'happy among the hills' — Works 35.95
uskin's first recorded memories are of mountains. He thought of the joy and awe felt in the presence of natural scenery as 'in a sort, beginnings of life' (5.365). A deep love of art was built on these beginnings, but his conviction of the beauty of the natural world was established first; only later did he learn to express through the criticism of painting what he saw as the significance of its beauty for mankind: "The beginning of all my own right art work in life, . . . depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea' (22.1.53)
If later his world darkened, and the glory of nature seemed to fade, the beauty of the sky and hills could still restore and inspire him. His first lessons in how to see, how to respond, and how to express his feelings, were all learnt through the study of natural scenery. He claimed to have a greater capacity for taking pleasure in landscape than most men; it was, he said, 'the ruling passion of my life' (5.365). But whatever his spontaneous enthusiasm for mountain scenery, the lessons learnt from it shaped his mind in a specific way.
He first saw mountains as a tourist. Safely boxed up in a carriage, the Ruskin family would set off from London every May towards the north, to Wales, Scotland or the Lake District. Both Ruskin's parents were imposing characters and imposed themselves on their son. They were cousins; Margaret Cox had lived with John James's parents in Scotland, and so they had known each other since adolescence, but they were unable to marry until she was thirty-six and he thirty-two. John James's father had proved unsound both commercially and mentally, and cut his throat, leaving a pile of debts that John James undertook to pay off, for the honour of the family, before starting a family of his own. The scandal behind him, John James went on to make his fortune. When he [13/14] and Margaret finally married in 1818, after a nine-year engagement, he was partner and prime mover in the sherry importing firm of Ruskin, Telford & Domecq, Billiter Street, London. By the time John James sent his son to Oxford he was able to buy him a way out of the commercial class.
In business Ruskin's father was a determined, serious-minded man; at home he liked to relax by taking an interest in literature and painting, and he communicated his own tastes to his son. In his youth he had learnt to paint in water-colour, and he collected pictures as he gradually became able to afford to. Ruskin attributed his early appreciation of poetry and literature to his father's habit of reading aloud from Shakespeare, Byron and Scott. John James was determined that, however much his own talents had been sacrificed to the sherry business, no potential should go undeveloped in his son. The child's aptitude for writing poetry and drawing was encouraged by praise and rewards, a habit John James maintained until his death (it was his money that made the publication of Modern Painters possible). The attitude of Ruskin's mother was no less influential; while John James stimulated his imagination, she ensured that it ran on correct moral lines. Her son had been born in 1819, when it was almost too late for her to have children, and for a devout Evangelical Protestant it was natural that she should follow the example of the Biblical Hannah and dedicate her child to God (RFL 2.456). Both parents had great expectations of their son, who remembered their hopes that he would 'write poetry as good as Byron's, only pious; preach sermons as good as Bossuet's, only Protestant; be made, at forty, Bishop of Winchester, and at fifty, Primate of England' (35.185). He was being ironic when he wrote this, for things had turned out quite differently.
Ruskin's own account of his childhood in his unfinished autobiography Praeterita (1885-89) gives an impression of enclosure and solitariness under strict Evangelical discipline, but the publication of surviving family correspondence shows that his memories were distorted by time and disappointment.1 True, he was an only child, but that was because of the age of his mother and her illness after his birth, and he lacked neither playmates nor presents. The early chapters of Praeterita present the Ruskins' suburban home in Herne Hill as a paradise, yet a paradise within walls, where the young Ruskin developed his powers of observation: serene, but untouched by the realities of outside life. But one of his purposes is to emphasize the pleasure he felt when released into mountain scenery after the enclosed life of London. He recalls the joy of a Sunday walk in Wales with his [14/15] father, and how it was mixed with 'some alarmed sense of sin of being so happy among the hills, instead of writing out a sermon at home' (35.95). Young Ruskin was indeed obliged to make a summary each week of an Evangelical sermon, but the real pleasure of the yearly summer excursions was that the family could be together. John James Ruskin disliked the necessary travelling in search of clients which separated him from his wife and child; as the sherry business prospered he was able to make the summer tour with his family less and less of a business trip and more and more of a holiday. On such a journey in 1830 John and his cousin Mary (who was taken in as part of the Ruskin family after her mother died) kept a joint travel journal in imitation of grown-up tourists; their remarks show the tastes in which John James was educating his eleven-year-old son.
