And for the sublime, — if we consider what are the cares that occupy the passing day, and how remote is the practice and the course of life from the sources of sublimity, in the soul of Man, can it be wondered that there is little existing preparation for a poet charged with a new mission to extend its kingdom, and to augment and spread its enjoyments? — William Wordsworth, "Essay Supplementary to the Preface of 1815"
uskin's is remarkable among romantic careers by beginning with an affirmation of Wordsworthian joy not as a child's unconscious condition but as a condition formulated in adulthood — as an earned position. Modern Painters I banishes the poor, paltry self along with its sense of the past, even so much as a nostalgic sense, by constructing overwhelming experiences of seeing so immediate and unselfconscious that they are virtually prelmaginative. Although, for example, Ruskin associated Venice with Adèle, making the city a monument to the joy and anguish of the past, the Venice of the book is a burst of Turnerian light burning away, as it were, the "lurid, gloomy, plague-like oppression" of Canaletto and converting ships, buildings, and atmosphere into a chain of archetypes in an eternal present. Innocence requires forgetfulness.
In Modern Painters II Ruskin takes up the subject of maturity in a selfconscious way but tries to imagine the end of life as a continuous development from the beginning, a "philosophic calm" accruing from no experiences of loss or catastrophic self-education. In his first book, he says at one point, he had perhaps indulged a youthful preference for scenery that induces "wild, impetuous, and enthusiastic" emotions, ignoring what was "peaceful, humble, meditative, and solemn." Every age has its season: "We must advance, as we live on, from what is brilliant to what is pure, and from what is promised to what is fulfilled, and from what is our strength to what is our crown" (IV, 75). The first book had been a polemic proving that Turner could represent nature [56/57] truthfully. The second would be nothing less than a complete system of aesthetics based on the assumption of an instinct for beauty divinely implanted in the human heart. This instinct he calls the "theoretic faculty," a Greek version, so to speak, of the beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God." For more than two hundred pages Ruskin forges his way, adopting the elevated style of Hooker and ranging all beautiful objects under two categories — "typical beauty," representing objects that manifest God's characteristic "modes of being," and "vital beauty," representing living objects that bear the appearance of a "felicitous fulfillment of function." True to his word, he tends to choose examples that are ordered and meditative rather than wild and impetuous. But as Ruskin approached the subject of vital beauty in Man, the one creature marked by a fall from its original state, he apparently put his work aside and embarked for Italy — the first and most momentous of many such journeys without his parents.1
In one sense he made the journey in search of maturity. As late as October 1844, Ruskin wrote a letter to Henry Liddell quoting "Tintern Abbey" to suggest that he still viewed himself as a Wordsworthian child: "I am yet as much at my ease as I was ten years ago, leading still the quiet life of mere feeling and reverie,
'That hath no need of a remoter charm
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye"' (III, 671).
These are hardly the words of a man ready to will himself away from what is "brilliant" and "promised." This letter and other unpublished writings from the same years clarify the emotional and intellectual difficulties facing Ruskin as man and writer, problems that were related and would await their symbolic solution in his discovery of Italian Renaissance painting.
Ruskin's letter to Liddell sets out with striking frankness the nature of his task as he then saw it. His first book, he admits, was in the "pamphleteer" style: "There is a nasty, snappish, impatient, half-familiar [57/58] , half-claptrap web of young-mannishness everywhere.... I am going to try for better things; for a serious, quiet, earnest, and simple manner, like the execution I want in art." The new book will introduce a new subject as well as a new style:
As soon as I began to throw my positions respecting the beautiful into form, I found myself necessarily thrown on the human figure for great part of my illustrations; and at last, after having held off in fear and trembling as long as I could, I saw there was no help for it, and that it must be taken up to purpose.... I don't think, with my heart full of Fra Angelico, and my eyes of Titian, that I shall fall back into the pamphleteer style again.
But he adds immediately, "Don't suppose, however, with all this, that I am going to lose Turner." The chief problem he stresses is lack of knowledge: he had grown up well acquainted with "pure, wild, solitary, natural scenery" but not with "general or human knowledge" — we may assume he also means acquaintance with human affections. He then asks Liddell where he can look, in Plato or elsewhere, for a theory of imagination, presumably to help him come to terms with the luminous visions of Fra Angelico, the Bellinis, and other Old Masters he had briefly seen in Venice and Paris (III, 668-670). In this self-portrait addressed to an intellectual mentor, Ruskin presents himself as a precocious youth about to become an earnest young man: he is bound to Turner by his boyish rambles in "pure, wild, solitary" landscape, but he denigrates his defense of that painter as both vulgar and immature — a mistake he will not repeat after absorption in religious painters, which, he also implies, might ease him from the "fear and trembling" of considering the human figure. The experience that these painters provide might also bring him spiritual maturity (it would save him from the pamphleteer style) and would perhaps make good his youthful sacrifice of human experiences for knowledge of nature, but what then will become of the pleasures peculiar to the child?
