena are the primary class, whose preciousness Ruskin described in one of his central symbolic conceptions, the idea of Purity. According to Modern Painters II, purity in nature is the type or characteristic manifestation of divine energy, which may be conceived as an organic structure of cooperating parts or as the divine inherence that sustains the structure. The crystal is the paradigmatic example of the pure object because it is the simplest form of organic life and because it shines forth with a particularly pellucid form of light, the agency of creation. Other examples are [30/31] crystal streams, snowy peaks, the glow of a maiden's healthy skin. The antithesis of purity is all objects foul, disintegrated, and vacant of the divine inherence. It follows that every precious thing is a tangible embodiment, the "true and perfect image of life itself." But in the course of temporal change, even the most precious of objects "harden" or lose their context. Life in itself is not static, like an image, but a released energy continuous with time, a correspondent power that can truly possess — its usual manifestation in nature is water, the element that nourishes. The experience of Being therefore has a double manifestation, neither the self alone nor the possessed other alone. Its emblem would be both treasure and energy, something to be both beheld and absorbed, an aurum potabile. The aim toward which Ruskin's work perpetually strives is a vision of spiritual integration so profound that the treasures of the earth may be enjoyed as an essential manifestation of the "fire of passion and life." If such an integration could be achieved and all contraries resolved — the contraries, for example, of duty and desire, giving and receiving, heart and head, loving and being loved then past and present would also meet: the motto "To-day" would be realized.
Ruskin wrote his first major work after turning, as he did more than once, from frustrated love to a new infusion of spiritual energies and consolations coming from nature. By the unerring instinct for his true subjects that is one mark of his genius (there are, in his parti-colored career, no real dead ends, no permanently botched projects), he proceeded to gather and "finish" his Alpine diaries in order to construct a massive polemical defense of Turner. The completed book contained poetry as good as Byron's but pious and sermons as good as Bossuet's but Protestant. By seeing nature through Turner's eyes Ruskin achieves vicariously the experience of a supremely integrated consciousness, whose works in turn integrate the works of the Infinite Consciousness. Turner becomes, in other words, a kind of spiritual ideal or guardian whose fleshly counterpart is Ruskin's own father, the generator and guardian of his son's public self, 9 and Modern Painters I is the lovingly [31/32] detailed explication of the divine face, executed through the verbal equivalent of communion with Turner. Communion is also the subject of the tale he wrote, it is tempting to say, as a miniature prelude to the grand task at hand. The tale is too well known to detain us long, but we will find it doing duty as a gay, grotesque emblem of a career as consistent with its origins as it is manifold in its turnings.
Ruskin wrote Marcolini in the high, serious style befitting a Byronic poet. and tragic lover. He wrote The King of the Golden River (appropriately) during his water cure at Leamington in 1841, as a childlike gesture for Effie Gray, the child then staying at his parents' house. Gluck, the young hero, lives in an Alpine valley so rich in fruit that it is called the Treasure Valley, irrigated by a cascade so bright in the sunlight that it is called the Golden River — like Herne Hill, irrigated by the sherry trade, where the fruit is also like treasure. But Treasure Valley is poor, because the wicked brothers who own it hoard its riches, charging usurious rates to the poor and starving people, and enslave the youngest brother, whom they beat in drunken rages. Provoked by this miserliness, the West Wind (whom Gluck inadvertently admits into the cottage) afflicts the valley and dries up the streams. The poverty and succeeding storm correspond to emotional repression and the ravages of passion in Ruskin's life, a problem, once again, of regulation. Clearly a new economy must be found for Treasure Valley. The solution comes in the form of Gluck's favorite mug, with a grinning face encased in gold, which the cruel brothers have cast into the hearth. Gluck is pondering by himself, thinking that it would be better if the river had been real gold, when a voice appears from the "crucible." "No it wouldn't, Gluck, my boy," repeats the implike figure that emerges, over and over again. He turns out to be the King, or embodied essence, of the Golden River, set free from imprisonment in the cup. He assigns Gluck the task of shedding three drops of holy water into the source of the river so that it will flow again. Gluck sets out on his arduous journey (unlike Ruskin he has a chance to test his cloistered virtue), but on the way he gives all the water to thirsty supplicants, who, it turns out, are forms of the king himself Oust as all men in need are forms of Christ). Earlier, the wicked brothers had attempted the same task but refused the pleas, and so were turned into black stones for their pains — Ruskin's emblem, forever after, of disobedience, hoarding, and expulsion. But for Gluck the miracle is accomplished, because water given in charity is holy water indeed. With a quality like that of mercy, it returns to its source, blessing both giver and receiver.
Instead of a White Lady atop a waterfall, Ruskin invents a benevolent Rumpetstiltskin, who leads Gluck back, through the act of a sacrifice, to the source of life, there to be reborn as hero and ruler of the valley. With the bad elements expelled, the economy of the valley is [32/33] purified and reintegrated — the natural, social, and emotional systems become corollaries of one another. The pious moral, with its lesson of obedience and Christian charity, has obvious enough significance for a young man about to divert the energies of frustrated love into the old landscape hunger, specifically by championing Turner as Nature's Priest. What we have to notice particularly is the tale's symbol of transformation. Gluck learns to transform a disordered economy into a regulated economy by absorbing the king's power and by solving the riddle of true and false wealth. The golden goblet is neither one nor the other but a symbol mediating between the two: as a golden object it cannot be drunk, but like a communion cup, it contains the life of the god, himself the personification of the element that truly nourishes, as both wealth and water. Gluck's achievement is the restoration of unmediated communion, and the cup is the means of converting physical sustenance into spiritual power. It is also an image we will meet again in various forms-the precious object that transforms the world for its bearer into a world-as-a-self.
In 1849, after a year of marriage, Ruskin went on a Continental tour alone with his parents, which included a stop at the city where Adele had been lost to him forever through marriage. He entered the Louvre and paused at Veronese's The Wedding Feast at Cana, there to be convinced of the final superiority of painting to poetry as a representation of "awful and inconceivable intellect." Christ's first miracle sanctified married love by sanctifying the waters. "I felt," he wrote in his diary, "as if I had been plunged into a sea of wine of thought, and must drink to drowning." (Diaries, II, 437). If he could indeed have drunk to drowning, there would have been, after that rebirth, no second death.
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 7 November 2012