hen Matthew Arnold attacked Ruskin's prose, he gave two examples. One was a passage of landscape description; the second was a paragraph on the significance of Shakespeare's names. Arnold quoted the first passage as an instance of genius—the genius of a poet mistakenly working in prose. In the second, however, he found the marks of an immoderate, ill-proportioned, and "provincial" criticism. With the deflating voice of common sense he remarked, "Now, really, what a piece of extravagance all that is!"1 A century later Northrop Frye called Arnold the provincial for entertaining an idea of criticism that extended no further than the history of taste. Ruskin's second passage, he suggested, is the real example of a genuine and systematic criticism.2
Arnold may not be a systematic critic, but his ear is good. To Ruskin's early distinctive way of writing, poetic and painterly description, he had indeed by 1864 added a second, different style. Arnold's selection is illustrative of that style, but it does not suggest what Ruskin could do with it. The passage Arnold takes is only a footnote. The same weaving together of related verbal or visual forms into a representative figure characterizes Ruskin's paragraphs on Turner as the angel in the sun. There is nothing like this kind of writing before Modern Painters V. Passages as obscure as the footnote on Shakespeare's names, and others as formally and rhetorically prominent as the conclusion to "The Two Boyhoods," are everywhere in Ruskin's prose after 1859.
Arnold is misleading, however, when he judges Ruskin's first style as prose poetry and his second as prose criticism. Just as the prose descriptions serve an educative end—to demonstrate excursive seeing, [268/269] the beholder's art—so one might argue that the reconstruction of words or significant images is also both critical and creative, an art of myth or emblem making. Frye is right: Ruskin's word and image hunting is a criticism more systematic than Arnold imagined. The new attitudes toward language evident in Ruskin's readings of Turner lie behind his invention of an emblematic prose to promote perceptual and linguistic reform. But Ruskin's myth and emblem making is also highly artful, at least as artful as his descriptive prose. Oddly enough, it is often the organizing feature of Ruskin's later writing. Oddly, because for Arnold such writing was an instance of the lack of order and measure, a fatal flaw in the critic. For Ruskin, however, it became the means of imposing order and form on excursive criticism. In most of Ruskin's later prose, beginning with the last volume of Modern Painters, excursive looking, describing, and explaining are employed to create symbolic names or images. These emblems constitute the critic's art.
Ruskin's titles provide the clearest indication of a change in his way of writing. Beginning with some of the most important chapters in Modern Painters V, titles begin to serve not as guides to reading but as cryptic, summary expressions of a chapter's major themes, as worked out in what is primarily a metaphorical structure. In Modern Painters I Ruskin used titles to clarity contents and give prospective readers an immediate idea of what they would find: "Definition of Greatness in Art/ "General Principles Respecting Ideas of Power," "Of Truth of Colour." Chapters were further organized under sections and sections under parts; the chapters themselves were broken down into numbered paragraphs, for each of which a marginal summary was provided. The elaborate system of headings and subheadings was also conveniently brought together at the beginning of the work as a "synopsis of contents." As Ruskin's editors point out, this naming and ordering of the parts of a book reflects the education of the "Graduate of Oxford"—strongly Aristotelian, with more immediate influences, appropriately for a writer on aesthetics, from Locke (3.xix). The second volume of Modern Painters follows this format, but in the third volume there are changes. Ruskin sheds some of the elaborate subdivisions and all of the paragraph summaries. His explanation of [269/270] the change acknowledges a disjunction between the orderly structure implied by the titles and his own principles and practice (5.13). Giving up the effort to maintain "constructive symmetry," Ruskin makes the whole volume a single undivided part and calls it "Of Many Things."
Although symmetrical subordination gives way to mere sequence, the titles of the chapters are still a straightforward indication of their contents. But by Modern Painters IV these too have begun to change. Ruskin now uses some titles that can be read metaphorically as well as literally. "The Firmament" and "The Mountain Gloom," like "The Foundations" (or like 77/c Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture) suggest some of Ruskin's preoccupation with meaning and expression as well as with geological and architectural description. The added resonance to Ruskin's titling brings the table of contents closer to the text it introduces. The disappearance of logical structures makes it impossible to foresee Ruskin's argument, but his texts had never really conformed to the preliminary diagram in any case. Metaphorical suggestion had always played an important role. The titles in Seven Lamps, Stones, and some of the chapters in Modern Painters IV alert the reader from the beginning to the role that metaphor plays in the text. There is even a correspondence between the kind of title and the nature of the text from chapter to chapter in Modern Painters IV: in the second section, which deals with the geology of mountains, the introductory chapters on "The Firmament" and "The Dry Land" are wholly concerned with biblical symbolism, while "Of the Materials of Mountains—First Compact Crystallines" is primarily devoted to geological analysis.
The metaphorical titles in Seven Lamps or Stones or Modern Painters IV are not obscure. Many of those in Modern Painters V are distinctly puzzling. "Firmament" and "dry land" as the Genesis terms for the heavens and the earth would be readily recognized, certainly by a Bible-reading Victorian audience. But to what does "The Angel of the Sea," the last chapter of Part VII, refer? The metaphor is neither familiar nor transparent. The first sentence of the chapter tells us that Ruskin's subject is rain clouds. It is not until we are several pages into the chapter that he identifies these rain clouds with the angel of his title. The rest of the chapter might be read as an explanation of that metaphoric coupling, an account of how the figurative name for the physical fact was constructed. "Construction" is the right term, for Ruskin [270/271] has not found the figure ready-made in the Bible or any other single text. He begins with an account of the aspect of rain clouds which employs many of the descriptive techniques familiar to readers of Modern Painters. This description presents, through an accumulation of intensely perceived details, a moss-land landscape and then evokes the intermittent passage of rain over that landscape, as a beneficial, "renovating and purifying" natural presence (7.178). The rain clouds themselves appear soft, like wings drooping with dew; we see the "shadows of their plumes" passing over the hills. The evocation of physical aspect reaches quite naturally to metaphor. It the metaphorical comparisons of Ruskin's descriptive passage are convincing, then we will have acknowledged the basis in perceptual experience for Ruskin's figurative identification of rain as the angel of the sea.
Ruskin does not base his figure solely on perceptual experience. This appeal is only the first part of his explication. The .major part of the chapter constructs a myth or symbol on these experiential foundations by incorporating mythical or metaphorical interpretations of rain clouds found in widely scattered texts, both biblical and classical. Ruskin wants to "gather" (7.181, 184) these various names, epithets, and stories together. He has "traced" the elaboration of an animate figure (7.188) through what he sees as an accumulated tradition of imaginative response to the single natural phenomenon of rain. Ostensibly the end of this gathering and tracing is to explicate Turner's treatment of rain clouds, both their physical aspect and their secret meaning. But the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Ruskin's Angel of the Sea is not really Turner's, but a figure built out of perceptual experience and the imaginative tradition to which Turner's paintings are the latest contribution. The procedure is the same as that which occurs in Ruskin's chapters on Turner's Hesperides or his Apollo, with the difference that those chapters end with several paragraphs of allusive prose in which he actually evokes the mythical figure or symbolic landscape he has labored to construct. "The Angel of the Sea" ends not with a passage of emblem-making prose, hut with the explication of Psalm 19 we have earlier examined. Only in the title of Ruskin's chapter— his name for his mythical figure—is she fully present.
That title is not comprehensible until the reader has finished the chapter— until, that is, the literal reference has been not only identified but realized through description, and until the various metaphorical [271/272] and mythical meanings embodied in the name have been gathered together. The chapter title cannot serve at first as a guide to the reader. It appears rather as a puzzle or mystery the object to be seen and explained. Rhetorically it must work to challenge or intrigue; it cannot communicate. This kind of chapter title has a retrospective function that is almost as important as its prospective function, however. It brings together the sometimes fantastically unexpected associations gathered and traced in the course of the chapter in a single, naming phrase or word, conferring a unity—though only retrospectively—on what might otherwise appear hopelessly diverse. The chapter is organized around a single, elabora ted metaphor or figure rather than structured as a logical argument. In one sense, the chapter exists for the sake of its title: to create a meaningful word, phrase, image, or mythical figure—an emblem.3 Once the chapter is mastered, the figure named in the title becomes part of a vocabulary Ruskin can use again. The mythical figure of the Angel of the Sea, a spirit of wind and cloud both terrible and beneficent, is directly or indirectly present in "The Nereid's Guard" and "Hesperid Aeglé," and still more powerfully in Ruskin's lectures a decade later, "The Mystery of Life and Its Arts" and The Queen of the Air.
