Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus we have a warfare. — Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
Ruskin published the first letter of Fors Clavigera, addressed to the "Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," in 1871; it continued as a monthly series until his first psychotic attack in 1878, then reappeared intermittently until Christmas of 1884. The complete group of ninety-six essays, spanning thirteen years of his life and running to more than 2,000 pages in the Library Edition, constitutes his longest, most heterogeneous single book. How can we describe a work so vast and formless yet so recognizably itself at every point? We might look beyond literature for a parallel — to some colossal Tintoretto, for example, had he gone mad and painted all of Venice with his reeling figures and jagged, lurid chiaroscuro, then overwritten them with doodling. As a literary genre the letters resemble many things partly, nothing completely: they are something of a one-person magazine, like Household Words, a set of tracts, like Carlyle's Latter-Day Pamphlets, a set of sermons, like Newman's — something, in other words, of that distinctively Victorian kind of series that represents an author's continuous presence before a public. We may read them, again, as a series of prophecies marked by spontaneous, private musings, as self-edited table talk with a polemical purpose, or most simply as the largest of Ruskin's verbal museums. They escape categorization chiefly because they defy boundaries altogether, particularly the boundary that normally sets off formal structures from the affairs of life. The ninety-six essays mingle with supplements — reports of the master of St. George's Guild, correspondence with readers, clippings from newspapers. These in turn mingle with the Guild projects, the museum and library in Sheffield, Ruskin's contemporaneous books (which they overlap at points), and the wealth of dreams, events, and buried thoughts to which they make arcane [292/293] allusion — in short, with all the works and days of Ruskin's life. Above all, they are an ongoing project rather than a book, a way of translating the activities of life into a verbal order that in turn corresponds to an order of purposive action — specifically, the Guild, whose affairs the letters publicize and record. The Guild justifies the writing, the writing provides the organizing mythos of the Guild. But of course Ruskin ranges far beyond the Guild, seeming at times to forget it within a tissue of whimsicalities and preoccupations.
Does the book have an organizing center at all? Ruskin's editors, looking for a "designed whole," end up describing the work under six heads, the first of which is a "miscellany" (XXVII, xxx, xxii). Later critics, more fruitfully, have found a unity not in subject but in the particular energy of Ruskin's consciousness, which combines aim with a "desultory" method of composition. As Ruskin himself described it, "Fors is a letter, and written as a letter should be written, frankly, and as the mood, or topic, chances.... True, the play of it (and much of it is a kind of bitter play) has always... as stern final purpose as Morgiana's dance; but the gesture of the moment must be as the humour takes me" (XXIX, 197). Both play and purpose are reflected in the protean title (the first word may mean "force," "fortitude," "fate," or "fortune"; the second "club bearer," "nail bearer," or "key bearer"). As John Rosenberg has remarked, "The title comes finally to represent the Fate which wove the tragic pattern of Ruskin's life and the Chance which led him to mirror that pattern with such an anarchy of accident and digression throughout the book" (The Darkening Glass, p.186).
The pattern of fate and chance is most purposive in the structure of individual letters, whose complex unity of theme and feeling has only recently attracted scholarly notice.2 The genre of the Fors letter mingles oratorical and confessional elements in a way peculiar to itself, yet it owes much to a number of influences, including especially Ruskin's own earlier experiments in public speech. Structurally and sometimes tonally, the Ruskinian lecture closely resembles the sermonic form Ruskin learned as a youth, which he described in Modern Painters I as the expression of a single truth, specifically, the biblical text on which the preacher comments. Many of the Fors letters similarly work [293/294] around a single theme or text (the quotation at the beginning, the image in the title, and so forth), and sometimes around a juxtaposition of phrases or texts. Most often they set contemporary follies ironically against an ideal image or fragment of the biblical revelation (this surely is Ruskin's chief formal debt to Carlyle, here and in other books). In rhetorical aim though not in form, the ultimate paradigm of the Fors letter is the Pauline epistle, as Rosenberg has noted (pp.126-127), and this is perhaps the most useful analogy of all: the Guild members and the class of workers everywhere correspond, in other words, to a particular church addressed by Paul and to the community of the faithful in general.
As an oratorical form, then, Fors is a pastoral letter but one also in which the struggles and experiences of the preacher himself — even his fancies, his obsessions, his travels and childhood memories — are presumed to have some paradigmatic value for the struggles faced by every Christian. The personal aspect of Fors, its character as a diary or confession, complements its character as exhortation and jeremiad. As Ruskin's polemical mode derives from the tradition of English Protestantism, his confessional mode derives from the related tradition of English romanticism. The Fors letter is in fact the nineteenth century's closest prose analogue to the romantic lyric, a dramatic interaction between mind and world by which an event or experience of place becomes emblematic of a movement of thought. But the relationship of each letter to the group as a whole has an equally close analogue in romantic poetry. As a set of pastoral letters, Fors draws its unity from the aims of the Guild and the condition of England. As a set of composed confessions or meditative lyrics in prose, it draws its unity from a pattern of images and motifs that comprise in broken form a comprehensive organizing mythos. (In the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Berryman, Lowell, and others, we are also confronted with a language of juxtaposed links and a fragmented structure that imitate the fragmentation of a culture once unified by an encompassing religious myth.) Most simply described, the "plot" of Fors is the St. George story enacted under the governance of the goddess Fate (whose ambiguous relationship to the hero owes more to Greek epic than to Christian tradition). Each letter, like a shard of glass, reflects more or less imperfectly portions of the completed design, as each Tennysonian idyll reflects Arthurian history and as any individual sermon reflects part of the total biblical revelation on which it comments.
