M. H. Abrams discusses the effects of the Book of Revelations on nineteenth century England in “Apocalypse: Theme and Variations,” highlighting the complications within a society in which Christianity had become strong and the Bible the most widely known and read text, and yet which was becoming increasingly secular. Revelation speaks of a time of corruption and evil when God will strike down the individuals and institutions that support such blasphemy and raise the world to a new kind of paradise, free of death and restored to innocence, an Eden that only those who have earned it will enter. This apocalyptic view of history, of course, placed the Church itself in the middle of the debate — for if mankind would have to be wiped clean and restored, then the powerful Church must have somehow gone astray from God’s plan. These difficulties also held true for writers of the time who had to state their new and more secular ideas in terms acceptable to their audiences. Abrams addresses this issue succinctly:
Even in the heyday of the idea of progress in the nineteenth century, when the sanction of its inevitability was asserted to be the inherent laws of social development, many proponents of social reforms to expedite a perfected society continued to use the language of biblical prophecy. In some part, of course, the biblical allusions were merely metaphors for secular convictions, designed to make new concepts and programs intelligible and acceptable to a traditionalist public and to endow new ideas with the potency of an existing religious faith. The biblical language, however, manifests an unbroken continuity with the origin of the concept of inevitable progress in millennial prophecy.
Abrams’ observations of the way in which secular social commentary gains credibility and even authority by using familiar Biblical and religious terms, especially in regard to apocalyptic events, certainly seems evident in the final paragraph of Ruskin’s “Traffic”:
The rest is silence. So ended are the last words of the chief wisdom of the heathen, spoken of this idol of riches; this idol of yours; this golden image high by measureless cubits, set up where your green fields of England are furnace-burnt into the likeness of the plain of Dura: this idol, forbidden to us, first of all idols, by our own Master and faith; forbidden to us also by every human lip that has ever, in any age or people, been accounted of as able to speak according to the purposes of God. Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one, and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come; or worse than catastrophe, slow mouldering and withering into Hades. But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for — life for all men as for yourselves Ñ if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace; — then, and so sanctifying wealth into 'commonwealth,' all your art, your literature, your daily labours, your domestic affection, and citizen's duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony. You will know then how to build, well enough; you will build with stone well, but with flesh better; temples not made with hands, but riveted of hearts; and that kind of marble, crimson-veined, is indeed eternal.
At first glance, this passage does not exactly appear secular to the modern reader. The high tone and dramatic imagery, the allusions to heaven and hell, the threats of a chaotic time to come — it would be impossible to read this passage without perceiving the religious overtones. Yet Ruskin’s “Traffic” does not concentrate on religion in itself. Instead, it charges the audience with hypocrisy, that they profess piety and morality and yet worship another sort of idol, one Ruskin names the “Goddess of Getting-On.” Ruskin does not berate his audience for not being pious enough, but for being caught up in an age of selfishness and materialism. According to Abrams’ interpretation, Ruskin would have no choice but to address this primarily secular matter in a religious way if he intended it to be understood and respected by his audience. Yet even removing the strongly colored language and analyzing the concept alone, Ruskin’s speech ties itself inextricably to Revelations. Whether he means it in terms of God’s apocalypse or the decay of modern society due to an emphasis on putting the individual above the many, Ruskin makes it clear that not only will the world come to a bitter end if it continues its course, but also that man himself has the opportunity to rebuild and make a change for the better.
1. Abrams makes the claim that secular writers essentially had to use Biblical references in order for their works to be widely read and understood. Does Abrams’ point seem accurate or confirmable? In other words, can it be assumed that Ruskin would not otherwise have used such language? Didn't Ruskin use this sort of language because he himself heard and read it every day?
2. Ruskin uses a Biblical tone and refers to religion consistently, but also throws in many secular references from Sir Walter Scott to Tennyson. What is the effect of putting these two styles together? What did Ruskin intend?
3. Abrams’ essay, as mentioned above, notes that Revelations posed a threat to the institution of the Church. What about secular writings (like “Traffic”) that liberally use images from the Revelations? How would the church have viewed them? Does “Traffic” support organized religion, oppose it it, or remain ambivalent?
4. Did Ruskin seek to mask the secular nature of his speech by using Biblical language? Would his audience have recognized the non-religious essence of the text immediately? How might they react to hearing such familiar language being drawn slowly further from religion itself?
Last modified 15 February 2011