She is also a dominant presence, though not directly evoked, in the coda of the chapter to which she gives the title. We looked at Ruskin's reading of Psalm 19 earlier without relating it to the chapter in which it appears. Out of local context it serves as part of Ruskin's effort to assimilate Turner's romantic technique and imagery to a divine language of clouds. If we read his explication of the psalm as the conclusion to "The Angel of the Sea," however, its implications are "subtly altered. The biblical message acquires a more personal messenger. It is delivered by the animate spirit of the half-Greek, half-biblical Angel of rain clouds, not simply in the veiled language of the cloudy firmament. Where before we found Ruskin assimilating the historical language of imagination to the divine language of nature and the Bible, now the passage suggests the reverse. The cloudy veil of the Bible is yet another guise of Ruskin's Angel. Turner's clouds, too, belong to this tradition: "To him, as to the Greek, the storm-clouds seemed messengers of fate" (see Turner's Salisbury from Old Sarum Intrenchment and Stonehenge both immediately following).
Salisbury from Old Sarum Intrenchment. Stonehenge by Turner. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Ruskin ends what he has begun, in Modern Painters IV', as a plea for the religious reading of art and nature by adopting the closing prayer of Psalm 19: "Cleanse Thou me [272/273] from secret faults ... So shall I be undefiled, and innocent . . . my Strength, and my Redeemer" (7.199). The myth making of the chapter suggests that we should recognize in the cleansing Redeemer to whom this prayer is addressed Ruskin's "great renovating and purifying" Angel of the Sea.
It is quite probable that this alteration of meaning actually occurred in the course of Ruskin's successive treatments of his material. "The Angel of the Sea" is the last chapter in the part of the volume that was first written in 1855-56, but in title, structure, and the use of etymological word and myth hunts it resembles the second part of the volume, written in 1859-60. The explication of Psalm 19 balances the opening chapter, "The Firmament," but the emblem-making title and constructive text are the first examples of what were to become characteristic features of Ruskin's work in the next three decades. Five chapters in the second half of Modern Painters V employ this method of naming and structuring chapters: "The Dark Mirror," "The Lance of Pallas," "The Wings of the Lion," "The Nereid's Guard," and "Hesperid Aeglé." The titles of books alone in the sixties, seventies, and . eighties suggest the same cryptic naming: Munera Pulveris, The Cestus of Aglia, Sesame and Lilies, The Crown of Wild Olive, The Queen of the Air, Ariadne Florentina, Aratra Pentelici, Proserpina, Deucalion, Fors Clavigera, Praeterita. With the possible exception of The Queen of the Air (and here the subtitles are more enigmatic: Athena Chalinitis, Athena Keramitis, Athena Ergane), none of these titles, even to a good classicist, is very revealing of its contents. Ruskin insisted that "I am not fantastic in these titles, as is often said; but try shortly to mark my chief purpose in the book by them" (22.315). Such titles name myths or images that are constructed and explained within the works they name, and provide a unifying network of metaphor and allusion within those works.
Ruskin's titles apparently change to accommodate his views of language as these alter between 1856 and 1859. In the later chapters and books, as in the explication of Psalm 19 when read in the context of the rest of the chapter, a human, historical language of myth or metaphor is the dominant if not the only language with which Ruskin is concerned. Biblical language never regains the absolute privilege it once possessed for Ruskin as a language both real and symbolic. The significance of the cloudy firmament, and of the message of "judgment [273/274] and commandment" figured by it, is reinterpreted by looking at that cloud symbolism as part of a cumulative imaginative tradition about a spirit of cloud and wind. Ruskin's title for this chapter is not the biblical "Firmament" but an epithet of his own devising that will subsume the biblical meaning together with.the long history of cultural association behind it.
he emblematic naming that begins in "The Angel of the Sea" becomes one of the characteristic features not just of Ruskin's titles but of his prose generally in the next three decades. Examples of word and image hunting, leading to the construction of emblems or the redefining of words, are found throughout the texts (and liberally in the notes) of all Ruskin's later work, from Unto This Last (complete text) through Praeterita. The meanings Ruskin gathers and assigns to existing words and images, or the epithets, words, and myths he constructs, often appear eccentric if not wildly unlikely. These are exercises in the creation of language, as Ruskin understood language in 1859 and after. This language in the first place corresponds to the science of aspects. As the language of accurate perception, however, it is not really new in Ruskin's work. His prose as early as Modern Painters I expands and reshapes the vocabulary of landscape description to meet the demands of accurate, excursive seeing.4 Much of this expansion is effected through new or unexpected similes, analogies, or metaphorical epithets. The difference between this kind of language shaping and the extravagant acts of renaming of his later work is not merely the degree of fantasy or strangeness of the associative comparisons. Once the Bible loses its, supreme authority for Ruskin as a real language, human language has to do more than express accurate perception. It must also suggest its own authority by recalling its history. Ruskin's new word and myth making is not Adamic naming. Rather, it is the discovery or recovery, of terms that will suggest both natural history—aspects as they appear to a perceptive observer— and cultural history—the record of the imaginative associations attached to a perceived natural fact in successive works of art and literature.
This change is most evident if we compare Ruskin's revisions of scientific nomenclature at two points in his career. Early in Modern Painters V (in a chapter probably written in 1855-56), he discusses the inadequacy [274/275] of scientific classification and announces his intention to devise and name his own botanical orders. His intention is to underline differences in natural history: in the organic development of different orders of plants. His contributions to scientific nomenclature are the terms "builders" and "tent-dwellers" and, in this last group, "earth plants" and "pillar-plants" (7.20-22). Ruskin's builders (or toilers) are the trees, who build "monuments," their trunks. His tent-dwellers include both the bush and creeping plants (earth plants) and the endogens or "false trees" who send up shoots (pillars) that are not built up into true barked trunks. This kind of metaphoric naming is characteristic of Ruskin's earlier experiments in extending language. He wants to reflect accurate perception more precisely. The resulting terms or epithets do not strike the reader as terribly difficult to understand. They are based on comparisons with familiar objects that serve to bring out some visible expression of natural history.
We can contrast these additions to scientific nomenclature with the revisions Ruskin attempted in the seventies and eighties in his "grammars" of botany, ornithology, and geology— Proserpina, Love's Meine, and Deucalion.5 In Proserpina, for example, he keeps the name "Papaver Rhoeas" for the English poppy, but he then proceeds to attach to "Rhoeas" an elaborate complex of visual and expressive meanings by gathering together a series of symbolic uses of "papaver rhoeas" in literature and decorative art. The paragraphs that trace associations for the poppy make up the body of Ruskin's chapter, following an initial analysis of the flower's visual structure. Through etymology, quotation, and visual example Ruskin works to establish in the minds of his readers three different lines of association for the name he preserves: the drooping head of the flower with the lost pride of the fallen warrior, its multiple seed head with fullness of life, and its common presence in field mixtures of weeds and corn with a healthy relation of "the adverse powers of nature to the beneficent ones" (25.275-79). At the end of his chapter Ruskin's name will recall for his reader both natural history—the drooping head, multiple seed, and field mixtures—and the history of what the human imagination has made of the poppy.
These are the two purposes that Ruskin articulates later in Proserpina, in a chapter defending his apparently fanciful nomenclature: "my own method . . . consists essentially in fastening the thoughts of the pupil on the special character of the plant, in the place where he is [275/276] likely to see it; and therefore, in expressing the power of its race and order in the wider world, rather by reference to mythological associations than to botanical structure" (25.340). In Modern Painters V Ruskin sought terms to express only the "special character of a plant, in the place where [the observer] is likely to see it." He found metaphors based on visual similarities adequate. In Proserpina, he wishes also to express "the power of its race and order in the wider worlds" —its imaginative power traced through the history of European art and literature. Both special character and power in the wider world, he maintains, can best be expressed "rather by reference to mythological associations than to botanical structure." The position is derived, as we saw in the last chapter, from Max Müller's belief that myths are decayed metaphors and that those metaphors originally expressed some perception about natural phenomena. Names taken from myths, or symbolic imagery, then, can recall both cultural history— the evolution of myths and symbols—and the perception of natural history in which those myths originated. Hence Ruskin's new preference for names that are not immediately descriptive, directly or metaphorically, of visual aspect. Hence, too, his preference for Greek or Latin words in his titles: they immediately suggest the importance of western European cultural tradition.
