y mother forced me, by steady daily toil, to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart; as well as to read it every syllable through, aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, about once a year."1 Recalling his early childhood in the first chapter of Praeterita, Ruskin passes by an unexplained logic from the Bible, Walter Scott, and Pope's Homer—to seeing. In his Scottish aunt's garden, a door opens "to the water, which ran past it, clear brown over the pebbles three or four feet deep; swift-eddying,—an infinite thing for a child to look down into." At his own home in Hunter Street, London, the windows, "fortunately for me, commanded a view of a marvellous iron post, out of which the water-carts were filled through beautiful little trap-doors, by pipes like boaconstrictors; and I was never weary of contemplating that mystery, and the delicious dripping consequent." Without so much as a new sentence, memory then leads him from Hunter Street to "the panoramic opening of the four windows of a post-chaise, made more panoramic still to me because my seat was a little bracket in front [from which] I saw all the high-roads, and most of the cross ones, of England and Wales; and great part of lowland Scotland" (35.15-16). In this carefully structured account of his childhood, Ruskin juxtaposes his patient study of words and syllables with his prolonged contemplation of eddies and streams or, a few pages later, of patterns in carpet and wallpaper (35.21). The yearly progress through the Bible has its parallel in the Ruskins' annual tours through England and Scotland. Looking matches reading.
The first three chapters of Praeterita return again and again to these and similar parallel experiences of reading and seeing. With each new instance, the logic that connects these memories becomes clearer. Seeing [1/2] and reading are not separable experiences for Ruskin; they are a single activity. His careful study—"at once so eager and so methodic (35.51)—whether of texts or of moving water, carpet patterns, or passing landscapes, appears to the older Ruskin as the foundation of his future accomplishments. To his annual reading of the Bible, "that discipline—patient, accurate, and resolute—I owe ... much of my general power of taking pains" (35.14); his "patience in looking, and precision in feeling, which afterwards, with due industry, formed my analytic power" (35.51).
The ties between reading and seeing go beyond the common discipline that both imposed. The same sensibility drew the fascinated child to contemplate words or moving water. He remembers, for example, that he especially loved the visible design of words: "in my own way, [I] learnt whole words at a time, as I did patterns . . . assisted by my real admiration of the look of printed type, which I began to copy for my pleasure, as other children draw dogs and horses" (35.23). The impulse to study words as graphic images, just as he studied the patterns in carpets or the trickle of water over pebbles, was equalled by the impulse to visualize the images suggested by words. The four-year-old Ruskin, sitting for his portrait, requests a background of "blue hills" because, Ruskin remembers, he thought of the words sung to him by his nurse:
For Scotland, my darling, lies full in thy view,
With her barefooted lassies, and mountains so blue. [35.22]
Ruskin's earliest dated efforts at composition, two pages of which he reproduces in chapter three, illustrate once again the strong instinct he believes he had to join reading and seeing: to apprehend words as, both graphically and semantically, images. At seven he produced a book of poetry and prose in which the varied size and style of the handlettering and the interspersed drawings are as carefully attended to as verbal style and content—of which, as Ruskin points out they are remarkably expressive.
The instincts and habits thus presented in Praeterita are fully as important to Ruskin's later achievements as the unstated argument of his autobiography suggests. His criticism is particularly sensitive to temporal and linguistic aspects of visible design in paintings, in architecture, or in natural scenery. Early volumes of Modern Painters stress the [2/3] way landscapes or visual art are progressively experienced and require patient study of the beholder; later criticism points to the ways in which visual art can be "read" for symbolic meaning. Explaining how art can convey these temporal and linguistic experiences, Ruskin draws equally on literature, contemporary linguistic study, and the viewing habits of contemporary tourists. At the same time, Ruskin the reader is unusually alert to visual or spatial elements in literature. He looks not only at the physical aspect of books (print, illustrations, cover) but also at the design implicit in verbal style, at the recreation of visual experience through description, and at the power of polyvalent words or phrases to condense meaning in the manner of complex visual images. His reading extends to the perception of visible form on many levels. Conversely, his seeing is a temporal and often a linguistic activity. Few critics have done as much as Ruskin to demonstrate, in his own prose as well as in his criticism of art or literature, exactly where and how seeing and reading converge.
