Knowledge enormous makes a god of me. — John Keats, Hyperion


decrorated initial 'r'uskin's letter to Osborne Gordon on the origins of Modern Painters I describes his new career in art criticism as an alternative to the ministry. His aim, he writes, was to communicate "the love and knowledge .... not of technicalities and fancies of men, but of the universal system of nature — as interpreted and rendered stable by art." He then recalls that, on a Sunday in 1842, while traveling in Geneva, he read a hostile review of Turner:" It put me in a rage, and that forenoon in church (it's an odd thing, but all my resolutions of which anything is to come are invariably formed, whether I will or no, in church — I scheme all thro' the litany) — that forenoon, I say, I determined to write a pamphlet and blow the critics out of the water." But the pamphlet grew into "a complete treatise on landscape art." "Then came the question, what is the real end of landscape art? and then the conviction ... that it might become an instrument of gigantic moral power, and that the demonstration of this high function, and the elevation of the careless sketch or conventional composition into the studied sermon and inspired poem, was an end worthy of my utmost labour" (III, 665-666). The confusion in the final sentence is richly suggestive. Nothing can elevate a conventional composition to an inspired poem; Ruskin must have in mind the writing of his own treatise, his continuing hopes as an artist, or the effect of his prose on other modern painters. The sentence does convey with accuracy his newly discovered sense of moral and verbal power, which fuses the ecstatic emotions induced by landscape, the "swelling" that Burke attributes to ambition, and the moral [34/35] aggressiveness of the inspired preacher. Ruskin's first book is at once a pamphlet to end all pamphlets and arguably the longest sermon in English, but the mingling, in the passage that I have quoted, of "composition," "sketch," and "poem" suggests that Ruskin, viewing paintings as sermons and language as paint, reconceives the experience of seeing as he revolutionizes the rhetorical modes that he mixes so surprisingly.

The golden-tongued preacher strikes out characteristically in passages like the summary attack on the Old Masters, which in the first edition immediately precedes Ruskin's introduction of Turner:

A man accustomed to the broad wild sea-shore, with its . . . eternal sensation of tameless power, can scarcely but be angered when Claude bids him stand still on some paltry chipped and chiselled quay, with porters and wheelbarrows running against him, to watch a weak, rippling, bound and barriered water.... A man accustomed to the grace and infinity of nature's foliage, with every vista a cathedral, and every bough a revelation, can scarcely but be angered when Poussin mocks him with a black round mass of impenetrable paint, diverging into feathers instead of leaves, and supported on a stick instead of a trunk. The fact is, there is one thing wanting in all the doing of these men, and that is the very virtue by which the work of human mind chiefly rises above that of the daguerreotype or calotype, or any other mechanical means that ever have been or may be invented, Love. There is no evidence of their ever having gone to nature with any thirst, or received from her such emotion as could make them ... lose sight of themselves; there is in them neither earnestness nor humility; there is no simple or honest record of any single truth; none of the plain words or straight efforts that men speak and make when they once feel. [III, 168-169]

Although Ruskin's endeavor, as he wrote to Gordon, was to reach "all classes," he describes the love of the sublime here in the language of class contempt: grand scenes and grand natures are set off against small minds and the activities of tradesmen. With naive literalness, the passage makes sublimity the spiritual symbol of bourgeois aspiration, the aspiration of the same class that found vicarious fulfillment in the grand gestures of Byron's romances. Then at an imperceptible point, the class polemic shifts to religious polemic. In addition to being puny and vulgar, the Old Masters are also a school of errors and falsehoods, while the sudden new generation of Englishmen, consummating the history of art forever, it would seem, stands as a group of heroes of Protestant history, endowed with Protestant virtues — humility, earnestness, simplicity, and plain speaking, They are nature's gentlemen, whereas the conceited Continentals are the real vulgarians; and most important, they are "self-forgetful." Already in his career, Ruskin assoclates [35/36] "mechanical means" with the acts and products of a mind in selfisolation and "Love" with the acts and products of a mind that has lost itself in a greater whole. The core of constructive thought in the passage is that great art is not necessarily more or less accurate than bad art, but it invariably springs from an act of communion and bears recognizable traces of that communion in a kind of Wordsworthian overflow of speech, natural and spontaneous — "the plain words ... that men speak ... when once they feel." But since bad art really has no audience, it can neither commune nor communicate.

And so for nearly six hundred pages more, polemic and rhapsody, praise and assault make themselves heard through one of the most mercurial voices a writer has ever fashioned for himself. The incongruities stem in part from the contradictions in the young man's heritage — his parents' religion of piety and the religious intensity of their social ambitions — which express themselves in the book as the paradox of sublime experience, the soul's losing itself in order to find itself, elevated and glorified. In other words, Ruskin studies the paradoxes of power in bourgeois Protestantism. But this feature of Ruskin's project is inseparable from the revolution in seeing that has been classically described by Graham Hough: "The neglected faculties must be released from their archaic existence in the unconscious and set free to function in the daylight. This is what Ruskin is trying to do for the sense of sight — to release it from the bondage to utility and convention and to set it free to operate in its own way; he is vindicating the rights of the senses" (The Last Romantics, 12). This vindication takes the form of a new account of the aesthetic transaction, or what is really the same thing, a description of the world as it appears to the great artist — to the man who has seen God's face.