The family was bound for the Lake District, and on their way north via Oxford they called at Blenheim Palace, hoping to see the pictures. It was their established practice to visit the great houses that they passed, and ask the housekeeper to show them round. John and Mary noted:
There were a great many invaluable pictures By Rubens Guido Carlo Doice Tenters Rembrandt Sir Joshua Reynolds and Many others There was one picture of Charles the 1st on horseback which was pronounced by Sir Joshua Reynolds to be the finest equestrian piece he had ever seen. There was also a most beautiful picture by Carlo Dolce and a very fine Bacchanalian piece by Rubens. There was a very pleasing picture of the late Duke and Duchess and their six eldest children by Sir Joshua Reynolds. We then entered the library where was a beautiful statue of Queen Anne by Rysback, the sculpture of which cost 5,000 pounds.2
At the age of eleven Ruskin could hardly be expected to disagree with the conventional taste of his father's generation, and he shows a similar respect for the Old Masters in the description of the great house at Chatsworth.
There was a very long gallery filled with numberless sketches by the best masters amongst which were some by Carlo Dolce, Claude Lorraine, Rembrandt, Carracci, Urbini, etc they were wonderfully done, and every touch showed the hand of a master, some appeared to be so carelessly thrown off you could hardly distinguish the outline, but yet such an effect was produced you could easily see, whose pencil had touched the canvass. [Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. C.234 f.7.]
He was learning to look at pictures early and to exercise his observation, for he also notes that the carvings at Chatsworth had worm. [15/16]
Ruskin's father was being no more than conventional in taking his son round Chatsworth to admire the Old Masters, and he was being equally conventional in taking him to the Lake District to admire the scenery. The taste for mountain scenery was at least partly the creation of the painters they had seen in the Chatsworth gallery. The tourist was expected to express his response to the scenery, according to the extent of his talent, in a travel journal, in descriptive verse, or sketches. The precocious young Ruskin did all three. He worked up his and Mary's joint travel journal into a long descriptive poem, Iteriad.
Appropriately, Ruskin's model was Wordsworth's Excursion, although the jingling rhymes of Iteriad owe more to Byron. Wordsworth himself appears in the poem, for the Ruskins, as true tourists, went to church at Rydal in order to catch a sight of the great man. In Iteriad he appears as
... old Mr Wordsworth at chapel of Rydal,
Whom we had the honour of seeing beside all. [2.315n]
Wordsworth was to become one of the three major formative influences on the adolescent Ruskin. The influence was most directly felt through Wordsworth's poetry, but it is worth considering first how Wordsworth himself expected tourists such as the Ruskins to respond to the scenery, in his Guide through the District of the Lakes.4 Unlike a modern guide book, with its historical information and recommended routes, Wordsworth's is primarily a guide as to how to see. The chief places of interest are listed (and the Ruskins visited most of them); but even here the emphasis is on how the tourist should perceive his surroundings, and categorize them according to the aesthetic terminology of the day. He advises a visit to the tiny valley of Glencorn, above Ullswater: 'Let the Artist or leisurely Traveller turn aside to it, for the buildings and objects around them are romantic and picturesque'. Or again, in the valley of Grisdale on the way to Grasmere, 'a sublime combination of mountain forms appears in front while ascending the bed of this valley'.5
While earlier writers on the Lakes scenery were more concerned to find views that fitted predetermined categories of the sublime or beautiful, Wordsworth expects the traveller to 'observe and feel, chiefly from Nature herself' (234). To observe, he must abandon conventional attitudes and look at the object itself, without trying to adapt it into some ideal composition. The traveller must rid himself of artificial ways of seeing, just as the poet must rid himself of artificial ways of speaking. This was one of the principles of the Lyrical Ballads: 'I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject, consequently I hope it will [16/17] be found that there is in these Poems little falsehood of description, and that my ideas are expressed in language fitted to their respective importance.' (Prose Works, II, 132). The Guide exemplifies this principle with its careful, accurate descriptions of mountain scenery; but truthful apprehension was only the first part of the process. Having observed, the spectator must also feel.