But the critic must gather and trace for the reader these forgotten cultural associations, and fasten them again to names and images. The ' names Ruskin rejects, or those whose meanings he reconstructs ("papaver rhoeas," or "value," "wealth," and "economy" in Unto This Last), are names that have ceased to fulfill their linguistic function. That is, they no longer convey either the results of perception or—the important addition—the results of imaginative vision as these have accumulated over time. It would be more accurate to say that Ruskin's prose reforms language rather than creates it. In his eyes, naming is a critical rather than an artistic endeavor. It is what Trench described as the reminting of words—for Ruskin a process that needs to be performed for symbolic visual imagery as well. As such, his myth-making prose, however fantastic and apparently idiosyncratic its associations, works very much like his purely descriptive prose. His descriptions are structured to teach his audience how to see, by leading them on excursions through landscapes. His prose conveys the precision of visual observation and the excitement it can generate. Similarly, his mythmaking [276/277] prose is structured to teach his audience how to read verbal or visual language, by leading them through a representative experience of recollecting meaning. The experience begins with the naming, in title or text, of the word or image to be read and proceeds first through description, then by explication (the gathering of cultural associations), and concludes either with a simple return to the name in title or text or with a short evocative passage weaving together associations established in the chapter to form an emblematic verbal and visual image. Both descriptive and myth-making writing encourage active participation, offering the reader the opportunity to learn by doing.
There are a number of passages in Ruskin's criticism, especially in "Of Kings' Treasuries," The Queen of the Air, and Fors Clavigera, which support this interpretation of the critical function of Ruskin's mythmaking prose. "Of Kings' Treasuries" — a lecture on the value of good books and right reading—is the most explicit instance. Ruskin insists first of all on the necessary labor and difficulty of reading: "be sure, also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once;—nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it" (18.63). Such reading Ruskin calls "mining" for meaning. (The same point is made in The Queen of the Air, where he demonstrates mining for the meaning of Greek myth.) "Of Kings' Treasuries" offers instruction in the reading of words and metaphors. Ruskin is concerned both with precision of meaning and with the history of meaning.
And, therefore, first of all, I tell you earnestly and authoritatively (I know I am right in this,) you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable—nay, letter by letter . . . The entire difference between education and non-education (as regards the merely intellectual part of it), consists in this accuracy. A well-educated gentleman may not know many languages, —may not be able to speak any but his own, —may have read very few books. But whatever language he knows, he knows precisely; whatever word he pronounces, he pronounces rightly; above all, he is learned in the peerage of words; knows the words of true descent and ancient blood, at a glance, from words of modern canaille; [277/278] remembers all their ancestry—their intermarriages, distant relationships, any the extent to which they were admitted, and offices they held, among the national noblesse of words at any time, and in any country. [18.64-65]
Despite the repetitive assertions of authority with which this passage begins ("I tell you . . . authoritatively ... I know I am right"), its persuasive power rests with the example of right reading that immediately follows: the justly famous explication of twenty-two lines from Lycidas. Ruskin's reading focuses, as he says we must, on key words or phrases—words that at first appear odd, perhaps simply "picturesque" excrescences. For example, Milton's St. Peter reproves delinquent clergy:
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast,
. . .
I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.
Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, in the two great offices of the Church —those of bishop and pastor.
A "Bishop" means "a person who sees."
A "Pastor" means "a person who feeds." The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.
The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed,—to be a Mouth.
Take the two reverses together, and you have "blind mouths." [18.72]
Ruskin presents this passage as an instance of right reading, but the following paragraphs suggest that the explication of Milton is part of a reconstruction of meaning for the word "bishop," not the reverse. Ruskin goes on to illustrate modern bishoply blindness, suggesting that bishops who do not oversee the Bills and Nancys of their Dickensian urban parishes are not true bishops. To his audience's supposed objection, "But that's not our idea of a bishop," he answers, "Perhaps [278/279] not; but it was St. Paul's; and it was Milton's." This is the crucial conclusion to the example of close reading: the recovery of meaning both more precise and more suggestive for the word "bishop," by means of an excursion into literary texts. As Ruskin reminded his audience at .' the beginning of his second lecture, "Of Queens' Gardens," "The questions specially proposed to you in the first, namely, How and What to Read, rose out of a far deeper one, which it was my endeavour to make you propose earnestly to yourselves, namely, Why to Read" (18.109). We should read, Ruskin suggests, to acquire the wisdom to guide action, wisdom hidden in the forgotten meanings of words.
In the second lecture Ruskin goes on to answer this deeper question directly: "I wish you to see that both well-directed moral training and well-chosen reading lead to the possession of a power over the ill-guided and illiterate, which is, according to the measure of it, in the truest sense, kingly" (18.109). Words guide action, especially acts of leadership. The most immediate form of kingly power (and it is described in political as well as moral terms in both lectures) is the power of language itself. In the passage quoted earlier Ruskin asserts that to know a language precisely, to know the history of words, is both to be a gentleman and to know a gentleman. It is to be able to distinguish nobility from vulgarity, the nobleman from the mob. The educated gentleman knows the place of words "among the national noblesse of words," knows "the words of true descent and ancient blood, at a glance, from words of modern canaille." Those ill-descended words, Ruskin implies, are the imprecise language of the modern mob. He plays here with the snobbery and the social ambitions of his middle; class audience. (He had begun his lecture by reproaching them for desiring education only as "advancement in life.") This sort of play continues when he describes the dangers of words without precise meanings or adequate histories by likening them to skulking, cloaked, and masked revolutionaries (18.66). Such words are the agents provocateurs working on the mob or "modern canaille." Ruskin's prolonged metaphor might be a technique borrowed from Carlyle's writing in the 1830s. He is not only goading his middle-class audience by means of their ambitions to be gentlemen, but also threatening them with the specter of a revolutionary mob (notably French). This politicization of the power over language is maintained [279/280] throughout both lectures and has an increasingly serious point. The first part of Ruskin's lecture on reading stresses the importance of mining for meaning as the way to reconstruct words and thus possess the power of language. The second part urges the importance of sympathy or true passion in reading great books. Here too the requirements for power over language are presented as identical with the requirements for social and political power. To lack passion, or to feel it only erratically and uncontrollably, is to be incapable of comprehending a great book. It is also to be vulgar, not gentle. "For as in nothing is a gentleman better to be discerned from a vulgar person, so in nothing is a gentle nation (such nations have been) better to be discerned from a mob, than in this,—that their feelings are constant and just, results of due contemplation, and of equal thought" (18.81). Insensitivity (as Ruskin defines vulgarity) to language, like ignorance of the history and meaning of words, reduces us to the condition of the mob. Sensitivity and knowledge of language are routes to social advancement and power—"kingly power." No sooner has Ruskin established these equations than he turns on his audience and tells them that they are indeed a mob.
My friends, I do not know why any of us should talk about reading. We want some sharper discipline than that of reading; but, at all events, be assured, we cannot read. No reading is possible for a people with its mind in this state ... No nation can last, which has made a mob of itself, however generous at heart. It must discipline its passions, and direct them, or they will discipline it one day, with scorpion whips. Above all, a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity,—it cannot with existence.—go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence. [18.83-84]
Power over language is only one form of the power the English lack. Ruskin is by no means always sure that linguistic reform is the most crying need in contemporary England. But if social and economic reforms are more immediately pressing, linguistic reform is finally inseparable from them. Language is an index to perception, and perception, as Ruskin maintained in The Stones of Venice, is strongly influenced by social and economic forms. The connection between linguistic reform and the reforms Ruskin urges is all the more inescapable [280/281] because, despite the recurring analogies, he is not primarily interested in political or social power but in moral power. There is political danger and social irresponsibility in the misreading and misuse of language, but the gentleness or kingly power to be achieved through right reading and speaking is more a quality of mind and activity than a social or political position. Ruskin exhorts his audience as kings and queens or rages at them as a mob, according as he addresses himself to their capacities for seeing, speaking, and acting humanely—or despairs at their incapacity.
As with seeing, Ruskin's strategy for improving his audience's skill at reading and speaking is to try to make them do it: to demand active and even difficult reading and seeing. His own prose is an important tool in this process. Thus his lecture on reading includes more than exhortations to right reading and an exercise in word hunting. It also presents readers with a demand for such reading: the puzzling and emblematic titles and the epigraph (in Greek) from Job. Ruskin weaves all of these together in his closing paragraphs into a final complicated emblem for the true wisdom of books. Titles, epigraph, and closing emblematic paragraphs cannot be "got at" without some strenuous application of the laws of reading; those laws—an improved corn law—will provide a more sustaining bread or—as Ruskin shifts the metaphor—protect a different grain, the "sesame" that will open the doors of kings' treasuries. Such treasuries, in turn, are not just books, but also the streets of cities, paved no longer with dust or even with gold dust but with the crystal of the new world announced in Revelation. The power of language attained by the reader's efforts here is finally not a worldly power, any more than are its bread, its gold, or its cities.
