USKIN'S chapters on the grotesque in The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, Volume III, make it abundantly clear that his theories of allegory derive from Evangelical versions of traditional Christian beliefs about revelation, prophecy, and scriptural language. Many of his statements about the way allegory permits man to grasp truth otherwise beyond his capacities appear as commonplace in Evangelical sermons. For example, Henry Melvill assured his congregation that although type and allegory are presently necessary for
man to receive divine revelation, "hereafter so strengthened will be our faculties, so enlarged our capacities, and so exalted our place among the orders of creation, that God will be visible to us in such sense and mystic type, and material representation, but in the splendour, the spirituality, the immenseness, the eternity of Deity." ("Heaven," Sermons, New York, 1854, 1, 388)
In man's present state, dim shadow and mystic type remain the only way his shattered, limited capacities can perceive God and His ways. The second volume of Modern Painters similarly insists that "what revelations have been made to humanity inspired, or caught up to heaven, of things to the heavenly region belonging, have been either by unspeakable words, or else by their very nature incommunicable, except in types and shadows" (4.208). Ruskin believes that these "types and shadows," which he subsumes under the term "Symbolical Grotesque" (11.182), are always that mode in which the revelations of the prophet and artist appear.
His very choice of that rather strange term for allegory demonstrates his debt to the notion that allegory and type are necessary to accommodate spiritual truths otherwise beyond the capacities of fallen man; for according to him, the highest form of the grotesque is that "arising from the confusion of the imagination by the presence of truths which it cannot wholly grasp" (5.130). The Symbolical Grotesque, then, "arises out of the use or fancy of tangible signs to set forth an otherwise less expressible truth; including nearly the whole range of symbolical and allegorical art and poetry" (5.132). In The Stones of Venice Ruskin carefully explains that man's present state necessitates the grotesque: "the fallen human soul, at its best, must be as a diminishing glass, and that a broken one, to the mighty truths of the universe round it; and the wider the scope of its glance, and the vaster the truths into which it obtains an insight, the more fantastic their distortion is likely to be, as the winds and the vapours trouble the field of the telescope most when it reaches farthest" (11.18l).
Yet even were it not for man's fallen state, the very fact that he exists in space and time would require the grotesque as a mode of perception and statement. Even were it not for Adam's fall the problem still remains, as Augustine had recognized centuries earlier, that whereas God's world is "an utterance outside time," man exists in the prison house of time and space. The fact that an infinite, eternal God speaks to man from outside time and space places necessary limitations on the capabilities of human language to portray the essential truths of religion. Ruskin, who described the allegorical works of Carpaccio and Dante as "picture writings for children who live in the nursery of Time and Space" (24.355), made this limitation of man one of the prime defenses of allegory. According to him, when "the truth is seen by the imagination in its wholeness and quietness, the vision is sublime; but so far as it is narrowed and broken by the inconsistencies of the human capacity, it becomes grotesque; and it would seem to be rare that any very exalted truth should be impressed on the imagination without some grotesqueness" (11.181). In other words, although the vision of truth is sublime, men, in their present state, rarely encounter any truth not too great for their capacities, so that almost all truths of the spirit appear to man in the form of grotesques. So truth appeared to Moses, so it appeared to the prophets, and so it must still appear to great artists and poets. According to Ruskin, "in all ages and among all nations, grotesque idealism has been the element through which the most appalling and eventful truth has been wisely conveyed, from the most sublime words of true Revelation, to the . . . [words] of the oracles, and the more or less doubtful teaching of dreams; and so down to ordinary poetry. No element of imagination has a wider range, a more magnificent use, or so colossal a grasp of sacred truth" (6.134). He takes quite seriously and quite literally the idea that to imagine deeply is to prophesy, and that to be an artist and poet is to be a prophet; and he can do this because his theory of the allegorical imagination derives from a theological tradition which holds that such a mode is necessary to accommodate divine truths to the human condition; see Joseph Mazzeo, Structure and Thought in the Paradiso, Ithaca, N.Y., 1958. In the second volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin, who elsewhere states that "this power of prophecy is the very essence" (4.226) of imagination, writes that this faculty's "first and noblest use is, to enable us to bring sensibly to our sight the things which are recorded as belonging to our future state, or as invisibly surrounding us in this . . . [and] to give to all mental truths some visible type in allegory, simile, or personification, which shall more deeply enforce them" (5.72-73). The imagination, then, "that prophetic action of mind" (4.234), acts as solace and salvation for man, who confined to the prison house of this world, can sustain his faith and correct his life with its aid. Sounding much like Dante, upon whom he frequently draws in discussing the allegorical in art, Ruskin reminds us that "Imagination is a pilgrim on the earth — and her home is in heaven" (4.288). The imagination allows us to escape the bounds of time and space for the sake of our spiritual welfare, for according to Ruskin this faculty is "an eminent beholder of things when and where they are NOT; a seer, that is, in the prophetic sense, calling 'the things that are not as though they were,' and for ever delighting to dwell on that which is not tangibly present . . . its great function being the calling forth, or back, that which is not visible to bodily sense" (5.181). The imagination is prophetic in two ways: it can move through time, reinforcing hope in the central truth of Christianity, eternal life, while in the form of the Symbolical Grotesque it can also convey to us spiritual truths, the truths that originate beyond our terrestrial existence.