Ruskin complained that Tennyson's epic should have concerned the present rather than a mythical past. The complaint receives its response in a prose epic, discontinuous and open ended, of which Ruskin [294/295] is in one sense the narrator and in another the central actor, uniting in himself the principal personages of his sprawling allegory. How do these complementary fictional worlds, the private and the public, interact? It has long been recognized that the bulk of private allusions in Fors refer to Ruskin's love for Rose, a point most obvious in his repeated and riddling plays on her name. Yet the private myth, so to call it, does not so much allegorize the story of Ruskin's courtship as it reconstructs the psychic world that courtship creates. Exactly as in the case of Adèle thirty years earlier, Ruskin's love for Rose created for himself and those about him a drama with multiple and sometimes conflicting aims — and this private drama parallels the book's public, prophetic burden as well. By falling in love with an object distant and all but unattainable, Ruskin converted his present life into a condition always awaiting redemption, or rather, awaiting the restoration of an original state, since as paradisal child Rose stood for both future and past. As the obstacles accumulated, Ruskin's desire grew also more intense, and letters became important in his life as they had never been before — barrages sent first to Rose and her parents, then to intermediaries like the Macdonalds and the Cowper-Temples, in which he increasingly found himself justifying his chosen vocation as social reformer, his religious position, and his fitness to be a lover. Through the protracted agonies of desire and denial, which at some level of consciousness he must have chosen for himself, he became at once champion and supplicant, forever dependent upon unforeseeable bestowals of favor and rebuke. Fors began after the struggle had been essentially lost and continued beyond Rose's physical death, yet Ruskin kept the Idea of her always near him, enlisting not friends only but the English public in a cause now greater than himself. At the same time he absorbed into a verbal cosmos all the elements of the courtship — lover, loved one, forbidder, and the landscapes of frustration and nostalgic hope — organizing his own actions as in part the prosecutor of his fortunes and in part the pawn of cosmic will.
The justification of the man is also the justification of the nation in its ideal character of St. George. England is itself the blighted landscape forever about to be redeemed not literally by the sword of the saint but, through the Guild dedicated to him, by the plowshare of the husbandman that brings the promise of fertility and community. The public myth of Fors repeats the traditional legend of England, one that like the Greek myths has no primary text. As Ruskin argued in The Queen of the Air, myths are cultural products whose meanings evolve through time like a plant and vary according to the capacity of a person or nation for spiritual understanding. Thus, for the Greeks in the great age, Hercules was the "perpetual type and mirror of heroism, and its present and living aid against every ravenous form of human trial and [295/296] pain" (XIX, 299). Similarly, to the "mean" Englishman, St. George is no more than the emblem on a pub, but in his highest development, he is the Red-Cross Knight of Spenser, whose battle releases the captive Una and restores the aged Adam and Eve to their dominion of Eden.4 Again, the story of St. Ursula (George's female counterpart with whom Ruskin associates Rose) begins as a crude folk legend; she finds her highest expression as the princess of Carpaccio's series. As myth criticism Fors "reads" and applies the old legends in the same way that a good sermon would elaborate on the life of Christ, converting familiar figures into present and living aids, but by implication the St. George story also embodies the moral idea of English history, manifesting itself in the nineteenth century as a dialectic between a polluted and chaotic industrial society and an original, true England that is stable, agrarian, and hierarchical. But lacking Carlyle's dynamic sense of history, Ruskin presents his proposals not as a new mythos but as a utopian vision reproducing the old in a form increasingly idealized, increasingly emblematic of private desire.
So far I have described the unity of Fors as a structure of themes and variations. But the book is also, as we know, written at the moment, as a letter or public diary that conforms to a pattern of events it partly sets in motion — it proposes, for example, and then comments on, the progress of the Guild — and partly obeys; it is both composed by Ruskin and dictated by Fate. We shall first, then, consider the elements of its static design and afterward the elements of its temporal pattern following Ruskin in his pilgrimage from the hopefulness of the first call through a gradual relinquishment of public projects toward the longed-for peace of a world of memoir and musing.