Sermons in Paint

decrorated initial 'H' ow does the world look to the pure in heart? To justify the objective validity of his way of seeing, Ruskin included a long theoretical apparatus that led Browning to call the book "inconsequent in some of the reasoning ... and rather flashy than full in the metaphysics" (Quoted in Leon, 82). The book's genuine metaphysical interest lies, rather, in the descriptive mode that many of Ruskin's students have called "phenomenological," an accurate enough term though potentially misleading. I will use "phenomenology" to mean a method, not an ontological position, that avoids taking as its ground either an assumption about the limits of [36/37] human knowledge or an assumption about things in themselves, setting the subject-object distinction aside in favor of a description of the sensory manifold capable of intuitive validation by the experiences of others. For Ruskin such a description grows out of the empiricist tradition yet is subtly and crucially different. He opens Modern Painters I with a Lockean definition of sensory ideas and insists that these ideas constitute the limits of our knowiedge, yet his very first description transcends by implication the simpler forms of associationism. In his account of Landseer's The Old Shepherd's Chief-Mourner, he notes first the visual details — the careful execution of the dog's hair, the wood of the coffin, and so forth, which he calls "language" — and then the emotional connotations of the details, which he calls "poetry." The crucial point is that he already conceives of seeing as reading, an act of knowledge by which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, since the parts adhere by virtue of an organizing syntax. His next and greatest task is to demonstrate that nature itself may be read by means of an inherent, intuitive grasp of syntax, even when we lack the familiar associations to guide us that we have in the case of the Landseer. In a letter of 1844 to Henry Liddell, he wrote that great modern paintings are "crowded with facts entirely unknown to the observer — types with which his imagination has never been familiarised, and which therefore have no effect whatever by association .... hence they excite the passions little and have no historical effect .... they are the world as it was and is, not our ideas of things past away — and they appeal only to the sense of pure — inherent beauty, a sense nearly, if not altogether, wanting in most men" (III, 676). Ruskin arouses this "neglected faculty" in his readers by giving unprecedented clarity of attention to particular phenomena. As Patricia Ball has acutely remarked, "Seeing clearly ... means reading deeply into the object, recognizing the comprehensiveness of its self-expression, as it demonstrates its energies, displays the formal laws of its being, and sums up its past and its potential simply by the impact of its visual presence" (Science of Aspects, 69). This book remains one of the finest discussions of Ruskinian seeing in print). and this impact is beauty for Ruskin. In other words, he passes from the school of Locke to the school of Coleridge-or, more accurately, to a kind of vitalistic Aristotelianism; for the "science" of Modern Painters I is a science of essences, and its debt is to Aristotle, not as the father of the inductive method — for Ruskin always hated and feared the "greyness" of general categories — but as the discoverer of the concrete universal, the revelation of the universal through the particular essence of the individual. 5 This view of things corresponds to the lesson of Ruskin's [37/38] first drawing master, who, he tells us in Praeterita, taught him "the habit of looking for the essential points in the things drawn, so as to abstract them decisively" (XXXV, 77). The sophistication of aesthetic discrimination implied in such simple advice already surpasses a simple associationism. Modern Painters I implicitly reconciles the contradiction between the language used by practicing artists and the language of philosophical empiricism, and it does so by a descriptive technique that enacts a fiction of "deep seeing," a fiction by which surfaces disclose essences and the factual becomes affective.

Probably the clearest example of deep seeing is a passage on waterfalls that characteristically describes both an actual scene and Turner's representation of it ("The Upper Fall of the Tees" in the series England and Wales). Ruskin begins with the idea of "form," which he has earlier distinguished from mere shape or outline. Foam, for example, may be suggested by lightly rubbed paper; "but nature gives more than foam, she shows beneath it, and through it, a peculiar character of exquisitely studied form bestowed on every wave and line of fall; and it is this variety of definite character which Turner always alms at." Form, or "character," then, is a law of activity manifested differently in different moments — in a "variety of definite character." How does Turner achieve the character, not simply an undifferentiated effect? The answer comes from physics rather than from the rules of drawing. The water in a cascade is both swift-moving and heavy. Most painters use parabolic curves to indicate swiftness, but they sacrifice the sense of weight; Turner, on the other hand, uses catenary lines:

Now water will leap a little way, it will leap down a weir or over a stone, but it tumbles over a high fall like this; and it is when we have lost the parabolic line, and arrived at the catenary, when we have lost the spring of the fall, and arrived at the plunge of it, that we begin really to feel its weight and wildness. Where water takes its first leap from the top, it is cool and collected, and uninteresting, and mathematical; but it is when it finds that it has got into a scrape, and has farther to go than it thought, that its character comes out: it is then that it begins to writhe, and twist, and sweep out, zone after zone, in wilder stretching as it falls; and to send down the rocket-like, lance-pointed, whizzing shafts at its sides, sounding for the bottom. And it is this prostration, this hopeless abandonment of its ponderous power to the air, which is always peculiarly expressed by Turner. [III, 553-554] [38/39]

Like the physicist, the painter observes carefully and frequently enough to discover the law of visible expression that persists through changes. Again like the physicist, the artist is interested in changeable sense data for the sake of the properties and energies of a thing and so focuses on the sign that contains within itself the most information. Most generally, Ruskinian seeing is a set of conversions — from surface phenomena to essences or qualities to energies and finally to a pervasive sentient energy or mind of which all things are manifestations. Ruskin's verbs gather force in a carefully arranged sequence, from "plunge," "spring," and "tumble," which seem to be objective distinctions, to "writhe, and twist, and seep out," to the final "hopeless abandonment of its ponderous power," only the last of which is clearly an example of pathetic fallacy. By an apparently casual fancifulness the description demonstrates the impossibility of fixing a definite point at which perception becomes conception and thought becomes feeling — a double wedding that, though explicit in Coleridge, was by no means a commonplace in contemporary epistemology. This yielding of perception to conception and thought to feeling I take to be the distinguishing character of Ruskinian phenomenology, succinctly adumbrated in the well-known phrase "intellectual lens and moral [that is, emotional] retina" (IV, 36). First, perception becomes conception, because the details of things leap into life, so to speak, as a gestalt. Again and again in his works, Ruskin "spells" the parts, such as leaves on a tree, until the whole discloses itself all at once. Second, thought becomes feeling because the sudden disclosure of essences is an affective experience; we no longer see but, in ordinary language, sense or feel the heaviness of a stone or the thrust of a blade of grass. What we sense corresponds to the ultimate object of artistic representation, which for Ruskin is not a static image but "qualities ... emotions, impressions, and thoughts." Thus Ruskin avoids using the word "imitate" (which applies to a mechanical copy), preferring verbs like "state," "induce the effect of," "has reference to" — we would add "express," the romantic term that perfectly describes the transcendence of subject and object implied in [39/40] Ruskinian seeing. If the truest experience of nature is affective and the truest record of nature expressive, it follows that the most "characteristic" subject (that is, the most sublime) would reveal nature at her most "passionate" moment — for nature "has a body and a soul like man; but her soul is the Deity" (III, 148). Although this metaphor is an unwarranted extension of pure Lockean empiricism, it is a consistent extension of Ruskinian reading, according to which particulars can be grasped only in terms of the whole that renders them intelligible, as the features, viewed together, become the expression of a face.