Ruskin's books in the sixties, seventies, and eighties take, simultaneously. two different approaches to the teaching of reading or the proper use of language. On the one hand, careful explication—describing and gathering and explaining texts, as in "The Angel of the Sea" or "Papaver Rhoeas" or "Of Kings' Treasuries." On the other hand, the deliberate challenge—as in the initial titles of all three works and the closing paragraphs of the last. This double approach can create a difficulty, which we can see most clearly in Fors Clavigera. In Fors too education in seeing and reading is frequently equated with social position [281/282] and political power. Ruskin's ostensible audience, however, is different. Fors is addressed not to would-be gentlemen, kings, and queens who have made themselves a mob, but to the real mob, or at least the ambitious working members of it. Ruskin's letters keep referring to what must have been a common accusation, that he had "written to you of things you were little likely to care for, in words which it was difficult for you to understand" (27.79).7 Ruskin's response to the real or imagined accusation was both to explain words, texts, and pictures—and to refuse to explain.
I write of things you little care for, knowing that what you least care for is, at this juncture, of the greatest moment to you.
And I write in words you are little likely to understand, because I have no wish (rather the contrary) to tell you anything that you can understand without taking trouble. You usually read so fast that you can catch nothing but the echo of your own opinions, which, of course, you are pleased to see in print. I neither wish to please, nor displease you; but to provoke you to think; to lead you to think accurately; and help you to form, perhaps, some different opinions from those you have now. [27.98-99]
Ruskin's stated intentions are no different from those he ascribed to great books and followed himself in "Of Kings' Treasuries," The Queen of the Air, or any of his emblematic writing beginning with Modern Painters V. As he had repeatedly warned, "if the author is worth anything . . . you will not get at his meaning all at once"; it "is withheld on purpose, and close-locked that you may not get at it till you have forged the key of it in a furnace of your own heating" (19.308-309). But both Ruskin's carefully leading explications and his refusals to explain take on unwanted connotations of condescension and arrogance if one remembers that these are Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Ruskin's writing, in the best of circumstances, is not free of these connotations. The problem is exacerbated with the apparent change in audience. The difficulty is partly that whereas in "Of Kings' Treasuries" he could use the inducement to become gentle or the fear of becoming vulgar to support his arguments for education, in Fors he is still urging education with the promise of social or political power explicitly withdrawn. It is moral power only —improvement in the quality of their lives and their actions—that linguistic and perceptual reform can offer to the workers of England. Insofar [282/283] as Fors, despite its named audience, is really spoken to and rea by Ruskin's usual middle-class audience, the problem is not so great. From his working-class audience, however, he asks a conservative acceptance of the status quo. Though at times Ruskin does seem to be addressing "Workmen and Labourers" as a classless category of a those who participate in humane activity, Fors is not a classless work Radical economic, social, linguistic, and perceptual reforms are her most clearly linked to political conservatism.
Linked to—and perhaps undercut by. Though Ruskin wrote that "someday" his audience would understand what he was saying and the way he said it, it is clear that he perceived the distance between himself and those he addressed to be much greater than in his other works. One consequence is the uncertainties and shifts of tone I have noted; another is the still looser and often more whimsical links between subjects in any single number of Fors. Tracing these links, the patterns in what Ruskin himself called a mosaic or a heap of loose stones, not the many-towered building he intended (27.669, 26.96), is as stimulating an exercise in active reading as Ruskin ever designed. But as Ruskin increasingly accepts his isolation from his audience, his myth- and emblem-making prose seems more and more to be a response to private need and not to public responsibilities. As early as Letter Six he defends his difficult style as designed to make them think and read more carefully—and as something he cannot help. "But I can only write of things in my own way and as they come into my head; and of the things I care for, whether you care for them or not, as yet" (27.101).8 The associative prose of Fors exhibits a freedom Ruskin did not allow himself in "Of Kings' Treasuries." It gives his writing an intimacy both marvelous and frightening. As Cardinal Manning wrote, reading Fors is like listening to one's own heart beating in a nightmare.9 But part of that sense of intimacy comes from Ruskin's growing conviction that while he is talking no one is listening. He is not addressing his old audience—has perhaps lost it—but the new audience cannot yet understand him. This gives him a liberty to talk more freely, even recklessly; to assume, at times, a mask of madness that is uncomfortably close to the truth.10 But it also undercuts the educative function of his criticism and destroys the ties between critic and audience on which his rhetoric had been based. We are no longer certain that his emblems are readable, his associations worth tracing out. Might they [283/284] not have only a private meaning that we are not ever meant to understand? There are accommodations to this change of audience which I shall not trace here. My point is simply that the critical function of Ruskin's emblem making is diminished in parts of Fors, as it is in some parts of earlier works where his attention is apparently distracted from the needs of his audience to the exigencies of self-expression. This does not necessarily mean that his emblem making is less powerful. The achievement of Praeterita is enough to contradict that assumption. And the diminished critical function of Ruskin's emblem making may encourage us to consider his prose as art.
uskin stopped writing poems and painting Turnerian watercolors before he was thirty. He fitted his descriptive and myth-making prose to critical and educative ends. Yet neither description nor myth is always clearly educative and explanatory. Moreover, the affinity between these two kinds of prose and the work of romantic landscape poets and artists remains, in some passages, very strong. The Ruskin of The Queen of the Air. like the Ruskin of Modern Painters I, is the apologist and critic of English landscape feeling, but he is also a contributor to its art. He is rightly seen in the company of Turner and Wordsworth and, in his myth-making prose, of Shelley. I began by examining the artfulness of Ruskin's word painting in Modern Painters I and the tension between art and criticism unwittingly generated there. I would like to conclude by looking at the artfulness of Ruskin's later pictorial style. To what extent is criticism again at odds with art?
The obviously artful passages of Ruskin's later prose are apt to come at endings, emblematic last paragraphs like those evoking Turner's Angel at the end of "The Two Boyhoods." There are occasional exceptions, however, where what is usually explanatory myth making description and the gathering of texts—becomes something more. One of the most compelling passages of Ruskin's later prose is his presentation of Athena's serpent in The Queen of the Air. The passage occurs in the middle of the lecture, at a point where we would normally expect an educative exercise, not the encounter with sublimity that Ruskin gives us.
The passage is structurally similar to the explanatory myth-making sections of "The Angel of the Sea." Ruskin follows the same sequence, [284/285] description and a survey of literary and artistic tradition. But in The Queen of the Air mythological perception is not analyzed into its parts by dramatizing a progression from fact to metaphor to myth. Ruskin presents us from the beginning with a mythologized perception of the serpent. The gliding snake is already a mystery. The metaphor for its motion, the running brook, is inseparable from the emotion of horror it arouses in the perceiver. As Ruskin points out, "that horror is of the myth, not of the creature" (19.362). He makes a brief attempt to demythologize the snake: "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." But the attempt is not successful and serves only to demonstrate the hold of the myth. The description of the visible aspect of the snake repeats and expands, but does not analyze or explain, Ruskin's first phrase. His repetitions amplify the suggestions of an unnatural power perceived in the frightening contradiction between form and motion. The apparently formless and inanimate brook horrifies because its running is that of an animate and self-willed being.
That rivulet of smooth silver—how does it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it, when it moves slowly:—A wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward, and the rest of the coil backwards; but all with the same calm will and equal way—no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless march of sequent rings, and spectral procession of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it;—the winding stream will become a twisted arrow;—the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance. It scarcely breathes with its one lung (the other shrivelled and abortive); it is passive to the sun and shade, and is cold or hot like a stone; vet, "it can outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the jerboa, outwrestle the athlete, and crush the tiger." It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth,—of the entire earthly nature. As the bird is the clothed power of the air, so this is the clothed power of the dust; as the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, so this of the grasp and sting of death. [19.362-63]
Ruskin's description circles in fascination about the serpent's terrifying paradox. His evocation cannot be taken as an explanation of its power or a demonstration of how its myth can be read. The mystery is no less [285/286] for being articulated. This passage works very differently from "The Angel of the Sea," where description makes an obscure epithet comprehensible by demonstrating the separate contributions of natural fact, of metaphor employed to describe a sympathetically perceived natural phenomenon, and of cultural association. Here the snake is and remains a thing of mystery and horror. There is no possibility, according to the evidence of Ruskin's paragraph, of reducing it to visible fact in order to make it comprehensible to the reader.
The verbal rhythms of this passage are remarkably suggestive. In Ruskin's descriptions, the impression of energy we receive from the prose can be identified both with that of the objects described and with that of the perceiver— the excursive eye and responsive mind of the beholder. So too in this passage, though the beholder is not a moving spectator but a stayed traveler, articulating in repetitive metaphors his broken vision of the symbolical grotesque. Ruskin's passage does not lead us piecemeal to a comprehension of the terrible, but presents us with a fractured and irreducible whole we will have to grasp for ourselves.
