[Poetic] language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse. — Percy Bysshe Shelley, Defense of Poetry
In one respect alone, Ruskinian play resembles the Decadent movement. The Decadents recognized in their search for images of determinate desire a kind of willful solipsism, a cultivated affectation that renounces the old insistences on ethical seriousness. Ruskinian play is also an implied admission, modern in spirit, that beliefs are but necessary fictions or incomplete figurations. It thereby renounces the quest for comprehensive meaning, but in other respects it is a solipsistic clinging to the childish, a refusal to countenance the deepening metaphysical chaos that more and more seemed to Ruskin the tragic meaning of the nineteenth century.
The Looking-Glass World
The Ethics of the Dust (1866), Ruskin's first complete book on mythology, aims at several audiences and as a result has had none. It is composed of a set of conversations between a lecturer and some children at a boardingschool, which usually concern elementary lessons in mineralogy. According to the first preface, the book is simply a stimulus to young readers to study minerals, but the second preface clarifies the book's relation to Ruskin's moral thought in general and to his study of myths in The Queen of the Air. In other words, the book is a set of Socratic dialogues held in a republic of girls, in which the philosopher [242/243] constructs fables that describe the world less than they induce the state of childlike wonder that for Ruskin is the basis of all moral and religious apprehension. For Ruskin personally the book represents a fresh start, taking as its literal setting Winnington Academy, his "second home" in the early 1860S.
In 1859 Margaret Bell, the principal of a girls' school in Cheshire, invited Ruskin to her academy in hopes that he would be a valuable resource for her pupils. He continued to visit Winnington for the greater part of the next decade, writing, lecturing on the Bible and geology, and even taking part in the dancing. The girls appear to have treated him with familiarity and affection, and he carried on a voluminous correspondence with a number of them, at the same time gradually developing his intimacy with the La Touche family of Dublin. As he described the school to his father, he might have been living in a tableau vivant, brilliantly colored: in the evening the drawing room is "brightly lighted with the groups of girls scattered round it", their dark costumes, contrasted with the table cloth, "gives the kind of light and shade one sees in the pictures of the Venetians"; dinner "is very like one of the pictures of a Marriage in Cana" (XVIII, lxiv-lxvi); the children blend with the flowers of the orchard, the ancient trees, the red brick "like porphyry in the clear sunlight after rain" (XXVIII, lxvii). One evening a pianist came to do variations, inevitably enough, on "Home, Sweet Home"; the notes were "a mist of rapidity," "a murmur of a light fountain, far away," with the girls gathered round, "the eyes all wet with feeling" (XVIII, lxx). The device of describing girls in purely aesthetic terms, characteristic of many earlier letters from Ruskin to his father, no doubt serves to neutralize erotic emotion but more importantly, perhaps, converts them into multivalent symbols. The references to porphyries, coral, chiaroscuro, and Veronese's Marriage convert Winnington into the unfallen Venice sacred to the memory of Adele and, ultimately, to the ideal of his own forfeited child self. As a visitant in this garden of girls, he could relive the sweet anguish of loss and possession, himself part and yet not part of the scene, at once the perfect father rounding out this picture of perfect childhood yet doomed to be only a visitant, a moment in the lives of some young strangers in their ineluctable progress toward adulthood. And feeling sadness and age, he can paradoxically affirm the actuality of the ideal, setting a timeless child world over against the world of time, which he now sometimes calls "fate." As he wrote his father in November 1863: "It is curious that I feel older and sadder, very much, in now looking at these young children . . . and they are so beautiful and so good, and I am not good, considering the advantages I've had, by any means. The weary longing to begin life over again, and the sense of fate for ever forbidding it, here or hereafter, is terrible" (XXXVI, 459). [243/244]
The aim of vicarious recapture is the aim of Ruskinian pedagogy, centering on the image of the pure stream and joining together interests that seem at first far removed from Winnington. One of his projects in the 1860S was to persuade the Italian peasants to irrigate the Alpine regions to prevent erosion and drought. His slogan was, "Every field its pond, every ravine its reservoir" (XIX, lvii). Torrents, he wrote in 1869, can be "not subdued — but 'educated.' A torrent is like a human creature — left to gain full strength in wantonness and rage, no power can any more redeem it; but watch the channels of every early impulse and fence them, and your torrent becomes the gentlest and most blessing of servants" (XIX, lvi).1 In the lecture "Verona and Its Rivers" (1870), he imagines a symbolic transformation as a real transformation: the Lombardic plain, properly irrigated, will become "one paradise..., cascades, docile and innocent as infants, laughing all summer long" (XIX, 448), exactly as Gluck had restored the Treasure Valley in a much earlier fantasy. This dominating metaphor of the child spirit as a stream gives a new pedagogical emphasis to Ruskinian moral philosophy. The position is stated most succinctly in "Fairy Stories," an introduction to Grimm's tales, which were reissued in 1868 and illustrated by Cruikshank. Ruskin's essay is essentially a romantic attack on Evangelicalism, arguing that fairy tales are superior to didactic stories because they appeal to the imagination, to the child's innate sense of good. For Ruskin, children require no punishing conscience — and didactic tales merely internalize a punishing conscience, a sense of wickedness rather than a sense of well-being; instead, they require "any tradition of old time . . . animating for them the material world with inextinguishable life, fortifying them against the glacial cold of selfish science, and preparing them submissively, and with no bitterness of astonishment, to behold, in later years, the mystery . . . of the fates that happen alike to the evil and the good" (XIX, 235-236). Instead of enforcing precepts and warnings, fairy stories allow the child to internalize virtue, which is natural, a power like all the powers of the natural world when viewed imaginatively. True natural science is a moral science and therefore the basis of all moral education-and that is precisely the program of The Ethics of the Dust.