Ruskin's theory of the prophetic imagination permits him to take literally the conception of the artist-poet as seer or vates. Citing the words of St. Paul and Plato to the effect that the highest wisdom must come from heaven, The Stones of Venice asserts that the noblest kinds of imagination necessarily make a prophet of their possessor: "The noblest forms of imaginative power . . . are in some sort ungovernable, and have in them something of the character of dreams; so that the vision, of whatever kind, comes uncalled, and will not submit itself to the seer, but conquers him, and forces him to speak as a prophet, having no power over his words or thoughts" (11.178). In the third volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin again returns to this description of the artist as prophet, emphasizing the creator's essential passivity when he is captured by vision:
All the great men see what they paint before they paint it, — see it in a perfectly passive manner, — cannot help seeing it if they would; whether in their mind's eye, or in bodily fact, does not matter; very often the mental vision is, I believe, in men of imagination, clearer than the bodily one; but vision it is, of one kind or another, — the whole scene, character, or incident passing before them as in second sight, whether they will or no, and requiring them to paint it as they see it; they not daring . . . to alter one jot or tittle of it as they write it down or paint it down; it being to them in its own kind and degree always a true vision or Apocalypse, and invariably accompanied in their hearts by a feeling correspondent to the words, — "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are." (s. 1 14)
Ruskin's citation of Revelation 1:19 and his use of the stock phrase "jot and tittle," which Evangelical preachers employ in their discussions of typological exegesis (to emphasize that nothing, not "one jot and tittle," will pass away until the types are fulfilled) show him employing scriptural language to create religious authority for the artist.
The attribution of the nature of prophet to poet had, with varying emphases, long been a critical commonplace, and Ruskin would have encountered it in writers other than Plato, Dante, and Carlyle. This description of the poet's nature was a favorite of the English Renaissance, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose Apologie for Poetrie (1595) Ruskin probably knew, presents the usual arguments for the prestige of this art. Following the lead of Horace, Sidney first points out: "Among the Romans a Poet was called Vates, which is as much as a Diuiner, a Fore-seer, or Prophet, as by his conioyned wordes Vaticinium and Vaticinari is manifest: so heauenly a title did that excellent people bestow vpon this hart-rauishing knowledge." Next, he mentions that "both the Oracles of Delphos and Sibillas prophecies were wholy delivered in verses. For that same exquisite obseruing of number and measure in words, and that high flying liberty of conceit proper to the Poet, did seeme to haue some dyuine force in it." Lastly, he cites the evidence of the Bible "to shew the reasonablenes of this worde Vates," since "holy Dauids Psalmes are a diuine Poem"'(Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. C. Gregory Smith, 2 vols. Oxford, 1904, 1, 1544). In a similar fashion, George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589) both uses the historical argument for the prestige of poetry and points out that "King Dauid also & Salomon his sonne and many other of the holy Prophets wrate in meeters," while Sir John Harington's preface to the translation of Orlando o Furioso argues that scripture, which uses fiction and parable, shows the near relation of poetry and prophecy (II, 10; 205-06).
Although these attempts to bolster the reputation of the poet's art readily refer to the opinions of the respected ancients, none of them asserts, as Ruskin was willing to do, that poetry, poetry written by their contemporaries, was prophecy. For example, Francis Meres's Wits Treasury (1598) informs his reader that Cicero believed poetry required "celestiall instruction," and that "our famous English Poet Spenser . . . saith most sweetly to the same," but he himself will not directly make that claim (II, 313). In fact, while Renaissance critics frequently cite the Roman equivalence of poet and vates, employing this as an argument from prestige, they never make such equivalence themselves. Instead, perhaps too aware of the heretical implications of such an assertion, they content themselves with pointing out the indirect relations of poetry and prophecy: the ancients believed poets to be prophets, ancient oracles used verse, and the Bible contains both verse and figurative language.