If we combined the paintings that Ruskin reads at the end of Modern Painters V, we would see a monster belching smoke, Apollo in arms, a paradisal glade, and the Hesperides compressed into a shining Sybil. Fors Clavigera substitutes George and Ursula for the Sun-God and the Sybil and disperses the monster throughout the dark and blasted landscape of modern times. Ruskin's curse upon this land is relentless and thunderous. There exists, he writes, a "practical connection between physical and spiritual light" so that "you cannot love the real sun, that is to say physical light and colour, rightly, unless you love the spiritual sun, that is to say justice and truth, rightly" (XXVIII, 614). For Turner the Sun was God; but in the modern world, spiritual blindness and the [296/297] smoke of the cities have contrived to remove the physical light from human eyes: "I believe that the powers of Nature are depressed or perverted, together with the Spirit of Man; and therefore that conditions of storm and of physical darkness, such as never were before in Christian times, are developing themselves, in connection also with forms of loathsome insanity, multiplying through the whole genesis of modern brains" (XXVIII, 615). The world is swept by a new thing under the sun, "a strange, bitter, blighting wind" made of "dead men's souls" (XXVII, 132-133), an industrial plague wind that makes of the day a "mere dome of ashes," like the skies over Pompeii (XXVIII, 463-464), but also merges, like the storms of Lear, with the storms of the mind: "plagues of the soul, and widely infectious insanities..., supernatural calamity..., grievous changes and deterioration of climate..., loathsome imposture and cretinous blasphemy" (XXVIII, 488). Writing from Venice, Ruskin claims that "this green tide that eddies by my threshold is full of floating corpses, and I must leave my dinner to bury them, since I cannot save." Comparing the "green tide" with the "black and sulphurous tides" of English rivers and with "Death, and Hell also, more cruel than cliff or sea," he presents a world on the brink of that Moment when "the Sea shall give up the dead which are in it, and Death, and Hell, give up the dead which are in them" (XXVIII, 757-758). In passages like this Fors truly becomes Ruskin's Apocalypse (The phrase is Frederic Harrison's in John Ruskin p. 183.)
J. M. W. Turner, Apollo and Python. 1811. Oil on Canvas. Tate Gallery, London. For Ruskin's
discussion follow this link.
The fallen nations worship the Dragon of Turner, who is both St. George's enemy and Mammon — a deity who wants to see people "fasting and in rags" (XXVII, 420) and whose foul traces can be found in the loveliest spots of English countryside. In the valley of the Lune, for example — a true portion of English "Holy Land" — Ruskin discovers its emblem on a metal bench: "the Devil's tail pulled off, with a goose's head stuck on the wrong end of it.... two of the geeseheads are without eyes" (XXVIII, 300). This particular mark of Satan is the work of manufacturers avid for profit: "the serpents of Kirkby are ordered and shaped by the 'least erected spirit that fell,' in the very likeness of himself!" (XXVIII, 303). Elsewhere, in a mood of frantic caprice, Ruskin parodies his own myth of Apollo "digesting" the Python by suggesting that England will develop a taste for "potted crocodile," as if in a heathenish Eucharist, and that the English rivers, "smoking," will be made to produce "quite a 'streaky' crocodile..., St. George becoming a bacon purveyor..., laying down his dragon in salt" (XXVII, 504).
But as winter is redeemed by spring and the desert by the blooming of the rose, so the diabolical landscapes of Fors alternate with paradisal glimpses brightened by a female presence — the Madonna perhaps, or a little girl in a cottage, or the unseen helping hand Ruskin usually calls [297/298] "Ursula" or "Little Bear" (her legend is the subject of Letter 71) . "Crocodile," according to Ruskin, means "a creature that is afraid of crocuses," just as, according to Goethe, the Devil is afraid of roses (XXVII, 484-485), but each goddess or child or flower manifests the same timeless principle, which retains a personal connection with Ruskin's destiny: "I myself am in the habit of thinking of the Greek Persephone, the Latin Proserpina, and the Gothic St. Ursula, as of the same living spirit; and so far regulating my conduct by that idea as to dedicate my book on Botany to Proserpina" (XXIX, 385). "Rose" is one name for this spirit, but she is not the Rose, part real child and part imaginative projection, that Ruskin courted in the 1860s and covertly propitiated in "The Mystery of Life and Its Arts" and "Of Queens' Gardens." As queen, Rose was distant and withholding, partly resisting her own power "to heal, to redeem, to guide, and to guard." But the May Queen of Fors needs no coaxing: she is the object of heart's desire as the heart would conceive her, a principle of spiritual fertility who like Proserpina survives her own death year after year. She breaches the public and private worlds of Fors, then, at their extreme point of separation, at once the type of a redeemed land and the ghost of the woman who died in 1875. In 1874 Ruskin sequestered himself for three months in Italy with Carpaccio's "St. Ursula's Dream," in which the princess dreaming of her angel suitor becomes also for Ruskin the emblem of an eternal deathlike peace, like Ilaria di Caretto the "still-unravished bride of silence and slow time."