Ruskin's technique in these dialogues is to preface his little scientific [244/245] lectures with puzzles or fables that induce an emotional response, usually wonder or disgust. For this reason, of course, the lessons must be dramatized in the book, not compressed for Ruskin's readers as a textbook. The first discussion concerns two valleys that are in different respects imaginary: Sinbad's Valley of Diamonds, which is make-believe, and a second Valley of Diamonds, which the Lecturer claims really exists. The first is wholly invisible, and when one child makes herself "invisible" by hiding behind a chair, the Lecturer claims she is still lost there. The second is present but not visible as a valley — it is, in other words, an allegory (as we are told in an appendix) of "the pleasures and dangers in the kingdom of Mammon, or the worldly wealth" (XVIII, 206). People crowd around the narrow entrance, struggling to enter (as through the eye of a needle, an allusion to Christ's figure in the parable of wealth and the kingdom of heaven). Inside are heaps of diamonds that glitter like dew beneath brambles with blossoms of silver and berries of ruby, a mountain, composed of golden ice, on top of which sits Mammon, and trees full of singing serpents. The valley, then, contains both pleasures and dangers, as the world does, for example, to Blake's Thel in a poem that Ruskin probably knew at this time. Thel's response is in fact imitated by the youngest child, who is frightened of the serpents; the Lecturer replies, "And as long as you were yourself (not that you could get there if you remained quite the little Florrie you are now), you would like to hear the serpents sing" (XVIII, 214). Once again, Ruskin's imagery weaves together connotations of lust and greed: "Pride, and lust, and envy, and anger, all give up their strength to avarice," as the Lecturer tells his adult readers (XVIII, 217). The play on various senses of "real" and "invisible" has the effect of violating these distinctions and also establishes Winnington as yet another valley, the valley of innocence, which communicates ambiguously with make-believe and the adult world: the latter, we notice, is invisible in the added sense that the eyes of childhood must not look there. Instead of explaining his allegory, the Lecturer presents an item from the Valley of Mammon — two precious stones bound up in congealed gold dust, which the girls mistake (as innocence always does) for "a great ugly brown stone." Wealth, the Lecturer now explains, is either good or bad, according to use; generosity is natural to man, but covetousness is a disease, so that the covetous man becomes in the end "wholly inhuman, a mere ugly lump of stomach and suckers, like a cuttle-fish."
The conversation now takes a turn. Instead of resting in his condemnation of greed, the Lecturer talks about the chemical resemblance between charcoal and diamonds, until the girls demand a separate lecture from him on the subject of crystallization. The conversations [245/246] and fables that follow2 develop new sets of oppositions until it becomes clear to the girls what the student of Ruskin knows already from "The Law of Help" — that "crystallization" is the chemical analogue to the absolute distinction in the moral life between purity and decay, affection and strife, life and death. But what then, the Lecturer asks- speaking still in chemical terms — is life? When one of the children "answers" this question by walking across the room, the Lecturer replies that, for the scientists, she has exhibited only a "mode of motion," that is, heat, but a truer answer links life with passion, the power of inspiration: "I don't know what the philosophers call it; we know it makes people red, or white; and therefore it must be something, itself; and perhaps it is the most truly 'poetic' or 'making' force of all, creating a world of its own out of a glance, or a sigh: and the want of passion is perhaps the truest death, or 'unmaking' of everything; — even of stones" (XVIII, 344-345). At one point the Lecturer reinforces the point by having the girls "crystallize" themselves, or create formations on the playground. This conversion of science into dance — the movement of molecules dramatized as crinolines pressing themselves into triangles and squares — is a moment of inspired bizarreness reminiscent of the Alice books. It nevertheless establishes the central analogy in the book: the girls are themselves crystals, the ultimate subjects of their own lessons and the apex of the natural world. Mythology, according to Coleridge, is "the apex and complement of all genuine physiology" (IV, 524); for the Ruskinian Lecturer, "You may at least earnestly believe, that the presence of the spirit which culminates in your own life, shows itself in dawning, wherever the dust of the earth begins to assume any orderly and lovely state" (XVIII, 346).
