he descriptive passages in Modern Painters I (1843) struck contemporary readers because they were beautiful and because they were unexpected. Visual description was not a common tool of the Victorian art critic, except as satire. The "elaborate richness of description and imagery," the "graphic power" of Ruskin's descriptions again and again evoked the comment that the work was not that "of a critic only, but of a painter and poet."1 Gentleman's Magazine explained the descriptions as a "profuse display of examples and illustration"— illustration entirely verbal, for the first volume was published without plates.2 Critics from the art establishment paid special attention to the author's descriptive style, too, ridiculing it as "eloquent skimbleskamble" and deriding him as a "whirling Dervish who at the end of his well-sustained reel falls with a higher jump and a shriller shriek into a fit."3 The virtuoso descriptions of Modern Painters I stood out from their context like jewels in sand, poems and paintings illustrating expository prose. The first volume of Modern Painters was a success but not always, from Ruskin's later perspective, for the right reasons. Admiring readers for the next fifty years detached these gems for separate exhibitions of Ruskin the Painter or Ruskin the Poet of Nature, to the frustration of an older Ruskin who defined himself primarily as a critic.
Readers and periodical reviewers were right to single out these passages. They are presented as paintings, and through them Ruskin establishes his authority as an artist of vision. Yet there is more in them: indications of the aesthetic habits and assumptions that eventually shaped Ruskin's critical identity and formed the basis of his critical procedures. These descriptions are structured as exercises in a mode of [11/12] seeing accessible to every amateur. Their author indicates that he speaks not as an artist but as a teacher dedicated to popularizing art. The signals to the reader of Modern Painters I are plainly contradictory.
The uncertain rhetoric with which Ruskin begins his career at the age of twenty-four reflects an uncertainty about what that career is to be. Does he write as the simple beholder of nature or as the budding landscape artist? The distinction between artist and beholder which is missing in Modern Painters I becomes of crucial concern to Ruskin over the next decade. It lies at the heart of his criticism of English responses to landscape. Oscar Wilde's brilliant invention, "The Critic as Artist," would insist that the contradictions of Modern Painters I are unresolvable, and delight in the paradox. Ruskin did not agree. The descriptive prose of that initial volume is the basis for his different and less paradoxical critical art: the art of the beholder.
USKIN'S comments on Modern Painters I suggest a confusion, or perhaps simply a plurality, of rhetorical aims behind the conflicting demands of his descriptive prose. The preface to the first edition warns the reader that what "was intended to be a short pamphlet, reprobating the manner and style" of periodical criticism of Turner, had already become "something very like a treatise on art" (3.3). Ruskin undertook Modern Painters as an occasional piece of writing, hardly intending to make it the beginning of a critical career. He rejected fairly quickly the polemics of the pamphleteer (many were removed from the revised edition, published in September 1846).4 Other questions of intention and style took much longer to resolve. The identity of the author—his relationship to his audience and to the artists he wrote about—was very much in flux for the next six or seven years.
In the months following the publication of the first volume, Ruskin tried to clarify to several correspondents what he meant to do in the rest of the project. On the one hand he spoke of convincing the public "by the maintained testimony of high authority, that Turner is worth understanding" (3.653). As he wrote in the preface to the second edition (1844), he wanted "to attach to the artist the responsibility of a preacher, and to kindle in the general mind that regard which such an office must demand" (3.48). This part of his aim required that he establish his own "high authority" in order to awake the public to an appropriate [12/13] awe for the powers of art. Two years later the importance of convincing through high authority seems to determine the weighty tone and methodical approach of Modern Painters II (1846)—half treatise, half sermon, and modeled on the prose of Richard Hooker. He defines his critical object here as the elevation of art, a mission "to summon the moral energies of the nation to a forgotten duty, to display the use, force, and function of a great body of neglected sympathies and desires, and to elevate to its healthy and beneficial operation that art which, being altogether addressed to them, rises or falls with their variableness of vigour, now leading them with Tyrtaean fire, now singing them to sleep with baby murmurings" (4.28). In 1844, however, he also thinks of his project in quite different terms: "to spread the love and knowledge of art among all classes," to communicate not "technicalities and fancies" but "the universal system of nature," to make sensibility to the beautiful more universal (3.665). Where Modern Painters II is the voice of high (moral) authority, this is the voice of the popular educator. The high authority speaks to his public of a forgotten duty and holds up art and the artist as objects of awe, but the popular educator assures them, as Ruskin assured an 1843 correspondent, that if they try to understand Turner, they can (3.653). The two attitudes toward art and the public coexist in the letters and prefaces of 1843 and 1844, and indeed both continue to be important in Ruskin's later criticism. In Modern Painters I neither attitude is yet articulated, and the difficulty of combining them is further complicated by the author's reluctance to identify himself as a critic at all. The distinctive prose techniques of both the high authority and the popular educator are already there, but they work sometimes with and sometimes against the various' guises the author of Modern Painters adopts. _ The first and perhaps most important of these guises is bat of the amateur") The title page of Modern Painters I presents the author simply as an anonymous "Graduate of Oxford," an educated gentleman. His authority, as the preface to the second edition explains, is defined in opposition to that of professional critics and historians of art. He is literally an amateur, a lover of truth and beauty, publishing his views at his own expense. He comes forward as the champion of the present against the past. portraying artistic convention as the impediment over which Turner as leaped to greatness. Modern Painters I deliberately rejects an historical approach to painting, just as it avoids the technical [13/14] language of the painter and connoisseur except to satirize the work of painters inferior to Turner. Ruskin was distinguishing himself both from an older group of periodical reviewers like the Reverend John Eagles of Blackwood's (whose attacks on Turner's late paintings had led to Modern Painters) and from a new group of museum experts like Sir Charles Eastlake, Keeper of the National Gallery, and Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Director of the Berlin Gallery.5 The judgments of both groups, Ruskin argued, depended on precedent; men like Eagles judged quality by comparison with a particular canon, while Eastlake and Waagen established dates and authenticity through analysis of paints, canvas, style, and subject. Neither group could appreciate the work of a really innovative painter so well as "men of general knowledge and unbiassed habits of thought" who could recognize in it "a record and illustration of facts before unseized" (3.15). Through devotion and earnest study—not of artistic styles or conventions but of "the new truths [the painter] had discovered and recorded" — the educated amateur might prove a more valuable guide than the professional critic. As Ruskin wrote to a sympathetic reader in December 1843:
We are overwhelmed with a tribe of critics . . . well acquainted with the technical qualities of every master's touch; [who] when their discrimination fails, plume themselves on indisputable tradition, and point triumphantly to the documents of pictorial genealogy. But they never go quite far enough back; they stop one step short of the real original . . . Whatever, under the present system of study, the connoisseur of the gallery may learn or know, there is one thing he does not know,—and that is nature. [3.646]
This knowledge was Ruskin's one positive claim to authority. As a Graduate of Oxford, not an art critic, he claimed to be free of the biases of technical expertise and an historical approach; but he acknowledged something more than a general command of Turner's subject, natural fact.