The discussion of mythological perception coming just before this passage prepares us to find in the description a perceptual energy that is not excursive. Mythological perception, Ruskin says, springs from a recognized kinship between the creative energy that shapes matter into animate form in plants and animals and our own spirit or life. The energy, spirit, or life to which he refers is specifically creative: a "formative force" or shaping power visible in the natural forms it creates (I9.353-59). The perceiver who sees in the serpent a "natural myth" is responding as a creature who possesses a similar shaping and animating power. Articulating that perception, he becomes one of those who elaborate natural myths into "the human and variable myths" of imaginative tradition, for others to read (19.361). The mute tongue of the serpent acquires a voice that both is and is not its own, the drawn-out hiss of Ruskin's words, themselves half alive with the same horrifying animation they describe: "one soundless, causeless march of sequent rings, and spectral procession of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils." We feel both that the characteristic energy of Ruskin's prose is taken over here by the strange life of the serpent, and that this energy is assimilated to Ruskin's own—the formative force of his verbal creation.
The author of this passage is a Wordsworth who has been in Gondo [286/287] Gorge, not one of the wanderers from The Excursion. He does not simply join his voice to nature's. Nor does he here, as he does usually, instruct his fellow creatures how to make inarticulate nature speak to social reason's inner sense, of itself and of human history. There is a struggle to comprehend and master an alien natural power. Ruskin does not want to recognize in the snake a life like his own. Its life, because so alien, is perceived as actively hostile. It is a living negation of life, death perceived as an animate power. Like Wordsworth in Gondo Gorge confronting the destructive power of nature and of God (those types and symbols of eternity), Ruskin confronts the reduced sublimity of the grotesque, which is no less terrifying. By articulating his experience, he masters it, at least temporarily. The serpent's alien power is taken to serve Ruskin's creative one.
Wordsworth, turning such an experience into language, at the same time celebrates the triumph of liis imagination, until we can almost read the "characters of the apocalypse" as his own writing inscribed on the scene of his confrontation with the natural sublime. Ruskin makes no such announcement of imaginative victory. Instead his passage continues, joining his perception of the natural myth of the serpent to all those others elaborated in cultural tradition, from Apollo's Python through Aesclepius' healing snake to the serpents of the phallic and death cults discovered by comparative anthropologists. The impulse to inscribe, to commemorate his own imaginative encounter with the serpent, is much less strong in Ruskin than in Wordsworth.
Yet it has not fully disappeared. Serpent and bird are introduced at the beginning of Ruskin's passage as emblems of the shaping power mythologized as Athena. The title of Ruskin's lecture, "Athena Keramitis," can be roughly paraphrased, Athena Spirit of Air as she is capable of working together with earth to create and shape living forms.11 The serpent exemplifies the terrifying aspects of this meeting of life and death, of the vital spirit of air with the strong, deadly power of inanimate earth. Ruskin conducts these lectures as if Athena and her emblems were the products of the Greek mind, or of the accumulated thoughts of a long cultural history. But he also tells us, in a note to his title, that "Athena Keramitis" is a phrase of his own invention (19.351). We must see that note, I think, as Ruskin's version of the Wordsworthian impulse to inscribe. Athena's emblem is Ruskin's own grotesque vision.
Against this initial indication that he has turned his encounter into [287/288] language for art, however, we have to put the rest of Ruskin's passage. After he has placed his own perception in imaginative tradition, he reflects on the darker side of that tradition, the worship of death as life and sexual power as death, recorded in Ferguson's anthropological discoveries. He invokes his powerful grotesque to characterize a bleak vision of human progress, Ins version of Darwinian evolution.
And truly, it seems to me, as I gather in my mind the evidences of insane religion, degraded art, merciless war, sullen toil, detestable pleasure, and vain or vile hope, in which the nations of the world have lived since they could bear record of themselves—it seems to me, I say, as if the race itself were still half-serpent, not extricated yet from its clay: a lacertine breed of bitterness— the glory of it emaciate with cruel hunger, and blotted with venomous stain: and the track of it, on the leaf a glittering slime, and in the sand a useless furrow. [19.365]
Ruskin's "lacertine breed of bitterness" is his emblem, built on mythical perception assimilated to imaginative tradition. It is an emblem made accessible to his readers by what has come before, in Ruskin's experience and others'. But Ruskin's art in this passage is a critical art once again. The bitter commentary of the last paragraph alters the meaning of the preceding encounter with the grotesque sublime. The passages of myth making become, in retrospect, not a victorious imaginative confrontation yielding language for art, but the necessary though terrible imaginative perception that creates a new vocabulary for criticism.
n the serpent passage of The Queen of the Air the central myth making is closer to what Ruskin elsewhere defines as the artist's or poet's experience; the final use of that myth as emblem returns to the critic's reforming concerns and less conspicuous display of his own imaginative encounter. In most of Ruskin's later prose, however, the reverse is true: myth making is critical and explanatory, while emblematic titles and conclusions extend education into artful making for its own sake. Before we ask what effect this emblem-making art has on Ruskin's criticism, we need to look more closely at the kind of art it is.
In one respect, despite the fact that Turner's genius was as a painter, [288/289] Ruskin's, Wordsworth's, and Shelley's as writers, Turner is the romantic model for Ruskin's art. It is not just Turner's vision that links Ruskin's art to his, but Turner's conception of a poetry of painting. Turner steeped himself in literary as well as visual tradition and deliberately set out to create works of art with both verbal and visual components. He created paintings and verses to be considered together; he introduced symbolic figures and multiple literary allusions into his visual compositions; he used titles that were themselves compressed verbal complements and clues to his paintings. Like Turner, Ruskin saw the visual and literary traditions as one. He set out to master both media—to see and draw as well as to read and write. Ruskin's genius was also unequal in the two media he attempted, but he nonetheless continued to work in both. He urged his audience to acquire rudimentary drawing skills just as they learned to write, and he taught that visual culture was as important as literary culture, and never independent of it. But he went further. Like Turner, Ruskin experimented with new ways of combining picture and text in a double or composite art.12 His emblematic prose is an example of such art—sometimes working as the literary complement to pictures, at other times embodying in itself the interplay of visual and verbal form. The double art of Modern Painters I may not have been deliberate; that of Modern Painters V is elaborate and self-conscious. It is of central artistic importance to Ruskin's finest later writing, from the great lectures of the sixties through Praeterita.
The tradition of English double art is substantial, with roots in Renaissance emblem making and a particular flowering, coincident with the general decline of sister-arts theory, in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Ruskin belongs in this tradition, though he would hardly want to separate it from the rest of English and European culture. (He, after all, defined both imaginative literature and painting as, simply, poetry.) Yet Ruskin felt special affinities with English masters of a double-art tradition. His closest acknowledged ties were always with Turner. With Turner he persistently associated Blake, once singling them out as the only two modern English geniuses.13 Another of nineteenth-century England's double artists, Blake's admirer, was Ruskin's difficult younger friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite from whom for a while he hoped most. Ruskin's constant favorite among earlier English poets is more [289/290] strongly linked to the Renaissance emblem tradition than any other major writer—George Herbert.
Ruskin himself evoked the same recognition of special kinship among the major English poets and artists interested in combining verbal and visual form in the second half of the century. Besides Rossetti, Ruskin's art was enthusiastically received by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who pursued the interplay between texts and the decorative arts. Holman Hunt, another early admirer of Modern Painters, wanted to create a visual symbolic language with roots in literary and biblical tradition. Hopkins—a Ruskinian observer who both drew and described natural objects—invented a new and emblematic version of landscape poetry. The English double art after Ruskin, however, also takes a different form under his influence. With Swinburne and Pater the conjunction of text and picture resulted in a deliberately artful treatment of prose, whose inheritor, himself once an art critic, was Henry James. In this century, art criticism became one half of a de facto composite art, the verbal complement to abstract expressionist painting. One might, I think, argue that the art criticism of the last century is a new kind of double art, whose founding father, however reluctant both he and some of his descendants might be to acknowledge it, was Ruskin.
