I'm interested in Ruskin's reading of Pope in Modern Painters, and so, by implication, in his reading of eighteenth-century art in general. To discuss this issue it will be helpful to look at two passages from that prodigious work, turning quickly to the beginning, where Ruskin gives his "definition of greatness in art." Here we find the following:

Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas. [23]

Ruskin has isolated three disparate criteria by which art may be and has been evaluated, and then rejected each of them by virtue of its narrow-mindedness. These criteria are, in short, the capacity of art to please, to teach, and to imitate, corresponding, perhaps, to Ruskin's notions of the beautiful, the good, and the true. In place of these categories, Ruskin substitutes an aesthetic criterion broad enough to satisfy his desires, namely, the capacity of art to convey to the reader "great ideas."

Let us turn now to Ruskin's reading of Pope. In his discussion of the "pathetic fallacy," we find the following passage:

[In the Odyssey] they cross the sea to the Cimmerian land; and Ulysses summons the shades from Tartarus. The first which appears is that of the lost Elpenor. Ulysses . . . addresses the spirit with the simple, startled words: — "Elpenor! How camest thou under the shadowy darkness? Hast thou come faster on foot than I in my black ship?" Which Pope renders thus: —

"O, say what angry power Elpenor led
To glide in shades, and wander with the dead
How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined,
Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?"

I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here, either in the nimbleness of the sail, or the laziness of the wind! And yet how is it that these conceits are so painful now, when they have been pleasant to us in other instances? For a very simple reason. They are not a pathetic fallacy at all, for they are put into the mouth of the wrong passion — a passion which never could possibly have spoken them — agonized curiosity. Ulysses wants to know the facts of the matter; and the very last thing his mind could do at that moment would be to pause, or suggest in any wise what was not a fact. The delay in the first three lines, and conceit in the last, jar upon us instantly like the most frightful discord in music. No poet of true imaginative power could possibly have written the passage. [66-67]

Pleasure, verisimilitude, — have we not returned to exactly those aesthetic criteria which earlier had been rejected? Where are Ruskin's "great ideas?" To me at least it seems that this violent reaction against Pope is precisely that kind of narrow-mindedness which earlier Ruskin sought so deliberately to avoid. There, he allowed for the possibility that the end of a work of art different from that anticipated by its critic while here he attacks Alexander Pope for failing to meet a criterion which surely was of little importance to his eighteenth-century audience: genuine fidelity to "passion."

In considering this problem, I find Ruskin's analogy to music suggestive for several reasons. Personally, it brings to my mind the so-called "liberation of dissonance" associated with the rise of musical modernism. Just as nineteenth-musical theory espoused an unquestioned bias against the use of extreme dissonance in composition, Ruskin's theory of aesthetics seems to carry with it certain implicit limitations (a demand for emotional sincerity, perhaps?) which seem to escape his general theorizing. Furthermore, the analogy points to the possibility of another criticism, primarily structural, which I find more persuasive; the argument that poetic conceits, that dissonance, may be used by an artist, but only when they act upon the audience in a way that contributes to the total effect of the artwork.

I hope that the consideration of these issues will hope to illuminate an aspect of Ruskin which I find to be especially intriguing though especially difficult. That is, namely, the way he seems to be at once a prophet of Modernism and yet the epitome of Romantic sensibilities. Strangely, he appears to be aware of the chief deficiencies of both: Romanticism in its narrowness, and Modernism in its sterility.


1. Is the Romantic notion of fidelity to passion somehow implicit in Ruskin's earlier formulation of great art?

2. If not, was Ruskin's definition imperfect, or is he being hypocritical? Is the possibility for such a definition in itself a limitedly Romantic notion?

3. How does Ruskin's commentary on Joshua Reynolds complicate or clarify this issue?

4. How does Ruskin's mode/modes of criticism fit into those described by M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp? Is confusion taking place on this level?


Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John D. Rosenberg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Related Material

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. David Barrie. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Last modified 13 September 2007

6 May 2019