Yet here too Ruskin stressed not the expertise but the means to acquire it: visual experience open to every diligent amateur. The descriptive passages in Modern Painters I were the proof of Ruskin's own love for and knowledge of natural fact—hence the chief grounds for his authority. They were also a demonstration to readers that they too could discover, with their own eyes, the facts that Ruskin and Turner had seen. Ruskin's descriptions were designed to convey not just specific [14/15] knowledge about the physical behavior of light or water or rocks or foliage, but a new way of seeing. The description of a wooded bank, for example, works to sensitize the reader to effects of light by suppressing temporarily knowledge of the shapes of individual leaves:
The leaves then at the extremities become as fine as dust, a mere confusion of points and lines between you and the sky, a confusion which, you might as well hope to draw sea-sand particle by particle, as to imitate leaf for leaf. This, as it comes down into the body of the tree, gets closer, but never opaque; it is always transparent with crumbling lights in it letting you through to the sky: then out of this, come, heavier and heavier, the masses of illumined foliage, all dazzling and inextricable, save here and there a single leaf on the extremities: then, under these, you get deep passages of broken irregular gloom, passing into transparent, green-lighted, misty hollows; the twisted stems glancing through them in their pale and entangled infinity, and the shafted sunbeams, rained from above, running along the lustrous leaves for an instant; then lost, then caught again on some emerald bank or knotted root, to be sent up again with a faint reflex on the white under-sides of dim groups of drooping foliage, the shadows of the upper boughs running in grey network down the glossy stems, and resting in quiet chequers upon the glittering earth; but all penetrable and transparent, and, in proportion, inextricable and incomprehensible, except where across the labyrinth and the mystery of the dazzling light and dream-like shadow, falls, close to us, some solitary spray, some wreath of two.or three motionless large leaves, the type and embodying of all that in the rest we feel and imagine, but can never see. [3.589-90]
What is being conveyed is not, of course, "the" truth of a bank of foliage in sunshine, but one kind of painterly vision, a way of seeing that can be learned and will then influence the way other scenes—real, painted, or described—are perceived. But in the first part of the nineteenth century, such seeing also had scientific status. The prevailing mode of scientific research was the observation and description of natural phenomena, under natural conditions and with the unaided eye. To Ruskin and his readers his particular painterly vision might be both a prerequisite for seeing a Turner and an instrument of scientific investigation.6 Ruskin claimed that this way of seeing provided more "facts before unseized" than any previous painterly vision of landscape. His authority as the author of Modern Painters I, then, came neither from his knowledge of painting nor from his knowledge of natural [15/16] fact but from his ability to see in a certain way, and hence to acquire knowledge. That ability he tries to transfer to his readers through description. The implication is that Ruskin's readers, by the time they finish Modern Painters, may have as much authority as Ruskin himself lays claim to.
Still, no reader of Modern Painters I can overlook the equally strong indications that this amateur possesses an authority he is not offering to share. A number of Ruskin's remarks to his readers (many of them removed in the revised edition)7 suggest the distance he put between himself and them, a distance further established by his assertive tone and by exaggerated attacks on the probable aesthetic preferences of his readers—the landscapes of Claude and Salvator and Gaspar Poussin. A sentence in the first edition, for example, read: "It will only be when we can feel as well as think, and rejoice as well as reason, that I shall be able to lead you with Turner to his favorite haunts" (3.468n). Although in later editions Ruskin evidently felt that this statement presumed too much for the Oxford Graduate, the division of "we" into an "I" who will lead and a "you" to be led, and the implied moral authority ("when we can feel as well as think") behind that division were characteristic of many passages he did not revise. A chapter that begins with the neutral observation, "It is a strange thing how little in general people know about the sky" modulates after a page into admonitory rhetoric full of echoes and rhythms from Job and the biblical prophets:
Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves? All has passed, unregretted as unseen; or if the apathy be ever shaken off, even for an instant, it is only by what is gross, or what is extraordinary; and yet it is not in the broad and fierce manifestations of the elemental energies, not in the clash of the hail, nor the drift of the whirlwind, that the highest characters of the sublime are developed. God is not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still, small voice. [3.344-45]
In passages like this Ruskin identifies h iself by tone and diction as an evangelical teacher, a role that is familiar to and implies beliefs and attitudes [16/17] shared with much of his middle-class audience but that establishes a distinction between writer and reader.
Ruskin further complicates his relationship with his readers by describing the activity of the artist in terms that fit the role he himself plays in Modern Painters I. The painter has "the responsibility of the preacher"; he must both "induce in the spectator's mind the faithful conception of any natural objects" and, more importantly, "guide the spectator's mind." The artist also
talks to him; makes him a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts; hurries him away in his own enthusiasm; guides him to all that is beautiful; snatches him from all that is base; and leaves him more than delighted,—ennobled and instructed, under the sense of having not only beheld a new scene, but of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotions of a nobler and more penetrating intelligence. [3.133-34]
The reader is indeed snatched and hurried along by the quick and impetuous progress of his guide in the last long sentence of Ruskin's description of foliage. Preaching and communion similarly identify the elevated tone and diction Ruskin adopts in other passages. Ruskin's artist evidently shares something of the same ambiguous relation to his audience that Ruskin expresses toward his. At one moment he preaches to them and at the next shares his enthusiasms with an engaging familiarity. Ruskin apparently writes as the spokesman for this artist, articulating his sermons or, in a more familiar tone, giving his side of the conversation described in the passage above. The chief difference between criticism and creation suggested by this description of the artist would seem to be a difference of medium. The writer on art is a translator; he gives literal (verbal) substance to the pictorial speech of the painter.
The exalted status that Ruskin gives the great artist in this volume drives a further wedge between readers and the critic, who is closely identified with the great painter. The most hyperbolic of Ruskin's descriptions of Turner casts the painter as an angel out of Revelation: "Turner—glorious in conception—unfathomable in knowledgesolitary 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 [17/18] 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" (3.254). When the passage was attacked by reviewers as excessive. Ruskin left it out of later editions, but his vision of Turner as angel and prophet standing in the sunlit clouds is in fact repeated in another famous passage that was not deleted from the volume. "Of the Truth of Clouds" concludes with an elaborate description of a day's sequence of spectacular skies seen from a mountain top, a composite, according to Ruskin's footnotes, of various Turner paintings. With every new and more sublime scene the reader is reminded that he is standing where Turner stood, before visions uniquely Turner's ("Has Claude given this?" is the refrain that punctuates the description). Finally, as "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," when "you can look no more for gladness" and "are bowed down with fear and love of the Maker and Doer of this," Ruskin asks, "tell me who has best delivered this His message unto men!" (3.418-19) The ambiguous connection between painter and writer is especially noticeable in these passages because the descriptions are identified as verbal versions of Turner paintings. Ruskin's question at the end of the last passage ("who has best delivered this His message") confirms the reader's perception of a kind of rivalry between critic and artist by suggesting an answer that Ruskin surely did not intend. Similarly, when Ruskin speaks specifically of the unique nature of a great artist's imagination as only to "be met and understood by persons having some sort of sympathy with the high and solitary minds which produced it—sympathy only to be felt by minds in some degree high and solitary themselves" (3.136), the reader must assume Ruskin speaks as one of those high and solitary few. Early in the book Ruskin does try to explain the apparent contradiction between this statement of the inaccessibility of great art and his claim that "men of general knowledge" can learn to see as Turner saw. The feeling and passion, he says, can be shared only by the few, but the ability to perceive natural facts is possible for all, and this truth of representation is a trustworthy index to the relative value of the full artistic vision: "Truth is a bar of comparison at which they may all be examined, and according to the rank they take in this examination will almost invariably be that which, if capable of appreciating them in [18/19] every respect, we should be just in assigning them; so strict is the connection, so constant the relation, between the sum of knowledge and the extent of thought, between accuracy of perception and vividness of idea" (3.138). The explanation, though it justifies Ruskin's initial concentration on natural fact, does not entirely prepare us for the alternating voices of Modern Painters I—the shifts from the contagious enthusiasm of the amateur educator to the high authority of the preacher or the painter-poet.