Another, very different document would seem to point the way to one of the aims he expresses to Liddell — the proof that "the principles of beauty are the same in all things, that its characters are typical of the Deity, and of the relations which in a perfect state we are to hold with him." In an oft-quoted fragment composed in 1843 or 1844 and apparently intended for the new work in progress, Ruskin recalls an evening spent by the fountain of the Brevent, a stream that flows into the Arve, when he experienced the coming of darkness and storm in overtly Apocalyptic terms: "It was as if the sun had been taken away from the world, and the life of the earth were ebbing away, groan by groan." Suddenly, in the midst of blackness, the clouds part, revealing the [58/59] upper peaks bathed in the fire of sunset: "the mighty pyramids stood calmly — in the very heart of the high heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God." Ruskin cries out in the ecstasy of complete submission to the Divine:
It was only then that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man; — how without desire — without memory — without sense even of existence — the very sense of its own lost in the perception of a mightier — the immortal soul might be held forever — impotent as a leaf — yet greater than tongue can tell — wrapt in the one contemplation of the Infinite God.
The Beautiful, Ruskin concludes, belongs only to the types of God's attributes — to anything that "can turn the human soul from gazing on itself ... and fix ihe spirit-in all humility — on the types ofthat which is to be its food for eternity" (IV, 363-365).
The passage perfectly exemplifies the three-part movement of sublime experience as described by Thomas Weiskel: a period of intense anticipation, then an overburdening of the senses in which the relation of signifier to signified becomes indeterminate, then a return to a normal state of perception, leaving the "trace" of the experience in a metaphor (Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime, 24-26). — with an access of power in the beholder that typically follows upon such disruption of the subject-object relationship. And just as typically for Ruskin, the metaphor intensifies the mountain by hyperbole — it becomes a City oversized and overlustrous. The prose differs from ecsatic passages in Modern Painters I in its infusion of Burkean fear, but in other ways it seems to form the perfect bridge between the Alpine psalm in the first book and the new interests facing Ruskin: by converting loss of self into a transfigured self, loss of time into a vision of eternity, and landscape ecstasy into symbolic vision, it sets forth in miniature the project of a comprehensive grammar of imagery for religious poetry and art and a fusion of natural and biblical typology. Finally, the haunting but unobtrusive image of the Brevent, the emblem, it would seem, of the viewer's persistent selfhood, combines with the extreme experience of weakness ("the life of the earth ... ebbing away") to suggest that Ruskin masters through endurance of terror his own dread of spiritual diminishment through time.
But the greatest interest of this passage for us lies in the fact that Ruskin never published it. We cannot know why he did not, but strong suggestions occur in certain poems of the early 1840s in which similar [59/60] images of solitary ecstasy appear in a radically unsatisfying light. The richest of these is "A Walk in Chamouni," possibly written in the same year as the Brevent fragment. The same imagery recurs but with an odd discontinuity, as though to suggest states of mind rather than scenes from a walking tour: we see first a bubbling brook, then a dark grove, then a gushing torrent, then the luminous aiguilles of the lower mountains, and finally, the higher peaks, rising "as pure as if the breath / Of God had called them newly into light, / Free from all stamp of sin, or shade of death." But the poem takes a surprising turn. Although the mountains are "inly bright," "Serene and universal as the night," they are "comfortless" and "cold" because removed from humanity — "passionless and pure, but all unblest":
Corruption — must it root the brightest birth?
And is the life that bears its fruitage best,
One neither of supremacy nor rest?
The dilemma is unmitigated: supremacy and rest belong only to the mountains, but life and gladness only to the earth. A subtler contradiction is suggested in the poem's oxymoronic imagery of time: old trees covered with white moss, for example, are "interwoven signs / Of dateless age and deathless infancy," and more startlingly, the "azure arch" from which springs the Arveron creates a moaning like the "angels' wail" after the Expulsion (II, 222-226). Purity and corruption, freshness and mourning, infancy and age, are oddly conjoined — timelessly in the glade, painfully in the torrent and mountain — in natural images that appear as emblems of the poet's own mixed state. Another poem, though of less interest, deepens these contradictions. In "The Arve at Cluse," Ruskin compares himself to a river "proud, / Impatient, and pollute" that has forgotten in "unhallowed rage" the pureness of its "mountain parentage"; for he, like the river, was born near Heaven yet has lost his "heritage of peace." The prayer is for a new baptism through seeing, a receiving of
The radiance of that world where all is stilled
In worship, and the sacred mountains build
Their brightness of stability in Heaven.