The May Queen is in bondage in this wintry world, her garden a place of memory and hope, yet still in his walks Ruskin enters upon geographical counterparts of spots of time that become, through heightened language, types of an elusive Eden, fading at the edges of the blighted present. Letter 19, for example, describes a clutch of spitting beggars and a spiteful boy in the square at Pisa, from which Ruskin escapes into the Val di Nievole, luxuriant with mulberry trees, corn, poppies, vines, maples, and the wild gladiolus. In this blissful valley lives a peasant family with two children named Adam and Eve. But almost as he beholds them they become memories. "If only you would not curse them," he tells his readers; "but the curse of your modern life is fatally near, and only for a few years more, perhaps, they will be seen... to pass, like pictures in enchanted motion, among their glades of vine" (XXVII, 309). Still, dearer to Ruskin's heart than Italy — dearer because it is the land of his fathers and the home of his favorite childhood author — is the Scottish Border, the "Land of the Leal," which still seems inhabited, in Ruskin's nostalgic vision, by the heroes and heroines of Scott's romances — a pastoral land of "exquisite clearness and softness (XXVII, 594 — 595).
These two domains — the unfallen world and the wasteland, presided over by the maiden and the Dragon — meet each other in the institution [298/299] of the Guild, the practical equivalent of St. George's battle, which was to extend the domain of Eden by means of purposive labor. Ruskin envisioned the Guild on the model of a medieval corporation, perhaps like the Franciscan community he visited in Florence in 1845. (He was to stay there again in 1874, where he underwent a reconversion and dreamed he had been made a tertiary member of the order.) Again and again he insisted that his radicalism was authoritarian and hierarchical rather than liberal and democratic. In his first call he wrote, "We will try to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful. We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads; we will have no untended or unthought-of creatures on it; none wretched, but the sick; none idle but the dead" (XXVII, 96). Reactionary in aim, limited in scope so that it might be controlled by one erratic and sometimes confused person, the Guild ultimately disappointed Ruskin's hopes, never numbering more than a few dozen members during his Mastership. But what were Ruskin's hopes? In his suggestions he often failed to distinguish between practical aims and symbolic ones: he proposed, for example, a special group of companions, to be called the Monte Rosa Company after the "central mountain of the range between north and south Europe, which keeps the gift of the rain of heaven" (XXVII, 296). Like a magical incantation, the name converts the Guild into an image of Ruskin's private paradise, with its mount, its garden, its river, and its innocent maiden, linking Rose with his schemes for Alpine immigration and with Portia's recommendation of mercy. In a similar attempt to turn private needs into public ones, he insisted on calling himself a laborer, yet spent much of the 1870S in Switzerland and Italy doing St. George's work, poring over paintings and collecting precious minerals for the Sheffield museum. This confusion obviously reflects Ruskin's temperament but also a shift in his practical politics. Having abandoned the hope that his utopian economics could become a reality in his lifetime, he turned more and more to a series of paradigmatic gestures, good works that were at least marks of grace in the doer. In the imagery of Fors the Guild stands more convincingly for the means of individual rather than social salvation, taking the symbolic form of a paradise within as it is eternally shadowed forth in religious myth.
Most often, of course, that myth is explicitly Edenic. The fourth letter, for example, attacks in familiar Carlylean terms the division of England into two hostile classes, the "idlers" and "pillagers," then unites Midas-like greed with the pseudoscience that subserves it in a climactic image of a tree of knowledge that bears coins:
The saplings of the tree that was to be desired to make us wise, growing now in copsewood on the hills, or even by the roadsides..., blossoming into cheapest gold..., supplied punctually on demand, with liberal re [299/300] duction on quantity; the roads themselves beautifully public — tramwayed, perhaps — and with gates set open enough for all men to the free, outer, better world, your chosen guide preceding you merrily, thus — with music and dancing. [XXVII, 77-78]
Ruskin's "thus" points to a reprint of Holbein's The Expulsion from Eden, showing Adam and Eve led out of the garden by the skeletal fiddler, Death. These are the fruits of the great "savoir mourir," which appear in the next letter as the botanist who did not believe in flowers; but this letter, written during the Festival of Merrie England, also contains the call to the founding of a Guild, conceived in the spirit of a new science of "savoir vivre": "Botany, though too dull to dispute the existence of flowers; and history, though too simple to question the nativity of men; — nay, — even perhaps an uncalculating and uncovetous wisdom, as of rude Magi, presenting, at such nativity, gifts of gold and frankincense" (XXVII, 97). The wisdom of the Magi is charitable rather than selfish; similarly, the "science" of the Guild will tend the earth instead of despoiling it and will place humankind once again in the center of the natural and moral world — the Christ of this new nativity, who is at once the new Adam, the Light of the World, the Ruler of the Redeemed, and the Dragon Killer of whom St. George is a type. Much later, in Letter 78, Ruskin formulates the unity of his works in terms of this utopian promise. Modern Painters, he tells his readers, "taught the claim of all lower nature on the hearts of men; of the rock, and wave, and herb, as a part of their necessary spirit life; in all that I now bid you to do, to dress the earth and keep it, I am fulfilling what I then began." The present work declares "the only possible conditions of peace and honour, for low and high, rich and poor, together, in the holding of that first Estate, under the only Despot, God, from which whoso falls, angel or man, is kept, not mythically nor disputably, but here in visible horror of chains under darkness to the judgment of the great day" (XXIX, 137-138).