One of the most important reasons that Ruskin could take literally the notion of the artist-poet as prophet was that his theories of imagination and imaginative conception of truth derived from religious sources. Whereas Carlyle, who here almost certainly confirmed Ruskin's original ideas rather than added to them, frequently speaks of the artist as prophet and seer, he does so in a way characteristically oracular and vague. Ruskin, in contrast, holds a precise theory of imagination which both makes his equation of artist and prophet more understandable and relates it directly to a particular mode of art. (Follow for a discussion of Wordsworth as possible source of Ruskin's notions of imagination.)
This conception of the great artist as prophet allows Ruskin to avoid problems intrinsic to romantic art and its theory. Although he makes use of the romantic description of the poet as a sensitive, emotional man, extending it to include the painter as well, Ruskin paradoxically distrusts the effects of emotion on art. In the second volume of Modern Painters he exposes the dilemma at the heart of romantic critical theory when he states that, "though we cannot, while we feel deeply, reason shrewdly, yet I doubt if, except when we feel deeply, we can ever comprehend fully" (4.180-181). When emphasizing that only intense feeling and emotional sympathy can perceive human truths, the truths of morality and art, he uneasily admits that feeling prevents true rational judgment; and yet he can avoid confronting the difficulty because he is then emphasizing that emotional and imaginative perceptions contribute more than reason to human existence. On the other hand, when in the third volume he comes to consider characteristically modern distortions of landscape caused by emotion, he places major emphasis upon the fact that "an excited state of the feelings" makes a man "for the time, more or less irrational" (5.205). From this awareness of the effect of the emotions comes his definition of the pathetic fallacy: "All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'pathetic fallacy'" (5.205). Ruskin's discussion of the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy, which contains his most direct confrontation of the problems of a theory of art centered on the feelings, makes overt the dilemma which had figured large in his thought from the first volume. He had always tried to demonstrate that an art centered on the feelings was not inevitably solipsistic, and this continuing struggle to protect his notions of painting and poetry from the dangers of subjectivity is as paradigmatic of the problems of his age as was the course of his religious belief.
Although deeply concerned with the solipsistic tendencies of his aesthetic theory, Ruskin opens his chapter "Of the Pathetic Fallacy" by refusing to employ the terms "objective" and "subjective." Both his reasons for thus proceeding and his manner of argument reveal much characteristic of his thought. He begins with a proclamation that "German dulness, and English affectation, have of late much multiplied among us the use of two of the most objectionable words that were ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians, — namely, 'Objective,' and 'Subjective'" (5.201). Declaring that these terms are completely useless, Ruskin explains that certain philosophers hold that the word "blue" means the sensation of color which the eye receives in looking at the open sky or at a bell gentian; and, according to these men, since one only receives this "blue" sensation when looking at the object, and since the object produces no sensation when nobody looks at it, therefore when not looked at the object is not blue. These troublesome metaphysicians continue that qualities which thus depend upon human perception should be called "subjective," while those, such as roundness or squareness, which remain independent of human perception, should be called "objective."
Ruskin's reason for so scornfully attacking the use of these terms appears in his next statement that it is very easy to move from such a philosophical theory to the opinion that "it does not much matter what things are in themselves, but only what they are to us; and that the only real truth of them is their appearance to, or effect upon, us. From which position, with a hearty desire for mystification, and much egotism, selfishness, shallowness, and impertinence, a philosopher may easily go so far as to believe, and say, that everything in the world depends upon his seeing or thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists, but what he sees or thinks of" (6.202). The very intensity of Ruskin's scorn for these terms betrays how much he felt threatened by them. The same scornful tone, the same use of rhetorical climax, and the same attack on the egotism and immorality of an opposing view marked his tirade a decade earlier against Associationist theories of beauty. The second volume of Modern Painters had argued that to call the pleasure of association beauty "is no theory to be confuted, but a misuse of language to be set aside, a misuse involving the positions that in uninhabited countries the vegetation has no grace, the rock no dignity, the cloud no colour, and that the snowy summits of the Alps receive no loveliness from the sunset light, because they have not been polluted by the wrath, ravage, and misery of men" (4.71). In both his attack on Associationist aesthetic theory and the notion of subjective qualities Ruskin's vehemence arises from his fear that the opposing view, if allowed, would reduce the value of art and its role in human life. Although he in fact did come to accept an Associationist theory of beauty, he continued to oppose the philosophic position implicit in the use of the dangerous terms "objective" and "subjective."