In deliberately destroying the Gradgrind distinction between the factual [246/247] and the fanciful, the adult and the childlike, and the objective and the subjective, Ruskin hopes to preserve the religious sensibility from the prosaic state of mind that is forced into atheism by scientific discoveries, like evolution. That state of mind is also Evangelical; the attack on scientific materialism is also an attack on Original Sin, the "wicked" propensity, as the Lecturer puts it, of considering oneself "dust." The Lecturer's moral injunctions systematically replace an ethic of earnestness with an ethic of enthusiasm, as Ruskin was also trying to do in his letters to Rose. The girls are told, for example, that self-sacrifice is in itself not a beautiful but a "mortifying" thing; that the monastic life is generally the source of vanity; that one must not examine oneself for faults; that the children are instinctively unselfish, not evil. In the unfallen garden of Winnington, the children are born into innocence, of which crystalline purity is, once again, the symbol: in girls and in stones, "All doubt and repenting, and botching, and retouching, and wondering what it will be best to do next, are vice, as well as misery" (XVIII, 264). The gerunds echo Ruskin's description to his father of his own heart (broken, mended, cracked, riveted with iron and plastered over), making clear that the aim of Ruskin's pedagogy is partly to extend the fantasy of an original purity, partly to reverse his parents' mistake of thwarting the fire and passion of life.
But that reversal bears a highly paradoxical relation to his own past, as a passage like the following, from "Fairy Stories," makes clear:
A child should not need to choose between right and wrong. It should not be capable of wrong; it should not conceive of wrong. Obedient, as bark to helm, not by sudden strain or effort, but in the freedom of its bright course of constant life; true, with an undistinguished, painless, unboastful truth, in a crystalline household world of truth; gentle, through daily entreatings of gentleness, and honourable trusts, and pretty prides of child-fellowship in offices of good; strong, not in bitter and doubtful contest with temptation, but in peace of heart, and armour of habitual right, from which temptation falls like thawing hail; self-commanding, not in sick restraint of mean appetites and covetous thoughts, but in vital joy of unluxurious life, and contentment in narrow possession, wisely esteemed. [XIX, 235]
What, in this haze of sugary words, is being described? If such a child existed, who could stand it? And what does a phrase like "crystalline household truth" mean? Ruskin has blurred and softened for public consumption the retroactive advice he gave his father: the wish for stone beds and black soup becomes "unluxurious life" and "narrow possession," while the "fire and energy of Life" become "vital joy" and "bright course of constant life." The attack on Evangelicalism becomes a repudiation of "strain or effort," "bitter and doubtful contest," "sick [247/248] restraint," "covetous thoughts." The contradictions Ruskin wishes away are embedded in the paradoxical couplings of words: the child is to be both obedient and free, strong but peaceful at heart, self-commanding but joyful and content. As always for Ruskin, the internal harmony of impulse and restraint implies a perfect external relationship as well — the child is obedient "as bark to helm." In repudiating his parents' mistakes, Ruskin reproduces a child as placid and docile as his parents had wanted him to be, and he does so — as in his social philosophy — by denying conflict or uncertainty or compromise. When one of the children asks about the many "fearful difficulties" to be faced in "after life," the Lecturer need only advise prudence: "There is never any real doubt about the path, but you may have to walk very slowly" (XVIII, 267). But if virtue is an inner possession, and if it makes no mistakes and can afford no regrets, a person is left undefended against any possible failings; Original Sin is rejected at the cost of maintaining a belief in election, which implies a perfectionism as strict as the one Ruskin seems to reject. In this sense the sentimental dream of childhood is but a natural reflex from Puritanism.
There is no wonder that Ruskin overvalues the nursery virtues of pleasant demeanor. The sugared phrases that seem to give childhood its due ("offices of good," "armour of habitual right") in reality rationalize submission and reduce the range of moral action to a dollhouse scale, the only scale on which perfect behavior is attainable. Thus, in the chapter on "Home Virtues," the girls are told that their first "duties" are dancing, cooking, and wearing the dresses they sew for themselves. When chastised, they fold their hands and drop their eyes. At one point, "tidy" and "untidy" are substituted for "light" and "dark" as moral terms and seem, for the moment, to summarize the whole duty of girls. Ruskin's Winnington, in short, stands for a never-never land of harmony, before there ever broke out a contradiction between government and liberty, duty and desire, or the wishes of the parent and the child. Ruskin himself personifies the God of this world, who is also the Good Shepherd of Blake's Songs of Innocence: "God is a kind Father.... And we may always be sure, whatever we are doing, that we cannot be pleasing Him, if we are not happy ourselves" (XVIII, 290-291).
Obviously, Ruskin does not propose this ethic as the whole duty of man. In the chapter called "Crystal Virtues," crystals are pictured as brave males struggling against evil, like Apollo and the Python; elsewhere, the girls are shown the panorama of a mountainside with "agonized" marble, the emblem of creation "in travail," which they quite properly find terrible but are advised to accept with stoicism (the phrase from "Fairy Stories" is "submissively, and with no bitterness of astonishment"). In this regard The Ethics of the Dust simply repeats, for [248/249] children, the official morality of Womanhood, preached in Victorian pulpits, journals, and popular novels: women are to be chaste, pious, and passive, acting as an inflexible inspiration for those men who take upon themselves the dangers and rewards of moral aggression — and who may be fallible so long as they ally themselves with the purity of a female other. Ruskin's little book illuminates at least one of the many causes of Victorian sexual ideology, the contradiction between competing conceptions of virtue. Ruskin's career fiercely alternates between self-assertiveness and the recoil of guilt. The aggression that he took to be his mature duty as a writer — the indignation, the rage, the deliberate subversion of his parents' self-serving pieties — brought upon him the very emotional turbulence that, he believed, polluted and depleted the pure energy that was his life, the principle of continuity. The very rebellion that was his salvation called forth the guilt that threatened his perdition. The Ethics of the Dust, and Ruskin's depiction of women in general, retreats from ethical confusion by dividing two ideas about virtue — that it is heroic and that it is submissive — between two separate races, men and women. Victorian sexual ideology does the same, partly no doubt in order to rationalize the discordance between Christian ideals of humility and charity and the energies required for success in a competitive economy. But in Ruskin's case the division relates more clearly to his internal conflict between obedience and rebellion. Specifically, the characters of the child world dramatize two idealizations of Ruskin's mother — in himself as perfect teacher and in the children as perfect wives. Each figure fuses Ruskin with his mother and the present with the past, leaving Ruskin himself free of parental restraint. For the rest of his career the child world alternates with the "after life" of tragic heroism.