Ruskin is a writer, not an artist (though he was a gifted draftsman), but his verbal art teaches perceptual skills. Reading Ruskin can become learning to see with Ruskin: looking at nature or Turner or the Ducal Palace under his guidance, going back to the art and literature that shaped his style and formed his ideas and examining his prose for the light it sheds upon his visual no less than his verbal habits. One can also turn the art of beholding that Ruskin teaches back upon Ruskin himself. The beholder he addresses in Modern Painters or The Stones of Venice can learn to combine seeing with reading because Ruskin is principally concerned with art or .literature where seeing and reading overlap, where language is visible or images readable. Ruskin's own prose requires a similarly educated reader. Ruskin the art critic, teaching a Victorian audience how to look at Turner or Venetian architecture, can educate an audience for Ruskin the writer, one of the great masters of English prose.
Such an approach to Ruskin's verbal art is in some respects circular: a Ruskinian study of Ruskin. Ruskin's critics fall into two categories (neither side quite approves of the other): those who examine his mind, as it were, from the inside; and those who apply a systematic criticism that is not Ruskinian to his ideas. My own study begins from the inside. My aim has been to understand how Ruskin looks at nature and art, and how that activity shapes his prose style, critical practice, [3/4] and critical theory. In exploring Ruskin's visual habits and linguistic assumptions I have deliberately adopted some Ruskinian structures of thought and feeling in my own prose. My approach, however, is also historical. I have been equally concerned to define his relationship to English art criticism, to romantic psychology and poetics, and above all to English responses to landscapes in the preceding hundred years. Here neither my historical method nor, of course, my perspective is Ruskin's. Though I begin and end inside Ruskin's mind, I have necessarily stood outside it in the effort to locate his work in cultural history.
Ruskin is the last great figure in a century of intensive English interest in landscapes. An historical account of his criticism must also consider what happened to that interest in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the years between 1825 and 1850. This period has been much less studied than the second half of the eighteenth century or the first two decades of the nineteenth. Ruskin, like his great contemporary Arnold was concerned with the cultural health or disease of contemporary England reflected in contemporary reactions to the literature and art of the past. His redirection of landscape responses in the post-romantic years reflects a shared Victorian self-consciousness about how art, nature, and perception generally function, or fail to function, for the ordinary beholder or reader. Ruskin's specific focus on the consumption of landscape—to put it in the economic context on which he increasingly insisted—produces insights into the aesthetics of landscape quite different from those of the artist- or poet-oriented writers of the romantic period. In many respects Ruskin's approach to art is closer to that of twentieth-century writers on the psychology of perception in the visual arts or on visual art considered as symbolic or linguistic system. He examines art, in other words, from the perspective of the spectator or reader rather than (as in romanticism) from the perspective of the artist. Ruskin's views of how the spectator or reader perceives and interprets what he sees, essential to an understanding of his achievements in prose, are exciting in their own right. The "art" of this Victorian critic, created by and for the beholder, constitutes a vision of romantic explanations of art and literature, a revision of which we have, perhaps unwittingly, returned.
Ruskin's aesthetic and cultural criticism begins with the way he looks at landscapes. His visual habits were acquired from a particular historical experience of natural scenery, extended by him first to landscape painting and then to all forms of visual art. These visual habits are already evident in the descriptive prose of Modern Painters I. By the time Ruskin wrote Modern Painters III, they had become the basis for a conscious critical position and method, defined in part through an extended critique of romanticism. Between Modern Painters I. and Modern Painters III. he gained an historical perspective on contemporary attitudes toward landscape. He developed from the middle-class tourist's and reader's characteristic experience of scenery—as a succession of unfolding views offering opportunities for close study of details—a program for the perceptual reform of his Victorian audience. In place of awed confrontation with a romantic sublime, Ruskin urged the value of progressive discovery. In The Stones of Venice, a history written as a travel book, historical self-consciousness is extended to critical selfconsciousness: the tourist's way of looking at landscapes becomes the avenue to reforming contemporary culture.