In his attempt to rid himself and his reader of these "troublesome words," Ruskin proposes that "blue" means not the sensation produced but "the power of producing that sensation: and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the earth" (6.202). We have encountered this view before, since it is simply his theory of beauty generalized to an entire epistemology. Whereas in Typical Beauty the "power" in the beautiful object was the symbolization of God's nature, which necessarily affects man, here the nature of the power remains unspecified.
Putting aside these "tiresome and absurd words," Ruskin proceeds to his main subject —ll "the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy" (6.204). His phrasing here, specifically his mention of "emotion" and "contemplative fancy" leads one to inquire about the relation of the pathetic fallacy to Ruskin's theory of the creative faculties. Since he mentions the fancy when introducing the problems of false appearances, and since, moreover, he always emphasizes that imagination perceives truthfully, one might be tempted to attribute poetry which employs the pathetic fallacy to the action of the fancy. According to this view, the greatest poems, the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, and King Lear, which do not use the pathetic fallacy, arise in the imagination, while the fancy produces the Immortality Ode and Maud. Ruskin's other comments in this chapter, however, make it clear that he does not align the pathetic fallacy with fancy. In the first place, he obviously considers the fine poets of the second rank — those such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson — men of high imagination; and, secondly, fancy cannot play any important role in the pathetic fallacy, which is a matter of emotional distortion and projection, since this lower faculty, as he explained in his previous volume, concerns itself chiefly not with feeling — the province of imagination — but with "mere vivid sight of reality" and "witty suggestion of likeness," passing in its highest mode to a "ghostly sight of what is unread" (4.293). Thus, although in its highest form fancy comes to resemble imagination, it never partakes of that "deep heart feeling" (4.298) which characterizes imaginative power. He emphasizes that "fancy," since "she stays at the externals, can never feel" (4.267). Ruskin's own elaborate version of the Coleridgean distinction between imagination and fancy, which was derived not from Coleridge but from Wordsworth's prefaces and Leigh Hunt's Imagination and Fancy, does not therefore match his division of poetry into that which does and does not use the pathetic fallacy.
His introduction of the problem of false appearances reveals two kinds of poetic falsehood or distortion, only one of which he calls the pathetic fallacy. Before concerning himself with the distortions of deep emotion, he first explains the delightful fallacies of fancy. As an example he quotes these lines from Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Astrea" that describe "The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould/Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold" (5.204). Ruskin first comments that, while very beautiful, these lines are nonetheless untrue, for the crocus is not spendthrift but hardy, not gold but saffron. These lines exemplify "the fallacy of wilfu1 fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed" (5.205). In contrast to the fanciful, self-conscious distortions of wit Ruskin opposes "the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion" (5.205), and as instance he presents these lines from Kingsley's Alton Locke: "They rowed her in across the rolling foam — /The cruel, crawling foam." According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker's mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for "so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley's above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow"(5.210).
In other words, considered in relation to the interior state of the speaker the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy tells the truth, for by presenting the world as experienced by a man under the influence of powerful emotion, this device can tell us much about the inner life of another. From this point of view, then, the distorting effects of emotion, once understood correctly, are not solipsistic, are not isolating. Rather, by manipulating a portion of reality which both speaker and listener share, the pathetic fallacy allows one to glimpse the passions within the consciousness of another human being. Since we know that foam does not crawl and since we know it cannot be cruel, when someone thus describes the sea we understand that he suffers from grief. The distortions of the pathetic fallacy function like the voice inflections which a speaker gives to a common, shared language: they permit something to be communicated which it would be difficult to state "directly." The pathetic fallacy, then, allows the poet to dramatize grief and joy, communicating them far more effectively than would the simple statement that the speaker suffers from sorrow or feels joy.