But the "little housewives" of The Ethics of the Dust must remain children for other reasons as well. The Lecturer is able to control them easily, dispensing gentle rebukes in a way to suggest he is half in love with their glistening eyes and flushes of shame; this tactic also permits him to reverse roles, pretending to submit helplessly to the children's teasing and ministrations. Since he is of "incalculable," that is to say, indeterminate, age, he may shrink and grow as the children grow and shrink, and we seem to see once again the boy Ruskin sharing his enthusiasms with a roomful of Adèles, this time captivated. Defined in this way, their love becomes unconditional, a mutual sharing that acts out the relations of crystalline structure and takes the place of sexuality. "I don't so much wonder," the Lecturer exclaims, "that people used to put up patiently with the dragons who took them for supper" (XVIII, 340), but the children are not dragons, and they will devour him only with their attention. He dislikes the French word for wife (femme, or "woman"), much preferring the English word derived, as he claims, [249/250] from "weaver." In a cryptic sentence, he tells the children, "You must be either house-Wives, or house-Moths.... you must either weave men's fortunes, and embroider them; or feed upon, and brink them to decay" (XVIII, 337). Between the devouring or corrupting beast and the subservient child lies no third alternative. The category subtly excluded from the book's pattern of antitheses is precisely that of adult sexuality. There is no place to grow up — no place, either, to grow old and die. The seed, Ruskin maintained again and again, is for the sake of the flower, not the flower for the seed; the flowering time must never yield to the seed time because the seed is the beginning of death — for the organism that bears it.
And so Ruskin converts his children into aesthetic objects, living artifacts that move in a kind of dance to the music of no time. Playing is, ultimately, the dominant motif of the book, as playfulness is the Lecturer's predominant manner — a manner that is often coy, self-indulgent, and repellent, but a mode, finally, that represents a necessary fiction or respite from the "grim face of reality," just as Blake's Beulah is the necessary respite from the wars of Eternity. But for Blake's Thel, paradise becomes the prison house of unreal existence. In a remarkable moment of self-irony, just as the Lecturer is preaching about dancing, cooking, and sewing, Ruskin has the children pretend he is dreaming at the fire, like a withered Narcissus caught by Naiads.
The Firmament of Mind
n The Queen of the Air Ruskin asks his adult readers to take Greek myths as seriously as the children in The Ethics of the Dust took their Lecturer's Egyptian allegories, and for the same reasons.4 From the perspective of innocence, which is also sexual innocence, the structure of reality is dualistic explicable by a set of allegorical fairy tales that reinforce the division. On the one hand is the childhood paradise, the defining emblem of which is the children as embodiments of crystalline [250/251] energy; on the other, the "after life," emblems of which are gold and serpents. But from the perspective of experience, the structure of reality is explicable by mature religious myth, which celebrates heroic virtue instead of submissive virtue, and conceives of a universal formative power in creative interchange with the serpent, or power of the earth. Ruskin chooses Greek mythology as his central example of religious apprehension and invites his readers to see the world afresh — to look upon "the stars, and hills, and storms" with "the earnestness of those childish eyes," that is, the eyes of the Greeks, the "children of men" (XIX, 300). But the Greek "childhood" really occupies the apex of spiritual development in history, as does the Venetian Gothic — the consummation of the first stage, when the strength of childhood and the autonomy of adulthood are fused.
All myths, Ruskin writes in The Queen of the Air, have three "structural parts — the root, and the two branches." The root is a physical phenomenon; the branches are, first, "a personal incarnation. . ., a trusted and companionable deity, with whom you may walk hand in hand, as a child with its brother or its sister," and second, a moral meaning. But the chief interest of myths lies in their highest development in the work of a great poet or artist. The mature stage of myth in Virgil or Phidias is therefore the consummation of human knowledge, standing to science not as fancies to fact but as a complete activity incorporating and transcending the limitations of scientific observation:
But if, for us also, as for the Greek..., the sun itself is an influence . . . of spiritual good — and becomes thus in reality, and not in imagination, to us also, a spiritual power, — we may then soon overpass the narrow limit of conception which kept that power impersonal and rise with the Greek to the thought of an angel who rejoiced as a strong man to run his course (XIX, 302-303).
In using the Nineteenth Psalm to articulate the experience of a Greek beholding Apollo, Ruskin is true to the unity of what Blake called the "poetic genius," except that unlike Blake, Ruskin insists on the complementary validity of scientific and imaginative perception. This complementarity he achieves by virtue of physico-spiritual parallelism: light, for example, is both a physical and a spiritual power, and life itself, an unanalyzable power, may be conceived scientifically as molecular interactions but imaginatively as "spirit."