USKIN'S purple passages are instances of artful writing in the high romantic mode. Yet the verbal structure of his descriptions in fact presents visual experience as immediately accessible, the exploration of the excited amateur. Some signals direct us to understand these passages as instruction; others direct us to admire the verbal art. We may identify these conflicting verbal clues if we look at three passages where teaching seems progressively less important than virtuoso word painting. Most of the descriptions in Modern Painters I focus on some single effect that Ruskin wants to teach readers to see so that they can appreciate the triumph of Turner's painting. Description of sensible effect is usually accompanied by explanation of the physical or geological fact it indicates. To explain how Turner alone accurately expresses the force of falling water in a painting like The Fall of the Tees, for example, Ruskin contrasts what other painters have done with a description of how falling water behaves:
You will find nothing in the waterfalls even of our best painters, but springing lines of parabolic descent, and splashing shapeless foam; and, in consequence, though they may make you understand the swiftness of the water, they never let you feel the weight of it; the stream in their hands looks active, not supine, as if it leaped, not as if it fell. 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; »nd it is when we have lost the parabolic line, and arrived at the catenary, ivhen we have lost the spring of the fall, and arrived at the plunge of it, that ve begin really to feel its weight and wildness. Where water takes its first eap from the top, it is cool, and collected, and uninteresting, and mathenatical; but it is when it finds that it has got into a scrape, and has farther to 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 [19/20] 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, and especially in the case before us. [3.553-54]
The animation of the water, the extended sentence, and the multiplication of metaphor through which Ruskin conveys the distinctive character of falling water are certainly artful. Yet the passage keeps its primary character as explanation. The descriptive passage is brief in comparison to the paragraphs of more analytical exposition preceding it. Ruskin concludes by returning us to Turner's painting. Finally, he does not try to present an entire scene or composition, animating instead only a single fact.
Longer passages of description can work differently. A paragraph like Ruskin's description of foliage is intended to convey a special visual fact, again in order to help the reader understand a Turner painting. The precision and profusion of detail presented as visual experience work to combat the myth of the artist's vision as inaccessible and incomprehensible, except as a sudden vague emotional impression, to the ordinary viewer. The passage focuses attention on a particular aspect of the scene—the effects of light—and does so by first taking us through a progressive examination of its visual space. The eye is led downward through a sequence of nine distinctive modulations of flickering light, from "the confusion of points and lines between you and the sky" to "the quiet chequers upon the glittering earth." The summary description of the effect of the whole ("the labyrinth and the mystery of the dazzling light and dream-like shadow") comes after a visual tour of the parts. The reader has seen how the final effect is constructed and can read a much more precise meaning into more than visual terms like "mystery" and "dream-like." By letting the reader discover and distinguish the variety of visual facts that make up the impression of labyrinthine light and shadow, Ruskin both alerts him to the presence of similar facts in other scenes—conveys a particular painterly way of seeing—and demonstrates the kind of orderly optical scanning by which a spectator fully sees a picture or scene. What the writer describes, in other words, is the scene as it is discovered by the spectator. Ruskin's descriptive procedure, where the order of description [20/21] seems to be an order of experience, is a canny bit of educational psychology: he leads the student through a successful repetition of the kind of analysis he is trying to teach, demonstrating that the reader can in fact see what Ruskin sees. Every time we encounter a descriptive passage, we get a chance to practice the method of visual analysis, whether we simply visualize as Ruskin describes or whether we follow his advice and go directly to the country or to Dulwich Gallery.
Yet this passage of description is set off from the surrounding prose by a variety of formal and stylistic devices suggesting that it is itself an imaginative whole, a word painting conceived and structured as an independent design. In the preceding paragraph Ruskin instructs the reader, "Break off an elm bough three feet long . . . and lay it on the table before you, and try to draw it leaf for leaf." The description begins with an explicit shift away from this direct visual study. It is introduced as an exercise in imaginative rather than literal vision: "But if nature is so various when you have a bough on the table before you, what must she be when she retires from you . . . ?" Similarly the experience is brought to a formal close, after it has been summed up in a final phrase descriptive of an overall impression (the labyrinth and mystery) by a return to the now emblematic image of the solitary bough. As experience, the description has a clearly marked beginning and end not unlike the framing of a visual artifact. Within the frame, the syntax and rhythm of the prose provide an internal order for the experience corresponding, by implication, to a compositional order in the visual scene. In the first two thirds of the single main sentence of the description, a clear sequence of clauses ("This . . . ; then . . . ; then . . . ; then . . . , then . . . ") describes an orderly progression from sky to earth through extremely complicated patterns of light and shadow. The narrative is accelerated by lengthening each successive stage and subdividing it into an increasingly complicated profusion of asymmetrically modifying phrases and clauses. In the last third of the sentence ("but all ... "), where the description shifts to summary impression and then focuses on a representative detail, the rhythm slows and the syntax is simplified; pairs of balanced terms and frequent pauses, isolating a single noun or verb, prepare for a bare final clause that resolves the breathless complexity of the sentence ("all that . . . we feel and imagine, but can never see"). The effort to convey a coherent [21/22] visual space through orderly scanning reinforces the sense that the paragraph is the verbal equivalent of a painting. Like the painting it is an imaginative whole.
The passage is further marked as an independent composition because it is paired immediately with a satiric description of an actual painting.8 The next paragraph instructs the reader, "Now, with thus much of nature in your mind, go to Gaspar Poussin's view near Albano, in the National Gallery." The juxtaposed passages place Ruskin's description in competition with Caspar's painting, implying that the prose paragraph (or the modern painting for which it is a stand-in) is a painting to hang up next to Caspar's, just as Turner wished two of his paintings to hang next to—and overwhelm— Claude's.
Is Ruskin writing as a prose painter or as an educator? Does he want to create a visual composition to dazzle us? Does he want to convey the beholder's experience (which becomes more than visual) in order to educate our perceptions? Both, probably. His descriptive style, translating visual effects rather than simply enumerating them, converting spatial forms into a dramatic narrative, may represent an attempt to rival painting in prose. But the description can also be read as a demonstration that painting is accessible and comprehensible because, like more ordinary visual phenomena, it can be studied and analyzed. The dazzling whole can be experienced part by part until even the unobservant spectator sees. Perhaps an attentive reader can accept Ruskin's description both as art in its own right and as part of the visual education his volume offers. Ruskin's experience with Victorian readers suggests that this was not usually the case. His description gave the reader an analytical method and far more visual information than any contemporary art criticism offered,9 but its educative function was undercut by its verbal artfulness.