Feeling was the proper subject for poetry, and here of course Wordsworth's own was the example. Through the feelings, the traveller might do more than enjoy the sight of a pretty view. He might feel a sense of emotional identification between himself and his surroundings, and become aware of the Nature Spirit informing all things, as Wordsworth himself had done:
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. ['Tintern Abbey ...', ll. 94-102.]
Thus the traveller, if he opened his heart to natural scenery, could experience an emotional communion between himself and nature that was, according to the strictness of his religious orthodoxy, an awareness of the benevolence of God, or a more mystical and pantheistic sense of identity between man and his surroundings.
Although Wordsworth defined such moments, when turned into poetry, as 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' (Prose Works II, 126) the mind of the poet or painter had to be carefully prepared before this spontaneous overflow could take place. In an essay written when he was nineteen, Ruskin argued that a landscape painter 'must be capable of experiencing those exquisite and refined emotions which nature can arouse in a highly intellectual mind' (1.279), and one can imagine him cultivating his own mind to receive just such sensations. While at Oxford in 1837 he produced a passable evocation of Wordsworth's Nature Spirit in an attempt to win the Newdigate Prize for poetry:
. . . through earth and sky,
Is breathed an influence of Deity.
To that Great One, whose Spirit interweaves [17/18]
The pathless forests with their life or leaves;
And lifts the lowly blossoms, bright in birth,
Out of the cold, black, rotting, charnel earth;
Walks on the moon-bewildered waves by night,
Breathes in the morning breeze, burns in the evening light;
Feeds the young ravens when they cry; uplifts
The pale-lipped clouds along the mountain clifts;
Moves the pale glacier on its restless path;
Lives in the desert's universal death;
And fills, with that one glance, which none elude,
The grave, the city, and the solitude.
To This, the mingled tribes of men below,
Savage and sage, by common instinct bow. . . . (2.33-4)
From Wordsworth Ruskin learnt a context in which to place his natural sensitivity to the beauty of the earth, a beauty felt most powerfully in mountain scenery. Landscape was to be closely observed, and represented, not as a generalization of an idea of what nature should be like, but as truthfully as possible. For Wordsworth the natural vehicle for such a response to nature was poetry, for Ruskin it was passionate prose. Later Ruskin's response was to be tempered by experience, and the influence of Wordsworth was to fade, but in the five volumes of Modern Painters, which cover the first half of his life, Wordsworth is referred to more often than any other poet. A passage from The Excursion, which appears on the title page of every volume of Modern Painters, encapsulates the elements in Wordsworth's thought which most impressed him:
Accuse me not
Of arrogance, . . .
If, having walked with Nature,
And offered, far as frailty would allow,
My heart a daily sacrifice to Truth,
I now affirm of Nature and of Truth,
Whom I have served, that their Divinity
Revolts, offended at the ways of men,
Philosophers, who, though the human soul
Be of a thousand faculties composed,
And twice ten thousand interests, do yet prize
This soul, and the transcendent universe
No more than as a mirror that reflects
To proud Self-love her own intelligence. [Book 4, ll. 978-92] [18/19]
This quotation from Wordsworth is Ruskin's claim that his knowledge of nature forces him to call men away from their petty self-interests to the reforming experience of the beauty of God's creation.
Other people, besides poets, taught Ruskin that the beauty of the natural world led to awareness of God. During the 1830 tour of the Lakes he was not content merely to admire the scenery as a poet might, he also wanted to study it. Iteriad reveals a busy interest in his surroundings (2.291):
Now surveying a streamlet, now mineralizing, —
Now admiring the mountains, and now botanizing, —
His scientific interest in landscape began at an early age. As John James wrote proudly: 'From boyhood my son has been an artist, but he has been a geologist from infancy' (Cook, I, 32). Among the earliest surviving drawings by Ruskin are a series of maps made when he was eight; there can be no more literal way of expressing the features of the earth than to present them as a map. By the time he was twelve he had gathered a mineral collection which he tried to catalogue in a specially created shorthand. (Later, he found he could no longer remember its key.) His mineralogical and geological interests were encouraged by the gift of books. First there was Jeremiah Joyce's Scientific Dialogues for children, then Robert Jameson's System of Mineralogy and Manual of Mineralogy; then, most important of all, the gift, at his request, of H.B. de Saussure's Voyages dans les Alpes.12
Ruskin's first reading of Saussure was a prelude to his own discovery of the power of the Alps, so much more sublime than Wordsworth's English Lakes. In 1855, stimulated by the plates in Samuel Prout's Picturesque Sketches ... on the Rhine, the Ruskins took John on his first full-scale tour abroad. They journeyed up the Rhine, through northern Switzerland and into Italy as far as Genoa, returning via Chamonix and France. In Praeterita he tried to recreate the first ecstatic sight of the Alps.