The most developed form of Ruskin's composite art was his myth making, specifically the compressed or emblematic results of the descriptive and constructive process. But Ruskin's work before 1860, which had probably more influence on the next generation of poets and artists, also experiments with various relations between picture and text. The famous descriptive passages of Modern Painters I can be read as verbal complements to particular paintings. The relationship may be one of satire (the parodic description of Claude's II Mulino), of contrast (Ruskin's versions of La Riccia or the Campagna), or of apparently direct imitation (the descriptions of Turner's Snowstorm and The Slave Ship). Even with the Turners, however, picture and text are not actually parallel. Ruskin's physical perspective is always different. He gives us the moving spectator's experience of a Turner translated back into actual landscape. He may also, as at the end of his clouds chapter, compose his own Turnerian painting out of a composite of Turnerian and Ruskinian views. Even when he is directly describing a single painting, as with The Slave Ship, Ruskin's metaphorical language [290/291] brings out moral meanings or literary and historical references, as Turner himself did in his titles and accompanying verses. Ruskin's passage on The Slave Ship refers us to the actual painting as a necessary completion of the visual experience; Ruskin's suppression of Turner's texts in his description, moreover, suggests that his own text is a substitute for the verbal part of Turner's art. At the same time, the lavishness of Ruskin's description suggests that his passage itself aspires to the condition of a composite art: a blend of precisely rendered visual detail and brilliant color with metaphoric suggestion supplied through language, where natural and perceptual motion are translated into verbal rhythms.
Ruskin also used plates and woodcuts, mostly drawn by himself, in Seven Lamps, Stones, and the last three volumes of Modern Painters. But the kind of double work he thus created is not what we might expect from the descriptive art of Modern Painters I. He rarely illustrates his most elaborate and extensive descriptions and, when he does, he does not use plates that can claim an equal importance as art. Instead, the plates in the volumes before Modern Painters V fall generally into three classes. There are picturesque and often very beautiful drawings of architectural details or of rocks, mountain forms, leaves, flowers, branches, or clouds; and there are simplified or schematized drawings of the same things, sometimes taken from his own and sometimes from other artists' work.
Illustrations for Modern Painters by John Ruskin. Left: Aiguille Structure, one of his simplified or schematized drawings. Right: Windows of the Fifth Order, one of his beautiful drawings of architectural details. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Often both picturesque and simplified drawings are placed several to a single plate to illustrate some point of comparative or progressive form. These two classes of illustration, sometimes used in combination, account for most of Ruskin's plates. They generally relate to particular analytical points made in the text and are directly referred to at the appropriate place. Both text and plate titles (which Ruskin begins to use after Seven Lamps) are straightforwardly descriptive, directing the reader to those aspects of the pictures relevant to the passages they illustrate. In Seven Lamps and Stones all of the plates have this localized, explanatory function; Ruskin does not even use frontispieces.
True and False Griffins: Mediaeval and Classical from Modern Painters III. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
In a third and much smaller class of plates, beginning in Stones, pictures are also tied to a particular point in the text, but those points have a wider thematic significance and may be elaborated in more ambitious descriptive prose—the double plate of the true and false griffins (see immediately above), for example, or that of surface and Turnerian picturesque (see immediately below). These plates, like the texts they illustrate, [291/292] are types as well as examples. They are, however, still illustrative of and subordinate to the text. We are not encouraged to regard any one of these kinds of illustration as distinctive but coequal statements in a different medium, parts of a composite work of art.
Ruskin's comparison of Stanfield and Turner. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
We might also take the illustrated volume as a whole as a composite work of art. Quite possibly the example of Ruskin's careful designs for plates and bindings as well as descriptive prose inspired Morris and Burne-Jones, though there were other author-designed Victorian illustrated books. But Ruskin did not pay nearly so much attention to the correspondence between the physical aspect of the whole book and its literary form and style as to the expository function of individual plates and prose passages.14
Ruskin's drawings, considered separately from the illustrations he chose for his books, suggest one reason why he did not combine them with his descriptive prose to create a true double art. The changes in his drawing style between the early forties and the mid-fifties bring his modes of visual and verbal presentation steadily closer together. The culmination of this development is the Swiss drawings Ruskin made between 1854 and 1866, especially those intended for his unrealized project, a history of Swiss towns. He wanted to demonstrate the importance of the walls and bridges and towers of the Swiss towns as sources of the cultural associations that formed an essential part of the European experience of landscape. To this he later added a second purpose, to illustrate the differences between the beholder's art (his own drawings) and the imaginative artist's (Turner's versions of the same scenes).
Ruskin's drawings for this project, then, were intended to illustrate the excursive and associative seeing that his descriptive prose also exemplifies. As Paul Walton, the closest student of Ruskin's visual art, points out, in these drawings Ruskin achieves a new freedom from the burden of imposing imaginative and compositional unity, a freedom greater, in fact, than that of the "delight drawings" of Turner he originally took as his model.15
Ruskin's The Walls of Lucerne. See commentary immediately below. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
In a long, wandering trail of walls and towers across a page passages of fine detail emerge suddenly from large areas of white, to fade again, as the eye follows the trailing forms, into a less defined vision. The uneven realization and the wandering forms suggest the freely changing focus and perspective permissible in a record of an eye moving through what it sees.
Ruskin's Fribourg. See commentary immediately below. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Or again, in [292/293] the mazelike appearance of the top-viewed streets in Fribourg where there is no orienting horizon line at all, lurching houses, twisted streets, and unexpected shifts from fine to hazy detail force a dizzying sense of changing perceptual involvement which bears little relation to Turner (though perhaps a good deal to the later experiments of Cezanne). If there is a visual counterpart to Ruskin's progressive descriptive style, it is these Swiss drawings. But exact visual and verbal counterparts are not composite art. If the changes in Ruskin's drawing style between Modern Painters I and V are seen as an increasing freedom of organization culminating in the Swiss drawings, then it is not surprising that Ruskin should have kept his prose descriptions and his drawings of this kind separate. He was developing parallel expressions in visual and verbal form of his beholder's art—not the deliberate interplay of forms that might create a double art.
In Modern Painters V, however, just as there are passages of new, emblematic pictorial prose, so there are also plates with a new emblematic relationship to Ruskin's text. Early in the volume three plates have titles that suggest their new function: "The Dryad's Toil," "The Dryad's Crown," and "The Dryad's Waywardness." The mythologizing of trees into dryads does not take place in the text at all. The prose refers to the plates merely to illustrate local points about leaf and branch form. Nor are the actual drawings markedly different from earlier illustrations. It is only the titles to the plates that indicate a larger, emblematic meaning for each plate, expressed in a mythological figure.
In the last third of the volume, emblematic text and plates combine to form a composite art. Ruskin had used frontispieces for the first time in Modern Painters III and IV— one a landscape drawing of his own, never referred to in the text; the other Turner's Pass of St. Gothard, which is discussed in several different places.
The Frontispieces to Modern Painters III and IV. Left: Ruskin's Lake, Land, and Cloud (near Como) Right: Turner's The Gates of the Hills. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
In Modern Painters V Ruskin uses a frontispiece whose meaning seems to exceed its designated illustrative function.16 Moreover, he adds separate headplates for each of the last three chapters, in which again the plates do not really seem to illustrate the texts. That for "The Nereid's Guard," for example, shows Turner's dragon, copied by Ruskin from Hesperides.
Quivi Trovammo — The dragon from Turner's "Garden of the Hesperides" by John Ruskin. [Click on this image to enlarge it.]
The dragon, as Ruskin redraws him out of his original setting, reveals features not easily visible in the full painting: a skeletal form, batlike wings, a nimbus of flame-shaped clouds. Ruskin's black and white drawing also makes the ridges of the ground on which the dragon lies [293/294] appear as extensions of its clawlike feet. so that the dragon itself merges into the rock structure (or glacial structure) of the mountain top. All these features Ruskin's text attributes to Turner's dragon, but the drawing that singles them out for clearer representation is no longer Turner's vision, but Ruskin's. The plate is not titled Turner's Hesperidean Dragon but Quivi Trovammo. The dragon of the drawing is the dragon of Ruskin's closing emblematic paragraphs.
