‘The moral significance of the image’ — Works 19.300

Illuminated initial F

rom 1860 onwards the oppositions in Ruskin's life and writings became more and more marked. I do not mean the petty contradictions that his critics were always pointing out, but the major oppositions between theory and practice, between the ideal and reality, and finally between sanity and madness. A major tension existed in his attitude to the relationship between art and society. The attack on conventional economics in 1860 did not resolve the problem of the contradictory need for a good art to make society noble, and for a good society to produce a great art. It was as though he had to start all over again. He confessed

the disappointment of discovered uselessness, having come to see the great fact that great Art is of no real use to anybody but the next great Artist, that it is wholly invisible to people in general — for the present — and that to get anybody to see it, one must begin at the other end, with moral education of the people, and physical, and so I’ve to turn myself quite upside down, and I’m half broken-backed and can’t manage it. [36.348]

He was already aware in 1860 of the personal limitations that at times would make his efforts seem ludicrous, or pathetic.

The way to resolve the internal conflict of irreconcilables was to release the tension between them through action. The opposing forces could be held in balance in the act of turning ideas into practice. That was the paradox and resolution of art. He wrote, quoting himself:

‘So far from art’s being immoral, little else except art is moral.’ I have now farther to tell you, that little else, except art, is wise; that all knowledge, unaccompanied by a habit of useful action, is too likely to become deceitful, and that every habit of useful action must resolve itself into some elementary practice of manual labour. [20.264]

Ruskin meant just that: that all art began as some physical action, and that all manual labour, if rightly directed, could be as fulfilling as art: [148/149] ‘To succeed to my own satisfaction in a manual piece of work, is life, — to me, as to all men’ (28.206). This was the need for the ‘moral education of the people, and physical’ that is the foundation of his programme of action.

The early 1860s were the lowest point of Ruskin’s career. Nervous exhaustion after completing Modern Painters and Unto this last brought on the usual depression, compounded this time by the public's rejection of his economic ideas. The articles for Unto this last were stopped by The Cornhill while he still had four more chapters planned, and his next series of articles on economics, Munera Pulveris (1862-63), this time for Fraser’s Magazine, suffered the same fate. Unto this last, which was reprinted in book form in 1862 (although the opportunity to complete his scheme was not taken), got no sympathy from the public, selling only 898 copies during the next ten years (17.xxxii). The reviewers turned against the formerly popular art critic. The Saturday Review called his articles ‘feminine nonsense,’ ‘pious as well as silly.’ The Manchester Review among others found him subversive: ‘It is not against political economy, but against society that he has written.’1 The public reaction reinforced his father’s displeasure; John James’s attitude had made him disguise the full extent of his social revolt during the 1850s; the apparent failure of Unto this last and Munera Pulveris caused the reimposition of parental censorship.

Relations between John and his ageing parents were deteriorating anyway. The change in his religious views put a barrier between them, and their control over his life became more and more irksome. In 1861 he wrote to his friend Charles Norton about the ‘almost unendurable solitude in my own home, only made more painful to me by parental love which did not and never could help me’ (36.356). The answer was to go abroad, rejecting England and avoiding parents. On 14 May 1862: ‘Tomorrow I leave England for Switzerland; and whether I stay in Switzerland or elsewhere, to England I shall seldom return. I must find a home —’ (LN1.127). Home-seeking turned out to be an impractical scheme for building a house in the Alps.

For refreshment he returned to geology and took up classical studies again. The normal high output of work dropped back; the only significant products of these ‘exile’ years were the articles that became Munera Pulveris. The problem was solved by the death of John James on 3 March 1864. The responsibilities he had to assume called him home, and the death of his father made it no longer necessary to stay abroad. He was freed in several ways: an inheritance of £120,000, together [149/150] with various properties, and pictures valued at £10,000, gave him almost unlimited power to carry out his schemes; the removal of his father’s censorship allowed him to give unrestricted expression to his ideas.

The result was a burst of activity: books, articles, lectures, letters to the press. The ending of his father’s editorial control may have caused him to abandon large-structured works like Modern Painters (finished off under pressure from John James, and even then not properly completed); but writing was becoming a continuous activity without any need for a specific form. The lecture, bringing personal contact with an audience and limitations of time, suited his arguments best, and these became the basic unit for his books during the 1860s. As Ruskin took over responsibility for his own publishing, he was free to send material to the printers and keep it standing in type until a suitable place was found for it. By the 1880s part-publication was the standard form in which his works appeared. His publications became a running commentary on his actions, finding its most convenient form in the monthly public letters of Fors Clavigera which began in 1871.

In spite of the widely different forms his writing took, it all related to a central core of ideas constantly linked and repeated, and consistently expressed in a coherent language of imagery. The essential message remained the same:

The Science of Political Economy is a Lie, — wholly and to the very root (as hitherto taught). It is also the Damnedest, — that is to say, the most utterly and to the lowest pit condemned of God and his Angels — that the Devil, or the Betrayer of Men, has yet invented. . . . To this ‘science’ and to this alone (the professed and organised pursuit of Money) is owing All the evil of modern days. ... It is the Death incarnate of Modernism, and the so-called science of its pursuit is the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind. [17.lxxxii]

Munera Pulveris began as an attempt to construct a political economy based on the new definitions made in Unto this last. The first two articles try to contain the runaway energy of his prose within a careful framework of numberings and section headings. But he was unable to sustain the effort to keep his associative, all-embracing world-view restricted to a narrow focus.