In Ruskinian seeing, then, the oppositions inherent in traditional epistemology — the oppositions of objective to subjective, appearance to essence, surface to depth, sensations to powers, perception to conception, seeing to feeling, are united in a visual process by which the first term of each pair shifts into the second, "truer" term. Moreover, by alternating accounts of painting with accounts of landscape, Ruskin's book produces an analogy between the coherence of a human artifact and the coherence of the natural world: the observed facts of the natural world become the standard for correcting or approving art, while at the same time a painter's skillful abstracting provides clues to a more complete reading of the natural world. The analogy does not amount to a proof that things "really" exist as we see them, or that there is an absolute standard of intersubjective validity. Yet the ability of such comparisons to induce even a degree of intuitive assent challenges the resources of traditional skepticism and marks Ruskin's book as a participant, however unconscious, in the current of thought made possible by German idealism and, in England, by Coleridge — a participant, moreover, in the romantic drive tojustify intellectually our prinutive delight in the presentness and substantiality of a world greater than us yet made for us, in which we can lose ourselves in order to know ourselves more truly than before. Since this communion rests on the power to see affectively, the inability to see means the deterioration of feeling. Against that calamity nature stands (to alter Mill's famous phrase) as the permanent possibility of emotional experience; and the aim of representation is to increase our power to incorporate that experience.

The paintings Ruskin reads are generally of two kinds that are distinct in every way except for the active response required of the viewer: topographical realism, which demands a loving scrutiny of detail, and visionary expressionism, which stimulates an imaginative reconstruction of elements suggested or evoked. An example among a great many of the first kind is, once again, the Upper Fall of the Tees: "With this drawing before him a geologist could give a lecture upon the whole system of aqueous erosion, and speculate as safely upon the past and [40/41] future states of this very spot, as if he were standing and getting wet with the spray" (III, 488). Nothing could be farther removed from contemporary interests than the geological lecture Ruskin then provides, yet such passages are among the most wonderful of his aids to the student of Turner, showing how the painter could convert a set of facts into miniature ecologies at once energized and interdependent. To feel the force of a storm-swollen river, or to notice the angle of branches bent in the wind, or to locate the source of the storm in a departing veil of mist in the distance is to grasp connections and intuit emphases that no purely formal analysis of line and color can suggest.

A characteristic example from the other end of the spectrum, the Turner of visionary indistinctness, is the word painting of Turnerian Venice, the tour de force by which Ruskin introduces his hero to his readers : (The passage was suppressed after the first edition in order not to give offense to other living painters.) The rhetorical strategy is to describe hypothetical views of the same subject by different painters. As in The King of the Golden River, each contestant is given a task which only the last one truly fulfills — in effect, to make the living waters flow. The worst of the group is Canaletto, who is at once too slovenly and too literal — he gives us only "heaps of earth and mortar, with water between." "But what more there is in Venice than bricks and stone — what there is of mystery and death, and memory and beauty — what there is to be learned or lamented, to be loved or wept — we look for to Canaletti in vain." Turner's vision breaks upon us as an epiphany, an explosion of space and light: "Thank heaven, we are in sunshine again,-and what sunshine! ... white, flashing fulness of dazzling light, which the waves drink and the clouds breathe, bounding and burning in intensity of joy. That sky, — it is a very visible infinity, — liquid, measureless, unfathomable, panting and melting through the chasms in the long fields of snow-white, flaked, slow-moving vapour, that guide the eye along their multitudinous waves down to the islanded rest of the Euganean hills." Ruskin then moves to details — a gondola advancing in the foreground in full distinctness, the line of buildings in the background sketched in suggestively — then back to the whole again: "Detail after detail, thought beyond thought, you find and feel them through the radiant mystery, inexhaustible as indistinct, beautiful, but never all revealed; secret in fulness, confused in symmetry, as nature herself is to the bewildered and foiled glance, giving out of that indistinctness, and through that confusion, the perpetual newness of the infinite, and the beautiful" (III, 255-257). Here in a few words is the Ruskinian sublime, with a characteristic three-part movement: first an undifferentiated sensuous delight, when everything seems liquid light; then a lingering over suggestive details, which accumulate to the point at which enumeration is impossible; then a reconstitution of the whole, [41/42] this time grasped imaginatively as an infinite sum of particulars that can be read as long as we like. The sudden overflow of light and water turns out to be a boundless supply unexhausted by boundless giving. Canaletto, Prout, and Stanfield had given marks on a canvas that never quite cohered into "poetry" (Canaletto had given only lifeless matter, of the sort that the "bargeman" and "bricklayer" would notice), and so the affective energies of the viewer could not be released. But in Turner the compositional elements become objective correlatives, so to speak, of the mind struggling to absorb what is too much for it, while the sunlight and water of the bay become synecdoches of nature herself, "the exhaustless living energy with which the universe is filled" (III, 383)

Such is the world as it is seen by the Wordsworthian child. The Ruskinian sublime, that is to say, is Wordsworthian rather than Burkean. Ruskin avoids the term because he rejects it as a useful category. "Anything which elevates the mind is sublime," he writes; it is therefore "not distinct from what is beautiful ... but is only a particular mode and manifestation" of the sources of pleasure in art (III, 128, 130). The phrase is ambiguous with regard to subject or object: the sublime is neither an experience of the viewer alone nor a quality of the thing seen alone but a "particular mode or manifestation." The relentless attention throughout the book to sublime beholding permits Ruskin to reconceive the elements of the aesthetic transaction — nature, artist, audience, and artifact-according to a model of religious experience.