The prose medium itself creates a problem, one not limited to Victorian readers. We too may well expect critical prose to be self-effacing, instructive, and analytical. How then will we respond to the obvious virtuosity of Ruskin's descriptive style? Will we interpret it as inappropriate display, despite—or because of—its success in creating a verbal equivalent for perceptual experience? The problem always exists for descriptive literature about the visual arts. Here, though, Ruskin's contradictory clues to the reader exacerbate the generic difficulties. [22/23]
The juxtaposition of visionary and satiric descriptions suggests rivalry, but it is also an effective way of bringing attention to stylistic differences in the paintings and winning the reader's assent to the teacher's judgment of their relative merits. (The paired slides of a lecture in art history work the same way, though there it is the oral commentary that determines whether the comparison is neutral or whether one painting is viewed as a caricature of or development from the other.) The immediate framing of the paragraph suggests we are to take it as a word painting, but in the larger context of the chapter and book, description is clearly meant to serve sight, not to rival it. Shorter descriptions, like that of falling water, do not call attention to themselves as independent dramatic narratives. Their function as explanation is never in doubt. Ruskin's statements about his rhetorical intentions and authorial identity do not resolve the ambiguities of his more elaborate descriptions. On the contrary, they indicate that he did not yet know whether he was primarily a poet-painter or a critic and, if he were a critic, exactly what his relationship to his audience should be.
The problem of how to take Ruskin's elaborate descriptions—and hence their place in the rhetorical structure of the book—is most acute in the handful of frequently anthologized pieces that attempt full-scale descriptions of Turner paintings (for example, Snowstorm and The Slave Ship) or of landscapes that other painters had rendered unsuccessfully, like Ruskin's versions of the Roman Compagna and La Riccia—paired, in Modern Painters I, with satiric descriptions of a Claude and a Caspar Poussin.10 The last two especially seem to have been intended primarily as finished, imaginative compositions, improvements on Claude and Caspar, whatever their subsequent usefulness in teaching the public how to see. Both descriptions are based on Ruskin's diary record of a day's travel from Rome to Cisterna in January 1841; he returned in March to take a second look at La Riccia (the modern Ariccia), this time drawing the same view (ill. 2).11
Ariccia [La Riccia] near Albano. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The two sketches and the finished prose versions in Modern Painters I show a process of composition much like that which Ruskin analyzed in Modern Painters IV (1856) as the way in which a great imaginative artist turns first impressions into a finished work of the imagination.12 When Ruskin began, in 1845, the studies on which the analysis of 1856 was based, he used Turner's paintings as his examples of imaginative art. His own [23/24] drawings and notes, made on the same spots, were his references for judging the transformations Turner had made. Just two years after Modern Painters I, he was more concerned with distinguishing his descriptions ai depictions from Turner's than with rivaling his effects in prose. But in 1843 and 1844, he felt no need to separate his own descriptions from Turner's finished paintings. The La Riccia description, where Ruskin makes no attempt to distinguish between prose description as art and prose description as a tool of criticism, is a useful point of comparison for Ruskin's later style and critical attitudes.
Ruskin himself noted that his impulse to describe came before any specific intention to teach. He felt this impulse to be his link with the geniuses of great art. As he wrote his father in 1852,
things because he cannot help it, intellectual things, I mean: I don't think myself a great genius—but I believe I have genius . . . there is the strong instinct in me which I cannot analyse—to draw and describe the things I love—not for reputation—nor for the good of others—nor for my own advantage—but a sort of instinct like that for eating or drinking.13
In 1840, the month before his trip through the Campagna, he noted in his diary, "I was tormented with vague desires of possessing all the beauty that I saw, of keeping every outline and colour in my mind, and pained at the knowledge that I must forget it all."14 And a few months later he noted his own often unsuccessful attempts to arrest "these strong distinctive impressions" in words (Diaries, I, 216). His diary for 1840 and 1841 is filled with extensive descriptions of the landscapes he encountered and refers as well to drawings made of the same scenes. The description of his journey through the Campagna and the drawing of La Riccia made two months later belong to this group—records prompted by the impulse Ruskin then thought he shared with the great artist, "the strong instinct ... to draw and describe the things I love."16
According to his diary remarks, Ruskin was interested in capturing two aspects of what he saw: "strong distinctive impressions," especially those of first sights, and "every outline and colour," the smallest discriminations of visual fact. Drawings were especially necessary as a supplement to verbal description for getting details. Modern Painters I is full of apologies for the inadequacy of language to convey sufficiently fine visual distinctions:
we shall be compelled to notice only a few of the most striking and demonstrable facts of nature. To trace out the actual sum of truth or falsehood in any one work, touch by touch, would require ... a chapter to every inch of canvass ... I can do little more than suggest the right train of thought and mode of observation . . . how difficult it is to express or explain, by language only, those delicate qualities of the object of sense, on the seizing of which all refined truth of representation depends . . . nothing but what is coarse and commonplace, in matters to be judged of by the senses, is within the reach of argument. [3.258,253]
At the end of the volume Ruskin explicitly disclaims any attempt to capture the finer visual facts of line and color in the descriptions of Modern Painters I: "I have been perfectly unable to express (and indeed I have made no endeavour to express) the finely drawn and distinguished truth in which all the real excellence of art consists" (3.609). Yet following Ruskin's successive efforts to describe La Riccia, one may suspect that the description in Modern Painters is the culmination of the instinct to draw and describe so strongly evident in the 1840-41 diaries. Then, too, Ruskin's drawing style in the early l840s was not capable of expressing the Turnerian effects of light and color to which he was becoming increasingly sensitive. Language was more flexible than drawing as a means of expressing the conflagration of color that overwhelmed him at La Riccia. The drawing and diary record of that spot are aids to visual memory, but the Modern Painters description comes closest to fulfilling Ruskin's desire to recreate a first impression while keeping every line and color.17
The diary entry for his trip through the Campagna is a running series of notes made from the constantly shifting perspective of the traveler (I, 135-36.). There are no full stops, no comprehensive views. The observer is constantly attentive to details of interest to the amateur painter, geologist, botanist, and student of clouds and skies, but his record is a piecemeal notation of details as they strike a moving eye, not an organized composition. At one point Ruskin singles out an impression as especially remarkable—"three minutes of rapidly changing composition, absolutely unparalleled in my experience"—but while details are more numerous here, the attempt to record this as a single strong, distinctive impression is made by recalling his excitement and not by any attempt to create a coherent visual image.
Leaving Rome "in a pour of rain" Ruskin first describes various groups of ruins along the plain of the Campagna (notes used in the description [25/26] of the Campagna for the preface to the second edition of Modern Painters I):
Then came an ancient stone aqueduct, exquisite in colour and mass of form, and shattered throughout, yet keeping towards its mountain termination a continued line. Beyond it, the Apennines, with fresh snow, shone large through breaking rain-cloud, white fragments of it falling along the Campagna, and relieving in places its dark groups of ruin; the Alban mount looking high through drifting shower.