For Ruskin the study of myths reveals the unity of the human imagination in its collective character, a unity ascertainable most clearly in the work of great and inspired minds. That unity in turn implies a structure of coherence in the universe, since the mind does not act without an object. But the unity of mind is Ruskin's ultimate ontological ground and not, as before, the objectivity of natural appearances. Thus he writes that "all true vision" [251/252]
is founded on constant laws common to all human nature; that it perceives, however darkly, things which are for all ages true . . . and that its fullness is developed and manifested more and more by the reverberation of it from minds of the same mirror-temper, in succeeding ages. You will understand Homer better by seeing his reflection in Dante, as you may trace new forms and softer colours in a hillside, redoubled by a lake. [XIX, 310]
The image of the "diminishing glass" in The Stones of Venice and of the "dark mirror" in Modern Painters V clearly refers to fallen human perception, but the present image stresses clarity rather than distortion, the clarity gained by comparing various views. In a related figure from "Fairy Stories," he compares the natural development of a mythological tradition with a "flying cloud," which, though it changes, remains a "sign of the sky" — "a shadowy image, as truly a part of the great firmament of the human mind as the light of reason which its seems to interrupt" (XIX, 236). Normally we would expect the cloud to stand for fancy, half-concealing and half-revealing the sun of truth, but the primary meaning here is that the products of myth and the products of scientific reason are equally "natural," equally "true." Both passages deny the mirror model of truth, returning in effect to the assumption implicit throughout Modern Painters I that interpretations are enhancements rather than successively feebler reflections of reflections. As a result, "primitive" myths, constructed in one set of historical circumstances, may be reinterpreted and reconceived for a new age, in exactly the way that words require redefinition.
And so The Queen of the Air, drawing eclectically upon certain current anthropological theories,5 nevertheless stands as the culmination of nearly thirty years of thinking about nature and representation, a final attempt at conceiving all the modes of confronting nature as a single, consistent activity of praise. The immediate origin of the book is a lecture delivered in 1869 entitled "Greek Myths of Storm," but as usual for Ruskin, the relation of specific topic to broader subject creates organizational confusion. The first chapter incorporates the original lecture. The second, "supplementary to the preceding lecture," studies [252/253] the "relations of Athena to the vital force in material organism," centering chiefly on birds, snakes, and plants. The third — "Various Notes relating to the Conception of Athena as the Directress of the Imagination and Will" — is a jumble of ideas on art and economics, mostly spliced together from other books. The chapter titles, which impose an imprecise but suggestive unity upon this miscellany, are composed of corresponding English and Greek phrases: "Athena in the Heavens," "Athena in the Earth," and "Athena in the Heart" correspond to "Athena Chalinitis" (the Restrainer), "Athena Keramitis" ("Ready for the Potter," as in ge keramitis, "potter's earth"), and "Athena Ergane" (the Worker). But who is this protean goddess? Most broadly she is the animating principle or "formative power" of nature — what Coleridge called the esemplastic power — which in Christian terms becomes Wisdom, the female counterpart of the creative Logos. Again, as air or spirit, she is the romantic muse, like Shelley's West Wind, literally "inspiring" the answering mind with the fierceness of will, at once creative and destructive, necessary to the moral and poetic imagination. Yet again, she is a specific combination of virtues and qualities, associated at once with specific myths and with Ruskin's own career: the confused third chapter is essentially an apologia for the writer's life, using the goddess as its guiding metaphor. Ruskin's Athena, then, is at one and the same time the object and creation of the religious imagination in general and also a particular figure, one among several in the Greek pantheon. In refashioning traditional materials into personal perspective, Ruskin is of course repeating a standard romantic procedure: we think not only of Shelley and Blake and Keats but also of Carlyle's Teufelsdröckh, who can describe the religious imagination in general only in terms of a specific subject (the clothes philosophy, acting as a trope for vision) and a specific persona with a biography. But just as clearly, the perspectivism, so to speak, of The Queen of the Air looks forward to twentieth-century habits of thought: Athena, we might say, is the ethos of Ruskin's philosophizing (as the Winnington pupils are the ethos of a different perspective in The Ethics of Dust), just as, for example, Don Quixote is the ethos of Ortega y Gasset's ontology, the specific personal and cultural context from which a person learns to grasp the world. The book, then, is both an original act of myth making and a myth about myth making — an activity that, for Ruskin, takes its "root" in natural appearances. As a manifestation of nature, Athena is the Aristotelian "formative power" infusing matter, or again the breath of life infusing the inanimate clay, or yet again, the element of air acting on earth. This last point suggests a way of unraveling the [253/254] complexities of the first two lectures. For Ruskin, various models of myth making draw from various classes of natural phenomena — specifically, from weather, plants, and animals, which we can now consider in order.
