tudents of Ruskin are fond of recalling that the young prodigy of Herne Hill once planned an epic poem on the universe, to be called "Eudosia." Ruskin abandoned the poem but kept the subject: he never became, as he was expected to, a poet or a painter or a naturalist or a preacher, but he was true to all of these callings in his fashion, composing the prose epic of his complete works in a medium suited to his genius and his temperament — his love, especially, of plunging into subjects, puzzling out problems, praising and recording, forming impressions and proofs, and finally conveying his thoughts with an urgency and spontaneity possible only in a prose of direct address. In the course of a half century as critic and polemicist, Ruskin also bared his heart to his public in the manner of a romantic poet, but this mixture of expression and exposition, along with the unsteadiness of his mind and the sheer bulk of his work, ensured that for the first half of the twentieth century the Ruskinian corpus remained essentially unread. Then, sometime in the 1950s or afterward, it became generally possible not only to read him again but to sense him as an inevitable discovery. For early modern readers, the complete works were brilliant in episode but dense, wayward, and unchartable in the whole. More recent readers, however, have found not only a subtle and broadranging body of thought but also a multivalent prose texture peculiar to Ruskin, in which a tissue of private allusions, far-spun associations, wordplays, and digressions often forms an implicit counterpoint to the announced subject and its development. Both the pleasures and the challenges inherent in this polysemy may be suggested by a caricature.
Let us imagine that Keats, instead of writing an ode on a Grecian urn, plunged into a study of classical art, took voluminous notes and sketches in the British Museum, then set out to write a definitive work proving that Greek painting is the greatest the world has ever seen and using a particular urn as his crowning example. In the course of a long [11/12] book, he provides chapters on courtship (advising modern couples to defer marriage because of the pleasures of self-denial), on ancient rituals, and on various theories of the imagination, including also some footnotes proposing a restructuring of the British Museum, and, finally, suggesting that we turn to the Arcadians for models of our social institutions. Let us also assume that the individual points are made in the form of general assertions, some of them evidently hyperbolical, so that we would not at first, perhaps, trust the voice and would need to sort out the statements and reconcile them afterward. Somewhere along the way would appear the sentence "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," as if spontaneously but with great emphasis. Finally, let us assume that Keats wrote prose assiduously for over fifty years and that the present example is typical of his style of organization.
Once such a body of works has been taken seriously in its entirety and not in colorful excerpts alone, its interpretation might follow separate stages. The first would be an attempt to grasp the essential coherence and the stylistic achievements (meeting the usual charges of eccentricity and inconsistency). Then would follow a closer study, first of its place in the history of ideas, with particular attention to theoretical problems, and second, of' the characteristics of the complete works as literary texts-their genre, imagery, biographical references, rhetorical strategy, and so forth. The specialized approaches would of course have to omit certain features. The intellectual historian, for example (to return to the Keatsian prototype), would focus on the implications of equating beauty with truth and asserting that this equation is all we know on earth and all we need to know, but he would pass over digressions, such as the one about courtship, and would treat the imagery as essentially illustrative. The literary scholar would focus on precisely the digressions and images that the intellectual historian passes by, grasping connections such as those between time, imagination, and the "sylvan historian," or between the "still unravished bride" and the panting lover, and seeing the complete structure of imagery in relationship, finally, to the concluding statement.
The best of the many recent works on Ruskin-works that have constituted perhaps the most remarkable of our century's scholarly rehabilitations of' its Victorian forebears -integrate the responses I have somewhat artificially distinguished, although the most thorough work has been necessarily concerned with the main outlines of Ruskin's thought. Along with these books and articles have appeared many letter collections (a minor industry in itself) and the fine biography these have made possible, John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea (1982). The flood of knowledge has helped us to see how much is left to explore and what problems of synthesis remain. One of these problems [12/13] deserves particular note. The turmoil of Ruskin's emotional life, complicated by the onset of organic illness late in his career, raises in acute form an old and justified concern — that biographical readings will undermine the value of the ideas by referring them to private, perhaps morbid conditions. This problem may be stated in its near converse, Some critics of the Victorian Sages have suggested that we read them as creators of verbal structures that refer not to an external world of action and prescription but to the subjective unity of a private sensibility, but with this approach we risk abandoning our interest in the ideas and their context, our interest above all in their life and cogency.