After the partial view through breaking rain clouds, the sky closes in again and Ruskin describes the desolation of the plain. In the distance an isolated villa and grove and the silhouette of the town of Albano appear against the sky. Beyond Albano he
descended into a hollow, with another village on the hill opposite—a most elegant and finished group of church-tower and roof: infinitely varied outline against sky, descending by delicious colour and delicate upright, leafless [sketche]s of tree, into a dark, rich-toned depth of ravine, out of which rose, nearer, and clear against its shade, a grey wall of rock—an absolute miracle for blending of bright lichenous colour. Our descending road bordered by bright yellow stumpy trees, leaning over it in heavy masses (with thick trunks covered with ivy and feathery leafage) giving a symmetry to the foreground—those trunks rising from bold fragments of projecting tufa, loaded with vegetation of the richest possible tone. The whole thing for about three minutes of rapidly changing composition, absolutely unparalleled in my experience, especially for its total independence of all atmospheric effect, being under a grey and unbroken sky with rain—as bright as a first-rate Turner. I got quite sick with delight; scrambled up a steep hill into the village, a bright light showing over the sea —clear amber—against which we got the outline again descending from us, on the other side, with a purple piece of marsh opening to the sea.
And so on through other villages, now under a clearing sky, into Cisterna.
With these notes and the drawing he made on his return in March to prompt his memory, he wrote the following description for Modern Painters I:
Not long ago, I was slowly descending this very bit of carriage-road [the scene of Gaspar Poussin's painting of La Riccia], the first turn after you leave [26/27] Albano ... It had been wild weather when I left Rome, and all across the Campagna the clouds were sweeping in sulphurous blue, with a clap of thunder or two, and breaking gleams of sun along the Claudian aqueduct lighting up the infinity of its arches like the bridge of chaos. But as I climbed the long slope of the Alban Mount, the storm swept finally to the north, and the noble outline of the domes of Albano, and graceful darkness of its ilex grove, rose against pure streaks of alternate blue and amber; the upper sky gradually flushing through the last fragments of rain-cloud in deep palpitating azure, half aether and half dew. The noonday sun came slanting down the rocky slopes of La Riccia, and their masses of entangled and tall foliage, whose autumnal tints were mixed with the wet verdure of a thousand evergreens, were penetrated with it as with rain. I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration. Purple, and crimson, and scarlet, like the curtains of God's tabernacle, the rejoicing trees sank into the valley in showers of light, every separate leaf quivering with buoyant and burning life; each, as it turned to reflect or to transmit the sunbeam, first a torch and then an emerald. Far up into the recesses of the valley, the green vistas arched like the hollows of mighty waves of some crystalline sea, with the arbutus flowers dashed along their flanks for foam, and silver flakes of orange spray tossed into the air around them, breaking over the grey walls of rock into a thousand separate stars, fading and kindling alternately as the weak wind lifted and let them fall. Every glade of grass burned like the golden floor of heaven, opening in sudden gleams as the foliage broke and closed above it, as sheet-lightning opens in a cloud at sunset; the motionless masses of dark rock—dark though flushed with scarlet lichen, casting their quiet shadows across its restless radiance, the fountain underneath them filling its marble hollow with blue mist and fitful sound; and over all, the multitudinous bars of amber and rose, the sacred clouds that have no darkness, and only exist to illumine, were seen in fathomless intervals between the solemn and orbed repose of the stone pines, passing to lose themselves in the last, white, blinding lustre of the measureless line where the Campagna melted into the blaze of the sea. [3.278-80]
The finished version of Ruskin's La Riccia uses Turnerian light and color to achieve the heightened effect of ambitious, imaginative painting. More than half of the description elaborately recreates the "absolute miracle" of foreground color noted in much less detail in the diary. Ruskin also completely changes the "grey and unbroken sky" of his original experience to the more dramatic effects of sun on clearing clouds. He has made a painting out of an observant traveler's notes. In Ruskin's landscape, space is also reorganized into a painterly [27/28] composition, as it was not in his diary.19 The slope of La Riccia is presented as part of a single complete prospect. Above it the domes and trees of Albano show against the clearing sky, with the blazing sea in the far distance. Comparison with the diary account shows that the single view is achieved by making the narrative sequence a sort of flashback, an alteration the casual reader might not even notice. The finished account begins with the traveler's descent from the town of Albano with the opposite slope of La Riccia before him, but before describing that slope the narrative goes back to give impressions from the preceding hours: "when I left Rome," "all across the Campagna," and "as I climbed the long slope of the Alban Mount." The description of the domes of Albano he can see as he climbs is followed immediately by the description of the slope of La Riccia, which in fact he could not see until he had passed through the town and begun to descend the hill—the descent of the opening sentence. As the diary more accurately notes, it is the outline of Bernini's church in La Riccia, not the domes of Albano, which the traveler sees at the top of the slope. The diary record also makes clear that after he had seen the slope of La Riccia he had to climb it and enter the town before he could see the sea. The , finished narrative simply omits the necessary second climb. The climb to Albano is the last mention of motion by the traveler before the description of the slope of La Riccia; the rest of the description implies motion by the eye only (penetration of the foreground, then the movement up and back into sky and distant horizon), as if it were a scene scanned by the spectator from a fixed point of view. By inverting the order of experience and omitting mention of further changes in point of view, Ruskin juxtaposes foreground slope, silhouette, and distant sky and sea to create an illusion of a single prospect, a Claudian subject organized as a regular recession of planes toward a bright, distant horizon.
But Ruskin's word painting, though it turns the experience of a moving spectator into a single landscape composition, is still a narrative. The finished version creates a narrative drama out of a presumably stationary scene. The paragraph is no longer structured on the experience of the traveler, though its unity does not depend solely on the coherence of the space it describes. Specifically literary techniques give Ruskin's paragraph a unity analogous to that of a finished landscape painting, achieved in quite different ways. Ruskin's analysis in Modern Painters IV [28/29] of how Turner transforms his visual experiences into an imaginative whole suggests a conception of imaginative unity equally applicable to his own prose version of La Riccia. In Modern Painters IV he distinguishes the imaginative landscape painter from the topographer, who faithfully records the visual facts of a given scene, choosing but not altering what he can see. The inventive painter, on the other hand, works not from the actual facts of the scene, but from the first impression it makes on his mind.
Now, observe, this impression on the mind never results from the mere piece of scenery which can be included within the limits of the picture. It depends on the temper into which the mind has been brought, both by all the landscape round, and by what has been seen previously in the course of the day; so that no particular spot upon which the painter's glance may at any moment fall, is then to him what, if seen by itself, it will be to the spectator far away; nor is it what it would be, even to that spectator, if he had come tb the reality through the steps which Nature has appointed to be the preparation for it, instead of seeing it isolated on an exhibition wall. [6.33]
The first impression condenses into a single scene what has been seen previously in the course of the day, or in earlier experiences, and what could be seen of the surrounding landscape if the artist's point of view shifted. Turner's great imaginative paintings were composed, Ruskin goes on, "in a kind of passive obedience to his first vision, that vision being composed primarily of the strong memory of the place itself which he had to draw; and secondarily, of memories of other places . . . associated, in a harmonious and helpful way, with the new central thought" (6.41).