This program of perceptual and cultural reform also owes much to verbal habits. Though Ruskin consistently speaks of art as language, his interest in the spectator who "reads" develops more slowly. His earliest descriptions of Turner paintings in Modern Painters I modify associationist and and romantic ideas about reading poems and looking at pictures. Between The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters V , he tries to reconcile romantic methods of reading the historical language of human imagination with religious exegesis of the transcendent language of nature and the Bible. Not until the last part of Modern Painters V are the method and theory of reading art fully worked out in his criticism and incorporated into new prose structures. There the iconographical tradition on which both artist and critic are presumed to draw is a fully historical language of art. The model for this last kind of reading comes from the new philology of the mid-nineteenth century rather than from romanticism or religion. The beholder's art of Modern Painters is also, by its last volume, a reader's art.
Ruskin's revised conception of the languages of art becomes a major influence on the language of his criticism in 1859 and 1860. The use of elaborate verbal emblems to structure writing and elicit a particular response from the reader is a characteristic feature of Ruskin's later prose. It reflects his new beliefs about the critic's relation to both artist and beholder. This critical prose belongs itself to a tradition: it is the most recent incarnation of an English tradition of emblematic litera[4/5] ture. For those who look at landscape and art after Ruskin, his prose is also the first example of a critic's art. Ruskin himself, however, continued to regard his prose as the first—and perhaps the last—example of a beholder's art: the adequate expression of perceptual skills essential to cultural health.
The sequence of "Looking at Landscape" (Part I) and "Looking at Art" (Part II) in this study roughly follows the chronological development of Ruskin's critical ideas. The sequence of chapters, however, does not. I have approached Ruskin's looking and reading from several different perspectives. Ruskin's response to Wordsworth, for example, is a touchstone for a number of his critical ideas. I have considered that response from two successive points of view: Ruskin's highly critical attitude toward Wordsworth as a romantic poet of imagination (in Chapter 2) and his great admiration of him as a guide in reforming perception (in Chapter 3). The relationship between the two attitudes is more dialectical than contradictory.2 This character of his thinking seems best preserved by taking his different approaches successively rather than attempting to reconcile them under a single embracing category or formula. Such a method of exposition has the disadvantage of making particular demands upon readers: that they suspend their expectations of a complete account of Ruskin's views for many chapters and that they read successive chapters as continually modifying and complicating those views put forth in earlier chapters. But the method has the advantage of avoiding misleading simplifications of Ruskin's ideas. The premise of his criticism is that comprehension for the ordinary spectator and reader depends on a flexible multiplication of meaning and pjnnt of view that can only occur as a cumulative experience. My method of exposition is close to Ruskin's own. I have tried in the course of my own study, however, to indicate not only where such cumulative exposition comes from, in Ruskin's case, but also why it works as it does and what the critical rationale behind such demands on impatient readers must be. [6/7] The overall structure of this book is excursive, a structure both Ruskin and Wordsworth would recognize. Like the educative pleasure journey, this trip returns to its point of origin, the analysis of prose style, by what will at first appear a wandering route. Though its destination will not be immediately apparent, there are no major confusions or discontinuities obstructing the way. At its end, the point of departure will be in view, though the conclusion will not, after all leave you exactly where you began. An excursion is a progression despite the intention to return. The progress between departure and conclusion should show the country covered to be more extensive and more interesting than any map I might offer as an introductory guide.
Last modified 11 February 2013