In this book I attempt a fresh look at Ruskin's career as a whole by reading particular texts in a way that will integrate personal and public concerns-their double claim on us as both intellectual arguments and poetic expressions. Ruskin once remarked of his books on art that they bring their subject to "a root in human passion or human hope." My assumption is that his keenest contributions to our understanding of the world derive precisely from his own passions and hopes, which he was able at his most creative to transform into convincing metaphors of his culture's spiritual contradictions and possibilities. With each text, then, I begin with the man himself at certain moments of his concrete life experience, then attempt with tact and sympathy to locate the places where structures of thought and feeling reinforce each other in the most interesting ways.
My particular readings will emerge in the pages that follow, but part of the general shape I attribute to Ruskin's career may be briefly suggested. Most simply, that shape resembles the three-part model of human development that M. H. Abrams and others have noticed in romantic poetry — the movement from paradisal innocence to a period of catastrophic doubt and estrangement, concluding in a qualified reaffirmation of the marriage of mind and nature that is also a partial return to the first stage. Ruskin's career begins with an affirmation of romantic innocence as an earned position (even though his first major work followed the kind of emotional crisis that might have catapulted him into the second, fallen stage). In one of the early Letters to a College Friend, he claimed that there was death in the garden of Eden but that "man in Eden was a growing and perfectible animal" who, had he not fallen, would have been "translated or changed," leaving the earth without pain. In the years following Modern Painters I, Ruskin assumed the possibility of an original spiritual energy persisting through growth and change, a wealth that is also life, traces of which he found in the fallen world of human history as ruins, an ambiguous category signifying both persistence and decline. The year 1860 is usually taken as the turning point of his career because he shifted from art criticism to [13/14] social criticism, but it also represents the climax of a new movement of thought and feeling that Ruskin compared to Carlyle's Everlasting Nay. This heroic acceptance of the Fall — a tragic humanism unsupported by traditional religious assurances — was an excruciating release from nostalgia, a break that in the troubled subsequent decades he qualified in two basic ways — by creating a child world, centering on the symbol of Rose La Touche and unchanged by time and sin, and by imagining heroic combat in a world given over, for the moment, to the laws of Fate — until at last he reachieved a vision of transcendence expressed as the narrative of his own past.
To cover such a large and complex body of work I have been necessarily selective. I rely only on published material and use the most recently published letters only occasionally. I have chosen books that seemed to me particularly representative of separate stages of development, including some of the best-known books and a few, such as Deucalion and The Ethics of the Dust, that are all but unknown today. I hope that these selections will disclose through their connectedness the outlines of a single, massive intellectual enterprise, at once the most ambitious self-portrait in Victorian literature and the most comprehensive presentation of Victorian life as a moment in the spiritual history of humankind.
The notes to this book record my debts; I wish here to record some gifts — personal and scholarly benefactions that have made possible whatever of value this work contains. Such a record must begin with John D. Rosenberg, the true begetter of modern Ruskin studies. For me as for many, The Darkening Glass and the anthology The Genius of John Ruskin were the indispensable introductions to Ruskin's works. Like many others, I have benefited from Rosenberg's continual generosity and help as teacher, adviser, and friend. The manuscript of this book has gained invaluably at various stages from readings by M. H. Abrams, Elizabeth Helsinger, George P. Landow, Dorothy Mermin, and John Rosenberg. It also shows the indirect influence of friends who entered my life at crucial moments in the past decade: Rachel Dickinson, Robert Farrell, Nancy Kaplan, Santina LaCava, Thomas Merwin, George Miller, William Wright. Last of all, I record my deepest gratitude to my colleagues in the English department of Cornell University.
Paul L. Sawyer
Ithaca, New York
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 17 April 2015