The description of La Riccia is precisely concerned with this foresightful power of imagination. Inverting the order of experience and omitting changes in point of view are one way of condensing different scenes and times into one. But a prose account of all that was or could be seen by a moving observer related as if from a single perspective would be bewildering to any reader trying to visualize it—a kind of Cubist landscape, with temporal as well as spatial shifts in point view. For Ruskin it would lack that feature of Turner's vision whii characterizes it as imagination: the gathering of disparate elements into a single compelling unity. The imagination organizes complex tacts—more than can be seen from a single perspective—around a [29/30] central thought or image. That organization must not violate the reader's sense of the vision as a true view of reality. Many of Ruskin's readers traveled the road from Rome to Cisterna themselves; they knew what could and could not be seen from Albano. The sequence of "then" and "then" and "then" in the diary is not obliterated, but replaced by a carefully orchestrated crescendo of visual and emotional effects, using related metaphors and similes to bind an implicitly changing prospect into a narrative unity.
Some of the ways in which the order of travel becomes a drama are straightforward. Where the diary records a constant alternation of overcast sky with gleams of light, the finished description turns alternation into progression. "Wild weather" is interrupted by "breaking gleams," which give way to a clearing sky and fiery color, which in turn melts into a final blaze of light. The same pattern is expressed in the similes introduced, somewhat gratuitously for modern tastes, at intervals in the description: from "the bridge of chaos" through "the curtains of God's tabernacle" to the "floor of heaven" and beyond into the actual heavens, the "sacred" clouds. Patterns of imagery and simile like these unite the composite prospect without requiring the reader to visualize it as a single scene. They structure the account as a dramatic narrative, experience progressing to a climax, a sequence different from the original traveler's perception. They are additions to, not substitutes for, an account of the visual complexity and detail that Turner could convey in paint. They also suggest how the traveler's earlier experiences have shaped his responses here; the Campagna he has just crossed, in pouring rain, was a landscape of unrelieved ruin and decay:
the chaos bridged by the aqueduct. La Riccia appears in that context as a glimpse of paradise, a revelation of the heavens.20 Ruskin's decision to present it as literally revealed by the opening clouds underscores its effect on the traveler who has just crossed the wasteland of the Campagna.
If Ruskin's paragraph makes a single distinctive impression on the reader, however, it is an impression not of sudden revelation but of accumulating energy. How is this impression of energy achieved, and how does it transform the facts of the traveler's experience into a dramatic narrative with the imaginative unity of a painting? We are not encouraged to identify the energy of the prose with the physical activity of the traveler. He acts briefly in the opening lines of the paragraph [30/31] ("I was descending," "I climbed"). But we get only an indirect reminder of his presence as spectator at the end of the passage, when the clouds are "seen" to melt into the sea. The spectator appears explicitly as narrator only once in the middle of the paragraph, interjecting his "I cannot call it colour." At first reading, neither traveler, spectator, nor narrator is presented as especially active. Nor is the scene one of violent motion: there are no moving people or animals, no waterfalls or rushing rivers, only a "weak wind" to give any motion to rocks and clouds and leaves. But the passage is dense with activity, most of it in the landscape itself. One in ten of its words are verbs or verb forms; of these nearly half are present participles, and all but eight are active. Variations in reflected light and color are presented as an activity of clouds, rocks, and trees. Motion, though extremely slight in any one object, is both constant and multiple: gleams are breaking and lighting up, every leaf is quivering, vistas arch, flakes of spray are breaking, fading, kindling, opening glades burn, foliage breaks and closes. Every element seems to vibrate or, more exactly, to shimmer and scintillate in a dance of light. The dance never collapses into a blur. Ruskin takes great pains to distinguish between leaves as they reflect and as they transmit sunlight, between autumn leaves and evergreens (wet evergreens), between flowers (arbutus) lifted or let fall by the wind. There are sixteen different colors, another eighteen distinct kinds of light or darkness, and six different atmospheric conditions affecting the reflection of light (clouds, rain clouds, aether, dew, rain, mist).
The sense of energy inherent in the scene is reinforced by the dominant metaphors of the passage: light as fire and light as moving water. Where the diary records visual information as details of outline, color, tone, depth, blending, symmetry, and composition—a painter's terms—the same information in the Modern Painters paragraph is organized into repeated or extended metaphors expressing the spectator's sense that light and color have acquired a life of their own. Color is a conflagration, a torch, a blaze, stars, or lightning that burns, fades, or kindles; and it is foam, mist, showers of light, waves of some crystalline sea, silver flakes of orange spray dashed, tossed, arching, and breaking over the gray walls of rock. Both metaphors identify the landscape's moving, changing patterns of light as the visible manifestations of a great inner energy, the energy of a raging fire or a surging [31/32] sea. The waves extending "far up into the recesses of the valley" provide specific visual information about the "rapidly changing composition" (we have a clear sense of the linear rhythms that organize the visual space) but they also identify visual patterns with the recurrent motion of a powerful natural entity, a great body of water. The metaphors express visual information important to the painter-topographer in the form of a strong distinctive impression, a central thought that is the mark of imaginative vision.
This central impression of an enormous energy within the landscape itself is quite consistent with Ruskin's known views. What is submerged in metaphor and purely verbal energy is suggested explicitly in Modern Painters III, where he marks as the nost important feature of true landscape feeling a sensitivity to the alien life of things (5.340-341). The "dim, slightly credited animation in the natural object" is boldly proclaimed in the sixties and seventies as an animating spirit, a living force or power felt in all things.21 Not only animals but trees, rocks, and clouds all seemed alive in varying degrees. Ruskin admitted no sharp division between animate and inanimate nature. Changes in aspect, throughout the natural world, indicated changes in structure, the growth or decay of organic entities. Light and color particularly marked the presence of energy. When Ruskin attributes an unexpected activity to an apparently still scene, he is expressing what he understands as a true fact about nature—a pervasive vitality extending from the animate through the vegetable to the apparently inanimate world of rocks and clouds. The spectator at La Riccia does not perceive this fact from the one scene viewed in isolation. His impression is shaped by his earlier experiences of nature, including the trip across the lifeless Campagna which led him to this vital, colorful spot.
At the same time, however, the energy conveyed by Ruskin's prose seems to come not only from the landscape but also from the eye and mind perceiving it. Some of the incessant activity in the paragraph comes from changes of light and color from moment to moment, small changes that even a weak wind can produce. But other motion—the sinking trees, the vistas arching far up the valley—is more accurately ascribed to the scanning eye22or to the collecting, ennumerating, and discriminating activity of perception. Complex syntax and rapid prose rhythms that add to the impression of energy attributed to the landscape are also signs of a great visual and verbal energy. As in [32/33] the paragraph on foliage, in the second half of this paragraph the sentences grow progressively longer while the syntax—a multiplication of clauses and phrases linked without symmetry—becomes more complex. But here within the longer clauses paired terms are repeatedly used to discriminate two subtly different effects (buoyant and burning, breaks and closes, to reflect or to transmit, first a torch and then an emerald, fading and kindling), setting up, as it were, a vibration of particulars between two possible states. The more sustained rhythm of the long sentences—like successive waves that flatten finally into a last long phrase, just when the metaphorical waves dissolve into a sea of light—is quickened by the accumulation of rapid, fine distinctions in the paired terms. Toward the beginning of this part of the description, a reference to the rejoicing trees suggests the emotional excitement behind the increased intensity of description. And the narrator himself interjects, as this section begins, "I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration." The interjection calls our attention explicitly to the linguistic character of the activity in the sentences that follow. It is seeing by naming.