The remaining paradox, however, occurs in the lines, "I would not see/ Thy force less fatal, or thy path less free" (11, 236). In these and other examples, a lower world of vice, wrath, or agitated energy is pitted against an upper world of purity, serenity, and motionless strength, usually associated with a source or a fresh birth. (The best discussion of Ruskin's poetry that I have found is Wendell Stacy Johnson; see bibliography below). [60/61]
Such are the conflicts Ruskin brought with him on the Italian journey of 1845, a journey planned for purely scholarly purposes but which eventually confirmed him in a vocation that was at first still undefined. As his editors correctly note, he had not yet given up poetry or painting; but he had at least a tentative spiritual model in mind when he departed. The model was Herbert, as we know from an incident confirming that Ruskin had no intentions of abandoning his youthful religiosity before Italian sensuality. In a letter to his mother from Switzerland, he attacks the volume she put in his satchel (Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) because the author's "morbid fancies" amount at times to "Pure insanity" — in marked contrast, he observes, to Herbert: "There is as much difference between the writings & feelings of the two men as between the high bred, keen, severe, thoughtful countenance of the one — and the fat, vacant, vulgar, boy's face of the other." And in a later letter he calls Bunyan's book dangerous, partly because "to people of a turn of mind like mine, but who have less stability of opinion, it would at once suggest the idea of all religion being nothing more than a particular phase of indigestion coupled with a good imagination & bad conscience"; Herbert, on the contrary, is "full of faith & love, regardless of himself, outpouring his affection in all circumstances & at all times, and never fearing, though often weeping" (Shapiro, 17-18, 33-34). Here Ruskin excoriates part of his own negative identity (and perhaps the "morbidity" he had suffered as a result of Adèle), taking the part of the Anglican gentleman against the Puritan tradesman, attacking his mother's religion while flattering her class prejudices, and repeating in religious terms his parents' own class ambitions. Most important, Ruskin has begun to distinguish his internalized ideals from his parents', at least from his mother's. We can hardly exaggerate his need at this time for a sense of steadiness and purity of mind and for a gentility of manner to match his gentility of privilege: what sounds like the making of a young prig *is also an attempt to overcome his own "snappish young-mannishness." Yet he displayed a great deal of morbidity and snappishness during the disturbing months that followed.
While fortifying himself with Herbertian asceticism and self-control, Ruskin soon discovered in Italy, after a few hesitations, sensuous rapture, an experience that mingled beauty and religious devotion similar to that which he had known in the mountains but now charged with human meaning. In Lucca, for example, was God's plenty: the jeweled facade of San Michele, the burning hills of Carrara and olive woods and vineyards, the dying flush of twilight off the eyes of Ilaria di Caretto in her eternal trance of repose, the candies burning in shrines to the Madonna, the clearness of the sky "something miraculous. No romance can be too high flown for it — it passes fable." On Sundays he could choose between the music of the mass and the military bands, [61/62] sometimes blending ("everything comes on me like music"). In Pistoia he first mentions fireflies, mysteriously emblematic of all natural sanctity: "[They] flash, as you know, exactly like stars on the sea, and the impression to the eye is as if one were walking on water." Everywhere the spiritual seemed vivified in the senses, the senses made glorious in the spiritual. In Florence the Franciscans kept the best spice cellar in the city and managed also to combine work and worship. He spent a day reaping hay with them on the mount of Fiesole, then descended, once again, amid the gathering of fireflies in the dusk. But most remarkable in these early months of the tour were the frescoes in Lucca and in the Campo Santo of Pisa, whose images Ruskin experienced like living and actual presences: "I never believed the patriarchal history before, but I do now, for I have seen it.... one comes away, like the women from the Sepulchre, 'having seen a vision of angels which said that he was Alive."' In Benozzo Gozzoli's fresco in Pisa, three angels hover over Abram departing from Sodom, who "turns away, with his hands folded in entire faith & resignation, but with such a quivering distress about the lips and appeal for pity in the eye, that I have had the tears in mine over & over again while I was drawing it." A similar subject was the conversion of St. Ranieri: the saint is watching a circle of dancing maidens when the angel appears, and he accepts the sign — "ungentlemanly in the extreme," Ruskin remarks half-jokingly (Shapiro, 55, 60, 85, 67-68, 65). There is no wonder that these subjects in particular — a renunciation of the past for the future, and of the flesh for a spiritual calling-should have affected him so strongly.
But almost from the start, Ruskin's experience of human beings in Italy was as disturbing as his experience of art was exalting. In Lucca he saw a beggar drinking water from a font while at the same time the beggar's dog made water at the base of the font, prompting Ruskin to tell his father, "I cannot make up my mind whether the poetry or prose of life be its humbug, whether, seeing truly, there be most to feel, or most to laugh at .... [The scene] was a perfect epitome of Italy as she is. One hardly knows which hath upper hand in her, saint-beggaror beast" (Shapiro, 57-58). What begins as traveler's annoyances such as weather and delays and Jostling crowds builds into hysteria aimed chiefly at the restorers. Driven by a misguided hunger for "improvements," these people tear down old stonework, cover up frescoes with plaster, throw up gaslamps and interlace old cities with railroad bridges. The pitch and insistence of Ruskin's rage create the vision of an entire nation pillaging its past, destroying all it has of beauty and power and spirit. Italy, in short, is the picture of human time since the Fall.
