Delivering a speech in 1864 to a meeting of local businessmen in Bradford, England, John Ruskin decided to pull no punches. The speech, entitled "Traffic," directly and fiercely attacks the audience members, archetypes of material culture, for their unabashed devotion to industry and commerce. In "Traffic," Ruskin's prose style often seems held back with graceful restraint, methodically unraveling ideas in painted sentences. However, just past the halfway point of the speech, Ruskin unleashes his argument with raw emotion:

It is long since you built a great cathedral; and how you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon; your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! — all these are built to your great Goddess of "Getting-on"; and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her; and it is quite vain to ask me to tell you how to build to her; you know far better than I. [p. 286]

Questions for Discussion

1. In the quoted section, Ruskin uses a curious syntactical structure, firing off salvos of exclamations, one after another, working punctuation to create breathers in the long stream of ideas. What purpose does this syntax serve in the passage? Do we find hints of Johnson's characteristic oratorical rhythm?

2. How does this striking passage fit with the piece's tonal flow?

3. In "Hudson's Statue" and "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle charges his audience with similar sins of materialism. Does Ruskin's polemic come across differently to the reader? How is Ruskin's narrative voice, his ethos, different from Carlyle's in the aforementioned essays?

4. What effect does Ruskin produce by drawing comparisons with classical and religious images?


Unto This Last. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John D. Rosenberg. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998. 229-272.

Last modified 30 April 2024