Though we may be reminded that Ruskin's paragraph gives us not just the landscape but the landscape as it impresses an imaginative mind, it is important to note that the landscape remains, nonetheless, Ruskin's principal subject. The balance between natural and psychological truth that Ruskin maintains is not Wordsworth's: the "Mind of Man" is not the main region of Ruskin's prose description. The relationship between color and mind here is very close to what Ruskin defines in his famous chapter on the pathetic fallacy, thirteen years later. "Blue," he insists, "does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation: and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not" (5.202). Color is a fact about the landscape of La Riccia; to experience it, for an imaginative mind, is precisely to respond to it as a power of nature. The difference betweerp Ruskin's diary and the Modern Painters description is the difference between the notation of color as a fact for the painter's eye (a painter with the particular technical skills Ruskin then possessed) and color experienced by the imagination as natural energy. The distinction between Ruskin and Wordsworth or Coleridge is that in Ruskin's imaginative description visual detail is not selected and sparing, but multiplied [33/34] and lavish.23 The impression of energy is conveyed through the presentation of visual abundance. The collecting and discriminating activities of the perceiver remain as important in the final description as the ability to impress upon it an organizing shape, a dramatic unity, a governing metaphor.
I have emphasized the various means by which Ruskin transformed his sketches of La Riccia into a finished imaginative work — creating an illusion of a single visual composition, adding a dramatic unity of climactic experience, using specifically verbal resources to convey a single impression, pairing his "painting" with Gaspar Poussin's. These aspects of the paragraph indicate to the reader that the author is a poetpainter writing in the romantic mode of the sublime. The response demanded by such a creation is certainly admiration, but not necessarily the kind of analysis I have just given it. Yet what we noted of descriptive passages where imaginative unity is less completely achieved is still true here: Ruskin's descriptive style can, and perhaps is intended to, encourage analytic attention. The methodical visual scanning and penetration of a scene, the accumulation of visual details, the constant process of discriminating subtle differences in light or color, the gradual discovery of larger patterns—visual, emotional, and symbolic—these techniques are an important part of all Ruskin's descriptions, including La Riccia. Engaging readers in the process of seeing, they not only direct our gaze at new visual facts, they also give us practice in a more critical approach to painting, and, just as important, manage to convey the excitement of the process of visual discovery they illustrate. In a highly finished passage like La Riccia, the effect of Ruskin's descriptive art on his readers becomes particularly problematic.
The educational function of his descriptive writing later came to seem paramount to Luskin. He was increasingly troubled by readers' responses to his early descriptions. In 1874 he wrote a friend who was compiling a book of selections from Modern Painters, "I was a little scandalized at the idea of your calling the book 'wordpainting.' My dearest Susie, it is the chief provocation of my life to be called a 'word painter' instead of a thinker. I hope you haven't filled your book with descriptions" (37.136). Six years earlier he had spoken somewhat more bitterly of his reputation as a "fine writer": "I have had what, in many respects, I boldly call the misfortune, to set my words sometimes [34/35] prettily together; not without a foolish vanity in the poor knack that I had of doing so: until I was heavily punished for this pride, by finding that many people thought of the words only, and cared nothing for their meaning" (18.146). And in 1877, speaking at Oxford on Modern Painters, he devoted one lecture entirely to a criticism of his early writing style. His standard in 1877 was no longer, he said, the "masters of the art of language" where "art is always manifest," but a drawing of Turner's that "looks as if anybody could have done it." He is especially critical of the too careful effects of alliteration and balanced pairings in his earlier style, "putting my words in braces, like game," or exaggerating for the sake of an effective image. "Were I writing it now," he continues, "I should throw it looser, and explain here and there, getting intelligibility at the cost of concentration" (22.514-515). Though Ruskin is speaking here of a style he used as late as 1860, his words apply to the descriptions of Modern Painters I. In that early descriptive style, educating the reader through visual exploration takes second place to impressing him with an overall effect of imaginative vision. It is not that the necessary information is missing, but that the author of the passage seems to care more about his paragraph as dazzling creation than as instruction for the ordinary reader. This impression almost certainly reflects Ruskin's own unarticulated creative ambitions, not always in harmony with the amateur's enthusiastic lessons in how to see. In 1843 Ruskin lacked both the critical and the stylistic self-consciousness that might have enabled him to avoid being taken for a word painter instead of a thinker or critic.
HE FORMATION of that self-consciousness over the next thirteen years is one subject of the next four chapters. By 1856, when the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters were published, Ruskin had resolved much of the confusion between word painting and criticism. He defined his own roles as writer and critic more clearly and marked the distinctions as well as the kinship between himself and the romantic poet or artist. Ruskin's new critical self-consciousness affected his descriptive writing, but it did not lead to the wholesale rejection of purple prose which his later comments might imply. Ruskin became a conscious proponent of the habits of seeing and thinking exemplified in the descriptive prose of Modern Painters I, but he came to identify [35/36] those habits with a beholder's experience of nature and art. The effect on his prose style was not to eliminate description or even to alter style at the sentence level. Ruskin changed the larger structure of these passages and modified the uses to which they were put. These changes did eliminate some of the confusing signals to the reader about how such passages were to be approached. It may be useful to look briefly at some examples of description from later works.
After Modern Painters I Ruskin seldom offered finished descriptions as versions of Turner, improvements of Claude, or as paintings in their own right. He was much more likely to quote directly from his diary (noting that he was doing so) than to work up an imaginative whole. Framing devices like the juxtaposition of Turnerian and satiric descriptions, or admonitions to readers to imagine what they cannot see, largely disappear. When Ruskin does describe, he often describes the part and not the whole of a scene or painting. His descriptions are studies focusing our attention, for the purpose of analysis, on particulars. They do not attempt to present an imaginative structure or even to give a complete account of a visual design or literary form. This focus on particulars was not, as I shall argue, simply idiosyncratic; they were important historical models for this way of seeing which shaped both Ruskin's practice and the response of his readers. One change in the format of his books made it easier to avoid giving accounts of imaginative wholes. Beginning with The Seven Lamps of Architecture (complete text) his books were illustrated. He could offer an engraving of a Turner to supplement his verbal studies of details. But even in his illustrations Ruskin most often gives details without the design of the whole.
In the full-scale descriptions that Ruskin does offer in later works, readers' expectations of painterly performance are sometimes a calculated part of the rhetorical effect. This is most obvious in passages like the descriptions of a mountain ravine in Modern Painters IV (6.386-87) or a Highland glen in Modern Painters V (7.268-69), when Ruskin deliberately leads us to expect a word painting and then introduces details that shock us with the contrast between aesthetic expectation and harsh reality. In the midst of a loving account of the Highland scene, the spectator-reader discovers that "the carcase of a ewe, drowned in the last flood, lies nearly bare to the bone, its white ribs protruding through the skin, raven-torn," and "a little butterfly [36/37] lies on its back, its wings glued to one of the eddies, its limbs feebly quivering; a fish rises, and it is gone." Further on we encounter "the green and damp turf roofs of four or five hovels, built at the edge of a morass," and finally "a man fishing, with a boy and a dog—a picturesque and pretty group enough certainly, if they had not been there all day starving." The excitement and energy of visual exploration are deliberately excluded here, and the shift from a picturesque to a Victorian view of "nature red in tooth and claw" is accomplished by means of a series of deliberate stabs at the reader's sensibilities and expectations.
