THERE is, perhaps, no harder fate in store for a man than to be irredeemably at variance with the spirit of the country and the times in which he lives; and it is Mr. Ruskin's great misfortune to be an incurable poet and artist in a materialistic and money-grubbing generation. He is so entirely out of harmony with all of modern life that surrounds him that he is by many regarded as an anachronism rather than as a man, and that his views are looked upon rather as vain protests than as serious opinions. It is, however, his greatest merit that he is utterly careless of the current habits of thought, and that he has thus been enabled fearlessly to supply to them precisely those elements in which they are most wanting. The English people have become meanly practical, and he is grandly unpractical; they have become essentially commonplace, and he is gloriously poetical; they believe in nothing more than cash, he believes in nothing less; they are thoroughly positive, he is thoroughly ideal. It has been reserved for him, in spite of all such disadvantages, to produce works which from the mere power of their language have captivated even the most indifferent, and which have set many thinking in quite a new direction..
First known as a writer on art, he soon showed himself a very Turner in the use of English prose, which in his hands takes a richness of drawing and a splendour of colouring never before attained. And he has therewith disclosed a minute acquaintance with all that is beautiful in nature, only to have been acquired by a loving study guided by the most perfect sympathy. His "Modern Painters" first brought us thoroughly acquainted with the rare qualities of English art, and his "Stones of Venice" was a striking illustration of the result obtained by applying his cast of thought to architecture.
It is, however, as an observer of politics — for he is no politician — that Mr. Ruskin is perhaps the most remarkably in antagonism with the current Englishman. He sees in the universal desire to make money exclude every other object of exertion the great and fatal evil of the times, and rebels entirely against all the complex social and political arrangements which have been constituted into a system to that end. He holds that to rely on manufactures for greatness is to lean upon a broken reed, and that England must live upon herself through agriculture if ever she would return to a healthy condition of existence. So convinced is he of this that he has given a tenth part of his fortune to found a colony in which Englishmen shall be developed, through the alternation of agricultural labour with artistic pursuits, into the better specimens of humanity which he believes can thus alone be produced. That he will ever see his opinions adopted or even seriously entertained is not to be expected; but by those who have not bowed the knee to the modern Baal he will be gratefully remembered as one preaching in the wilderness the abandonment of the grosser things of life and the realisation of the Ideal.
"Men of the Day: No. 40 [John Ruskin]." Vanity Fair (February 17, 1872). Caricature by Spy.
Last modified 24 December 2006