It is also the image of Ruskin's own fear of losing the past, that is, the power of feeling, a fear repressed by his resolutions of religious earnestness. [62/63] He partly recognized this emotion is a letter to his father from Parma. John James (whose favorite authors were Byron and Scott) had complained that his son's latest verses lacked "the fervour & fury & passion of true poetry"; Ruskin responds that he is not surprised but "I do not think I have lost power. I have only lost the exciting circumstances. The life I lead is far too comfortable & regular, too luxurious, too hardening. I see nothing of human life, but waiters, doganiere — & beggars. I . . . am subject to no species of excitement except that arising from art, which I conceive to be too abstract in its nature to become productive of poetry unless combined with experience of living passion." And so he has ended up "treating all distress more as picturesque than as real.... Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna — sleeping like a corpse — possibly from too little food. I pulled up immediately — not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom." As for poetry, "if I were again under such morbid excitement, I might write as strongly.... I believe however the time for it has past." And so, apparently, has the time for enjoying Italy: "All the romance of it is gone, and nothing that I see ever makes me forget that I am in the 19th century" (Shapiro, 142-143). The unconvincing incident of the sleeping child presumably shows that Ruskin has lost the power of charity and, more obscurely, the power of erotic excitement, which he must divert by sketching. Covertly, he reenacts the emotional repression following the loss of Adèle, the woman his father had forbidden him to marry, this time blaming the loss of the heart's affections on luxury and the habits of the critical intellect.
His aim at the present, he writes in another letter, is to preserve, in words and sketches, the beauty now vanishing beneath the chisels and plaster of the restorers. Then, surprisingly enough, he claims that he is unable even to enjoy a distant sight of the Appenines because they are not already familiar to him. In late July he acts out this second disillusionment in a series of letters from Alpine towns, which he visited in order to escape his anger and disgust with the cities of the plain and to do sketches for the Turner part of his book. "Here I am at last in my own country," he writes from the secluded and nearly inaccessible village of Macugnaga; it is "a perfect Paradise for feeling," the "realization of all my childs [sic] ideas of felicity." Yet even Macugnaga faits him as he realizes it is childhood and not a particular place that he longs for — "the charm of early association, the home feeling that I have at Chamonix . . . for however childhood may suffer, it is a period of entire trust, hope, & insouciance, approaching nearer to a state of perfect felicity than any other of life.... I feel life going.... Life seems infinite to the child, and what he chooses not to do today he hopes to do tomorrow. Probably he does more, according to his strength, in this [63/64] way, than the man, who measures his time" (Shapiro, 160, 159, 161, 163). Once again he asserts his devotion to Turner and the pure, high pursuit of natural fact — at the same time, significantly, taking up the study of Italian history.
Most of the emotional dialectic that determined the course of Ruskin's career is now in place. The exaltation of "life," the original and pure energy of being whose source is childhood, is weakened by ambivalent and agitated emotion, by the awareness of suffering and poverty and loss, by repression through mental labor, by the approach of death; but to remain in childhood is to cling to a dream valley whose timeless ease and solitude will also weaken the primal energy, which requires human love as well as the love of stones. Ruskin needed a conception of spiritual energy strong enough to embrace the entire human experience, including suffering and loss and the braving of death — and he sought it in a theory of imagination that would explain the function of the human subject in art. Ruskin's last stop in Italy was Venice, the city he had associated with his lost love. He found Venice, as he expected, a sacrifice to decay, depredations, and railroads, but he also found what he had perhaps unconsciously been hoping for all along:
I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before by any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret .... he lashes out like a leviathan, and heaven and earth come together .... And such a resurrection as there isthe rocks of the sepulchre crashed all to pieces & roaring down upon you, while the Christ soars forth into a torrent of angels, whirled up into heaven till you are lost ten times over. [Shapiro, 211-212]
From Turner to Tintoretto is but a small step: "Fresh from the stormy grandeur of the St. Gothard, he found the lurid skies and looming giants of the Visitation, or the Baptism, or the Crucifixion, re-echoing the subjects of Turner as 'deep answering to deep." (Collingwood, quoted in IV, x1v). The torrential energies are the same, except that the signs of them have changed. Ruskin of course already knew the giant forms of Michelangelo. The overwhelming response to Tintoretto depended on the precise moment in his mental history and on his claim to a personal discovery (confirmed, one assumes, by the parallel response of J. D. Harding, the painter, who accompanied him to Venice) — but it depended on formal qualities as well. Comparing Tintoretto's Judgement with Michelangelo's, Ruskin wrote his father that even Michelangelo "cannot hurl figures into space as he does, nor did M Angelo ever paint space itself which would not look like a nutshell besides Tintoret's"; and in his notebook he wrote that, in Tintoretto but not in the older [64/65] painters, "no emotions are represented, nothing but the great sensation of re-awakened life," and that the scene, instead of being general or typical, is a definite "spot of earth" (IV, XXXVI). These baroque elements Tintoretto shares with the landscape sublime but not with Michelangelo. Leaving his background indefinite, Michelangelo achieves a statuesque energy in respose, removed from a particular moment or place; Tintoretto sacrifices serenity for a tumuttuous immediacy made possible because space and therefore time becomes itself an expressive element. The skewed angels, extreme closeups, exaggerated chiaroscuro, and forms that soar and tumble completely undermine the stability of Renaissance perspective space (as Turner's vortical compositions destroy the focal point), with the result that space, instead of existing "outside" the artist's imagination, becomes the expression of a mental energy that is almost physical.