At other times Ruskin undertakes full-scale description as an aid to comprehending what is not primarily visual—for example, the bird'seye views of northern and southern Europe in "The Nature of Gothic" (10.185-188), the contrast between Giorgione's Venice and Turner's London in "The Two Boyhoods" of Modern Painters V (7.374-377), or that between St. Paul's in London and St. Mark's in Venice (10.78-85). In these instances Ruskin's paired pictorial descriptions are not introduced as paintings to be admired for their own sakes, but as illustrations of the cultural, social, and historical differences that art reflects. In the last two cases, as with the shock descriptions of mountain ravine and Highland glen, there is again a deliberate tension between the reader's expectations of aesthetic pleasure from the description and Ruskin's observations of poverty, cruelty, and insensitivity in present-day Venetians and Londoners. When he has painted the splendid vision of St. Marks, Ruskin describes the people who cluster at its base:
in the recesses of the porches, all day long, knots of men of the lowest classes, unemployed and listless, lie basking in the sun like lizards; and unregarded children,—every heavy glance of their young eyes full of desperation and stony depravity, and their throats hoarse with cursing,—gamble, and fight, and snarl, and sleep, hour after hour, clashing their bruised centesimi upon the marble ledges of the church porch. And the images of Christ and His angels look down upon it continually. [10.84-85]
The description is pictorial but not picturesque. The intruding Italian urchins constitute a criticism of picturesque expectations as well as of social realities. The more we approach Ruskin's descriptions as a picturesque verbal art, the greater will be our surprise (and sometimes, [37/38] indignation) at the unlovely realities Ruskin has included in his scenes—ugly truths about himself and his viewers and readers. This sometimes violent reversal of the reader's expectations is exactly the effect that Ruskin intends, concerned as he is, from The Stones of Venice on, with moving his readers to do omething about decaying masterpieces or, more important, about intolerable living conditions in Scotland or Italy or England.
At the end of his life Ruskin discovered yet another way of using description. Descriptions of places are the real emotional centers of his autobiography.24 His memories of them, not a series of dates or events or achievements, create its structure. The chapter on "The Simplon," describing Geneva and the Rhone, is the heart of a pattern of related landscapes that form Ruskin's earliest memories and to which he returns throughout the book. The distinctive characteristics of Ruskin's prose descriptions are all present in his extensive account of the Rhone. Seeing is presented as a progressive experience, with the reader led as spectator into the scene while the eye penetrates still further, scanning, discriminating, naming the finest details of a visually rich and complex landscape. The impression of the whole—an emotional as well as visual impression—is carefully built up through examination of the parts. Motion of the eye and energy in the prose seem to come directly from the response of the mind to the life of what it sees. But there are important differences between Ruskin's Praeterita description of the Rhone and his Modern Painters description of La Riccia. Concentration has indeed loosened. The burden of the sublime does not hang over the artist and his reader. There is no rush to revelation, to a climax of feeling or meaning, a summary vision. Looking is a more leisurely activity. The order of seeing seems less firmly fixed by the demands of dramatic narrative or educational analysis. The narrator, like the river, has followed its "eddied lingering" randomly or according to a very personal and perhaps discontinuous pattern. The prose reflects the movements of memory and personal association, not the movement of intensive visual analysis.
Waves of clear sea, are, indeed, lovely to watch, but they are always coming or gone, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But here was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for [38/39] gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil; but alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue, glass of a painted window melted in the sun, and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it for ever from her snow. [35.326-27]
The eye and mind seem free to wander in short drifting phrases and then to pause where all sense of coherent visual space, of surface and depth, is lost. In the final sentence of this passage Ruskin's usual long wave of phrases, clauses, participles, and adjectives does not convey the usual sense of compelling motion and energy. Movement and force are held perfectly balanced in the stasis of constant motion by the negated participial phrases—"no wasting . . . never-pausing . . . never-fading"—each of them followed by a pause but still continuing beyond the pause to the final "for ever from her snow." Weight and solidity are balanced against delicacy and fragility, the force and strength of waves of melted ice or glass flashing back the sun against the wreathing of cloud or shell, the fluted swirl, the spun tresses that whisper and glow. The absence of spatial boundaries (no surface, no bottom), the perfect balance of motion and pause, of weight and lightness, of mass and delicacy, result in a release into a sort of perpetual free fall, a condition of perfect physical freedom. That freedom could never be boring: it is born of total saturation in visual abundance, of an intricate, limitless, perpetual pattern of color and movement. The freedom is emotional, too. Just as there is no need to rise to a climax of appreciation, so there is no need to shock anyone into reforming action. Seeing is innocent gladness; there are no hidden depths, no unpleasant facts to be uncovered. Ruskin's description neither turns on the reader nor moves on to a conclusive vision or a framing distance. It hangs for an eternal moment in a field of snow, then begins again to follow the "eddied lingering" of the river.
The innocent way, too, in which the river used to stop to look into every little corner. Great torrents always seem angry, and great rivers too often sullen; but there is no anger, no disdain, in the Rhone. It seemed as if the mountain stream was in mere bliss at recovering itself again out of the lakesleep, and raced because it rejoiced in racing, fain yet to return and stay. [39/40] There were pieces of wave that danced all day as if Perdita were looking on to learn . . . and in the midst of all the gay glittering and eddied lingering . , . the dear old decrepit town as safe in the embracing sweep of it as if it were set in a brooch of sapphire. [35.327-28]
The final embrace of the river itself is all the wholeness the vision needs.
The recurrent landscapes of Praeterita become metaphors of an individual mind, as Ruskin's other descriptions do not. That mind, and not the landscape itself, is the subject of Ruskin's last book. In this sense Praeterita is Ruskin's one great opus as a romantic artist and poet. Its descriptions are a private gallery of the author's paintings, such as Turner built; like Turner's, they demand to be taken together. These are episodes in the life of a mind, recurrent encounters with landscapes to which Ruskin returned, in fact and in memory, as often as Wordsworth to his "spots of time." Description is artifact in Praeterita. But the end of these descriptions is not the production of a painting, nor the production of an educated response in a reader-viewer. Seeing is an end in itself in Praeterita, needing no goal and no termination. The sensibility revealed through the Praeterita descriptions is not changed by what it sees; 'tis what it sees. The vitality that Ruskin finds and his prose creates what keeps him alive, because his claim to identity comes not through the cumulated loves and events of time but through his sensibility. When he can no longer return through memory and his own words to recreate sights, he cannot continue the autobiography. He concludes his book by presenting a landscape where the process of seeing is finally brought not to a climax but to an impasse, as he loses himself in the lights of fireflies that forever close off familiar prospects of water, cities, mountains, and clouds. [40/41]
Last modified 9 February 2013