Such being the general plan of the inquiry before us, I shall not limit myself to any consecutive following of it, having hardly any good hope of being able to complete so laborious a work as it must prove to me; but from time to time, [150/151] as I have leisure, shall endeavour to carry forward this part or that, as may be immediately possible; indicating always with accuracy the place which the particular essay will or should take in the completed system. [17.162-63]

The confidence with which he rejects system, while all the time claiming that he could use it if he tried, is ominous.

Munera Pulveris certainly breaks down as a system. The third article is almost taken over by a footnote, as an image from Unto this last sets off a meditation on his recent reading: Homer, the Greek tragedians, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, Spenser, Herbert and Bacon, the whole held together by the patterns and associations he perceived. Such apparent digression pleased the editor of Fraser’s Magazine, but not the publisher, who eventually stepped in, and his second attempt to change the economic thinking of his time, like the first, was brought short. When the articles were finally published in book form nine years later, they were introduced as ‘the preface of the intended work’ (17.143), a work never to be completed.

Although Ruskin failed in rational terms to construct a political economy in Munera Pulveris based on the definitions of Unto this last, he did none the less take the argument a stage further. As he saw it, the fundamental problem of economics was the conflict between all those things which could be summed up as availing towards life, and all those things which meant destruction and death. To produce a positive programme from this analysis he had to find a means to resolve the conflict on the side of life. This mediating power was the principle of Justice, as outlined in Unto this last; but now Ruskin found a way to give the abstract principle a visual form: the image of kingship. This idea evolves from a footnote in Unto this last, where the important distinction is first drawn between Ruskinian justice and common-law justice, or equity. Ruskinian justice, righteousness, refers to an absolute standard of right and wrong; equity is no more than a balancing of interests. Thus, ‘Righteousness, is King’s justice, and Equity Judge’s justice’ (17.59n). It is an absolute standard conveyed in the Bible, and the Biblical phrase ‘sun of justice’ (17.59) which triggered off this definition of kingship, made the essential connection in Ruskin’s mind between this new idea and the scheme of light and dark.

Kingship dominates the latter half of Munera Pulveris. Those ideas of government which he had intended to convey through the ordered system of his opening pages burst out in a flower of associations. The principles governing charity

lead us into the discussion of the principles of government in general, and [151/152] especially of that of the poor by the rich, discovering how the Graciousness joined with the Greatness, or Love with Majestas, is the true Dei Gratia, or Divine Right, of every form and manner of King; i.e. specifically of the thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, and powers of the earth: — of the thrones, stable, or ‘ruling,’ literally right doing powers (‘rex eris, recte si facies’) — of the dominations — lordly, edifying, dominant and harmonious powers; chiefly domestic, over the ‘built thing,’ domus, or house; and inherently two-fold, Dominus and Domina; Lord and Lady . . . . [17.229]

The sentence continues, virtually no more than a series of rapid notes, for another seven lines, but the sketch contains all the elements of the image he needed to convey the absolute standard of justice that resolved the conflict of good and evil.

Kingship would not only hold back the bad, but act positively for good. ‘Critic law’ assigns rewards and punishments according to a man’s worth (his true, not economic value); in its capacity as reward-giver, Critic law ‘becomes truly Kingly, instead of Draconic . . . that is, it becomes the law of man and of life, instead of the worm and of death — both of these laws [of reward and punishment] being set in changeless poise one against another, and the enforcement of both being the eternal function of the lawgiver’ (17.242-23). Not surprisingly a stern kind of justice is proposed: ‘The essential thing for all creatures is to be made to do right; how they are made to do it — by pleasant promises, or hard necessities, pathetic oratory, or the whip — is comparatively immaterial’ (17.255).

Kingship, while deriving its authority from eternal powers, is an essentially human agency, and has no specifically institutional form. Right education brings responsibility and authority, ‘a power over the ill-guided and illiterate, which is, according to the measure of it, in the truest sense, kingly’ (18.109). The prudent peasant who is able to overcome a natural disaster and help his foolish neighbours without exploiting them ‘has been throughout their true Lord and King’ (17.267). The organization of the masons who built the Gothic cathedrals expresses the same values of humility and justice. Ruskin was even prepared to appeal to the merchants of Bradford, whose commercial ethics he despised, as kings (18.454). Moral leadership, from whatever source, would judge, guide, and substitute cooperation for competition. There is ‘only one pure kind of kingship; an inevitable and eternal kind, crowned or not; the kingship, namely, which consists in a stronger moral state, and a truer thoughtful state, than that of others; enabling therefore, to guide, or to raise them’ (18.110). [152/153]

It is not hard to find reasons for this choice of image. Ruskin’s Evangelical background had always made him think in terms of God as a judging power; and the loss of formal belief did not remove the idea of a spiritual force which could judge and punish. It satisfied Ruskin’s need for a sense of stability:

Observe that word ‘State’; we have got into a loose way of using it. It means literally the standing and stability of a thing; and you have the full force of it in the derived word ‘statue’ — the ‘immovable thing.’ A king’s majesty or ‘state,’ then, and the right of his kingdom to be called a state, depends on the movelessness of both: — without tremor, without quiver of balance; established and enthroned upon a foundation of eternal law which nothing can alter, nor overthrow. [18.110]

Historically, Ruskin explained his Toryism as ‘a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them’ (27.168), learnt from Homer and Sir Walter Scott. The Doges of Venice formed his ideal of an ‘elective monarchy’ (9.19-23), and his analysis of the rise and fall of Venice in St. Mark’s Rest of 1877-84, a paradigm for the history of all states, revolves around the rise and corruption of kingly authority (24.258). One group who most certainly did not contribute to his image of kingship were the contemporary rulers of the earth. Napoleon III, once admired, is severely criticized during the Franco-Prussian war for being ‘a shadow of a King’ (27.172), ‘a feeble Pan’s pipe, or Charon’s boatswain’s whistle, instead of a true king’ (27.579).

Kingship fights on the side of good, and it is in this sense that Ruskin’s views on war must be understood. At times he sounds a militant imperialist, praising the nobility earned in battle and the strength of nations raised in struggle, but this war is on the imaginative plane and has nothing to do with the actual wars of the nineteenth century. Modern war, ‘scientific war, — chemical and mechanic war' (18.472), was no more than the perfection of the methods of waste and destruction created by the capitalists. ‘All unjust war being supportable, if not by pillage of the enemy, only by loans from capitalists, these loans are repaid by subsequent taxation of the people, who appear to have no will in the matter, the capitalists’ will being the primary root of the war’ (17.104n). True, Ruskin wound up his inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1870 with an appeal to the youth of England to go forth and conquer the earth that sounds like an imperialist hymn (Cecil Rhodes found it an inspiration), but his imagery shows that he was thinking in terms of a moral rather than economic dominion (Sherburne 202). ‘Will you, youths [153/154] of England, make your country again a royal throne of kings; a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light?’ (20.41).

Kings and light point out once more the connection between the new image and the established theme of life against death, for in the moral war between good and bad, kingship will cause the light to push back the darkness. In the conclusion to Sesame and Lilies (1865), the imagery of the Resurrection is used to show how the conflict will be resolved; in the same way he appeals to the Arthurian legend of a tomb of sleeping kings who will return to life when the call is given to restore England to rights.

Kingship, as it evolves from a footnote in Unto this last through Munera Pulveris to Sesame and Lilies, is the resolution of the original struggle, but Ruskin’s creative imagination does not stop there. The image of kingship divides into two parts, just as Sesame and Lilies is divided into two lectures. The title of the first lecture, ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries,’ displays one side of the ideal of government; the second, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens,’ reveals the other.

Kingship is associated with war and judgment; Queenship tempers masculine leadership with feminine compassion: ‘it is a guiding, not a determining, function’ (18.121). The view of women portrayed by Ruskin in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ is a decidedly Victorian one, but that does not stop him appealing to women to take up their responsibilities and restore the polluted garden of England to its proper beauty (Millett 88-108). Women, by failing to act as guides to men, are as responsible as men for the wrongs that are done: ‘There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it’ (18.140). The beauty of woman’s private pleasure-garden is contrasted with the destruction around it: ‘Outside of that little rose-covered wall, the wild grass, to the horizon, is torn up by the agony of men, and beat level by the drift of their life-blood’ (18.141).

As the themes of kingship and queenship evolve they develop beyond the immediately ‘political’ context until they represent vital spiritual values. Queenship is at its most developed in a book whose title is, again, an image of the whole, The Queen of the Air (1869). This short work is in many ways the most typical — and the most delightful — of Ruskin’s late works. His own attitude towards it was predictably contradictory: he presented it as ‘desultory memoranda on a most noble subject’ (19.291) and yet also thought it ‘the best I ever wrote’ (37.86). The text is made up from six different sources, plus some unpublished fragments, and was never properly edited.4 ‘This work has grown under my hands so’ (36.563), he complained, shortly before abandoning the [154/155] half-corrected text to the printers. The ostensible subject was ‘a study of the Greek myths of cloud and storm’ (19.284), but Ruskin moves from mythology to botany to art criticism, economics, moral philosophy and colour theory, before returning to Greek art. In the process Ruskin retains a firm grip on the reality of the physical world, and at the same time moves far beyond it into mystical realms of thought.

The Queen of the Air is about myth, but the real subject is the imagination, Ruskin’s own imaginative process which transformed the physical facts of the world into symbols. It is the operation of those three orders of truth discussed in Chapter 3 — the truth of natural fact, the truth of thought and the truth of symbol — but the third, symbolic, level is much more extended and much more overt. The imaginative process is now also working in two directions at once: at the same time as interpreting the ‘Greek myths of Cloud and Storm,’ using the critical techniques which revealed the meaning of Turner’s Apollo and Python, Ruskin was also creating a new poetic structure, his own personal mythology, derived from those physical phenomena to which he attributed the source of myths.5 The myth-making goes back even further, beyond the discovery of the symbolic imagination necessary to understand Turner, to his original inspiration, the beauty of the natural world. In ‘all the most beautiful and enduring myths, we shall find, not only a literal story of a real person, — not only a parallel imagery of moral principle, — but an underlying worship of natural phenomena, out of which both have sprung, and in which both remain forever rooted’ (19.300).