For Ruskin and Harding, to behold such an art was to experience sublime annihilation: "Harding said that if he had been a figure painter, he never could have touched a brush again, and that he felt more like a flogged schoolboy than a man-and no wonder." But the next day Ruskin wrote his father that studying the painter again "made me feel bigger — taken up into him as it were. I am in a great hurry now to try my hand at painting a real, downright, big oil picture" (Shaprio, 212-213). Ruskin's memory of the experience, printed as an addendum to the 1883 edition of Modern Painters II, is slightly different: "I, not having been at school so long as [Harding], felt only that a new world was opened to me, that I had seen that day the Art of Man in its full majesty for the first time; and that there was also a strange and precious gift in myself enabling me to recognize it, and therein ennobling, not crushing me. That sense of my own gift and function as an interpreter strengthed as I grew older" IV, 354). The letters are typical of the young Ruskin, still wishing to emulate every genius he encounters, while the memoir is typical of the elder Ruskin, disclaiming with unconscious egotism the young man's ambition. But the memory is undoubtedly correct in spirit: after months of copying the great painters and feeling his relative inadequacy, he eventually accepted a new relationship based not on competition but on difference — his special gift as an interpreter. As he wrote in Modern Painters II, "The Love of the human race is increased by their individual differences, and the Unity of the creature ... made perfect by each having something to bestow and to receive . . . , humility in each rejoicing to admire in his fellow that which he finds not in himself, and each being in some respect the complement of his race" (IV, 183). His complete response to Tintoretto, then, parallels the experience at the fount of the Brevent: a sudden revelation, a temporary annihilation, then a return of selfhood strengthened and clarified, with the fountain itself corresponding to [65/66] the "precious gift." The original energy has not been lost. But never again would Ruskin repudiate all beauty mingled with "associations of humanity — the exertion of human power — the action of human mind."
"The Soul's Metropolis"
n the "Essay Supplementary" to the Preface of 1815, Wordsworth described the task of great poetry in his time as extending into regions of sublimity unexplored before, and he described also the audience, fit though few, capable of following him — a group who, "never having suffered their youthful love of poetry to remit much of its force, have applied to the consideration of the laws of this art the best power of their understandings." These readers, if not already misguided, may acquire a new taste conferred upon them by the great and original poet, taste being itself a "power, of which knowledge is the effect." (Prose Works, III, 66, 82). Ruskin may have found in this essay the confirmation and perhaps also the literary model of his experience with Tintoretto. He had begun Modern Painters II by trumpeting other themes from Wordsworth in tones loud enough to set the teeth on edge. The opening blast is an Evangelical attack on an effeminate nation sunk in corrupt uses of pleasure, ignorant of the sublime kingdom of God's domain without. The times are Babylonian: "The Nebuchadnezzar curse, that sends men to grass like oxen, seems to follow but too closely on the excess or continuance of national power and peace" (IV, 30). His aim, on the other hand, is "to summon the moral energies of a nation to a forgotten duty, to display the use, force, and function of a great body of neglected sympathies and desires" (IV, 28). Every gesture here is conventional, particularly the attack on mechanism, although Ruskin manages at least one startling image: the railroads, a synecdoche for the war of commerce against nature, he compares to a "great net ... drawing and twitching the ancient frame and strength together, contracting all its various life, its rocky arms and rural heart, into a narrow, finite, calculating metropolis of manufactures" (IV, 30-31). This self-strangling, an active counterpart to the soul's sleep, contributes to a social portrait that is doubly paradoxical: the soul of the nation is both overfed and famished, at once softening into luxury and contracting into iron. Ruskin will deepen these paradoxes by 1860 into a profound critique of the English soul under industrialism, but here they seem shrill and irrelevant, particularly in the context of the hungry forties; 66/67] and yet they certainly reflect the condition of Ruskin's own soul as he described it in Italy ("I do not think I have lost power .... The life I lead is far too comfortable and regular, too luxurious, too hardening"). When he returned from Italy, he took up again the defense of the "neglected sympathies and desires," this time in terms not of the landscape sublime but of the human sublime represented by Tintoretto and the powers he calls forth in his viewers.