This idea that the pathetic fallacy effectively conveys truths of man's inner world makes it fulfill what Ruskin takes to be the role of art, which is to present things, not as they are in themselves — the role of natural science — but "as they appear to mankind. Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything . . . only this, — what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart, what it has to say to men, and what it can become to them" (11.48). The truth conveyed by the pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject. In particular, these emotional distortions of exterior reality much resemble the Ruskinian notion of imaginatively depicted landscape. The higher mode of landscape, we remember, presents not the topographical facts of a scene but the impression which its trees and rocks, sky and water made upon the great, imaginative painter. Although the emotional and imaginative interpretation of a landscape might seem a mere distortion of facts to the uneducated or unreflective viewer — as indeed Turner's late works appeared to the critics — such depiction contains truths unattainable by other methods. According to Ruskin, therefore, imaginative painting of landscape has the advantage over our presence at the depicted scene precisely because its "expression of the power and intelligence of a companionable human soul" gives us the "penetrative sight" (5.187) our own more limited faculties cannot provide.J. W. M. Turner. Snow Storm: Steamboat at a Harbour's Mouth
On the other hand, the pathetic fallacy differs from the art of high imagination in that it so distorts exterior reality that it presents truthful depictions of only an interior state. Thus, whereas Turner's Snow Storm: Steamboat at a Harbour's Mouth conveys both the truthful appearance of a scene and of the state in which it was experienced, the lines from Alton Locke tell us accurately only about the feelings of the speaker. The problem with poetry which employs this emotional distortion is that it is too restricted: it perceives everything from a single point of view, and while the resulting restriction can effectively convey emotional and psychological truth, it also creates inevitable narrowness and lack of balance. When the poetic speaker feels happy, everything appears perfect, all rings with joy; when he experiences grief, everything appears colored by his grief — the waves either reflect it or cruelly mock it. Although such a poetry proves eminently valuable in its ability to educate the reader about the experiences of life, it can never present a balanced, complete view of nature and man's existence. In contrast, the very greatest poetry, as Matthew Arnold would have agreed, presents life whole. For instance, when Homer announces the death of Castor and Pollux he states "them, already, the life-giving earth possessed, there in Lacedaemon, in the dear fatherland." And Ruskin comments that "The poet has to speak of the earth in sadness, but he will not let that sadness affect or change his thoughts of it. No; though Castor and Pollux be dead, yet the earth is our mother still, fruitful, life-giving. These are the facts of the thing" (6.213). Similarly, Dante's broad view of life will not permit his deep sympathies to distort reality; and when he "describes the spirits falling from the bank of Acheron 'as dead leaves flutter from a bough,' he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves" (6.206). Ruskin's remark that the author of the Divine Comedy does not lose his embracing, clear vision of things even "for an instant" emphasizes that the greatest poets surmount the flux of consciousness; they do not present all reality, all human life, as it appears to them during the brief instant they experience an intense emotion.
Thus, although Ruskin, like many other romantic theorists, continually emphasizes the need for intensity of emotion, he does not follow Poe and Baudelaire in praising the lyric above other modes; for his desire to avoid the dangers of a limiting subjectivity, his wish to escape the limited moment of an instant, leads him to prefer the epic and the dramatic — the more "objective" forms. However much he delights in Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson, his favorites remain Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. Furthermore, he prefers the dramatic lyric to the pure lyric, and when discussing the pathetic fallacy he makes it clear that it achieves most when the speaker clearly is a character and not the author. The irony possible in the dramatic lyric elevates it almost to the level of the broader vision of life. In the manuscript for the section which mentions Homer's revelation of the deaths of Castor and Pollux, Ruskin had praised "the insurpassably tender irony of the epithet — 'life-giving earth' " (5.213n), and one may emphasize that this delight in the ironic, dispassionate view of life is quite appropriate to Ruskin's aesthetic theories which stress a calm beauty of restraint.
As we have frequently observed, Ruskin continually concerned himself throughout his career to find ways to protect a theory of the arts centered on emotion from the potentially limiting and distorting effects of that emotion. In particular, his theories of beauty both try to demonstrate the objective existence of an unchanging standard of beauty by deriving it from divine attributes and attempt to guard against the dangers of emotion by elevating calmness, restraint, and balance into an aesthetic ideal. Similarly, he initially attempted to deny the importance of association to protect the objectivity of the beautiful, just as he initially denied the sublime the status of a separate aesthetic category to avoid the dangers of violent emotion. Furthermore, his praise of epic and dramatic work as the highest modes, his concern with allegorical art, and his criticism of the pathetic fallacy all serve the same purpose — to protect art from the dangers of excessive emotion. Characteristically, his most elaborate and extended discussion of the dangers of emotion in this chapter "Of the Pathetic Fallacy" occurs in his portrait of the ideal artist-poet, the point at which he draws most upon the notion of artist as prophet. Ruskin's habitual procedure throughout his writings is to relate various modes of art to the psychological nature of the artists who produce them. Thus, when describing topographical and imaginative landscape, Gothic architecture, and the purist, naturalist, and grotesque modes, he draws psychological portraits of the artist-poet; and when setting forth his views of the pathetic fallacy he proceeds in his usual manner.