The three orders of truth of Modern Painters become ‘these three structural parts’ of myth, ‘the root and two branches: — the root, in physical existence, in sun, or sky, or cloud, or sea; then the personal incarnation of that; becoming a trusted and companionable deity . . . and lastly, the moral significance of the image, which is in all the great myths eternally and beneficently true’ (19.300).

It is important to remember that the stress on the physical as well as the moral significance of the image meant that Ruskin always returned to reality and real things, however mystical some of his flights might seem. The study of Plato led him to think of the world as a temporal expression of something absolute and eternal, but his Evangelical training was a valuable corrective to pure Idealism. The Evangelicals, while not denying that the world was a symbol of God’s will, maintained that it was also his physical creation, and therefore really existed (see Landow 351). As a result Ruskin does not treat myth as a form of allegory (in the sense that one thing is taken simply to stand for another [155/156] with no more real existence than an algebraic term) but as an expression of the interchange between phenomenal reality and eternity.

The sum of all is, that over the entire surface of the earth and its waters, as influenced by the power of the air under solar light, there is developed a series of changing forms, in clouds, plants, and animals, all of which have reference in their action, or nature, to the human intelligence that perceives them; and on which, in their aspects of horror and beauty, and their qualities of good and evil, there is engraved a series of myths, or words of the forming power, which, according to the true passion and energy of the human race, they have been enabled to read into religion. And this forming power has been by all nations partly confused with the breath of air through which it acts, and partly understood as a creative wisdom, proceeding from the Supreme Deity; but entering into and inspiring all intelligences that work in harmony with Him. And whatever intellectual results may be in modern days obtained by regarding this effluence only as a motion or vibration, every formative human art hitherto, and the best states of human happiness and order, have depended on the apprehension of its mystery (which is certain), and of its personality which is probable. [19.378]

This ‘forming power,’ be it scientifically interpreted as oxygen, or spiritually read as the life force, is identified as Athena,

physically the queen of the air; having supreme power both over its blessings of calm, and wrath of storm; and spiritually, she is the queen of the breath of man, first by the bodily breathing which is life to his blood, and strength to his arm in battle, and then of mental breathing, or inspiration, which is his moral health and 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. [19.305]

These oppositions show Athena taking her place beside the masculine image of kingship, exercising her particular virtues of ‘Justice, or noble passion, and Fortitude, or noble patience’ (19.307).


The Greek Type of Athena. Wood en- graving by Ruskin's assistant Arthur Burgess from a vase in the British Museum, Made for sale with Fors Clavigera, and discussed 20.242-3; Ruskin chose Athena, the Queen of the Air, as the embodiment of the values of life and light. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Athena is ‘the queen of maidenhood — stainless as the air of heaven’ (19.307), and Ruskin draws a specific parallel with the Christian Madonna (19.347). But even beyond the king-queen relationship there are oppositions within the symbol which represent a further stage of evolution. ‘In her justice, which is the dominant virtue, she wears two robes, one of light and one of darkness’ (19.306): Athena represents compassion, but also passionate anger, and her Gorgon shield has the power of death. Death has its own Queen, Proserpine, ‘the Queen of Fate — not merely of death, but of the gloom which closes over and ends, not beauty only, but sin’ (19.304). [156/157]

Athena takes her place in the structure of Ruskin’s imagery as ‘the Spirit of Life’ (19.346), whether as a physical force in the earth or air, or as wisdom in mankind. The specific image of Athena is dissolved into the air with which he associates her, he discusses her presence as breath, as fire, as heat, and the emphasis on the scientific aspects of hearing and plant-growth shows that concern for natural fact which prevents his assertions becoming merely fanciful allegory. Having derived the myth of Athena from the attitude of the Greeks to their blue skies and shown her place in his symbolism, Ruskin then traces Athena back to natural phenomena, to animals, flowers, and finally to colour itself — where another kind of abstraction begins. Two creatures in particular are associated with her, the bird and the snake. The bird, he writes, is Athena as it is the air, ‘the wild form of the cloud closed into the perfect form of the bird’s wings,’ and it becomes ‘through twenty centuries, the symbol of Divine help’ (19.360-61); thus the bird is a natural fact, a visual expression of Athena’s spirit, and a religious hieroglyph.

The serpent is a counter-image to the bird, and yet there is even a duality within the nature of the serpent, for Ruskin was well aware that the snake was a symbol of purification in Greek mythology, as well as a symbol of evil. The Greek purification myth has been overlaid by that of the snake of the Garden of Eden, and Ruskin in general takes the serpent in its evil form. But though he recognizes the archetype, he questions the association of death with what his descriptions and paintings show he believed to be a beautiful creature.7 ‘Why that horror ?. . . There is more poison in an ill-kept drain, — in a pool of dish-washings at a cottage door, — than in the deadliest asp of Nile. Every back-yard which you look down into from the railway, as it carries you out by Vauxhall or Deptford, holds its coiled serpent’ (19.362). Ruskin was fascinated by snakes — and he seems to have recognized their psychological significance. James Fergusson’s Tree and Serpent Worship, which he used in his research, hints at the connection of snakes with phallic worship, and the serpent dreams which he noted in his diary around this time are plainly erotic (Fergusson 71n). He himself commented that these dreams were ‘partly mental evil taking that form’ (D2.685).