The visual image and the emblematic prose are equally compelling, but they are complementary rather than parallel in style. The prose presents a succession of allusions and comparisons arranged for maximum ironic effect: Turner's dragon and St. George's; the presiding images of Pallas Athena, the Virgin, and the Dragon; Dürer's Melancholia, crowned with laurel and eagle's wings, and Turner's dragon, "Crowned with fire, and with the wings of a bat." The drawing makes all these into a single image and includes in that image other details from earlier in the chapter, which link it more firmly with Hesiod and Turner. The title of the plate is from Dante: the "There we found . . ." that announces the discovery of "il gran nemico," which Ruskin earlier associated with the Hesperidean dragon (7.401). The drawing is a summary view of what "we have found," without the irony of the prose but with the more unified impact of the single visual image. On the other hand, the conjunction of text and picture means that the picture can also be read as a complex symbolic statement, full of definite allusions; similarly, the text can be envisioned as a multi layered pictorial image, with related visual figures superimposed to show their likeness in difference. The plate, the two titles, the concluding paragraphs, and the chapter itself work together to form a composite structure very much like a Renaissance emblem: a picture that needs to be read, followed by cryptic mottos in a mixture of languages (Quivi Trovammo, "The Nereid's Guard"), paired with a prose-poem that uses a great deal of verbal metaphor to enrich the texture of readable meanings, and finally—if we include the body of the chapter— further explained in a prose essay or amplification.17
The Frontispieces to Modern Painters III and IV. Left: Ruskin's Lake, Land, and Cloud (near Como) Right: Turner's Apollo and Python. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Ruskin's dragon emblem bears at least a superficial resemblance to Turner's, as indicated in both plate and title. In his "Hesperid Aeglé" neither picture nor title (the same for both picture and chapter) is directly illustrative of the Turner painting that is his ostensible subject. In that painting (Apollo and Python) the Hesperides do not, of [294/295] course, appear. Ruskin's plate shows a Giorgione fresco of a half-nude woman (not one of the Hesperides); there is no female figure in Turner's painting. The only possible relationships between picture or title and the chapter they preface are symbolic or emblematic. In this case, the meaning of plate and title is only made clear in the closing paragraph; similarly, the female figure of Ruskin's plate is essential for comprehending the elaborate visual allusions of that paragraph. Here plate and prose passage are different realizations of the same figure which cannot be comprehended except together.
The opening pages of the chapter directly discuss Apollo: the flawed victory of light and color over darkness, of Apollo over the Python, of the artist over his medium and material. The rest of the chapter is a more general characterization of Turner's mind and work as a mixture of the rose and the worm: a vision of incredible natural beauty, joined to a pessimistic view of human labor, sorrow, and death. At the end of that discussion Ruskin points out Turner's fascination with the historical examples of Carthage, Rome, and Venice: Carthage (and the nearby Garden of the Hesperides) "showing the death which attends the vain pursuit of wealth; Rome showing the death which attends the vain pursuit of power; Venice, the death which attends the vain pursuit of beauty" (7.437). Ruskin notes that Turner's late Venetian paintings, whose beautiful colors so quickly deteriorated,18 are "strangely significative" examples of Turner's theme. The chapter then concludes:
Vain beauty; yet not all in vain. Unlike in birth, how like in their labour, and their power over the future, these masters of England and Venice—Turner and Giorgione. But ten years ago, I saw the last traces of the greatest works of Giorgione yet glowing like a scarlet cloud, on the Fondaco de' Tedcschi. And though that scarlet cloud . . . may, indeed, melt away into paleness of night, and Venice herself waste from her islands as a wreath of wind-driven foam fades from their weedy beach;—that which she won of faithful light and truth shall never pass away. Deiphobe of the sea,—the Sun God measures her immortality to her by its sand. Flushed, above the Avernus of the Adrian Lake, her spirit is still seen holding the golden bough; from the lips of the Sea Sibyl men shall learn for ages yet to come what is most noble and most fair; and, far away, as the whisper in the coils of the shell, withdrawn through the deep hearts of nations, shall sound for ever the enchanted voice of Venice. [7.438-40] [295/296]
This may be Ruskin's most complex and cryptic emblem, at once the culmination of experiments with verbal and visual language in Stones and Modern Painters and the beginning of a new prose style. Turner's art and Giorgione's are two superimposed images, distinct yet akin, exemplifying the historical connections between two artists working in the same tradition. The fading scarlet cloud that both men have left is Giorgione's fresco, represented in the plate, of which all that remains (according to Ruskin's note) is the scarlet outline. It is also the fading color in Turner's late Venetian oils and watercolors. That scarlet cloud is again the real Venice, wasting like wind-driven foam from its islands as the brightly colored buildings crumble, following its political and cultural decline. It is a particular sunset cloud, subject of many of Turner's Venetian watercolors—what Ruskin elsewhere calls the flush of "second twilight," the last rosy flush of color in the sky after the sun has set (13.212). That last sunset color is what Ruskin had, in the previous chapter, identified as the natural phenomenon represented by the mythic maidens of the Hesperides, which is the reason for the title of the chapter and for Ruskin's renaming of Giorgione's woman. Extensive footnotes earlier in the chapter expand the symbolic meaning of the color red, both as biblical language—for love, especially as purification and redemption—and as Turnerian language, where (according to Ruskin) it suggests beauty linked to blood and death. The scarlet cloud is thus the rose that Ruskin has used as a metaphor for Turner's pessimistic vision of natural beauty throughout the chapter. The Quivi Trovanimo becomes, in retrospect, an emblem of the worm.
We have only begun. The female figure is as important as her color. The Sea Sibyl, or Deiphobe of the Sea, is again Venice, this time associated with the Sibyl who appears in four of Turner's paintings (mentioned by Ruskin earlier in the chapter).19 She is the Sibyl whom Apollo loved and promised, at her request, that she would live as many years as the grains of sand in the handful she held. The Sibyl denied Apollo and, like Tennyson's Tithonus, failed to gain perpetual youth along with her all but eternal life. As Ruskin earlier explained, writing of Turner's The Bay of Baiae, she "wasted into the long ages; known at last only by her voice" (13.132). The fading beauty of Venice, Giorgione's fresco, and Turner's paintings are all figured in the Sibyl's story. The same Sibyl carrying the golden bough guided Aeneas to the underworld by Lake Avernus. The allusion to the Sibyl in Ruskin's [296/297] passage intentionally recalls a visual figure as well as a myth; story. In Turner's three paintings of the Sibyl and the golden bough (at least two of which were known to Ruskin)20 the Sibyl holds aloft the golden bough much as the Statue of Liberty holds her torch; but his Sibyl is a diminutive figure almost overwhelmed in a larger landscape, like the thin shimmering line of Venice on the water in Turner's paintings.
Turner's The Golden Bough [Click on this image to enlarge it.]
In Turner's The Golden Bough the Sibyl is half draped in almost exactly the same fashion as Giorgione's fresco, which like the Sibyl holds something in her left hand. (In Ruskin's plate, the dark hatched background stops slightly above her cupped hand, so that she seems to hold light itself.) Giorgione's woman, in Ruskin's plate, is the visual image uniting the Sibyl with the golden bough and Venice itself—with the insubstantial form of crumbling buildings still holding the incredible Venetian light. All three images, mythically and visually related, are fused in a single emblem for the continuing but nonethe less fading beauty and power of art—a rose that is Giorgione's, Venice's, and Turner's.21
Ruskin's emblem making in these last chapters of Modern Painters creates new figures by bringing together related images, voices, and myths drawn from perceptual experience and cultural tradition. This gathering may be a slow and carefully presented sequence of description and explication, as in the body of each chapter, or a rapid and allusive piling up of visual and verbal forms into a multilayered emblem, as in their concluding paragraphs and the complementary plates. In both the leisurely exploratory and the rapid emblematic sections, the allusions bring together very different kinds of phenomena and endow them with equivalent linguistic value. Giorgione's fresco, Hesperid Aeglé, the myth of the Sibyl, Turner's late Venetian paintings, the last flush of twilight sky, Venice itself—these are equally effective signifiers, each, as it emerges from Ruskin's paragraph and plate, capable of recalling the whole intricate texture of reference he has established. Nowhere, either in his reconstructions of cultural history or in his compressed final paragraphs, does he try to reduce these different orders of phenomena to one signifier. The movement is quite the other way: from the single name or image to the complex of significant objects. As he warned readers of Proserpina, "No single classification can possibly be perfect, or anything like perfect. It must be, at its best, a ground, or warp of arrangement only, through which, or over which, [297/298] the cross threads of another,—yes, and of many others,—must be woven in our minds" (25.359-60). Ruskin's myth-making prose works toward linguistic pluralism: especially, though not exclusively, a pluralism that embraces the complex images of natural landscapes and of visual art together with the stories, myths, and names of verbal language.
In this sense Ruskin's myth-making prose, and particularly the more compressed and allusive writing like that of the closing paragraph of "Hesperid Aeglé," creates a double art even without the physical presence of a readable picture. The use of both plate and title is arguably redundant. Either Giorgione's fresco or the name "Hesperid Aeglé" would do as the points from which to begin the multiplication of sign and significance. Ruskin does not, in fact, continue to use both. The lectures of the sixties are almost all organized as expansions of emblematic titles, but they were not published with illustrations. Only a few of the emblemizing chapters of Praeterita were issued with plates—though these few illustrations do work emblematically. The monthly letters of Fors use emblematic illustrations less than half the time. Ruskin's commitment to the ideal of a composite art, a poetry using visual and verbal language together, is no less evident in these later examples of his prose.