From the echo of Genesis to the naming of the "great day," Ruskin orders his works in this passage as a kind of practical Bible outlining the spiritual destiny of his countrymen. Throughout Fors the imagery of sanctified action is sometimes martial, sometimes pastoral. The Companions, for example, are to be obedient soldiers (XXVII, 21) or a "band of delivering knights" (XXVIII, 538) whose labors are part of a righteous war — "the war with the Lord of Decomposition, the old Dragon himself, — St. George's war, with a princess to save, and win" (XXVII, 293). Yet the combat is chiefly a sublimated or "domesticated" warfare: Theseus, Ruskin reminds his readers in a quaint passage, returned from his voyage to invent vegetable soup (Letter 24), and St. George was the archetypal tiller of the soil, since his name, we learn in [300/301] an etymology that combines the themes of human and vegetable fertility, means "husbandman": he is associated with the Greek spirit of Agriculture, "to whom the dragon was a harnessed creature of toil" (XXVII, 481-482). This harnessing reverses the present tendency of the British economy, which has become an engine for bringing famine out of plenty and so metaphorically converting the fertility of the serpent into sterility. In its broadest sense Ruskin's agricultural myth is Carlyle's gospel of labor, the means of individual salvation as well as of social good. In the vineyard of the world, in which all men and women of goodwill are the "workmen and labourers," Ruskin places himself as both companion and paradigm: "I am so alone now in my thoughts and ways," he wrote in 1874, "that if I am not mad, I should soon become so, from mere solitude, but for my work. But it must be manual work.... to succeed to my own satisfaction in a manual piece of work, is life, — to me, as to all men" (XXVIII, 206).
The dragon-killing myth, with its imagery of paradisal maiden, renewed land, and sanctified effort, bears a complex relationship to the personification of Ruskin's title. St. George represents the creative will, the domain of freedom and therefore of fortune, one of the translations of Fors, but Ruskin also associates his goddess with Necessity, in the persons, among others, of the Greek Fates and the Hebrew Jael, who slew Sisera by pounding a tent peg into his skull. Destiny drives "the iron home with hammerstroke, so that nothing shall be moved; and fastening each of us at last to the Cross we have chosen to carry" (XXVII, 231). The purpose of Fors, then, is "to explain the powers of Chance, or Fortune (Fors), as she offers to men the conditions of prosperity; and as these conditions are accepted or refused, nails down and fastens their fate forever" (XXVIII, 106).
In choosing his title, he associated the Horatian phrase with an Etruscan mirror case he discovered, decorated with the emblems of the Fates. No wonder he found this artifact so potently suggestive. The absent glass and the images of weaving, measuring, and shearing would have suggested most immediately vanity and its punishment (and also, perhaps, the related image of the hourglass with its death's head emblem) and more generally, his pervasive horror of forbidden looking, both without and within, associated also with the Gorgon's glance and the fate of being cut off. His fascination with solipsistic states begins, as we know, with the Black Brothers, who are cast off as stones; later on he noted down the legend of the woman who stared at herself in a mirror (in church) until both she and her reflection became a death's head (the image reappears as the whited sepulchre in Modern Painters IV); in Modern Painters III the woman in the ballad catches fire as she stares into her dressing glass. In Unto This Last the energies of capitalism, solipsistic and fecally self-reproducing, convert the earth [301/302] into the avenging goddess Tisiphone, whose law is an endless chain of punitive consequences that parody the endless system of capitalist indebtedness. The firmest link between Ruskinian economics and his late mythopoeic works appears, however, in a passage from Munera Pulveris on Charity. This goddess he associates with Shakespeare's Portia, the "type of divine fortune," with the law of "mercy, which is not strained, but drops as the rain," with the word "gate," and with the "blessed" sphere of Fortune in Inferno VII. He opposes her to the enmity of Shylock, the law of "merces," and the "fixed majesty of Necessitas with her iron nails" (XVII, 223-224). Athena, of course, acts out both laws: she is merciful like Portia when pleased, punitive like the Gorgon when angered. In Fors the two-natured goddess splits into Rose/Ursula, glimpsed from time to time like a splendor in the grass, and Fate the lawgiving divinity that gives and takes away. Fors Clavigera reaches its deepest level when these two psychic forces, loving anima and punishing superego, develop into the separate regions of time redeemed and time unredeemed, the one figure standing at the gate where the lost past and the promised future meet in vision, the other forever guarding that gate, forever shaping and disciplining the human will. This is Ruskinian mythmaking at its most powerful, neither political allegory alone nor a mere riddling of unconscious states but a fusion of both into a legend by which both natures, the inner and the outer, may be perfected as far as they can be and accepted as far as they must be. "Fortune," Ruskin writes, is "the necessary fate of a man.... To 'make your fortune' is to rule that appointed fate to the best ends of which it is capable" (XXVII, 28). Again, "the book itself should show you how to form, or make, this Fortune" (XXVII, 375). To turn fate into fortune is the fruit of labor, and since labor is life itself, Fors Clavigera is a book about the struggle to live.