Suddenly — behold — beyond! There was no thought in any of us for a moment of their being clouds. They were clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon sky, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun. Infinitely beyond all that we had ever thought or dreamed, the seen walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful to us; not more awful, round heaven, the walls of sacred Death. (35.115)
But this appropriately romantic experience was disciplined by his [19/20] growing scientific knowledge. He could see the Alps as a poet might, or in terms of the geological outlines in Saussure, for there was already 'so much of science mixed with feeling as to make the sight of the Alps not only the revelation of the beauty of the earth, but the opening of the first page of its volume' (35.116).
Significantly, Ruskin does not regard science and feeling as mutually exclusive; rather science provides a firmer basis for aesthetic response. The chief occupation of the early nineteenth-century scientist was description and classification; Saussure's Voyages dans les Alpes are accounts of his journeys through the mountains, noting their shapes and identifying their materials and structure. Theoretical experiment and analysis played little part in this process; Saussure's principle was that geology must work from the facts to the theories: 'it must be cultivated only with the aid of observation, and systems must never be but the results or consequences of facts' (I,1). This emphasis on accurate observation helped to discipline Ruskin's response to nature. True, Wordsworth had called for a direct apprehension of the external world, free of preconceived ideas, but Wordsworth wanted to get rid of these preconceptions in order to heighten the personal experience of communion between self and the Nature Spirit. Science stressed the universal significance of the natural world, and Ruskin preferred the objectivity of the scientist to the subjectivity of the poet. He was later to say of Wordsworth: 'he could not understand that to break a rock with a hammer in search of crystal may sometimes be an act not disgraceful to human nature, and that to dissect a flower may sometimes be as proper as to dream over it' (5.359). In many ways Ruskin was only applying more thoroughly Wordsworth's own principle of truthful perception; but whereas for Wordsworth, and even more Coleridge, the purpose of perception was the emotional fusion between the artist and what he saw, Ruskin followed the scientists in seeking first to establish an object's individual identity, and then read its meaning.
The scientific practice current during Ruskin's early years was exactly suited to his temperament; it involved walking, drawing, collecting, listing, and its ultimate purpose was in sympathy with both the poet's and the theologian's: to reveal the glory of God in his Divine ordering of the universe. During Ruskin's lifetime, however, science advanced beyond the descriptive and classificatory phase, and began to reveal a very different picture, in which blind forces struggled ruthlessly for domination of a world without God, and therefore without reason. As analysis and experiment superseded earlier methods science began to threaten the optimism of the poet and the faith of the theologian. [20/21] Ruskin was to suffer acutely from this change, as the ground of science shifted underneath him. He may have criticized Wordsworth for dreaming over a flower instead of dissecting it, but when science came to mean for him the anatomist poring over a dismembered human corpse, he recoiled in horror.
Ruskin's resistance to the change that took place in science in midcentury is symbolized by his clinging to Saussure as an authority throughout his life, even though further research outdated a work whose first volume had appeared in 1779. He liked Saussure's approach, because it had become his own: Saussure 'had gone to the Alps, as I desired to go myself, only to look at them, and describe them as they were, loving them heartily — loving them, the positive Alps, more than himself, or than science, or than any theories of science' (6.476). The use of the word 'love' may seem unscientific, but this was the twofold process, 'to observe and feel', in operation. Truthful observation allows the sensual pleasure of the eye to lead to the truth of God; to try to do more than see truly, either by theoretical analysis or emotional self-identification, is mere egoism.