The theory of imagination that dominates the second half of Modern Painters II divides hydralike into three heads, with their complementary forms of fancy: imagination associative, which brings particulars together into an organic composition; imagination penetrative, which grasps the indwelling principles of things as an organic unity; and imagination contemplative, which embodies indistinct ideas in distinct form in the manner of reverie and which is somewhat unclearly related to mystical vision. These heads look stable at first but quickly dissolve into associative clusters, by which Ruskin tried to join his recent readings in Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt with examples from Italian painting; the result is the kind of rich confusion that was to become characteristic of him, a confusion he calls in one passage an "undercurrent of meaning" which, when traced carefully, discloses an emotional rather than an intellectual unity. The details of Ruskin's theoretical exposition will not detain us; our concern will be with the undercurrent of meaning in the section on penetrative imagination, where the experience of Tintoretto bears its richest fruit.
Ruskin spoke of the imagination as an intuitive grasp or Anschauung of the essence of an object, a going out from the self that leaves its trace in metaphors, visual or verbal. In a letter from Milan, Ruskin had [67/68] drawn for his father four sketches of hailstones, showing how one flowerlike stone revealed "its beautiful internal structure" through stages of melting and how a second stone was really two fused fragments growing from a white crescent and circle that formed its "root" (Shapiro, 150). The hailstone may symbolize for us the object of the penetrative imagination, whose activity Ruskin describes in an uncontrolled stream of metaphor: it "ploughs aside" "crusts or ashes, or outward images of any kind ... .. plunges to the very central fiery heart .... gets within all fence, cuts down to the root, drinks the very vital sap of that it deals with"; it is a "piercing, pholas-like mind's tongue, that works and tastes into the very rock heart"; and so forth (IV, 250-251). The mind here is the ravisher, not God; having so drunk, the artist achieves a steadiness that transcends both agitation and passionlessness: "At the heart of things [the imagination] poises herself there, and is still, quiet, and brooding, comprehending all around her with her fixed look" (IV, 258).
The referent of these extravagant metaphors, as Ruskin made clear in a footnote of 1883, is the delineation of a hero's mind. The metaphors, in other words, transfer to the "art of man" the destruction of the subject-object relationship in sublime seeing and the reformation of the artist's identity in the "shape" of his creation. The most clotted passage in this exposition is for our purposes the central one. The imagination, Ruskin writes, is
the Open Sesame of a huge, obscure, endless cave, with inexhaustible treasure of pure gold scattered in it; the wandering about and gathering the pieces may be left to any of us, all can accomplish that; but the first opening of that invisible door in the rock is of the imagination only. [In] every word set down by the imaginative mind [is] an awful under-current of meaning.... if we choose to dwell upon it and trace it, it will lead us always securely back to that metropolis of the soul's dominion from which we may follow out all the ways and tracks to its farthest coasts. [IV, 252]
In this kaleidoscopic cluster (the rocky cave, depths, undercurrent, and metropolis all seem to recall "Kubla Khan," a favorite poem of Ruskin's), the cave door seems to suggest the viewer's first rapture of discovery, the country of the secure wisdom that follows upon tracing [68/69] the ramifications of meaning (the "word" meanwhile dissolves and metamorphoses into an "undercurrent" that may be traced); the cave imagery then reverses itself, and the viewer occupies a "soul's metropolis" from which he or she may safety voyage to regions opened up by the pioneering artist.
What would such an art look like? Ruskin's chief instances are his well-known inconographic readings of Tintoretto, with their sudden symbolic Juxtapositions (as in the Crucifixion, which depicts an ass eating withered palm-leaves), and Turner's Jason, in which only a few coils of the serpent are disclosed. In each case the painter induces "occult and far-sought sympathies in every minor detail" (IV, 262), a sudden apprehension of supernatural Presence that roils, as it were, like Leviathan, at the outermost edges of our seeing. In such cases, "the mind of the beholder is forced to act in a certain mode, and feels itself overpowered and borne away by that of the painter, and not able to defend itself, nor go which way it will"; but that response is not possible except to "a mind of some corresponding power" (IV, 259-262). The idiom of this last phrase is Wordsworthian (the parallel expressions in the "Essay " are "a co-operating power" and "a corresponding energy"), but the experience described throughout the section on Imagination Penetrative is no longer the sweet surrender and self-forgetful exaltation of the romantic sublime. As in Modern Painters I , the aesthetic transaction is immediate and intense, but the imagery of the theoretical exposition, like the embedded examples, draws upon the charged and violent oppositions of Tintoretto's baroque: subject, artist, and viewer present themselves through verbs of entering, devouring, and fusing, of being cast down and lifted up again. In short, Ruskin achieves his chief theoretical aim — the justification of an "art of man" — by transferring the structure of the Burkean sublime, along with much of the imagery of wild, desolate, and savage landscapes, to representations of the human soul "fearfully and wonderfully made," and this solution answers an emotional need as well as an intellectual problem. For the dominant spatial configuration of Ruskin's text is not the open skies and vistas of his first book but an enclosed space which, when entered, becomes infinite — the Mind of Man, which Wordsworth called in the Prospectus to The Recluse "my haunt, and the main region of my song."