Athena manifests herself through animals and plants, and also without form at all, as pure colour. Colour is associated, as could be expected, with light and sight. ‘We have first to note the meaning of the principle epithet applied to Athena, “Glaukopis,” “with eyes full of light”. . . . As far as I can trace the colour perception of the Greeks, I find it all founded primarily in the degree of connection between [157/158] colour and light’ (19.379). Athena’s robes are light blue and dark blue, the light blue representing luminosity rather than pigmented colour, the dark, the dark side of her character. Nine different shades of red are to be discovered in the generalized ‘purple’ of Homer, ‘so that the word is really a liquid prism, and stream of opal’ (19.380).

Colour, particularly in the form of jewels, takes on a spiritual quality as a contemplative object, foreshadowing the system of colour symbolism he was to develop linking geology, heraldry and botany. Turner’s ‘colour beginnings’ had finally set Ruskin on the path of art criticism, and now pure colour was celebrated in its own right:

If you think carefully of the meaning and character which is now enough illustrated for you in each of these colours; and remember that the crocus-colour and the purple were both of them developments, in opposite directions, of the great central idea of fire-colour, or scarlet, you will see that this form of the creative spirit of the earth is conceived as robed in the blue, and purple, and scarlet, the white, and the gold, which have been recognized for the sacred chord of colours. [19.363-64]

Athena’s colours are the ‘blue, and purple, and scarlet’ called for by God from Moses in Exodus 25:4, the blue associated iconographically with the Madonna, and the colours of the dawn.

Queenship becomes one more resonating chord of associations in Ruskin’s writings — from the description of Venice as ‘the Sea-Queen’ (24.233), to sculpture as the ‘queenliest of arts’ (20.263), or as a feminine element in his episcopal system for the Guild of St. George: ‘a queenly power . . . with Norman caps for mitres, and for symbol of authority instead of the crozier . . . the broom’ (28.513). But the passion with which he describes the Queen of the Air as the unifying source of wisdom and beauty shows the menace he felt from another grimmer image — a new theme, and a symptom of Ruskin’s coming madness.

The natural phenomena transformed by the Greek myths into the Harpies and the Sirens are not under the control of Athena. There is a ‘sense of provocation and apparent bitterness of purpose’ in the foul south winds and squalls which Ruskin personalizes as the Harpies; explaining their ‘mental’ meaning, he hardly disguises his emotions confronted by the frustration of his message going unheard: ‘they are the gusts of vexatious, fretful, lawless passion, vain and over-shadowing, discontented and lamenting, meagre and insane, — spirits of wasted energy, and wandering disease, and unappeased famine, and unsatisfied [158/159] hope’ (19.314). The emotional pressure is intense, heightened by the private pain revealed in his reading of the Siren myth: they are ‘the great constant desires — the infinite sicknesses of heart — which, rightly placed, give life, and, wrongly placed, waste it away’ (19.315).

There is a note of despair in Ruskin’s preface to The Queen of the Air which shows his attitude to nature changing yet again.

I have seen strange evil brought upon every scene that I best loved, or tried to make beloved by others. The light which once flushed those pale summits with its rose at dawn, and purple at sunset, is now umbered and faint; the air which once inlaid the clefts of all their golden crags with azure is now defiled with languid coils of smoke, belched from worse than volcanic fires. . . . The light, the air, the waters, all defiled! [19.293]

The serpentine coils of smoke blew up into a black cloud, which, driven by a Harpy’s wind, began to blot out Ruskin’s perception of God in Nature. At first the cloud is associated with disappointment and failure, the theme of a lecture given in Dublin in May 1868, ‘The Mystery of Life and its Arts.’ The central image is the cloud, which is deliberately associated with the clouds that occupied so much space in Modern Painters. Now there is another kind of cloud, ‘the bright cloud of which it is written — “What is your life? It is even as a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” ’ (18.146). Ruskin’s own answer is that his life to date had been a disappointment (there were strong personal reasons for him to think so, as we shall see): ‘It became to me not a painted cloud but a terrible and impenetrable one: not a mirage, which vanished as I drew near, but a pillar of darkness’ (18.151). He confesses what he considered were his failures with Turner, with architecture, with his inability to change men’s hearts, or find any comfort in the work of those who had gone before him. Symbolically, when a new edition of the Kingship and Queenship lectures of Sesame and Lilies was published in 1871, Ruskin added ‘The Mystery of Life and its Arts,’ as though its gathering clouds threatened the themes of leadership of the other two.