The principle of direct observation and resistance to speculation leads to an attitude to nature that rests upon externals. All you need to know can be discovered by simply using your own eyes. The 'laws of the organization of the earth are distinct and fixed as those of the animal frame, simpler and broader, but equally authoritative and inviolable. Their results may be arrived at without knowledge of the interior mechanism; but [Ruskin adds significantly] for that very reason ignorance is the more disgraceful, and violation of them more unpardonable.' (3.425) This determinedly non-speculative, non-analytical approach — he says of the Alps, 'we must begin where all theory ceases; and where observation becomes possible' (26.112) — may seem limited, but he was following a common method of his time. Jameson's System of Mineralogy, for instance, is 'founded on what are popularly called the External Characters of Minerals, and is totally independent of any aid from Chemistry. This . . . may be termed the Natural History Method' (I,3).
Whatever the scientific limitations of this method, its benefits for Ruskin were enormous. It was a training in observation and description that developed his most important critical tool, the use of his own eyes: 'precisely the same faculties of eye and mind are concerned in the analysis of natural and of pictorial forms' (26.386). The result was a critical approach to painters that tested their accuracy by their treatment of geology, and a geology that looks at its material with a painter's eye (ills. 7, 8). Geological concerns are uppermost in Modern Painters 4 (1856), [21/22] where he makes his own classification and description of the materials of the earth. But the classification does not depend on an analysis of the structures in terms of their history; instead they are divided, as a painter might divide them, into their visual characteristics and shapes. The failure of earlier landscape painters to make such a careful study of their subject matter was the basis of his argument for the greatness of Turner. In Jameson's Manual of Mineralogy, which he read as a boy, the scientist makes just the same criticism:
A long-experienced eye can, at a glance from the summit of a mountain, point out with considerable certainty the different formations of which a country is composed. Landscape-painters, by confounding together all these differences, or by combining them irregularly, fail not only in accuracy, but in giving their work that appearance, which shows, at first glance, that it is not only a copy of nature, but a copy by one who has formed a distinct conception of the general and particular features of the inequalities observable on the surface of the earth. [363-64.]
Ruskin was following Jameson's principle in his Panorama of the Alps, and it is tempting to see in Jameson one of the sources of the argument for fact in Modern Painters.
John Ruskin. Panorama of the Alps. 1844. “Drawn from the Bel Alp above Brieg (D1.304-5). Ruskin was facing south, so that according to Works 26.222 the Matterhorn and Simplon are on the right, the Aletsch Alps on the left.” [Click on image to enlarge it.]
For a brief period, the harmony between science and religion that existed in the eighteenth century survived into the nineteenth, and the natural scientist could still call himself a natural theologian. The very existence of the world was proof that God existed as its Creator, and the world seemed wonderfully arranged for the benefit of man. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was still possible to expand the idea of nature to fit the fresh discoveries of science; for the more complex the world turned out to be, the greater the intelligence of its Creator. The cooperation of science and religion reached its zenith in the 1830s, when the eighth Earl of Bridgewater provided funds for the publication of a series of treatises designed to show the goodness of God in the relations of man and nature, as seen in astronomy, physics, geology, and animal, vegetable and human physiology. The Bridgewater treatise on geology and mineralogy was written by the Reverend William Buckland, of Christ Church, Oxford, University Reader in Geology. When Ruskin went to Christ Church as a gentleman scholar in 1837, it was natural that his geological studies should be guided by Buckland.
'No reasonable man', wrote Buckland in his Bridgewater treatise, 'can doubt that all the phenomena of the natural world derive their origin from God; and no one who believes the Bible to be the word of [22/23] God, has cause to fear any discrepancy between this, his word, and the results of any discoveries respecting the nature of his works' (9). Confidently, he meets the issue that helped to destroy the belief of so many Victorians, including Ruskin: the conflict between Moses' account of the Creation in the Bible, and the discoveries of geology which quite clearly contradicted it. Buckland ingeniously adjusts the meaning of the Bible to fit the facts. To begin with, what in English are called 'days' were really to Moses much longer, indefinite periods of time; further, the elements of the world may have existed in many different forms, 'in the beginning', before God finally decided to express his will through the creation of man. As a young man Ruskin accepted such explanations, but the facts of science could not be reconciled with a literal reading of the Bible for ever, and like many of his contemporaries he was to suffer a spiritual crisis when the former basis of his belief was shown to be false.