Fors, as I have said, is written in the present tense. If the Dragonkilling myth represents its static pattern, Ruskin's own life, enacted through the agencies of will, chance, and fate, constitutes its agon, the weaving of that pattern into perpetually shifting forms. As founder of the Guild, he identifies himself most often with St. George (as in phrases like "everything St. George orders"), so that the saint objectifies his ideal self as prophet and teacher. But his private voice is more often the voice of one troubled, bereft, and vacillating, enacting the burdens rather than the powers of the seer and ultimately personifying the spiritual possibilities and contradictions of his times. At still other times the tragic mode is undercut by an antic disposition that is sometimes merely whimsical and sometimes close to the madness it mocks. The consciousness of Fors is, in other words, profoundly ironic by virtue of the very fluidity of its role-playing and the gaps it allows between the actual self and ideal forms. [302/303]
Ruskin strikes the keynote of his autobiographical myth in Letter 4, already mentioned above. He recalls that Joseph Couttet, the guide his parents had employed for him in Chamonix, was often "fatigued and provoked" by the boy's "less cheerful views of the world" and so would whisper to himself, "Le pauvre enfant, il ne sait pas vivre!" (XXVII, 61). But the boy lost whatever joys he still had when he grew up and obtained the gifts of wealth and recognition: "When I was a boy I used to like seeing the sun rise. I didn't know, then, there were any spots on the sun.... When I was a boy, I used to care about pretty stones.... Now, I have a collection of minerals worth perhaps from two to three thousand pounds.... But I am not a whit happier, either for my knowledge, or possessions" (XXVII, 62). Ruskin, the apostle of Life who has himself lost that most precious of gifts, justifies himself not by the wisdom he has earned but by the very insistence, almost, of his unfitness. Yet even this gesture has its biblical paradigm, as in a passage where he echoes his namesake, the Baptist:
Such as I am, to my own amazement, I stand — so far as I can discern — alone in conviction, in hope, and in resolution, in the wilderness of this modern world. Bred in luxury, which I perceive to have been unjust to others and destructive to myself; vacillating, foolish, and miserably failing in all my own conduct in life — and blown about hopelessly by storms of passion — I, a man clothed in soft raiment, — I, a reed shaken with the wind, have yet this Message to all men again entrusted to me: "behold, the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Whatsoever tree therefore bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be hewn down and cast into the fire." [XXVIII, 425]
The voice crying in the wilderness is the voice of one exiled from the past, for whom the gates of Paradise, like the gate of his parents' old home (XXVIII, 79), remain closed. In this respect, the proposed Guild is Ruskin's link with a wider audience that justifies his expressions of a more personal regret — musings, most often, about the loss of homes and their symbolic substitute. Letters 31 to 33, for example, form a fragment of a life of Sir Walter Scott, which closes with Ruskin's reminiscences of the River Tay and his Scottish Aunt Jessie. The effect is to mingle Scott's childhood with Ruskin's own (he mistakenly calls Scott's Aunt Janet "Jessie"). When Scott had to leave his estate at Abbotsford because of his debts, he grieved, Ruskin says, "as for a lost sister." As Ruskin interprets Scott, the lost home and sister are also the loss of wholeness, the exile from one's true self that is the cruelest of all Fate's decrees. But Ruskin's old nostalgia receives a new poignance in Fors, which also records his awareness that he will die as the end of his line, without a companion. Letter 45 combines this theme with a further extension of the sense of exile, this time from Italy: "It becomes every hour more urged upon me that I shall have to leave...this spiritual land and fair domain of human art and natural peace, — because I am a [303/304] man of unclean lips . . . and therefore am undone, because mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts" (XXVIII, 146). At the moment of writing, he is in Lucca, drawing once again the effigy of Ilaria di Carretto. Earlier, he has tried to persuade the sacristan of Assisi that Isaiah had had a wife, despite the sacristan's claim that he was the "castissimo profeta" (XXVIII, 145). It was Isaiah who appeared before the Almighty with unclean lips, but only Ruskin is fated to be castissimo. Once again, the prophetic burden is linked with the loss of a land and a woman and therefore with the Expulsion.