The dark cloud is more than a sign of the loss of faith in nature; this new form of Mountain Gloom is an active force of evil. Increasingly it is a sign of Ruskin’s psychological state. In the summer of 1871 he was severely ill with some kind of nervous disorder and suffering terrible dreams (22.444-47). Shortly afterwards he announced in Fors Clavigera that he had perceived a change in nature. All that year the sky had been covered with ‘a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce and it is a new thing to me, and a very dreadful one’ (27.132-33). [159/160] This is the plague wind that blows with increasing intensity through Ruskin’s mind, and his description of it is a surreal combination of the facts of industrial pollution and mental instability. The cloud

looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men’s souls — such of them as are not gone yet, where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them. . . . You may laugh, if you like. I don’t believe any one of you would like to live in a room with a murdered man in the cupboard, however well preserved chemically; — even with a sunflower growing out at the top of his head. [27.133]

The structure of symbolism is almost complete. Death is opposed by kingship and queenship; queenship is the creative spirit of life and light informing all nature, but nature is threatened by a black plague wind that would blot out the light if it could. Ruskin was to be thrown between these opposing images with increasing violence, until at the end he was writing a pellucid, crystalline autobiography between bursts of violent madness.

The stress revealed by Ruskin’s plague-wind obsession was not entirely due to his sense of public failure. The frustration was also deeply personal: for ten years his delicate mental balance had been disturbed by a disastrous love affair. As with his marriage, there is no space to go into detail, but the public and personal themes become so intertwined that some explanation must be given. In 1858 Ruskin was asked by Mrs. John La Touche, an Anglo-Irish woman of good family and some literary pretensions, to give drawing lessons to her children. The youngest daughter, Rose, was then nine and a half (35.525). By 1861 Ruskin was clearly infatuated with this symbol of innocence; it is as though his affections, frozen in adolescence by the trauma of Adèle Domecq, and only briefly warmed by his wife, suddenly started to flow again. Rose could hardly have been a worse choice. The family was Irish Protestant, the father being an Evangelical (Ruskin made the mistake of confessing his religious doubts to Mrs. La Touche in 1861) (34.662); Rose herself was mentally unstable. By 1863 he was well aware of the difficulties. He told his friend Charles Eliot Norton about his

pet, Rosie . . . she canonized me once, but mourns over my present state of mind, which she has managed to find out somehow . . . she has been scolding [160/161] me frightfully, and says, ‘How could one love you, if you were a Pagan?’ She was a marvellous little thing when she was younger, but. . . there came on some over excitement of the brain, causing occasional loss of consciousness, and now she often seems only half herself, as if partly dreaming. [LN1.138]

The result was an agonizing pattern of brief sunny interludes of happiness together followed by long periods of increasing pain.

At Christmas 1863 Rose was ill, ‘driven mad by religion,’9 an illness which continued throughout 1864. Ruskin’s obsession only grew worse, and in February 1866 he proposed marriage. Rose did not refuse; instead she asked him to wait three years for an answer. The La Touche parents were alarmed and tried to separate them. In 1867 Rose was so violently ill that she had to be strapped to her bed. The following year Ruskin’s hopes of seeing her in Dublin when he gave his lecture ‘The Mystery of Life and its Arts’ were dashed when she failed to appear, the private disappointment only serving to reinforce the public despair of the lecture. The La Touches made legal enquiries about Ruskin’s first marriage. He protested, ‘I will take her for Wife — for Child, — for Queen — for any Shape of fellow-spirit that her soul can wear, if only she will be loyal to me with her love. But if not — let her go her way, and stain every stone of it with my blood upon her feet, for ever. Mine will be shorter — the Night is Far Spent’ (LMT139).

In 1870 there was another reconciliation, followed by another interference from Rose’s parents. The La Touches were afraid that if Ruskin did remarry, and there was a child, then his divorce from Effie on the grounds of impotence would be null and void, and therefore he and Rose would be married bigamously. Mrs. La Touche again sought the advice of Effie, now Mrs. Millais, who had first been contacted two years before. Effie was merciless: ‘His conduct can only be excused on the score of madness. . . . His conduct to me was impure in the highest degree. . . . From his peculiar nature he is utterly incapable of making a woman happy. He is quite unnatural and in that one thing all the rest is embraced’ (quoted in James 255). Eventually Effie’s opinion was passed on to Rose. Ruskin fought back with legal and medical opinion but the strain was intense. It was after painting a spray of roses that he collapsed with the plague-wind sickness of 1871.11

The tragedy dragged on, with more ecstatic moments of happiness, followed by greater desperation, as Rose became more and more ill. Ruskin’s feelings had to come out in his work, sometimes as an almost direct confession, sometimes disguised in word-play around Rose’s name. In February 1875, the month he saw Rose for the last time, he [161/162] published this: ‘Being very fond of pretty little girls (not, by any means, excluding pretty — tall ones) I choose for my own reading a pamphlet which has a picture of a beautiful little girl with long hair, lying very ill in bed’ (28.257).

Left to right: (a) Detail from Harry Told his Mother the Whole Story, an illustration to a story in The Children's Prize (1873). Without mentioning Rose by name, Ruskin published a description of the girl lying ill in bed in the same month as he saw Rose for the last time (28.257). Compare this with Ruskin's own drawing of Rose. (b) Portrait of a Girl's Head on a Pillow. John Ruskin. t seems almost certain that the girl is Rose, possibly drawn during her final illness. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The illustration bears a strong resemblance to a drawing by Ruskin of what is probably Rose on her sickbed. But whereas the girl in the children’s story recovered, Rose died on 26 May 1875. Ruskin ‘was away into the meadows, to see buttercup and clover and bean blossom, when the news came that the little story of my wild Rose was ended, and the hawthorn blossoms, this year, would fall — over her’ (37.168).