The first lecture attempts to map the heavens by classifying winds and clouds according to constant allegorical meanings, which as always for Ruskin exist in antithetical pairs. This firmamental map turns out to be a systematized version of the interpretations Ruskin suggested in Munera Pulveris, a system, that is to say, of energy economics in which the codes of emotion and wealth are interchangeable. For example, Aeolus, the steward of the winds, is prosperous with his fortress of brass and his twelve children, demonstrating "this idea of gifts and preciousness in the winds of heaven," but the Harpies, which are furious little whirlwinds, are "spirits of wasted energy, and wandering disease, and unappeased famine, and unsatisfied hope. So you have, on the one side, the winds of prosperity and health, on the other, of ruin and sickness" (XIX, 312-314). The effect of this and other readings of storm myths is to convert meteorological phenomena into the firmament of the human mind — or rather that of a multiform energy both mental and passionate, which, when restrained and fulfilled by the agency of Athena or Wisdom, becomes life-as-wealth. But the most complex figure is Hermes, the cloud shepherd, whom Ruskin views as a kind of factotum for Athena. The character of this god varies from gentle and serviceable to deceitful. Certain epithets, according to Ruskin, suggest that physically Hermes represents "the silver cloud lighted by the sun," or the veiler of the light. Since his name means "impulse," he is also associated with all movements of air: he is "guide of all mysterious and cloudy movement" and "all successful subtleties" (XIX, 324). Because in a slightly earlier passage Ruskin reminds us that fables are intricate arabesques representing the "truths of emotion," it is hard not to see Ruskin's Hermes as the free play of fancy, or in Freudian terms, the distorting agency by which the primitive instincts are filtered into consciousness, itself an infinite arabesque of words and thoughts. In Ruskinian terms he is the activity of the symbolic grotesque, capable, when bound firmly to the service of Athena, of giving body to the highest truths in the form of great poetry and art.
Ruskin's reading of the heavens tends to become an elaborate metaphor of the shape-shifting activities of consciousness, rendered stable in terms of spectrums of meaning that become polarities at their opposing ends. This is not the case when Ruskin turns to plants, or the relation of air (Athena) to vegetative growth, because now his myth making takes the form of associative chains, like atoms on a molecular strand, or rather like the endless growth and curl of a vine. For example, the olive,. sacred to Athena, is associated with Hercules, who [254/255] planted it on Olympus to form the Olympic crown, with the oil of the Panathenaic games, with the anointing of the stock of Jesse, with extreme unction, the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and many other things. Thus, through a single plant — "those twisted branches whose leaves give grey bloom to the hillsides" of Greece and Palestine (XIX, 337) — Ruskin binds both of the Western religious traditions, crowning them with three peaks, Olympus, the Acropolis, and Golgotha. The olive may stand for several moral ideas, but its chief importance is not as allegory but as nexus, a paradigm of the eternal human activity of "culture" in both its senses — as the raising of crops from the fertile earth and as the attribution of social meanings to the created world. In this and other examples, which combine verbal and visual elements in a way familiar to us from Dante's eagle, Ruskin reconceives natural history and literary criticism as aspects of the same descriptive activity. Natural forms are the original materials of the poetic imagination yet cannot themselves be fully understood without reference to their cultural meanings.
Ruskin's second chapter, "Athena Keramitis," takes up the relations of Athena to the earth, or in other words, the incarnation of consciousness in organic material, but the new subject requires a new form of mythopoeic response. The first chapter set up an analogy between weather phenomena and the dialectical movements of mind and then between vegetation and the garlands woven by human culture, a binding activity made possible by the polysemous character of words. But the second lecture locates the unit of significance in nature itself, in the logos manifesting itself in antithetical forms. The vital force, Ruskin tells us, creates
calcareous earth . . . separately, and quartz, separately, and gold, separately, and charcoal, separately; and then so directs the relations of these elements that the gold may destroy the souls of men by being yellow; and the charcoal destroy their souls by being hard and bright; and the quartz represent to them an ideal purity; and the calcareous earth, soft, may beget crocodiles, and dry and hard, sheep . . . representing to [man] states of moral evil and good, and becoming myths to him of destruction or redemption, and, in the most literal sense, "Words" of God. [XIX, 359]
If the first chapter belongs to the associative imagination, the second belongs to the penetrative imagination, which reaches its mature stage in Ruskin's career in his invocations to the bird and the serpent. In the first of these prayerful meditations, he comes closest to the original ground of religious experience, permitting metaphor to arise by natural exfoliation from the heart of an observed object. The bird, he writes, is "a drift of the air brought into form by plumes," "a blown flame," the perfect type of breath or spirit "conscious of itself, conquering [255/256] itself, ruling itself," and of the sky given form and voice. "As we may imagine the wild form of the cloud closed into the perfect form of the bird's wings, so the wild voice of the cloud into its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied, rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness." And it comprises in itself all the gifts of the Queen of the Air — light, color, sound, life, motion, restraint:
Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colours of the air: on these the gold of the cloud, that cannot be gathered by any covetousness; the rubies of the clouds that are not the price of Athena, but are Athena; the vermilion of the cloud-bar, and the flame of the cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted blue of the deep wells of the sky — all these, seized by the creating spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume; with wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand; — even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between the stronger plumes, seen, but too soft for touch. [XIX, 360-361]
Like Hopkins's windhover, this bird is the "symbol of Divine help" in the form of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire (XIX, 361), yet it is a pagan bird as well, concentrating the heavens into a single point that is also "infinite" and therefore coterminous with the motions of wind, cloud, fire, and sea, like Venice. These motions are Athena, the supreme artificer who weaves the air into the bird tapestry just as Greek myths weave winds, clouds, and passions into the arabesque of their pantheon: human speech and natural language correspond precisely. And so Ruskin closes his chapter with an invocation to Athena that does not name her directly but rather fashions her out of a string of verbs, each one a dot of paint: the formative power warms, shades, and cools; fills, sustains, and designs; cherishes, calls, waits, and feeds; spins, weaves, renews, flits, whispers, thrills; joins itself, becomes, enters into, commands, measures, molds, fills, and passes away (XIX, 386).