In Letter 65, perhaps the most impassioned expression of the expulsion theme, Ruskin's prophetic burden itself partakes of the darkness about him. He begins with an account of Abraham's sojourn among the Amorites, imagining the patriarch on a summit overlooking the Vale of Eshcol. But the Eden vista vanishes at once, to be replaced in Abraham's sight by a "horror of great darkness" — a vision of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In a sudden break, Ruskin describes his childhood summers among his Scottish or "Amorite" relatives in a season of felicity that parallels the patriarch's residence "under Salem, the city of peace." The conjunction establishes him as a modern Abraham foreseeing the doom of the English Sodom, "the Paradise of Lot." The recollections are interrupted by a sudden outburst:
And I scarcely know if those far years of summer sunshine were dreams, or if this horror of darkness is one, to-day, at St. Albans, where, driven out of the abbey, unable to bear the sight of its restorations, and out of the churchyard. . . by the black plague-wind, I take refuge from all in an old apple-woman's shop, because she reminds me of my Croydon Amorite aunt. [XXVIII, 605]
The dark vision of Abraham, father of his race, slides into the cry of the child cut off from the light. In another letter from Assisi, he writes that he felt "entirely at home" living in the sacristan's cell because the room "is just the kind of thing I used to see in my aunt's bakehouse." "And now," he interrupts himself, "I am really going to begin my steady explanation of what the St. George's Company have to do" (XXVIII, 172-173). But the explanation turns out to be a "nursery tale" — the story of the Creation, which Ruskin calls the paradigm of all good works whatever. In contrast to the Divine labors, the works of humans upon nature have been destructive not creative — "the great reverse of Creation, and wrath of God, accomplished on the earth by the friends, and by men their ministers" (XXVIII, 177-178). As an example of a properly human labor, Ruskin mentions that he has dredged out the Wandel and stocked it with trout, a humble imitation of God's third labor, the "disciplining" of the waters. But the sources of being cannot be so renewed — even the Tay, he supposes in Letter 65, was long ago "bricked over, or choked with rubbish" (XXVIII, 605). [304/305]
The pitch of such outbursts brought to Ruskin the awareness of yet another, the very grimmest, of the burdens of vision. "Does it never occur to me," he had asked in Letter 48, "that I may be mad myself?" (XXVIII, 206). In response to his own question, he takes refuge in noticing the greater madness of those about him: "for men who know the truth are like to go mad from isolation; and the fools are all going mad in 'Schwärmerei."' He himself belongs to "the old race" — "children who reverence our fathers, and are ashamed of ourselves," yet who must live amid a "yelping, carnivorous crowd, mad for money and lust" — a crowd from which there is only one distraction: "it is impossible for us, except in the labour of our hands, not to go mad" (XXVIII, 206-207). The prophet driven mad by the follies of his age, and the related figure of Lear's Fool, perform a "bitter play" with the very limits of rational coherence. In 1875 Rose died of brain fever. Two years later, while studying St. Ursula's Dream in Florence, Ruskin received two separate gifts of flowers, which he associated with the emblematic dianthus and vervain in Carpaccio's painting, concluding that they had been sent him by the spirit of Rose herself. In Letter 74 he weaves "Little Bear," the two flowers, the painting of a Venetian water pitcher, and other elements into an eerily alogical pattern, in tone like a man murmuring to himself in a hushed rapture: the "invisible kosmos" had begun to claim him. Not until a year later, in February 1878, did the first breakdown come; for many months afterward all writing ceased.
When Ruskin recovered his active life again, he took up the series intermittently but without the energy or concentration of the 1870S. The final nine letters seem written from semiretirement: the mode of address suggests an audience like the children and neighbors at Coniston; the subjects are Plato's Laws, the proper education of children, the pleasures of the country. But two of the letters suggest the psychic cost of this retreat, forming between them a kind of tragic coda to the quest journey of Fors. Extremely good girls, he asserts in Letter go, usually die young: "For my own part of grief, I have known a little Nell die, and a May Queen die, and a queen of May, and of December also, die.... And I could count the like among my best-loved friends, with a rosary of tears." He then develops a kind of economics of pulchritude, likening these deaths to "an enforced tax" to heaven and rebuking England for taking so little account of the number it has left (XXIX, 425). The climax of the discussion, reached at the end of the following letter, is a commentary on the end of Romeo and Juliet, which quotes the words of the Prince of Verona to the parents of the dead lovers: "That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love." Montague and Capulet, he continues, vowed to build monuments to their children, and he asks his readers to "meditate on the alchemy of fate, which changes the youth and girl into two golden statues." In thus seizing upon the Midas [305/306] theme — the image that opens Carlyle's Past and Present — Ruskin reverses the dictum, "There is no wealth but Life." We sense that in these words, St George has lost the battle. Mammon, the Dragon, has converted life into gold, and the May Queen; unrestored to Eden, has been banished into the wasteland: "and your weary children watch, with no memory of Jerusalem, and no hope of return from their captivity, the weltering to the sea of your Waters of Babylon" (XXIX, 447-448).
These Kindertotenlieder seem to be breathed from an autumnal world of second childhood. Appropriately, the very last letter of all contains an account, not of a community of adults, but of an orphanage called "Valle Rosina" — "a Rosy Vale in Italy, rejoicing round its Living Rose" (XXIX, 519). Ruskin concludes:
If the enemy cometh in like a flood, how much more may the rivers of Paradise? Are there not fountains of the great deep that open to bless, not destroy?