For the time being, though, Buckland's teaching encouraged an optimistic view, and provided an excellent justification for him to pursue his natural delight in mountain scenery. The nature that Ruskin found in Buckland — as in Wordsworth — was essentially a benevolent one. The good things of this world were to be enjoyed, since they had been provided for man by God. Take, for instance, the mineral wealth of the earth. According to Buckland,
We need no further evidence to show that the presence of coal is, in an especial degree, the foundation of increasing population, riches, and power, and of improvement in almost every Art which administers to the necessities and comforts of Mankind ... we may fairly assume, that, besides the immediate purposes effected at, or before the time of their deposition in the strata of the Earth, an ulterior prospective view to the future uses of Man formed part of the design. [535-38]
Ruskin was later to say almost exactly the same about marble (11.37). God looked upon his work, and saw that it was good, and Ruskin came to believe that it was the duty of the artist and the scientist to expound that goodness, 'even in all that appears most trifling or contemptible' (3.483).
But even Buckland recognized that something more was required than simply the realization that the world bore every mark of having had an intelligent Creator: 'The disappointment which many minds experience, at finding in the phenomena of the natural world no indications of the will of God, respecting the moral conduct or future prospects of the human race, arises principally from an indistinct and [23/24] mistaken view of the respective provinces of Reason and Revelation' (588). Natural science, like Romantic poetry, helped the Christian to perceive the glory of God, but his faith and conduct must be guided by the Church. Science for Buckland was secondary to spiritual knowledge of God; geology testified to God's wisdom and benevolence, but it remained 'the efficient Auxiliary and Handmaid of Religion' (593).
Margaret Ruskin instilled habits of mind in her son that persisted long after the faith that had inspired them had disappeared, and they affected everything he said or did — even the way he saw mountains.
The foundation of her faith was the text of the Bible. To an Evangelical, it was a cardinal and absolute principle that the word of the Scripture was inspired by God, and that everything in it was literally true: 'Show us anything plainly written in that Book, and however trying to flesh and blood, we will receive it, believe it, and submit to it.'20 So wrote the Reverend J. C. Ryle in Evangelical Religion, What It Is, and What It Is Not. Ruskin's education therefore began with the Bible, and as soon as he could read his mother began to take him through its text, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, much of which he had to learn by heart. When the whole text had been covered they began again at the beginning, and the process was continued until he went up to Oxford. As a result his prose echoes and re-echoes with the texts he learnt as a child and continued to study as a man. His constant Biblical references have sometimes been dismissed as a kind of nervous tic, but the early emphasis on Scripture gave him a great deal more than a clerical style of address: it was a link to an unfailing source of wisdom and truth.21 His references were not a decoration designed for audiences more familiar with the Bible than ourselves, they were an appeal to a fundamental authority; and when Ruskin refers to it, it is always worth checking at its source.
After the authority of Scripture the second fundamental principle of Evangelicalism was the doctrine of the essential wickedness and corruption of man. This gloomy view contrasted with the more optimistic ideas of the Romantic poets, who shared Rousseau's belief that man, uncorrupted by society, was naturally good. No such optimistic sense of innocence was permitted to an Evangelical, for as the consequence of Adam's fall men 'are not only in a miserable, pitiable, and bankrupt condition, but in a state of guilt, imminent danger, and condemnation before God'.22 Being so constantly reminded of his condition as a miserable sinner, Ruskin was discouraged from thinking about himself and the pit of corruption he was told he would find there, and directed [24/25] his thoughts outwards. He told a friend that 'the "beautiful world of external nature" was open to him but the unattractive internal one was all obscure . . . what he thought goodness of heart turned out to be wickedness'. (WL.77)
This avoidance of introspection, together with the solitary security of his childhood, severely retarded the development of Ruskin's emotional life. He complains in Praeterita that although he learnt 'peace, obedience, faith', he learnt nothing about love.