According to him, one may divide men into three classes: first, "the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel"; secondly, "the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels"; and, thirdly, "the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings" (4.209). Thus, although he admits that the "temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy . . . is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it," he points out that far more noble is that ideal mind, possessed by the greatest artists and poets, in which "the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong" (5.208). The ideal artists and poets, Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, Giotto, Tintoretto, and Turner, were such men who could remain cool in the midst of burning emotion; and so the ideal artist-poet must always be. Ruskin thus modifies previous notions of the romantic poet, positing an ideal creator who is
He is tender to impression at the surface, like a rock with deep moss upon it; but there is too much mass of him to be moved. The smaller man, with the same degree of sensibility, is at once carried off his feet . . .; he is gay or enthusiastic, melancholy or passionate, as things come and go to him. Therefore, the high creative poet might even be thought, to a great extent, impassive (as shallow people think Dante stern), receiving indeed all feelings to the full, but having a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feeling, as it were, from afar off. (5.210)
The artist, the poet to be truly great must combine "the two faculties, acuteness of feeling, and command of it. A poet is great, first in proportion to the strength of his passion, and then, that strength being granted, in proportion to his government of it" (5.215). Although Ruskin frequently emphasizes that "If you are without strong passions, you cannot be a painter at all" (22.17), he emphasizes with equal frequency that the artist must control these emotions which give his art meaning and human value. As he commented in "The Relation of Art to Religion" (1870), "Not only the highest, but the most consistent results have been attained in art by men in whom the faculty of vision, however strong, was subordinate to that of deliberative design, and tranquillized by a measured, continual, not feverish, but affectionate, observance of the quite unvisionary facts of the surrounding world" (20.56).
The very nature of the prophetic vision avoids many difficulties and limitations of an emotionally centered art. First of all, "The true Seer always feels as intensely as any one else; but he does not much describe his feelings" (6.334); and therefore the rare artist, whose work has been raised by vision to the heights of prophecy, automatically avoids the dangers of mawkishness to which an emotionally centered art is vulnerable. Equally important, because the artist-poet of the highest order does not concentrate on consciously expressing his own emotional reactions, he avoids the egotism to which romantic art has too often succumbed. According to Ruskin, who uses the author of the Iliad and Odyssey as his chief example, "The choice, as well as the vision, is manifested to Homer. The vision comes to him in its chosen order. Chosen f or him, not by him.... And, from a bee to Paul Veronese, all master workers work with this awful, this inspired unconsciousness" (5.118,122). Thus clearly echoing Carlyle's emphasis upon unconscious creation, Ruskin believes that the great artist, the creator truly inspired, "can never be egotistic. The whole of his power depends upon his losing sight and feeling of his own existence, and becoming a mere witness and mirror of truth, and a scribe of visions, — always passive in sight, passive in utterance" (5.125). Lastly, the artist-seer not only escapes the dangers of self-consciousness, egotism, and mawkishness, he also surmounts the problem of the division between objective and subjective, self and other, feeling and fact. The apocalyptic vision of the greatest painters and poets carries them out of themselves, out of the restrictions of place, time, and emotion, granting them truths contained in the symbolical grotesque. Ruskin, who has cited St. Paul and Revelation, and who has followed Dante and Milton as well, believes that for a brief instant the greatest artists and poets find themselves in that region where to see is to see truly. Since the vision is granted by God (as it is to the highest), then the vision must be true. Furthermore, since, as Milton realized, the division between objective and subjective appeared when Adam fell, the prophet's vision briefly allows him to evade man's fallen, limited state. Such a theory of the highest artists does not solve the problems of a romantic art for any but the greatest, but, by allowing Ruskin to show the veracity of these ideal men, his theory that they are prophets provides an ultimate justification for all art and a shelter within which to include its weaker, more ordinarily human forms.
At the same time that Ruskin conceives the greatest artists as prophets captured by vision, he does not hold that anyone can become such a great artist, nor does he believe that the great artist does not have to work at his art. For as he warns in The Stones of Venice, "Only, if the whole man be trained perfectly, and his mind calm, consistent, and powerful, the vision which comes to him is seen as in a broken mirror, with strange distortions and discrepancies, all the passions of the heart breathing upon it in cross ripples, till hardly a trace of it remains unbroken" (11.178-179). The great artist must work a lifetime, preparing himself, storing visual truths in his memory, learning the ways of man and nature, so that, ultimately, he may become a vehicle for truth. If the artist perceives high truths without proper training, then the result will be distorted, broken — grotesque in the worst sense. All the highest truths must be grasped first by grotesques, but even these allegories must be prepared for by years of learning, by decades of practice, if they are to be whole, to be truthful.