The "art" of this later prose, although full of difficulty for the reader, nonetheless possesses a more intelligible relationship to the critical works of which it is a part than the purple passages of his early prose. The difficulties should not be underestimated. Ruskin's descriptive art is more accessible, even though more apt to mislead when it is admired as art. Emblematic titles, plates, and conclusions require an interpretive labor that readers may not be willing to undertake. It is all too often true that either the more expansive passages of explication or the more compressed passages of emblemizing seem self-indulgent— the emblems contracting unintelligibly; the excursive prose ranging too far for too long, so that author or reader cannot get back. Yet the artful aspects of Ruskin's later writing have a clear formal as well as critical function.
Emblematic titles or plates and the cryptic paragraphs to which they refer provide a way of imposing formal limits and formal unity—a beginning and an end—on what might otherwise be an infinitely expansive and digressive How. The cryptic naming and figuring and the [298/299] rapid layering of related names and figures is the counterpart to an excursive prose. The latter leads; the former makes. Education begins with, concludes with, and is shaped by poetic making. No single prose passage attempts both, a source of potential confusion for the readers of Modern Painters I. Both emblematic art and excursive instruction have separate functions, but they cooperate to form a larger prose structure. Such cooperation is consistent with Ruskin's new ideas about the relation of the critic to the imaginative languages whose history he reconstructs. The critic treats such human languages as living, and when he has reconstructed the potential meanings of words or images. he uses them. That using is itself a further extension of meaning. In the reinterpretation of a living tradition, criticism passes naturally into creation.
My description of the prose artist Ruskin became in his last three decades as a critical writer may seem to stress surprisingly unromantic qualities. I have suggested that his composite art is an art of making emblems—emblems that control and shape the beholder's activities of excursive seeing and associative reading, and that constitute the end to which those activities lead. What has happened to the natural expressive landscapes with which Ruskin began? Mental process and natural form seem no longer to meet in these emblematic forms. They do, compellingly, in the reanimated myth of Athena's serpent as Ruskin first presents it, "the running brook of horror on the ground." But the Athena passage is exceptional. Even there in his completed emblem the energy of perception and the energy of nature are compressed into significant forms, an intricate texture of readable images and words. The "lacertine breed of bitterness" is an emblem for the deathful power of a still uncivilized human race, but it lacks the immediacy of his horrified glimpse of the living serpent. One might be tempted to conclude that Ruskin, in the second half of his career, reversed the direction of a century of English landscape art as he moved from an expressive to an emblematic art.
This would be an inaccurate conclusion. Ruskin does revise the landscape art of the romantic poets, but he does not return to the seventeenth-century emblematic art Shaftesbury attacked.22 Ruskin's emblems reassert the continuing importance of perceptible objects as effective language. For Ruskin the imagination does not, as for Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey," dissolve the details of real landscapes [299/300] and substitute for them its own mnemonic sign, converted into the more expressive characters of verbal language. In Ruskin's version of Wordsworth's poem, cliffs and hedgerows and hermit smoke would all remain after memory and imagination had done their work: an emblematic image infused with meaning, the warp on which a woof of related images and stories had been woven but which yet could stand, in all its perceived complexity of sensible form, as the representative, significant design. Still, Ruskin would certainly have agreed with Shaftesbury that the significant picture must also possess naturalistic and expressive power as the basis of its emblematic function. The emblematic landscape should convey the illusion that the artist had a single vision of nature. Its parts should appear to be related both as natural form or scene and as mental process. The wholly artificial construction of a significant sensible figure, intelligible only as allegorical language to be read, was not Ruskin's model even for his most elaborate emblems. It would be more accurate to describe Ruskin's later art as both expressive and emblematic. The combination of expression and emblem is conceived as that of an historical process by which human perceptions of nature are elaborated into emblems, increasing in linguistic complexity as the imaginative tradition grows. In Ruskin's later critical writing, the emblem shapes the perception of expressive form, but the original perception is in turn the continuing source of the emblem's linguistic power. The reform of language can still be accomplished only by returning to the beholder's art.
Ruskin was never sanguine about the prospects for reform—perceptual, linguistic, or social. Despite his passionate, idealistic commitment to improving the quality of hum an life, he had by temperament and religious conviction no very strong faith in the desire or ability of people, including himself, to realize his humane goals. His disbelief in his audience shows. He can never trust us to make our own judgments. He does not use the vast mass of evidence he has accumulated—for The Stones of Venice, say—but relies on typical or emblematic examples combined with authorial demonstrations of how to see or read. When his audience is British workingmen or philistine businessmen or women of any kind, his distrust is more obvious and, to us, distasteful, but it is characteristic of his attitude even toward those [300/301] who do not differ from him in class, culture, or sex. Ruskin's pessimism is not entirely a function of temperament, religious conviction, or unexamined prejudices about his audience. In the 1850s the spirit of reform was at a low ebb in Victorian England.23 Ruskin's readers were not quick to take fire with his or any proposals for changing their way of life or taking social action to change life for others—even when those proposals were tied to a conservative political ideology. Ruskin's response was seldom to persuade patiently, to encourage the fiction of consensus and kinship in his audience in the hope of quietly converting them to his own values. His reaction to a national mood unreceptive to reform was to demand more while he expected less. He made beholding and reading more strenuous, and both his prose and his proposals more difficult and quixotic.24 At the same time, he did not hide his increasingly bitter conviction that what he urged his audience would not achieve.
Ruskin's ideas about perception and the languages of art survive what he regarded as the symptomatic failure of his proposals for reform: the disappearance of landscape feeling as a major impulse toward perception and language and, with it, the alteration of the English and European landscapes he loved. To tie the validity of his aesthetic and social ideas too closely to the fate of landscape feeling is probably a mistake. It may well be true that, were Ruskin's humane vision of labor and consumption realized, we would cherish natural landscapes as guides to perception and sources of language. But as Ruskin himself realized, one begins with the conditions of labor and consumption in society and art, not with the landscape feeling.
Nonetheless, much of Ruskin's most bitter and despairing as well as his most enthusiastic writing is devoted to landscapes and landscape art. So, too, are the moving elegiac passages of his later prose: above all, the emblematic landscapes of Praeterita. These express Ruskin's pessimism more than his passion to reform. The pessimism, though, is muted, mixed with desire and the ever-present sense of loss. If landscape feeling has any continuing role in English or American culture, then these Ruskinian landscapes of loss will be part of the imaginative language we inherit. In his landscapes Ruskin most directly contributes to the available poetic tradition. The last landscape of Modern Painters is an earlier and more public version of the emblematic landscapes of paradise lost and recovered in Praeterita. It is also, I think, a [301/302] deliberate comment on his first reading of symbolic landscape—an emblem of the new view of the languages of nature and art presented in Modern Painters V.
"Hesperid Aeglé" is the conclusion to Modern Painters', the final chapter, "Peace," is more coda than finale. Ruskin's "rose" of perpetually fading beauty is also his private "Rose," with whom he was already hopelessly and obsessively in love. But she is equally his public Venice. Figure and landscape merge, joining the figures and the Venetian landscapes of Giorgione and Turner. Ruskin's defense of natural beauty as portrayed in Turner's paintings ends where his other major work of these two decades, The Stones of Venice, began: with an evocation of Venice as a real landscape and a figure of beauty, a landscape to be read and a voice to be listened to. The visual image in both passages is very nearly the same. In 1851 too Ruskin saw Venice as "a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness" (9.17). The voice that opens Stones, however, is stern. Ruskin hears and conveys "the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat like passing bells, against the STONES OF VENICE." The stern warning that Ruskin adopts is God's, delivering through his prophets the lesson of the fall of a great and proud sea-based civilization. Tyre is a biblical type of Venice, and England, unless it reforms, may follow Venice and Tyre.
The voice, the language, and the message Ruskin calls up at the end of Modern Painters are a deliberate revision of that earlier warning. The voice he hears is not beating waves but receding ones; not the tolling bell but the whisper of the seashell; not the stern warning but the "enchanted voice." The language is no longer biblical but historical and human, the language of Greek myth, of Giorgione's art and Turner's, and of Ruskin's, his figures incorporating and extending theirs. The message has also altered. It is not that England must reform or fall, but that beauty does survive, even "for ever," though only as the lovely wreck of what it once was. It fades to a scarlet glow but still keeps its whispered voice, resounding in memory: "withdrawn through the deep hearts of nations." The ghostly voice of that fading scarlet shadow, Venice, sounds here once more in Ruskin's elegiac prose—but only to remind us of what we have already lost. 
Last modified 24 February 2013