My parents were — in a sort — visible powers of nature to me, no more loved than the sun and the moon . . . still less did I love God; not that I had any quarrel with Him, or fear of Him, but simply found what people told me was His service, disagreeable; and what people told me was His book, not entertaining. I had no companions to quarrel with, neither; nobody to assist, and nobody to thank. [35.44-45]
Consequently, when as an adolescent he fell in love with the daughter of his father's Spanish partner, the effect was disastrous. His emotions were violent, 'utterly rampant and unmanageable' (35.45), and when Adèle Domecq showed no interest in him at all he had no outlet but sentimental poetry and illness. Only in nature, in flowers and rocks and stones, could he find any emotional satisfaction free of the taint of sin.
His feelings before rocks and stones had the advantage of serving as a link between his Romanticism and his faith, for both the poets and the Evangelical preachers believed in the need for an individual emotional experience as the means to an awareness of God. The only way to transcend one's condition as a condemned sinner was through the grace of God, which had the power to restore those who had faith. For Wordsworth this transformation could take place in a non-doctrinal way, through the influence of the Spirit of Nature; for the Evangelical there was hope in 'the blood of God the Son applied to the conscience, and the grace of God the Holy Ghost entirely renewing the heart' (140). This was what Buckland meant by the difference between Reason and Revelation. The Evangelical divine Henry Melvill, who preached in the chapel which the Ruskins attended, sounds very close to both Buckland and Wordsworth when he finds Revelation in the external world: 'every feature of the landscape, every tree of the forest, every flower of the garden, every joint, and every muscle of my frame, all are gifted with energy in proclaiming there is a Supreme Being; infinite in wisdom and goodness, as well as in might' (II, 309). [25/26]
So far all three influences on Ruskin, Romantic poetry, science and religion, have been seen to confirm the same view of the external world as the source of beauty and goodness. Both poetry and science taught that this beauty lay in the natural world as it was, objective and real. Evangelical religion however raised the value of the real world by, without taking away any of its objective reality, interpreting it on a symbolic level as well. The poets saw rocks and trees as symbols of the Spirit of Nature; but their symbolism cannot match the elaborate system of typology used by the Evangelicals (139). This other reading of the natural world was to be of great importance to Ruskin's approach as a critic, and shaped the processes of his imagination.
Typology was a long-established critical method of symbolic interpretation of the Bible; it was not difficult to extend this interpretation to the work of God, as well as his word. The Evangelicals believed, as has been said, in the literal truth of the Bible, but it had always been plain that it contained many passages of doubtful value. The answer was to interpret them as having a hidden meaning. Margaret Ruskin omitted nothing from her son's Bible reading, and he was taught that if a chapter was 'loathsome, the better lesson in faith that there was some use in its being so outspoken' (35.40). Symbolic interpretation was thus a necessary technique, but it was used much more elaborately than simply to adjust doubtful meanings. Through the system of 'types', the confusing language and history in the Bible were shown to provide a coherent account of the past and future will of God.
It was an article of faith that the Bible was a continuous account of God's revelation of himself to mankind, first through the prophets of the Old Testament, then through Jesus Christ, and finally through the foretelling of the eventual Judgment Day, when all would return to God. Thus events in the Old Testament were presented as foreshadowing the coming of Christ in the New (and it is to be noticed that the authors of the New Testament frequently present Christ as fulfilling prophecies of the Old). Moses, although a real figure in the history of the Jews, was also seen as a 'type' of Christ, a symbol of what was to come. The system of types extended from persons and events in the Bible to things. Thus the water Moses strikes from the rock is symbolic of Jesus's baptism, and the waters of baptism themselves are symbolic of the regeneration of mankind. Since the Evangelicals placed such emphasis on the authority of the Bible they above all others developed the study of types to its highest degree, and the sermons of people like Ryle and Melvill, which Ruskin heard and studied, are full of the most ingenious interpretations, finding layer upon layer of meaning. [26/27]
There is an important distinction to be made between an allegorical and a typological explanation. In allegory the object which is used to convey a meaning has no real existence; it is a fiction, a device whose only use is to stand for something else. In typology the figures and emblems are real people, real things, which retain their identity as well as conveying a symbolic meaning. This may seem simpler if one remembers that the Evangelicals believed that both the Bible and the external world were expressions of the same Divine Being: there was no doubt that the external world continued in its existence while expressing the will of God; and similarly the historical figures of the Bible performed their own worldly functions as well as foreshadowing the coming of Christ. The importance of this for Ruskin was that when he came to work out his theory of art he called for 'real' representation which also conveys symbolic meaning.