"This," Ruskin concludes, "was the Athena of the greatest people of the days of old." But at the same time Athena is a "companionable deity," not an abstract presence only. The connection between "spirit" as a generative power and "spirit" as a set of moral gifts constitutes Ruskin's particular perspective on the moral universe.
Our most direct experience of Athena is through the air we breathe, which is "purification, and health, and power" (XIX, 328); thus she has power over "blessings of calm, and wrath of storm." Spiritually, she "inspires" humans with strength for battle or with "habitual wisdom; wisdom of conduct and of the heart, as opposed to the wisdom of imagination and the brain; moral, as distinct from intellectual; inspired, as distinct from illuminated." In general she is "inspired and 256/257] impulsive wisdom in human conduct and human art, giving the instinct of infallible decision, and of faultless invention" (XIX, 305-306, 346). In phrases like these, Ruskin attempts to compose qualities normally distinct into a fusion of opposites. For example, although Athena stands for Wisdom, she is associated with inspiration and passion rather than with intellect. She is "impulsive," giving "decision" that is at once instinctive and infallible. In another place, Ruskin couples "passion and virtue" with the "spirit" of man, the "central sign" of which is "endurance, or patience" (XIX, 352), thus placing passion and patience in the same camp. The Greek menis passes through many transmutations. As the first word of the Iliad, it is usually translated "anger," but Ruskin instead supplies "will" and "zeal, or passion" and, through its Latin derivative mens, "mind." Most broadly, these conjunctions mix feeling with thinking and self-control with desire, just as in his natural allegory, Ruskin transposes onto air qualities normally associated with water, the emotional element. Thus Athena is on the one hand the restrainer, bridling Pegasus and bestowing calm, but on the other, the inspirer, the menis (will, mind, wrath, passion, zeal) of Achilles: "If he is to be calmed, it is she who calms him; if angered, it is she who inflames him" (XIX, 333). The wrath, however, belongs less to Achilles than to the prophets, just as the wisdom of the goddess is closer to Solomon than to Apollo. Inspiration, zeal, justice, and the wisdom that begins in the fear of the Lord, properly belong to a Hebraic idiom rather than to a Hellenic one. We might say that The Queen of the Air is an attempt to reconcile the religions of Homer and Isaiah, lightening the Hebraic strictness of conscience by a glitter of the Adriatic and the tang of Alpine air.
This fusion helps us see by the bye the profound connections between Ruskin's study of myth and Arnold's contemporaneous excursions into social criticism and the study of religion. In temperament two men could hardly be more different. Arnold is among the wariest of thinkers, Ruskin among the most impetuous. The one dreaded being overwhelmed by what he called the multitudinousness of life as much as the other sought to plunge himself into it. For Arnold the accents of wisdom are tentative and reasonable; for Ruskin they are dramatic and paradoxical — eccentric in the root sense of the word. For all these differences, their broadest intentions are profoundly similar. Both men assumed that the best that had been thought and said composed a coherent corpus, offering a vantage point from which modern subjectivity could be judged. Both sought to transcend intellect and passion by a synthesis that Arnold called imaginative reason and Ruskin personified as Wisdom. Both men, skeptics with a deep religious sensibility, sought beyond blind faith and material evidences for a joy whose grounds are true. By suffusing heroic resolution with the freshness [257/258] of the Aegean and the "deep wells" of the air, by locating in the physical experience of nature the perpetually renewing fount of cultural achievement, by touching morality, as Arnold might have said, with joy, The Queen of the Air performs its own act of poetic legislation, attempting to alter and enrich the perceptual field of its reader.
"In beginning the series of my corrected works," Ruskin writes early in the third chapter, "I wish this principle ... to be made plain. . . . The faults of a work of art are the faults of its workman, and its virtues his virtues" (XIX, 389). The Queen of the Air was to be the first volume of a new edition of Ruskin's works and so would stand, in effect, as a general introduction. It would seem that the third chapter, entitled "Athena in the Heart" or "Athena the Worker," would be a brief casebook of Ruskin's own justification, picturing Athena as moving and working within him. Having distinguished her from Apollo, whose agency makes the work of man beautiful rather than moral, he in effect makes of her the muse of social reform and affirms the direction his career took with Unto This Last. The third part, then, is directly didactic, hammering out the particulars of the poetic "legislation" manifested in the earlier lectures.