His conception of the first element, nature, depends upon the most childlike suspension of disbelief: the canvas should always seem a real place to be entered, the universe should always be a system "out there." In this fiction of radical outness, the internal is completely externalized., so that nature becomes the sum of all intellectual and affective energies, inscribed on an infinite sensory manifold. "Beauty" is simply the agent of the affective bond between eye and nature-not specifically a set of formal qualities but rather the divine energy made visible and received by the pure in heart. But "the moment that we trust to ourselves, we repeat ourselves, and therefore the moment we see in a work of any kind whatsoever the expression of infinity, we may be certain the workman has gone to nature for it" (III, 387). The task of the illusionistic painter is so to tap into this divine multitude, so to absorb the essential laws of things, that he can abstract from the infinite to make it comprehensible as the sublime. The untutored viewer sees lazily and unselectively. Instead of confusion, the artist gives him system; instead of blankness, the beginnings of detail; instead of dullness, freshness of sensation; instead of dead copies, life. But a painting is in itself only a single version or transcript. This is the point of Ruskin's one extended comparison between painters and preachers, both of whom [42/43] have space only for a single "text": "Both are commentators on infinity, and the duty of both is to take for each discourse one essential truth ... and to impress that, and that alone, upon those whom they address" (III, 157). A work of art is not the shadow of a shadow but a particular enhancement or clarification of the supreme reality, an assumption by which Ruskin implicitly overthrows our traditional insistence on the autonomy of the individual work. Always his readings go beyond the particular canvas or sketch (sometimes noticing only a corner of it) in order to recapture the primal act of beholding of which the artifact is only a trace. This approach is consistent with the peculiar division of his book into natural categories — Earth, Skies, Water, and Vegetation — which are for him the artist's vocabulary of forms analogous to Northrop Frye's vocabulary of archetypal imagery.

No wonder Ruskin had no space for a theory of "creative" imagination. But although he later moves to a more expressionist emphasis, Modern Painters I does not ignore the second element of the aesthetic transact'on, the artist. On the contrary, by rejecting the imagination as a separate principle in aesthetic activity, Ruskin makes possible an extreme theory of inspiration by which the great artist becomes the world before which he annihilates himself. Wordsworth had expressed a dream widespread among romantic poets when he hoped to show in The Recluse the "creation" that the mind and the world "with blended might/ Accomplish," but the Wordsworthian project is problematical indeed, resting on the polarity of an autonomous human power and the sensory presence of nature and on the struggle to translate the language of sense into a system of verbal signs. Ruskin's radical simplification of these problems arises, most obviously, from the experience of sketching, a kind of automatic writing that reproduces objects in a system of nonarbitrary signs that resemble them. The amateur sketch may stand as a purer paradigm even than a great poem of (in Coleridge's phrase) nature made into thought and thought made into nature, for as the concrete record of an action, lines on paper "express" both the object and the moving hand.

What we normally call sublime art is simply a special case, for Ruskin, of this trancelike self-forgetfulness, as he makes clear in his section on technical mastery. According to him, the largeness and difficulty of the subject make correspondingly large demands on the artist, until technical control shades over into a power of comprehension equal to the [43/44] power of the sensations that flood the expanding lens of the artist's eye. A very great power of comprehension or absorption is genius, such as that of Turner, who pervades even his most complex compositions as an abstract principle of order. This view, of course, is simply a restatement in pictorial terms of romantic theories of impersonal genius, but in Ruskinian phenomenology, since Turner represents the farthest possible reach of human perception, what he gives us is nature as far as we are concerned, with indications in the form of blank or sketchy areas of the point at which even his senses fall. This theory of inspiration, along with the form of Ruskin's exemplary readings, implies a fiction of beholding that emerges clearly enough even though Ruskin never describes it in detail. According to this fiction, the artist loses himself by being blinded or temporarily annihilated as a separate ego. Then the seer is restored to himself with a heightened sense of an access of separate power and of his place in nature. The sublime experience is a power exchange (metaphorically, a drinking in or a breathing in, an inspiring) ending in stability, which also leaves a trace in the viewer's memory — a shorthand "possession" of part of the whole. Finally, the seer converts his experience into a set of signs resembling the visible signs by which nature expresses the divine energy but now organized according to the unity of his own apprehension. This whole account may be reduced to a single sentence if we adopt the metaphor of speech: the inspired painter is a prophet, and the "I" of that painter is the divine "I" as spoken through the prophet's lips.

The effect of this ventriloquism on the viewer, the third element of the aesthetic transaction, is not so much to convey messages as to induce a nearly equivalent experience of communion. In a well-known passage describing the storm in Turner's Long Ships Lighthouse, Land's End, Ruskin writes:

It is this untraceable, unconnected, yet perpetual form, this fulness of character absorbed in universal energy, which distinguish nature and Turner from all their imitators.... to mark the independent passion, the tumultuous separate existence, of every wreath of writhing vapour, yet swept away and overpowered by one omnipotence of storm, and thus to bid us

"Be as a presence or a motion-one
Among the many there ...."

this belongs only to nature and to him. [III, 404-405]

The passage gathers detail upon detail until the local storm becomes a paradigm of all particular manifestations in their relation to the cosmos. Ruskin's voice correspondingly rises in degree of intensity until it bursts forth in the verses of Wordsworth's Wanderer, as though to [44/45] underscore the universality of Turner's vision and incidentally to repeat, by means of the embedded quotation, the effect of the several participating in the one. We are "thus" bid, as the syntax implies, to participate through our own fullness of character in the universal energy, which for Ruskin is the supreme experience of selfbood. An odd feature in Ruskin's own readings reinforces this sense. He is often drawn to scenes in which a human artifact named in the title — Llanthony Abbey, a steamer, a slave ship, Babylon — is surrounded by atmospheric tumult, yet he often omits mention of the presumed center of attention. It is as though by omitting reference to the human marker, he destroys all trace of the endistancing mirror relationship, subtly permitting his viewers to reconstitute themselves at the center of the scene — as the organizing energy of the artist does.