The Evangelicals taught Ruskin that the natural world was as full of God's words as the Bible, and he uses precisely this metaphor when he speaks of following 'the finger of God, as it engraved upon the stone tables of the earth the letters and the law of its everlasting form' (6.116). In their writings and sermons Evangelical preachers drew the same lessons from the earth and from the Bible. There was even an old geological theory to support their view, for it was still argued that the present contours of the world were the result of the destruction caused by the Flood. In A Practical View of...Christianity, William Wilberforce, one of the leaders of the Evangelical movement, wrote: 'This awful instance of the anger of God against sin is related in the inspired writings for our instruction. Still more to rouse us to attention, the record is impressed in indelible characters on the solid substance of the very globe we inhabit' (305).
It was natural that Ruskin should find deep symbolic meaning in the geological forces of the earth: 'The first sight of the Alps had been to me as a direct revelation of the benevolent will in creation.' But in the ash and lava of Vesuvius he discovered 'if not the personality of an Evil Spirit, at all events the permitted symbol of evil, unredeemed' (35.288). The very shapes of the mountains were found to contain moral and sociological meaning: 'the great truths which are the basis of all political science; how the polishing friction which separates, the affection that binds, and the affliction that fuses and confirms, are accurately symbolized by the processes to which the several ranks of hills appear to owe their present aspect' (6.132-33). He shows the extent to which the sermons he heard every Sunday reinforced his simultaneously real and symbolic interpretation, by more than once drawing a parallel between the artist and the preacher. In Modern Painters 1 he [27/28] marvels at the number of 'lessons' both have to teach: 'as well might a preacher expect in one sermon to express and explain every divine truth which can be gathered out of God's revelation, as a painter expect in one composition to express and illustrate every lesson that can be received from God's creation. Both are commentators on infinity' (3.157). The two have different spheres, but they are working towards the same end, with the same methods.
Ruskin's pleasure in landscape was the primary inspiration for his work in art, and it remained a 'ruling passion', but as his knowledge increased with experience, he was able to look on the source of his inspiration with a certain detachment. At the age of thirty-seven, in the third volume of Modern Painters, he tried to analyse just what it was about the natural world that was so important to him. His conclusions come in a chapter appropriately called 'The Moral of Landscape'. The visual pleasure felt in childhood was now part of a much more elaborate conception of the world. He recalls his first memories of mountains, and the joy that he felt in escaping from the enclosed life of London. He says that he did not then think of nature as God's work: rather God was in heaven, and nature was a separate fact of existence. But 'although there was no definite religious sentiment mingled with it, there was a continual perception of Sanctity in the whole of nature, from the slightest thing to the vastest; — an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit' (5.367). The Wordsworthian echo is deliberate, for he parallels his own gradual loss of spontaneous joy in nature with Wordsworth's experience as recorded in the 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality'. The influence of Wordsworth was also fading when he wrote this, and he is critical of those who go to nature for a vague and undefined emotional experience. None the less he was sure that of two people equal in other respects 'the one who loves nature most will be always found to have more faith in God' (5.378).
The reveries of a poet before nature, although indicating the right state of mind, were limited in that they led to nothing useful. The poet's perception had to be sharpened by the hard thinking of the scientist, even to the extent of limiting the emotional pleasure to be felt in landscape. This was what had happened to Ruskin himself. But the science Ruskin had in mind was not that which had led to the invention of the steam engine or the other mechanical horrors of the modern world; it was what he called 'a science of the aspects of things' (5.387). This science included the love of beauty, for it was as important [28/29] to know of things 'that they produce such and such an effect upon the eye or heart . . . as that they are made up of certain atoms or vibrations of matter' (5.387). It was in these terms that he thought of Saussure 'loving' the Alps. A science of aspects had the power, he believed, to persuade men to live in harmony with nature and with God:
to understand that God paints the clouds and shapes the moss-fibres, that men may be happy in seeing Him at His work, and that in resting quietly beside Him, and watching His working, and . . . in carrying out His purposes of peace and charity among all His creatures, are the only real happinesses that ever were, or will be, possible to mankind. (5.384)
Last modified 9 February 2013