Study of Wild Rose. John Ruskin. 1871. Ruskin attributed his serious illness in 1872 to the difficulty he had with the subject (21.230)

Death, however, was not the end of the story. One of his friends, who had acted as confidante and go-between, Mrs. Cowper-Temple, followed the contemporary fashion for spiritualism.12 Ruskin had taken part in séances in 1863 and 1864 without becoming committed to the movement, but his references to Athena as ‘effluence’ or ‘vibration’ in The Queen of the Air (19.378) do have strong spiritualist overtones. Mrs. Cowper-Temple’s house, Broadlands, had been one of the few places where he and Rose had been able to meet. Six months after Rose died, in December 1875, he was again at Broadlands, and more than one spiritualist lady was in the party. Through one of them, Mrs. Ackworth, he became convinced that Rose was still in touch. In a letter written shortly after he left Broadlands he described the following conversation, held in the very room where he and Rose had been so happy.

[R:] ‘Have you seen any spirits lately?’

‘There was one close beside you as you were talking of women, last night,’ said Mrs. Ackworth.

‘What like?’ said I

‘Young — very tall and graceful and fair — she was stooping down over you, almost speaking into your ear — as if trying to stop you.’

R: ‘Why to stop me? could you guess?’

Mrs. A: ‘she seemed pained by what you were saying.’

R: ‘Pained — or displeased? as if what I said was wrong?’

Mrs. A: ‘Pained, as if she had been wrong herself and was reproaching herself. She put her hand to her head she does that very often.’

R: ‘Very often! then have you seen her before?’

Mrs. A: ‘Yes, she came into the room with Mrs. Temple the other day; and I asked Mrs. Temple who it could be. [Mrs. Cowper-Temple did not know, and asked if the girl had been married or not.]

Mrs. A: ‘ . . . afterwards I asked the girl herself if she had been married and she said — No.’ [162/163]

R: ‘You asked her! How?’

Mrs. A: ‘I was able to ask that, but she cannot speak much, yet — she has not been long in the spirit world — I think — probably not a year.’

R: ‘No — not a year. She died in May.’

Mrs. A: ‘You know who it is then? — ’

R: ‘Yes, well enough — and how Mrs. Temple didn’t I can’t think —’ Then people came into the room.13

The experience seems to have cheered Ruskin and given him hope, but it was a dangerous way to deal with grief. In the following year, 1876, he was in Venice, and as the anniversary of the Broadlands ‘teachings’ (D3.927) approached he hoped that this time Rose would speak to him directly. He was studying Carpaccio, whose cycle of paintings illustrating the St. Ursula legend had first caught his attention in 1869. The story of St. Ursula relates how a king’s daughter is betrothed to the pagan son of the King of England. St. Ursula will marry the prince after she has made a three years’ pilgrimage, during which time he will have become a Christian. St. Ursula, however, dies a virgin when she and her attendants are martyred. The ‘Pagan’ Ruskin had been told to wait three years for Rose’s answer to his proposal of marriage; Rose had died a virgin. It is not surprising that Rose and St. Ursula became identified in his mind. Locked in a room at the Venetian Academy he copied St. Ursula’s Dream — again, a young girl lying in bed (ill. 37).

On 24 December events coincided to convince him that St. Ursula had sent him a message from Rose. One of ‘St. Ursula’s flowers,’ a sprig of dried vervain, arrived from England, and in another packet came a letter from Mrs. La Touche to Joan Severn (see Viljoen 120-21). As a response to what he felt were Rose’s promptings, he decided to forgive Mrs. La Touche for what she had done. On his return from the Academy that night he found a pot of carnations like those on St. Ursula’s window-sill in his room (D3.921-22). It seemed to be a sign of approval from Rose. These ‘teachings,’ whose real nature can only be guessed at from the diary entries, continued into January 1877.

The ‘most overwhelming evidence of the other state of the world’ (D3.876) presented by these experiences convinced Ruskin of the possibility of there being a life beyond the grave after all. He sought to explain the gradual change in a fragment of autobiography written for Fors Clavigera. The spiritual happenings are specifically linked to a change in his views on art; together they were the two ‘vital causes’ of the renewed religious tone in his work. The first was that ‘ “such things [163/164] have befallen me” personally, which have taught me much, but of which I need not at present speak; the second, that in the work I did at Assisi in 1874, I discovered a fallacy which had underlain all my art teaching . . . since the year 1858’ (29.86).

The personal events alluded to are the communications from Rose La Touche; the change in his view of art had begun two years before. From his unconversion at Turin in 1858 until he started work in the cathedral of St. Francis at Assisi in 1874 he had believed that the worldly painters — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese — had more to say to men because they accepted life as it was, without reference to other worlds. Their technical superiority over Giotto, Cimabue and Angelico in rendering physical fact reinforced a preference for those who acknowledged that ‘we are now Men; — whether we ever expect to be angels, or ever were slugs, being practically no matter’ (29.88). But the study of Cimabue and Giotto in Assisi changed his ideas on early Italian art. One picture in particular caught his attention, a fresco in the lower church then attributed to Giotto, The Marriage of Poverty and St. Francis.