Meaning in the visual arts is for Ruskin a dynamic interaction most suitably described in metaphors of speech. The artist is an interpreter in relation to his subject, a prophet (or bidder) in relation to his audience, and an inspired medium or oracle in relation to his own experience. The painting, which is the nexus of these relationships, generally disappears from Ruskin's accounts, since it must seem to annihilate itself in order to achieve immediacy, but when he does consider the work of art in itself, he uses metaphors of speech once again — a "studied sermon and inspired poem," for example. But "sermon" and "poem" are both too general and too specific to convey the root idea of Ruskinian aesthetics. "All great art," he wrote many times, "is praise."

In a jumbled passage from the preface to his second edition, Ruskin introduces his theory of unconscious genius in commonplace Longinian terms:

The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself; the art is imperfect which is visible.... In the reading of a great poem, in the hearing of a noble oration, it is the subject of the writer, and not his skill, his passion, not his power, on which our minds are fixed. We see as he sees, but we see not him. We become part of him, feel with him, judge, behold with him; but we think of him as little as of our ourselves.... The power of the masters is shown by their self-annihilation.... The harp of the minstrel is untruly touched, if his own glory is all that it records. Every great writer may be at once known by his guiding the mind far from himself, to the beauty which is not of his creation, and the knowledge which is past his finding out. [III, 22-23]

The unconscious artist is the precondition of an aesthetic interaction so immediate that the other elements fuse together: by his silence, his creations speak and his audience becomes "part of him" and beholds with him. But how silent is he really? Ruskin's many examples of "unconsciousness" include an orator (whose effects are studied and whose [45/46] presence is highly visible), a minstrel singing of his love, an absent genius such as Shakespeare, a sublime poet such as Turner or Wordsworth — and, we might add, a preacher and an oracle. Essentially, Ruskin has confused a genuinely impersonal author with a charismatic speaker. In both cases we may "see as he sees," but Ruskin is clearly interested above all else in the power of the utterer, even as he claims that an audience is unaware of it. His rhetoric of praise, then, is also a charismatic rhetoric, as his conception of Turner and his own highly polished idiom make clear.

For Ruskin the oldest and probably most immediate paradigms of sublime speech are the Old Testament prophets and psalmists (the latter are probably implied above by the minstrel and his harp), both related to the romantic bardic tradition and the overtly classical form of the romantic ode. What is the rhetorical structure of such utterances? Most simply, the prophet "faces" an audience, delivering the work of God to the community, while the psalmist speaks in his own voice to God. When the psalm (and sometimes the prophecy) has a personal or lyric voice, we "overhear" him, to use the term with which Mill defines the lyric relationship. But insofar as the utterance loses its personal voice in an activity of invocation, we are neither addressed, as in the case of an orator, nor permitted to eavesdrop, as in the case of a meditation or complaint. Rather we begin to identify ourselves with the speaker in his beholding, in the way Ruskin describes. The identification of the reader and author becomes complete in ritual speech, when the congregation utters the words not as recitals of someone else's composition but as verbal actions — the action of reaffirming the divine covenant. The imprecise notion that psalms are poems of praise, when in fact they vary greatly in form and intention, is therefore true in the sense that psalms are affirmations of relationship, the simplest form of which is the ritual naming of God's works as an act of praise — and this, of course, is true also of the romantic ode, which, as Harold Bloom has written of Shelley, places the poet in an I-Thou relationship to nature (Shelley's Mythmaking, passim). The preacher, who in Ruskin's phrase comments on Infinity, also participates in a ritual affirmation.

In this way, I believe, Ruskin comes close to the heart of Turner's art. His attempt to square Turner with Evangelical pieties is of course bathetic and proved embarrassing to the painter (it is more accurately Ruskin's construction of an ideal self that would reconcile the demands of earnestness and desire). Yet the immediacy of experience induced by Turner's technical and iconographic inventions resembles the affirmation that Ruskin captures well in his own word paintings. The painter's [46/47] very muteness, his inability to distinguish himself from the objects he presents or to make unambiguous statements, brings Turner close to the primitive power of ritual invocation, for his works may be viewed as various enactments — in fierceness, in defiance, in deep calm — of the words attributed to him on his deathbed: "The Sun is God." The celebratory mood of Modern Painters I does not correspond to the emotional range of that art, but in later years, when Ruskin's pessimism came to match Turner's own, he could still turn in his books to psalmlike affirmations of relationship that transcend the contradictions so baffling to the mind of faith. In the early book, the medium of praise is a translation of paint into words, both of which are viewed as modes of a single form of incantatory poetry. To describe painting with reference to language is to render explicit the dynamic of communication between viewer and artist while at the same time teaching a visually illiterate audience to read the language of sense. And to return again and again to the primacy of painting is to collapse the distance between subject and object embedded in the simplest forms of grammar, thus reinstating the immediacy of communion that only the eye can know and the effect that only a silent speaker can induce. And finally the audience of reverent viewers, which the book partly assumes and partly creates, resembles a congregation in worship, who by uniting themselves with the artist make each act of beholding a ritual utterance of their own.

Should painting really be expected to achieve this? As always with Ruskin, his specific subject is but the vehicle for an ideal it can never quite match, an ideal better expressed, perhaps, by Ruskin's own medium of eloquent prose. In that medium at least, he resolves some of the paradoxes attending the doctrine of artistic unselfconsciousness.