Since Ruskin described the way the highest imagination makes a prophet of its possessor between 1851 and 1856 when his religious faith had weakened, one may ask how he could have thus asserted that artists and poets attain divine truth when he himself was in doubt about the validity of religious teachings. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that it was not despite this weakening faith but because of it that Ruskin advanced such a portrait of the ideal artist; for as he began to believe that God came in diverse ways to men, pagan, Catholic, and Protestant, he also came to accept that throughout the ages God had made prophets of great men, thus ensuring that His wisdom reached man. Of course, had not Ruskin's habits of thought continued to be essentially religious despite this loss of belief, he could never have transferred the idea of prophecy from scriptural to secular writing.
Now that we have examined Ruskin's theories of artist and imagination in relation to the Symbolical Grotesque, we may turn to his description of this allegorical mode of the arts. In the third volume of Modern Painters, he defines the allegorical image, which he terms a "grotesque," and exemplifies it with Spenser's image of envy. This example of Ruskin's close reading warrants quoting at length, not only because it exemplifies his practice as literary exegete, but because it once more demonstrates the way his theories derive from his criticism.
A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character.
For instance, Spenser desires to tell us, (1) that envy is the most untamable and unappeasable of the passions, not to be soothed by any kindness; (2) that with continual labour it invents evil thoughts out of its own heart; (3) that even in this, its power of doing harm is partly hindered by the decaying and corrupting nature of the evil it lives in; (4) that it looks every way, and that whatever it sees is altered and discoloured by its own nature; (5) which discolouring, however, is to it a veil, or disgraceful dress, in the sight of others; (6) and that it never is free from the most bitter suffering, (7) which cramps all its acts and movements, enfolding and crushing it while it torments. All this it has required a somewhat long and languid sentence for me to say in unsymbolical terms, — not, by the way, that they are unsymbolical altogether, for I have been forced, whether I would or not, to use some figurative words; but even with this help the sentence is long and tiresome, and does not with any vigour represent the truth. It would take some prolonged enforcement of each sentence to make it felt, in ordinary ways of talking. But Spenser puts it all into a grotesque, and it is done shortly and at once, so that we feel it fully, and see it, and never forget it. I have numbered above the statements which had to be made. I now number them with the same numbers, as they occur in the several pieces of the grotesque: —
"And next to him malicious Envy rode
(I) Upon a ravenous wolfe, and (2,3) still did chaw
Between his cankred teeth a venemous tode,
That all the poison ran about his jaw
(4,5) All in a kirtle of discolourd say
He clothed was, y-paynted full of eies;
(6) And in his bosome secretly there lay
An hateful snake, the which his taile uptyes
(7) In many folds, and mortall sting implyes."
There is the whole thing in nine lines; or, rather in one image, which will hardly occupy any room at all on the mind's shelves, but can be lifted out, whole, whenever we want it. All noble grotesques are concentrations of this kind, and the noblest convey truths which nothing else could convey; and not only so, but convey them, in minor cases with a delightfulness, — in the higher instances with an awfulness, — which no mere utterance of the symbolised truth would have possessed, but which belongs to the effort of the mind to unweave the riddle, or to the sense it has of there being an infinite power and meaning in the thing seen, beyond all that is apparent therein, giving the highest sublimity even to the most trivial object so presented and so contemplated. (5.132-133)
According to Ruskin, who here draws upon one of the most ancient justifications of allegory, the puzzling, riddling, enigmatic nature of the allegorical imagery stimulates the mind, delighting it with the joys of discovery which commit truth thus discovered to memory. Although one could cite countless works which have similarly explained the advantages of the dark conceit, one need only go to those works Ruskin knew and liked best to see a history in brief of such theoretical justifications. In fact Ruskin first learned about allegory in the books of his childhood, in the Holy War, Pilgrim's Progress, and Quarles's Emblems. From Bunyan, in particular, he would have learned many of the usual points about allegory, the pleasures of enigma, and the dark conceit. For example, "The Author's Apology for his BOOK," which prefaces Pilgrim's Progress, explains that "Dark Clouds bring Waters, when the bright bring none." Moreover, Bunyan's prefatory doggerel defends his choice of dark conceits by pointing to the example of scripture:
Was not Gods Laws,
His Gospel-Laws, in olden times held forth
By Types, Shadows and Metaphors? Yet 10th
Will any sober Man be to find fault
With them, lest he be found to assault
The highest Wisdom....
Am I afraid to say that Holy Writ
Which for its Style and Phrase puts down all wit,
Is every where so full of these things,
(Dark Figures, Allegories,) yet there springs
From that same Book, that lustre, — those rays
Of light, that turns our darkest nights to days.