The "shape" of a sufficient selthood, which was the true object of Ruskin's travels in Italy, emerges most clearly in the climactic exposition of Michelangelo. Ruskin writes: "Mino stopped at the human nature; he saw the soul, but not the ghostly presences about it; it was reserved for Michel Angelo to pierce deeper yet, and to see the indwelling angels. No man's soul is alone; Laocöon or Tobit, the serpent has it by the heart or the angel by the hand ... that bodily form with Buonarotti ... is invariably felt as the instrument or the habitation of [68/69] some infinite, invisible power." The hailstones of Milan here become the human body with its angelic center by way of the unsculptured rock that for Michelangelo (as Ruskin notes) already contains the soul that "governs" the body of its chiseled surface. The angels, interestingly, are both the souls of particular bodies — "some infinite, invisible power" that inhabits the flesh Oust as an indistinct energy inhibits a concrete shape in metaphor) — and external presences, connecting the soul with a community by means of guidance or temptation. But the interfusion of human and spiritual also has a temporal dimension. The prophets and sibyls of the Sistine ceiling all gaze at the Last judgment, "silent, foreseeing, faithful," and so are caught by that gaze between a mortal and an immortal state, but Ruskin evokes the moment of resurrection most forcefully by juxtaposing the four allegorical statues in the Laurentian Chapel: "Ineffable types, not of darkness nor of day — not of morning nor of evening, but of the departure and the resurrection, the twilight and the dawn of the souls of men" (IV, 280-282). Like the stunning fusions of Tintoretto's paintings of Christ, which juxtapose birth and burial, baptism and crucifixion, victory and agony, Ruskin's reading of the Laurentian figures fuses the comings and going of all human life. By this point, his hurried glimpses of Renaissance masters push his argument beyond the range of aesthetic theory toward religious vision, a visual oxymoron by which the mixed state of human life is mastered by transcendent hope. (That mastery is probably the aim, obscurely, of the temporal juxtapositions in "A Walk in Chamounix.") This is also the strength of the angelic center, the soul that knows it is never alone.
These pages provide in effect a corollary in the visual arts to Wordsworth's statement in the "Essay Supplementary" that great poetry produces an "accord of sublimated humanity, which is at once a history of the remote past and a prophetic enunciation of the remotest future" (Prose Works, III, 66). I have suggested that Ruskin drew from this essay a confirmation of his own vocation, both as critic and evangelist of art, by recognizing in himself a "power" continuous with the original energy of youth — in this sense Wordsworth taught him, as he taught so many others, to feel. Details from Ruskin's theory of metaphor suggest that he also borrowed from a related Wordsworthian text, the Preface of 1815. There Wordsworth gives as an example of the abstracting and modifying power of imagination his own poem, "The Old Cumberland Beggar": "The stone," he writes, "is endowed with something of the power of life to approximate it to the sea-beast, and the sea-beast stripped of some of its vital qualities to assimilate it to the stone" (Prose Works, III, 33). At the confluence of the [70/71] human and the natural rises, for Wordsworth, this particular figure of aged and devastated endurance. It is a dramatic instance of what M. H. Abrams has called Wordsworth's wish to produce "an egalitarian revolution of the spirit ... so that ... [his upper-class readers] may share his revelation of the equivalence of the souls, the heroic dimensions of common life, and the grandeur of the ordinary and the trivial in Nature" (117). But to Ruskin in the 1840s such a reading of Wordsworth could have made sense only if translated into conventional expressions of charity and humility. Characteristically, his own example of the abstracting and modifying imagination is a heroic figure from Milton: "Satan endowed with godlike strength and endurance in that mighty line, 'Like Teneriff or Atlas, unremoved'" (IV, 292). Ruskin's religion taught him that felicity had been forfeited with the Fall, but the competing religion to which he gave prior allegiance, the religion of romance, taught him to seek evidences of the first estate in a sensuous ideal — a pursuit that committed him, in Italy at least, to extremes of ecstasy and disillusionment, since his overwhelmingly picturesque viewing of life excluded the actual and the ordinary as an interesting category. "As for the beauty of the inhabitants," he wrote from Macugnaga, his "Rasselas-valley," "poverty & labo[ur] set the same marks pretty fairly all over the world, & I haven't yet found the place where the ,village maidens' dress in satin, or the peasants in fancy jackets & conical hats" (Shapiro, 163). The note of self-irony is rueful nevertheless. But to experience the Cumberland beggar as neither a picturesque ornament nor an object of pity, rather to "confer being" on him, as Wordsworth does (The phrase appears in Trilling, 117) — that is, as a fierce and tragic acceptance of human destiny — is precisely to face the mortality that the romantic dream is designed to avoid.