Painting in Words

decrorated initial 'I' n a late preface to Modern Painters II, Ruskin acknowledges his theoretical debt to Aristotle by translating the passage he had earlier left in the original Greek: "And perfect happiness is some sort of energy of Contemplation, for all the life of the gods is (therein) glad; and that of men, glad in the degree in which some likeness to the gods in this energy belongs to them" (IV, 7). The quotation concludes Ruskin's central argument that men delight only in "whatever is a type or semblance of divine attributes" and that this delight "seems a promise of a communion ultimately deep, close, and conscious" with God (IV, 144). "Energy," not "contemplation," is the key term of Ruskin's dynamic Aristotelianism and of his paganized Christianity, for the complementary statements express the central idea of his early religious aesthetics, [47/48] that the full visual experience of God's handiwork is eucharistic. His rendering of Aristotle underscores the relationship of Christian sacraments to older mythological materials: the eucharist and baptism, types of an ultimate communion and an everlasting life, are the fulfillment of the promise denied in Eden ("Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil"), now offered to the Christian in magnified but paradoxical terms-that the lowest will be exalted, that the last will be first, and that only the pure in heart shall see God.

When we add to this Ruskin's youthful enthusiasm for Shelley (we know that he read Prometheus Unbound, "The Sensitive Plant," "Julian and Maddalo ... .. Epipsychidion," and no doubt more during the first summer of his love for Aèle), it is not surprising that in Modem Painters i he should write the notorious passage that his critics immediately seized upon as blasphemous:

[Turner is] glorious in conception — unfathomable in knowledge — solitary in power — with the elements waiting upon his will, and the night and the morning obedient to his call, sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of His universe, standing like the great angel of the Apocalypse, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow upon his head, and with the sun and stars given into his hand. [III, 254]

The metaphor may be extravagant but is perfectly consistent with Ruskin's underlying pattern of imagery. These words bring to its climax a paragraph of praise for the lesser English artists, each of whom is described in ascending order, according to the range of natural phenomena he incorporates and so represents in paint. Turner, whose mind is coextensive with all of visible nature, appropriately takes the form of an intermediary between God and the material creation. Literally, his mastery of the elements means simply that he can paint any subject, but metaphorically, it means that enormous power has made a god of him. The same implication attends Ruskin's advice to young painters to begin by studying nature: they must first keep to quiet colors and be "humble and earnest in following" nature's steps, until such time as they may "take up the scarlet and the gold" and "give the reins to their fancy.... We will [then] follow them wherever they choose to lead" (III, 623-624). Literally, to take up the scarlet and gold means simply to begin using bolder colors; metaphorically, it means to become as the sun god. Once again, the Protestant ethic of deferral yields to pagan dreams of glory. What of Ruskin's own position as Turner's imitator in words? His belief that verbal language and visual language are differing "modes of Poetry" opens the way for his voice and Turner's to merge and for translation to become incorporation. Ruskin's role then parallels Turner's by analogy: Turner, having seen [48/49] God's face, speaks to men as Messenger and interpreter; Ruskin, having studied nature through Turner, speaks to men as Turner's champion and exponent. The Archangel passage may bear a hidden allusion to the second mission, since, in the Book of Revelations, the Angel of the Apocalypse is pictured bearing a scroll and saying to the prophet John, "Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth" (Rev. 10:9).

In the metaphorical structure of the book, then, Turner is the type of the redeemed, that is, the seeing man, and is appropriately figured as a union of human and natural elements; he is also the personalized form of all that Ruskin, and therefore all that we, can love in nature and art — a fiction similar to what Ruskin would later call a "companionable deity" in his study of Greek myths. The difficulty, of course, is that Ruskin's moral argument rests upon an antithesis between the Christian concepts of pride and humility, which leads him into deep perplexity. The power of the impersonal self, coming through surrender to God, also elevates Turner the man above all men. The book fails to distinguish between landscape feelings, which Ruskin's religious conscience would approve as a form of worship, and the experience of superiority over others, which his religious conscience would condemn as pride. As though recognizing this omission, Ruskin attacks the selfishness and vanity of the bad painters by allying himself with one greater than he and so falls into unconscious comedy — Turner, of all people, becomes the type of artistic humility. Most obviously Ruskin's problem is the problem of the religious culture he inherited from his parents — we have seen how the language of class contempt can shift quickly into a polemic on religious humility. But when, either in society or in art, does humility before God become pride before men? Can anyone consciously strive to be unself-conscious? Part of Ruskin's problem is semantic, or rather a confusion of artistic and social personality, with the result that the words "pride" and "humility" have force as polemical counters, not as critical terms. The epic voice of Homer, for example, neither has nor lacks pride, yet by describing the impersonality of art as a Christian virtue, Ruskin confuses formal characteristics and ethical values as well as spiritual virtues and social virtues — in the latter sense "pride" and "humility" are close to the modern sense of "conceit" and "modesty." Moreover, "annihilation" was for Ruskin himself a delicious experience of visual self-forgetfulness, not the self-abnegation taught by the Scriptures. These contradictions are no doubt one reason he fell back so often on the fiction of Wordsworthian childhood, the only time when omnipotence can come through true unselfconsciousness.