Furthermore, making the same point Ruskin made in Modern Painters, Bunyan explains that truth set forth in this covered, hidden, dark fashion both pleases the mind and remains there longest:
And to stir the mind
To a search after what it fain would find,
Things that seem to be hid in words obscure,
Do but the Godly mind but more allure;
To study what those Sayings should contain
That speak to us in such Cloudy strain.
I also know, a dark Similitude
Will on the Fancie more it self intrude,
And will stick faster in the Heart and Head,
In addition, Ruskin, who had of course encountered Spenser's mention of the dark conceit and Dante's description of his poem as "la mia narrazion buia," had long known Dante's injunction that the reader of right understanding should note the doctrine that lay hidden beneath the veil of his strange lines:
O voi ch'avete l'intelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto il velame de li versi strani. (Inferno, IX, 11. 61-63.)
Ruskin also knew Carlyle's description in Sartor Resartus of the way a symbol effectively mixes speech and silence: "In a Symbol there is concealment and yet revelation: here, therefore, by Silence and Speech acting together, comes a double significance. And if both the Speech be itself high, and the Silence fit and noble, how expressive will their union be! Thus, in many a painted Device, or simple Seal-emblem, the commonest truth stands-out to us proclaimed with quite new emphasis" (Works, 1, 175). When placed within the context of traditional defenses of allegorical method, Carlyle's explanation of the power of the symbol becomes less oracular, less idiosyncratic, essentially a commonplace assertion about the pleasures of enigma. Indeed, one may speculate that many of his remarks which today seem veiled in clouds of Carlylean prophecy were notions, like this one, long familiar to his contemporaries from religious instruction, preaching, and the works of Bunyan.
The writings of St. Augustine were the ultimate source of these conceptions of enigma. On Christian Doctrine, perhaps the work which most shaped the exegetics of medieval Christendom, advances what became the standard justification of the dark conceit. According to Augustine, "things are perceived more readily through similitudes and . . . what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure." Petrarch and others transferred this idea of happily contrived obscurity to secular poetry and it became a Renaissance commonplace. It is uncertain whether Ruskin knew On Christian Doctrine, though it seems likely, yet even if he did not, he had encountered similar arguments in the Confessions, which he several times mentions (On Ruskin's knowledge of the Church Fathers).
For Augustine the ability to conceive properly the nature of scriptural meaning represents both a sign and means of salvation, and the narrative of his pilgrimage to God repeatedly returns to his own difficulties. In his early years, he tells us, he had to learn a double lesson about the nature of the spiritual: first, that God and spirit are not, as the Manicheans claimed, merely invisibly minute particles of matter but something essentially different from it; and, second, that just as God exists in a spiritual realm, set apart from the material, so does His Word. To begin to comprehend God man must first realize there is existence beyond the material; to begin to understand His Word one must realize there is meaning, a spiritual sense, beyond the literal narrative. When Augustine himself arrived at truth after a long, hard journey, he wondered at the newly perceived glories of the Bible, "because while can read it with ease, it also has a deeper meaning in which its great secrets are locked away. Its plain language and simple style make it accessible to every one, and yet it absorbs the attention of the learned. By this means it gathers all men in the wide sweep of its net." The simplicity of the literal sense attracts all, while the spirit, the allegorical senses, engage those with greater abilities and greater responsibilities. According to Augustine, God, Who pities the weakness of fallen man, compensates "for the ease with which our mortal senses tire by providing that a single truth may be illustrated and represented to our minds in many ways by bodily means."
Another point at which the author of the Confessions may have influenced Ruskin appears when he marvels, "How wonderful are your scriptures! How profound! We see their surface and it attracts us like children. And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous. We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both the awe of reverence and the thrill of love." This remark sounds much like Ruskin's explanation of the effect when one perceives the difference between the insignificant surface of an allegorical image and its deeper meaning: "Even if the symbolic vision itself be not terrible, the scene of what may be veiled behind it becomes all the more awful in proportion to the insignificance or strangeness of the sign itself; and, I believe, this thrill of mingled doubt, fear, and curiosity lies at the very root of the delight which mankind take in symbolism". From Augustine and Carlyle, from Bunyan and Dante, Ruskin formulates his own sophisticated notions of allegory, but his praise of allegorical art and the arguments he summons to its defense reveal, not only that Ruskin borrows widely, but that he still finds himself within the medieval Christian universe which founded such conceptions of art. For Ruskin allegorical art and poetry appear as natural modes with which to comment upon a world endowed with sacred meaning.
Last modified 27 July 2005