Detail from The Marriage of Poverty and St Francis by The Master of the Veils, (formerly attributed to Giotto) The Lower Church, Assist, Copying this fresco in 1874, Ruskin reconsidered his views of the early Italian painters. He also began to identify himself with St Francis, and Poverty with Rose La Touche, particularly because of the roses above Poverty's head.

Rose was still alive in 1874, and does not seem to have been far from his thoughts. Giotto is ‘so confoundedly personal to me. One of the things I want to do myself is his Lady Poverty, and she has her head in a thicket of pale red and deep red roses, and just on the wall next her there’s ‘‘Penitence” driving away Love, and Death, at least AMOR and MORS. Giotto always put KARITAS for real love’ (37.109).

Clearly, the personal significance of the painting colours Ruskin’s perception of it, but the conversion to religious painting was none the less genuine. He was perfectly capable of explaining the change of view in critical terms:

I found that all Giotto’s ‘weaknesses’ (so-called) were merely absences of material science. He did not know, and could not, in his day, so much of perspective as Titian, — so much of the laws of light and shade, or so much of technical composition. But I found he was in the make of him, and contents, a very much stronger and greater man than Titian; that the things I had fancied easy in his work, because they were so unpretending and simple, were nevertheless entirely inimitable. [29.91]

He now saw a complete continuity in Western art, from the Greeks to Cimabue and Giotto and the Venetians, broken only by the corruption of the Renaissance (15.345), and still present in Velázquez, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Turner (29.89). When Ruskin came to lecture on art at Oxford in the 1870s, the period 1300-1500 has far greater importance than before. The distinction was now between ‘worshippers [164/165] of Worldly visible Truth,’ the second order of truth of Modern Painters, and ‘worshippers ... of a visionary one’ (29.89), that higher imaginative truth that transcends the facts of art, and (in Ruskin's case at least) dissolves the distinction between personal and universal significance. All great artists become ‘the Sign-painters of God’ (22.392n).

Ruskin’s critical theories come full circle — or become complete. Lecturing on Modern Painters in 1877 he described it as an Aladdin’s palace which had been left with one window unfilled; now he knew what should go there. In his middle years he had regretted the Evangelical tone of Modern Painters 2, but now,

Looking back, I find that, though all its Turner work was right and good, the essential business of the book was quite beyond that, and one I had never thought of. I had been as a faithful scribe, writing words I knew not the force of or final intent. I find now the main value of the book to be exactly in that systematic scheme of it which I had despised, and in the very adoption of insistence upon the Greek term Theoria, instead of sight or perception, in which I had thought myself perhaps uselessly or affectedly refined. [22.512]

Freed of conventional religion, Ruskin was yet able to reunite himself with the spiritual sources of energy institutionalized in religion; faith was again possible, and art confirmed the holiness of man and nature.

Before, faith had led him to art; now art led him back to faith. At Easter 1875 he wrote a long meditation on the Eighth Psalm.

The entire purport of the Psalm is that the Name, or knowledge, of God was admirable to David, and the power and kingship of God, recognizable to him, through the power and kingship of man. . . . And that final purport of the Psalm is evermore infallibly true, — namely, that when men rule the earth rightly, and feel the power of their own souls over it, and its creatures, as a beneficent and authoritative one, they recognise the power of higher spirits also; and the Name of God becomes ‘hallowed’ to them. [23.328]

The image of kingship, created to give form to ideas of human government, now drew him back to ideas of the Divine.

It is tragic that Ruskin’s return to the sense of faith should have been achieved at such cost, and that it finally proved impossible to keep the oppositions between private and public obsessions in balance. It does not seem to matter how strongly they pulled against each other, as long as the stress was even, but in the end the personal strain became unendurable: ‘Mere overwork or worry might have soon ended me, but it would not have driven me crazy. I went crazy about St. Ursula and the [165/166] other saints, — chiefly young-lady saints, — and I rather suppose I had offended the less pretty Fors Atropos, till she lost her temper’ (LN2.148-49) The black plague wind continued to disturb him, and the manic tone in his writing becomes more frequent, sometimes bursting out in a scream of anger at

the daily more bestial English mob, — railroad born and bred, which drags itself about the black world it has withered under its breath, in one eternal grind and shriek, — gobbling, — staring, — chattering, — giggling, — trampling out every vestige of national honour and domestic peace, wherever it sets the staggering hoof of it; incapable of reading, of hearing, of thinking, of looking, — capable only of greed for money, lust for food, pride of dress, and the prurient itch of momentary curiosity for the politics last announced by the newsmonger, and the religion last rolled by the chemist into electuary for the dead. [22.469-70]

To divert himself from this vision of hell he invented fantastical schemes for Rose-Queens, or devised costumes for the members of his utopia, but even here he could not disguise the state of his mind: ‘You think I jest, still, do you? Anything but that; only if I took off my Harlequin’s mask for a moment, you would say I was simply mad’ (18.313).

In the end, he did go mad. At Christmas 1877, the second anniversary of Broadlands, he wrote in his diary: ‘My star-letter was sent to me again last night, for which I am thankful; but very lifeless compared to this time last year’ (D3.970). At the end of February his mind gave way completely, and the final cycle of opposites, of sanity and madness, began.

Last modified 2 September 2014

6 May 2019