And the beginning of blessing, if you will think of it, is in that promise, "Great shall be the peace of thy children." All the world is but as one orphanage, so long as its children know not God their Father....
Not to be taken out of the world in monastic sorrow, but to be kept from its evil in shepherded peace; — ought not this to be done for all the children held at the fonts beside which we vow, in their name, to renounce the world? Renounce! nay, ought we not, at last, to redeem?
The voice here is the voice of a Good Shepherd who has suffered the little children to come to him that he might nourish his own needs through them. These last letters are less a conclusion to the massive work that precedes them, less a reflection of the renewed conflict and hyperactivity of the 1880s, than a set of preludes to his autobiography. That final book is signaled by the commingling in the closing passage of the sacraments of baptism and holy orders, as though old man and child could be reborn together and the outer world be renounced in order that the inner world be redeemed: "surely out of its silence the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and round it the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose!" (XIX, 528).
The autobiographical myth of Fors Clavigera begins with a young boy mysteriously deprived of joy, proceeds through years of wandering and exhorting in the wilderness of the modern world in search of an elusive Promised Land, and concludes in a recapture that is also a retreat, when the Promised Land faces him as the mirror of childhood; the last word of the whole is "rose." So restless and various is that inconstant persona that the personages in the universe above and about him take the form also of psychic forces within a world coextensive with his consciousness. As St. George represents the concentering forces of integration and control, Ursula and the goddess Fate parallel [306/307] the internal contradictions between reward and punishment, possession and denial. As the May Queen becomes the internalized image of desire, so the dark mother merges at times with the angry prophet, who wields the hammer of invective (for example, "that so I may end the work of nailing down scarecrows of idiotic soul, and be left free to drive home the fastenings of sacred law" [XXIX, 200]). In the image of Morgiana's dance (XXIX, 197), Ruskin's "grim purpose" is likened to the poniard of Ali Baba's wife, seeking out the heart of the assassin — an analogue of both the nail of Fate and the sword of St. George. And finally in a casual phrase like "in the course of Fors itself" (XXVIII, 409), the life and the book, the myth and the style, become one.
Through the labor of writing Ruskin creates his own Fortune out of Fate. At their finest, the letters blend public and private references into carefully orchestrated meditations that turn an observed incident or a fragment of thought into a revelation of cultural realities and of Ruskin's inner history at that moment. But the true power of Fors Clavigera does not lie in its best individual moments. We have viewed it as a massive pattern of variations and as the agon of a protean fictional self. We need finally to view it as the drama of Ruskin's struggle for psychic coherence against overwhelming disintegrative forces — the hammer blows of an illness that could be staved off but not finally overcome. The record of that struggle is frequently warped and splintered but always energized by an urgent drive to communicate. Within that context even the failures of coherence attain an eerie power to which the usual canons of intention and control do not apply. There is, for example, the bit of "mythic teaching" that immediately follows an anecdote about a faithful dog:
Indistinguishable, doubtless, in its bones from a small wolf; according to Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins; but much distinguishable, by St. Theodore's theology, telling of God, down, thus far at least, in nature. Emmanuel, — with us; in Raphael, in Tobias, in all loving and lowly things; "the young man's dog went with them."
And in those Adriatic breakers, anger-fringed, is He also? — Effice quaeso, fretum, Raphael reverende, quietum. And in the Dragons also, as in the deeps? Where is the battle to begin? How far down in the darkness lies this enemy, for whom Hell beneath is moved at the sound of his coming. [XXIX, 69]
Psychoanalytic insights might help us forge these broken links but could not describe their affective power — the power of a speech freeflowing yet broken into incantatory fragments and echoing allusions, mute and emblematic as the crumbled juxtapositions of nature herself — the unheard speech, we might say, of deep answering to deep. Long before writing this passage, Ruskin provided the symbolic [307/308] grotesque, the category that justifies its claim to literary interest, but for most readers it will be accessible, if at all, from the example of modern poetics. In particular Pound's Cantos rise before us when we read Fors, both as a whole and in part. Both works move from the landscape of hell and purgatory toward a visionary blessedness, in a course shattered but not defeated by emotional collapse. What endures in Fors is its sanity, its drive to find meaning in work and sustenance in a consolidation like that found by Pound: "What thou lovest well remains." And if Ruskin played at times with the figure of the inspired madman, he did so only to resist more resolutely the coming darkness that was finally ordained for him — he would have had no part in that retreat from the moral life that has masked itself in the romanticizing of mental illness. In one of his last utterances, Lionel Trilling attacked the modern delusion in words that may stand as an epitaph to what is bravest in Ruskin:
no expression of disaffection from the social existence was ever so desperate as this eagerness to say that authenticity of personal being is achieved through an ultimate isolateness and through the power that this is presumed to bring. The falsities of an alienated social reality are rejected in favour of an upward psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity, each one of us a Christ — but with none of the inconveniences of undertaking to intercede, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished (Trilling, 171-172).
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 17 April 2015