In Chapter 12 of Modern Painters III, John Ruskin explores a variety of poet-types, and ranks them according to how sincerely they fulfill that which to him represents the goal of art and poetry: to reflect the world truthfully. Central to this question, especially insofar as it concerns verbal art, is the use of metaphor, of exaggeration, and of other such descriptive elements that, instead of nearing us to the actuality of the subject, distort it and distance us. Ruskin forgives these distortions only when they spring from an honesty of intent within the poet — that is, if the poet's emotions so possess him that in his instability he ascribes to the world qualities not inherently its own. But Ruskin has little admiration for those poets who embellish and distort, consciously, for literary effect. Though he provides numerous examples of these two, and other slightly varying, classes of poet, it is no easy argument to make. Can one distinguish, without reservation, a poet's use of "lagging wind" as disingenuous, and another's use of "mound [of sea]" as sincere in its simplicity? Can such a scientific examination of poetry yield true merit? Whether or not one agrees with his classifications, one finds that he offers quite a thorough explanation of his opinion of truthfulness and the criteria by which a poem remains truthful.

All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the "Pathetic fallacy" . . . Now so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces ; we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley's, above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow. But the moment the mind of the speaker becomes cold, that moment every such expression becomes untrue, as being for ever untrue in the external facts. And there is no greater baseness in literature than the habit of using these metaphorical expressions in cold blood. An inspired writer, in full impetuosity of passion, may speak wisely and truly of "raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame;" but it is only the basest writer who cannot speak of the sea without talking of "raging waves," "remorseless floods," "ravenous billows," &c.; and it is one of the signs of the highest power in a writer to check all such habits of thought, and to keep his eyes fixed firmly on the pure fact, out of which if any feeling comes to him or his reader, he knows it must be a true one." [pp. 159, 164]

His is a code of honesty and of humility in one's artistic expression. Of course, though, some complications arise from his stance. If he accepts lavish and inaccurate descriptions only from those poets whose senses are warped by a temporary passion, what do we do with poets who use such language to attempt to recreate a passionate experience now long gone? Or those poets who have had no such experience, but who aim to experience it through their writing of it? And if the reader is to be the judge, does it even matter the sincerity of intent with which the poem was written, or only the precision with which it can pierce and affect its audience? Is the most honest poetry necessarily to come from the most honest poet? Much can be said of Ruskin's judgments on the quality of verse, and many could argue over the validity of his judgments. But even if one refutes Ruskin's commentaries on past writers, one finds in his work a wealth of careful, sensible advice as to how future poets should treat their work in order to produce effective poetry.

Discussion Questions

1. Because Ruskin writes about writing, one finds in him both observations of other people's writing and an example of his own. How does Ruskin's style demonstrate some of the principles that he explains in his argument?

2. In the term "Pathetic fallacy" we find the poet both to be weak and erroneous, and Ruskin defends the poet's error only because he happens to be in a moment of weakness. Yet the "fallacy" one finds in a speaker consumed by emotion is fallacy only if we accept a state of calm (an absence of emotion, if such exists) as capable of discerning truth. In other words, a speaker may go through any number of states — calm, angry, enthusiastic — and perceive the world differently relative to each, but whether any one represents truth (and the others fallacy) is difficult to say. What is Ruskin's concept of truth, and why is this truth the sole necessity of art?

3. Though much of this chapter deals with words, one cannot forget that it occurs in the book Modern Painters, and that much of his talk to this point has related to the painter Turner. How do Ruskin's arguments in this chapter apply to his opinions on visual art, and to what extent do these issues of truth and poetic fallacy manifest themselves in Pre-Raphaelite art?

4. Ruskin praises the poet not who can construct the most impressive phrase, but who can affect the reader without impressive phrases. The skill lies not in effusiveness, but rather in a certain restraint. Do the poems of Tennyson and Browning reflect this quality (regardless of what Ruskin himself has to say of Tennyson)? And, from a reader's stance, what is the value of such an approach to poetry?

Related Material


Ruskin, John. Modern Painters: Volume III. New York: J. Wiley & Halsted 1857.

Last modified 4 February 2009

6 May 2019