Yet Ruskin's project is redeemed by the authenticity of the experience he had to communicate, however clumsily encapsulated in a polemical [49/50] structure, and by the language he invented for that purpose. His problem is to argue for a bardic theory of art and also to democratize sublime experience — to defend Turner as an inspired prophet yet to spread his vision among "all classes of men." Ruskin risks bathos, but so did Wordsworth when he sought to construct a voice with double functions — a voice conveying the elevation of the bard yet also speaking as a man to other men. 9 Ruskin knew Wordsworth's claim that poetic language is a spontaneous and unaffected overflow of powerful feeling, and he knew the sermonic speech of Wordsworth's Wanderer. The one voice is presumably artless, the other deliberately elevated, but we have seen that Ruskin is not sensitive to this distinction, and at any rate, Wordsworth had claimed that the language of unaffected passion could rise even in unlettered people to the dignity of poetry. And so Ruskin develops for Modern Painters I a mode at once "artless" and elevated, appropriate to the mediator who speaks to other humans of a high and privileged experience. This explanation would justify Ruskin's preparation for a reading audience of the diary passages he gathered for the book, themselves composed without thought of an audience though not indeed in complete spontaneity. In addition to the finished style we notice another, not wholly separable, voice, the oracular voice of Shelley. In a poem like the "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley dramatized the relationship of ode to oracular utterance by a language that achieves the oracular condition he demands of the wind as the source of his inspiration. The same excitement infuses Ruskinian descriptions. By fusing these influences into his own idiom, Ruskin becomes in the truest sense a preacher — not because of his occasionally sanctimonious tone but because of the shifting multiplicity of his rhetorical gestures, now praising and castigating, now explicating and examining, now exhorting and praying. His finest "sermons" constitute his first permanent contribution to English literature, as a few examples suffice to show.

The best-known version of Ruskinian sublime simulates a burst of joyous, almost childlike energy, in which the words seem dictated by a force outside the viewer. The passage on Venice excerpted above is the first such moment in the book, which, following upon Turner's apotheosis as Angel of the Apocalypse, seems a veritable City of God:

That sky ... parting and melting through the chasms in the long fields of snow-white, flaked, slow-moving vapour . . . to the islanded rest of the Euganean hills. Do we dream, or does the white forked sail drift nearer, and nearer yet, diminishing the blue sea between us with the fulness of its [50/51] wings? It pauses now; but the quivering of its bright reflection troubles the shadows of the sea, those azure, fathomless depths of crystal mystery, on which the swiftness of the poised gondola floats double, its black beak lifted like the crest of a dark ocean bird, its scarlet draperies flashed back from the kindling surface, and its bent oar breaking the radiant water into a dust of gold. Dreamlike and dim, but glorious, the unnumbered palaces lift their shafts out of the hollow sea, — pale ranks of motionless flame,their mighty towers sent up to heaven like tongues of more eager fire,their grey domes looming vast and dark, like eclipsed worlds, — their sculptured arabesques and purple marble fading farther and fainter, league beyond league, lost in the light of distance. [III, 257]

Here Ruskin, like the Angel, seems to summon up all the elements at once and give them life. As readers have often noticed, he does not denote objects but instead renders them and their connections as energies even when they are generally motionless: the boat, for example, drifts, pauses, quivers, poises, lifts, flashes, and so on. The motion depicted is not hectic like a storm but tremendous in its variety-an ordinary day, so to speak, in the cosmos. Remarkably, the superflux of energy is counterbalanced by an even greater stress on essence, which Ruskin conveys by the characteristic grammatical device of linking indefinite nouns with definite adjectives in prepositional phrases: thus, not light or wings but "fullness of light," "fullness of wings"; not mysterious crystal but "crystal mystery"; not the gondola floating but the "poised swiftness" floating; not islands and hills but "islanded rest of the Euganean hills." Grammatically, things are subordinated to the ideas of things. The imitator gives us sails, clouds, hills, and light; Turner gives us fullness, mystery, rest, poised swiftness, making any scene not only the epitome of infinite energy but also the transience of infinite essence in concrete particulars, or in Coleridge's phrase, the translucence of the general in the specific.

Similes, which normally direct our attention away from the objects, serve here to intensify their presence. In a passage cited earlier, Ruskin describes Poussin's leaves as feathers and his trunk as a stick (the tree shrinks), whereas in nature, we are told, every bough is "a revelation." In the present passage, the crest of a boat is a bird's beak, its sides are draperies, and towers are tongues, but the effect is to expand the objects. Ruskin's similes work to expand or contract according to context, with the truly rendered object resembling something oversized or overenergized — in this case we "see" enormous and therefore sublime birds, draperies, and tongues. In yet another example from elsewhere in the book, Ruskin compares bad and good depictions of lightning to "zigzag fortifications" and "dreadful irregularity of streaming fire" (III, 413). The first comparison shrinks lightning to something static and conventionalized, the second expands it to an energy or quality that is boundless because beyond size — the actual phrase is more frightening [51/52] and Vivid than "fire that streams irregularly and dreadfully" because "irregularity" is indefinite (a point Ruskin makes himself in his next volume).

In perhaps the best-known word painting in the book, Ruskin's reading of The Slave Ship, similes and metaphors once again suggest the universal in the particular, this time by evoking a symbolic vision:

Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in the fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea. [III, 572]