It would be too much, of course, to expect such an acceptance from a young man brought up as Ruskin was, inexperienced, overprotected, and educated in a vulgar snobbery and a sanctimonious piety; nor can we expect of Modern Painters II what Ruskin expected of it in the ache of his ambition at twenty-six years — a mature and coherent aesthetic theory. What that book presents is not intellectual or emotional maturity but a terrible need for love laboring to overcome a terrible fear of humans and a precociously acute response to art laboring to overcome an aesthetic detachment from experience by an intense communion with the symbols of art. These symbols, he believed, could provide the equivalent of spiritual experience because they summoned up within [71/72] him an imperishable corresponding power. The images of "sublimated humanity" he discovered in Tintoretto and Michelangelo, the images even of death and suffering and sacrifice, transcend ordinary humanity as surely as the romantic dream evades it, yet they point the way to the remarkable moral and intellectual development of the decade to come. The assurance of redemption depends upon the assurance of spiritual power — the angelic presence within the body and accompanying the body; and from that strength follows an acceptance of growth and change, the exaltation of the humble, and the courage to confront death and loss.
Ruskin believed that in Venice in 1845 he accepted his mission as an interpreter. In fact he not only accepted that vocation; he had already transformed it. Historically, we can understand the emergence of Ruskinian art criticism as part of a general shift in English nonfiction prose that G. Robert Stange has called the shift from cognitive to expressionist writing (50). We can also understand it as a response to a new audience, the now-dominant urban middle class hungry for culture and guidance, with means to buy and travel. That class, consequently, brought about a revolution in the older relationship between artist and audience, partly because of its demand for reproductions. Photography played a crucial role in broadening the dispersion of culture. The new invention served Ruskin well in Venice when he needed records of architectural details, just as engravings, which are also reproduced mechanically, served him well as a complement to his own text — and so did the Liber Studiorum itself. This collection of engravings from Turner, supervised by the artist as a means to reach a vast popular audience, strikingly illustrates the development described by Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." The relevance of this famous essay to an understanding of Ruskin lies in a pair of oppositions: the contradiction between the widespread use of reproduction made possible by an advanced capitalist mode of distribution and what Benjamin calls the "aura" of a work of art, its "authenticity" deriving from "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be"; and a corresponding contradiction between the "appearance value" of a work and its "cult value," or in historical terms, the evolution of art from a religious object protected and even concealed by a priestly class to the extreme opposite, the sacrifice of that unique subject to a demand for mechanical reproductions. That sacrifice is for Benjamin a good thing, for it also overthrows an attachment to tradition and authority and to [72/73] such related concepts as "creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery." (Benjamin, 218-220, 221. See also Helsinger, 138).
The values Benjamin relegates to the old order are precisely the values Ruskin struggled to defend, yet Benjamin's conceptual oppositions illuminate a deep ambiguity in Ruskin's apostolic role as mediator between artist and audience. His own interpretations are a form of reproduction, substituting for the original object an experience that recurs with each act of reading, perhaps in one's own living room, a reproduction that may very likely outlast the object itself. Ruskin's method further violates the "aura" of individual works by subsuming them under veneral categories, such as "Truth of Skies," or by considering the complete works of Turner as a single disconnected commentary on the Book of Nature. The sublime genius is himself but an interpreter, great to the extent that he reveals a glory greater than his own. Yet the paradox of the genius at once exalted and erased simply exemplifies the larger paradox of Ruskin's own interpretations. For behind the verbal reproductions lies the sacred object, or at least its memory, which keeps the act of reading Ruskin incomplete and openended. The mediator is both the familiar guide near at hand and the voyager from afar. In the first volume, Turner is alive and well in London, but the Alps remain the cult objects, difficult of access yet not beyond the reach of a traveling audience; in the second volume the paintings themselves resemble cult objects in the special sense that they are little known, hard to find, and out of fashion. Insofar as the interpretation is a version and never a complete likeness, it cannot wholly usurp the aura of the ob ect. Thus the new art criticism affirms both cult value and appearance value, sanctifying the aesthetic object by rendering it homage yet tending also to displace it as an alternative expression, in a different medium' of an ultimate object of representation. This is the logos itself, the infinity of divine energy and human spirituality, whose manifestations must be at once rare and available to all.
Culture, the totality of all representations, is therefore both hierarchical and dispersible, just as Ruskin is himself both an evangelist of art and its specialized "priest." The experience of great art and of the natural sublime is on the one hand part of the human birthright, yet it must not on the other hand become too frequent, or art and nature would lose their aura or "novelty." Moreover, certain works of art — buildings in particular — are a social and not only an individual expression, so that their meaning depends precisely on their authenticity, their power to embody tradition and cultural authority. For both Ruskin [73/74] and Benjamin (rightly for one, wrongly for the other), sanctity reinforces adherence to the forms and structure of a conservative hierarchy. The paradoxes that Ruskin challenges a modern reader to face, in the phase of his career that we trace next, are, first, that the symbols sanctifying the authority of the past also embody the forms of radical social renewal and, second, that the remembrance that binds us to obedience binds us also to a reverence for all the works of human hands, visible signs of that great community of the tiving and the dead in the love of which alone we can find meaning in our own separate lives.
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 7 November 2012
Last modified 14 October 2010