Yet the emotional violence and slovenly disorganization of these pages come as a shock, an ominous precursor of the periodic derangements Ruskin was to suffer in his last two decades as a writer. At times he seems an irritable parody of Teufelsdröckh's editor ("I find by me a violent little fragment of undelivered lecture which puts this, perhaps, still more clearly" [XIX, 406]); at others, an avatar of Achilles himself, "a mortal whose name means 'Ache of Heart,' and whose short life is only the incarnate brooding and burst of storm" (XIX, 307). Inflamed rather than inspired, he becomes indistinguishable from the vengeful Hebrew deity whose words he puts into the mouth of Athena:
in justice only she judges and makes war. But in this war of hers she is wholly implacable. She has little notion of converting criminals. There is no faculty of mercy in her when she has been resisted. Her word is only, "I will mock when your fear cometh..." for her wrath is of irresistible tempest: once roused it is blind and deaf, — rabies — madness of anger — darkness of the Dies Irae.
and that is, indeed, the sorrowfullest fact we have to know about our own several lives. Wisdom never forgives. Whatever resistance we have offered to her law, she avenges for ever; — the lost hour can never be redeemed, and the accomplished wrong never atoned for.... Wisdom can "put away" sin, but she cannot pardon it; and she is apt, in her haste, to put away the sinner as well, when the black aegis is on her breast. [XIX, 399-400]
This is the vengeful Athena, whose emblem is the gorgon, the judger of men as the good Athena is their comforter. The gifts of one (health, [258/259] purity, brightness) ar precisely antithetical to the curses of the other (rabies, tempest, blind and deaf, darkness), who becomes as insane and pestilential as her enemies. Clearly enough, the wrath is Ruskin's own, recoiling more harshly upon himself than upon his enemies. In one revealing passage he brings himself before the judging eye of a Turner drawing: "As I myself look at it, there is no fault nor folly of my life, — and both have been many and great, — that does not rise up against me, and take away my joy, and shorten my power of possession, of sight, of understanding. And every past effort of my life, every gleam of rightness or good in it, is with me now, to help me in my grasp of this art, and its vision" (XIX, 395-396). These are the words of a man on the rack, ravaged by the unrestrained superego that prosecutes wars of religion and is also akin to the demonic form of rationality Robert Lowell caught in his figure of the Roman Athena, the goddess of Empire: "Pure mind and murder at the scything prow / Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain." ("Beyond the Alps," in Selected Poems p. 56.)
Conscience, "inspired" or internalized, approves when its demands are met and turns vengeful when they are not. Ruskin's Athena, the type of the Wisdom that begins with the fear of God, is both "within" and "without" — a divine lawgiver who punishes and rewards, and at the same time the inspiriting source of Ruskin's own voice, the ethos of a book that shifts from tenderness to fury. This radical splitting, which characterizes Ruskin's handling of the female figure throughout his career, we first noticed in The Stones of Venice in the alternation between virgin and whore. But ultimately Time itself is feminized, just as in the later book, Time is split between the eternal freshness of the Greek past and the terrors of a present experienced as perpetual bereavement. The poisonous rages of Athena are precisely the terrors of time banished from the Winnington world, where it is called "after life"; yet the two books, as I have suggested, are not contradictions but contraries similar to Blake's states of innocence and experience. The similarity is that, in both worlds, there can be no real forgiveness. Ruskin had written from Winnington, "The weary longing to begin life over again, and the sense of fate forever forbidding it — here or hereafter — is terrible." In the child garden, the girls are emblems of grace and so "ought not" to be capable of evil; for Ruskin at fifty, the laws of fate forbidding the renewal of life create the nostalgic dream of innocence on one hand and, on the other, a theory of myth renewing the ancient possibility of propitiation. This last possibility appears in a brief exchange between the Lecturer and one of the children in The Ethics of the Dust. The child has been describing the reaction of her little sister to the news that a friend had gone across the sea: [259/260]
Then Dotty looked around the room; and I had just poured some water out into the basin; and Dotty ran to it, and got up on a chair, and dashed her hands through the water, again and again; and cried, "Oh, deep, deep sea! send little Allie back to me."
LECTURER. Isn't that pretty, children? There's a dear little heathen for you! The whole heart of Greek mythology is in that; the idea of a personal being in the elemental power; — of its being moved by prayer; and of its presence everywhere, making the broken diffusion of the element sacred. [XVIII, 353]
"The broken diffusion of the element is sacred": the phrase might stand as the epigraph for both books and as the master theme of Ruskin's half-despairing reassertions of the romantic faith during his final decades. For the broken diffusion is the brokenness of time as well and therefore of self. In 1868 Ruskin had written Norton, "In my genius I am curiously imperfect and broken.... And the greatest part of my life — as Life (and not merely as an investigating or observant energy) has been . . . a series of delights which are gone for ever, and of griefs which remain forever" (XXXVI, 555). The image of a crystal stream, symbol of Life as a continuous force of virtue, is one fiction of stability erected to countermand the vision of total loss, a second fiction is the persistence of "companionable presence" in nature. The meaning of The Queen of the Air, as both a public and a private statement, lies in its prayerful invocations to the goddess that has been driven off, enacted also by the child who propitiates the elements for the return of her lost sister. "All great art is praise": in Ruskin's work on myth, praise becomes an effort of recapture, and the ineluctable bereaving of time is converted into a two-faced goddess who can be propitiated and assuaged.
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 17 April 2015