This famous sentence is perhaps the book's most complete sinking of thought into sensuous description. As Elizabeth Helsinger observes, Ruskin here "guides the mind through a temporal process of imaginative association which is inseparable from a temporal experience of tracing formal visual relationships, especially of light and color"; the painting becomes "not just the occasion for mental process but the embodiment of it." (Helsinger, 189). The canvas as first beheld is a central burst of red and gold that diffuses itself into darkness and mist, while shadowy hieroglyphs of fish and men rise and fall in the chaos of foreground water. Ruskin brings order to this impression of incoherent energy, using a set of intricately connected clauses that march with fierce inevitability from object to object and from color to color in a gradual accumulation of moral signification. The three climactic clauses take "fearful hue" as their subject and disclose (along with a previous clause linking it with the ship) four separate activities of redness — girding with condemnation, signing the sky, mixing its flood, and incarnadining the sea. The phrases unpack one by one the meanings concentrated by Turner into a single focus. Allusions mingle with specific denotations to create a fantasia on themes from the Apocalypse — skies raining blood, seas burning, darkness of night, and the ocean that delivers up its dead, climactically linked with Macbeth's murders. Phrases like "condemnation," "flaming flood," and "sepulchral waves" are therefore cosmic in their generality, and "incarnadines the multitudinous sea" culminates this binding of the many and the one (many deaths and one redness), a binding which is of course the function of allegorical signs. The visible form of this union is the masts of the ship, which become the mark of its guilt (like Lady Macbeth's hand) and also the bond connecting the ship to the center of an elemental disturbance, [52/53] like a cause tied to its indefinitely radiating effects. Turner as Archangel here gives the last of his revelations, which is a visual antithesis of himself: the "red and gold" are here antithetical to the raiment of the prophet-painter, since the ship does not take on the colors of the sun but rather inbues the cosmos with its own bloodguilt and the shadow of its own death. Ruskin identifies the slaver only in a footnote, as though to keep a pious distance (the ship drops to the bottom of the page like its own cargo), and maintains a particularly endistanced rhetoric. The order of grammatically connected clauses imitates the inevitability and the tone of judgement by means of a regular rhythm in which nearly every word demands stress. In their effect the elegiac incantation and sermonic denunciation anticipate the famous beating waves at the beginning of The Stones of Venice.

The passage in the book that became the most popular during Ruskin's lifetime is also the most representative of his rapturous sermonic style. At the conclusion of the section on truth of skies, Ruskin bids the reader stand in the Alps for twenty-four hours beginning just before dawn, in order to observe the diurnal water cycle. Starting with the burning away of mists before the rising sun, the sentences move through a perpetually shifting symphony of light and mist and water, describing a circle from east to west to east again as the sun prepares for its second ascent. At each atmospheric phase, Ruskin punctuates his divisions with "Has Claude given this?" until at the end, the completion of the revelation is signaled by a sudden shift to supernatural imagery, the apotheosis of both gods of Nature: "until the whole heaven, one scarlet canopy, is interwoven with a roof of waving flame, and tossing, vault beyond vault, as with the drifted wings of many companies of angels: and then, when you can look no more for gladness, and when you are bowed down with fear and love of the Maker and Doer of this, tell me who has best delivered this His message unto men!" (III, 418-419). This is sublime preaching at its most deliberate-the repeated bidding and querying of an audience until the lesson is consummated, and the appearance of losing the self in an exalted subject. It imitates as well the form of the psalm by invoking the deity through his works and thereby overthrowing his rivals — God's rivals, that is, and Turner's. For as divine Messenger, Turner shares the attributes of God and man. However bathetic the effect, Ruskin's incorporation of aesthetic polemic into religion consummates the general agon of his book, the conflict between the two spiritual states of light and darkness.

The language of this passage, and of the book as a whole, owes more to Shelley, finally, than to Wordsworth. The description of Venice is suffused with Shelleyan diction — "liquid," "snow-white," "flaked," "azure," "crystal," "dim," "flamed," "fading" are examples — and its sustained ecstasy of beholding imitates the protean energy of Shelley's "spontaneous gladness." This is the language the Wordsworthian child [53/54] might speak if he wrote poetry, and the broad project of Ruskin's sermonic style, touching as it does on ode, psalm, and apparently thoughtless inspiration, may be usefully understood as absorbing the child's hunger of delight into a disciplined seeing capable of renewing the energies of the adult too long buried beneath a weight of custom. The Alpine passage is particularly suggestive in this regard, since the vantage point is the same as that of Asia and Panthea in Prometheus Unbound immediately before they descend to the cave of Demogorgon. Asia's speech concludes as follows:

"Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round
Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now." [III, ii 36-42]

Ruskin's psalm begins with "the flakes of light falling every moment faster and broader among the starry spires, as the wreathed surges break and vanish above them, and the confused crests and ridges of the dark hills shorten their gray shadows upon the plain" (III, 416). Although Ruskin is more paratactic here than Shelley (the repeated "and's" imitate the psalmist's naming as well as the preacher's rhythmic regularity), in general he has learned from Shelley how to merge grammatical with visual movement: both writers connect visual ideas by strings of similes and relative clauses, and both read particular elements of an ill-defined space that continually form and dissolve, veil and reveal, recreating the experience of beholding rather than the beheld objects themselves.

The odd connection between the earnest young Evangelical and the radical freethinker with the scandalous biography goes deeper than stylistic influence and the dreamy excitedness they shared by temperament. It extends to the characteristic structure of their visionary moments. At the close of Asia's speech, her comparison of the avalanche with "Heaven-defying minds" soon yields to a vision of "thin shapes within the mist" presaging a radical transformation of the human social spirit. At the climax of his peroration Ruskin sees the heavens fill with troops of angels in vaults that remind us of the palaces of Turner's Venice ("pale ranks of motionless flame, — their mighty towers sent up to heaven like tongues of more eager fire"). Philosophically, of course, the passages are radically opposed: Shelley's natural imagery enacts the One Mind's power to refashion political and therefore phenomenal reality, whereas Ruskin's ode renders stable the "system of nature" in a reverent rather than a heaven-defying spirit. Yet Ruskin's mature aesthetics [54/55] is closer to Shelley than to any other romantic theorist, and this early passage shows why. For both men nature is the sum of affective possibility projected outward; for both human reality is the farthest reach of a poet-prophet's vision; for both metaphors appear to grow out of enraptured contemplation. Nature, that is, becomes supernatural, trembling into the image of human forms and human artifacts. It is an extraordinary move so late in a book on realistic landscape, pushing as it does beyond the limits of observable nature, perhaps even beyond the limits of painting. Ruskin makes no considered claim to the superiority of poetry over visual representation, yet his mature theory, as the present passage indicates, will attempt a comprehensive exploration of metaphor in the sister arts, an exploration that is at once a grammar of figurative connections in space and time and a vocabulary drawing upon both books of revelation, Nature and the Scriptures. Already in the second volume of Modern Painters he set himself to that attempt.

Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 30 April 2024