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[This essay first appeared as a chapter in New Approaches to Ruskin , ed. Robert Hewison (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 89-110.]

ike Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin frequently tries to win the assent of his audience by assuming the tone and techniques of the Victorian sage. Although John Holloway did not include the author of Modern Painters in The Victorian Sage, his pioneering study of this characteristically Victorian literary mode, Ruskin is in fact one of its greatest practitioners. Holloway, who considers both writers of fiction and nonfiction to be sages, correctly observes that works in this mode do not attempt to convince primarily by means of rational, logical argumentation and that they instead employ indirect, poetical, or rhetorical means. Holloway and subsequent critics who have studied these Victorians in terms of their literary methods have made valuable contributions to the understanding of nineteenth-century prose, but to perceive the defining characteristics of what I take to be an identifiable nonfictional genre, one must analyze more precisely the structures, methods, and manner of proceeding that create the nonfiction characteristic of the Victorian secular prophet.

In particular, by examining Ruskin's strategies in "Traffic," a neglected masterpiece of this kind of nonfiction, one can perceive the attributes of a literary form that continues to attract major writers down to the present day . As the discussion of "Traffic" will demonstrate, one may take the following as useful working definition of the kind of literature created by the Victorian sage: it is a form of nonfiction that adapts the techniques of the Victorian sermon, neoclassical satire, classical rhetoric, and Old Testament prophecy to create credibility for the interpretations of contemporary phenomena made by a figure, the sage, who stands apart from his audience and society.

The Victorian sage is, above all else, an interpreter, an exegete, one who can read the Signs of the Times. His essential, defining claim is that he understands matters that others do not — and that his understanding is of crucial value to those who see with duller eyes. Indeed, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Arnold are sages or secular prophets precisely because they perceive the central fact that the phenomena they choose to interpret demand interpretation. Many of the phenomena they urge upon us as instances of significant fact seem the natural and obvious materials to command the attention of one who would speak or write as a sage. Carlyle's Chartism fulfills our expectations when it urges upon the reader the crucial need of understanding the "bitter discontent of the Working Classes," and Arnold similarly introduces an important subject when Culture and Anarchy (complete text) opens the question of how England approaches the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Ruskin's many discussions of truth, morality, and greatness in art, like his examinations of the labor question and fundamental problems of political economics, likewise strike one as precisely the kind of question to which the would-be sage must direct his supposedly higher vision. However, one of the factors that distinguishes the pronouncements of the Victorian sage from ordinary political speeches, essays, and other discussions of such subjects is that the sage also frequently draws our attention to apparently trivial phenomena, to facts that only he at first perceives can embody meanings important to his listeners. Carlyle thus explains the significance of the "amphibious Pope" and "that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets" in Past and Present, while in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" Arnold similarly draws our attention to Wragg's murder of her illegitimate child and to "the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names, — Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg" In his introduction to The Crown of Wild Olive Ruskin similarly urges upon us the crucial significance embodied in the way a wrought-iron fence outside a newly built pub has affected its surroundings. In fact, the characterizing procedure of Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold and other sages, such as Thoreau, is this identification and subsequent interpretation of trivial phenomena as the embodiments of essential truth. This procedure necessarily entails grave rhetorical risks, since the writer can thus easily lose the confidence of his audience, but it also ensures that, when successful, the writer will have established his unique claims to authority and credibility — claims that are essential] in an age of transition and shaken belief. By showing the members of his audience that truth resides in unexpected places and that he, and only he, can reveal it to them, the sage convinces them to give a hearing to his views of man, society, and culture that might at first seem eccentric and even insane.

In "Traffic," as so often throughout his career, Ruskin self-consciously dons the mantle of the Victorian prophet to support his interpretations of contemporary phenomena. Therefore, perhaps the most effective way to begin a critical analysis of his manner of proceeding as a Victorian sage would be first to examine what portions of that method derive from the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Once one has determined how Ruskin draws upon this aspect of his religious heritage, one can observe where he diverges from it. Ruskin ends "Traffic," a lecture he delivered in Bradford on 21 April ] 864, with one of those familiar passages of heightened prose with which he generally closes brief works and sections or chapters of longer ones. Like a great many such Ruskinian closing flourishes, this one is set in a visionary mode and draws heavily upon biblical rhetoric, structure, and image.

Ruskin, who is engaged to convince his listeners that they must change their society if they wish to improve its architecture, sets his social, political, and aesthetic pronouncements within the context of the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament, both by alluding to specific texts and by employing the patterns of those who gave warning to both the children and enemies of God. After charging England with worshipping the Goddess of Getting-on, he points out that both pagan and Hebrew wisdom warn of the inevitable consequences of such a false religion. He cites the Critias, a dialogue Plato left incomplete, and then quotes at length the judgment of the Olympian Gods upon the inhabitants of Atlantis, who had fallen from godlike love of virtue to an all-too-human worship of power and material wealth. Plato's condemnation of such blind devotion to worldly success forms, says Ruskin, 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. (18.457-8)

Having criticized, harangued, and mocked his listeners previously in this lecture for their devotion to the Goddess of Getting-on, Ruskin calls upon the testimony of the ages to emphasize that he follows eternal, not transitory, standards. Zeus's pointed condemnation of the Atlanteans also serves to indict Victorian England, and Ruskin makes clear that he takes the mythical Atlantis, as he had earlier in his career taken Tyre and Venice, to be a type of his own nation. Then, having established that even the pagans realized that such spiritual blindness inevitably brings a nation to destruction, he turns to the Bible and likens England now to Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon. The allusion to the third chapter of Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzar erects an idol on the plains of Dura, reduces the inhabitants of Bradford to the moral and spiritual stature of the inhabitants of Babylon. Next, he alludes briefly to Christ's warning that cupidity — or the worship of the Goddess of Getting-on — is the root of all evil, after which he emphasizes that all men, whether pagan, Hebrew, or Christian, have always recognized that such worship is forbidden. Ruskin thus employs the first part of the familiar tripartite pattern of Old Testament prophecy — an initial reminder of the nature of divine law which the prophet's listeners have either forgotten or consciously disobeyed.

Next, he proceeds to the traditional second part of prophetic structure, the warning that continued deviation from the true path leads directly to horrible punishment and destruction. "Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one," he warns his audience, "and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come, or, worse than catastrophe, slow moldering and withering into Hades" ( 18.458). Having already alluded to the fates of Atlantis and Babylon, Ruskin has anticipated the final terrible destruction of any nation that lives as England is living. Specifically, he warns that his nation's end can come in the form of catastrophe or a slow moldering into hell — either as a bang or a whimper — but since he has already charged that his listeners have turned the once "green fields of England . . . furnace-burnt into the likeness of the plain of Dura," itself a type of hell, he suggests that England is already well on the way to destruction. Ruskin, one must observe, warns about more than the final destruction of England as a nation and civilization, for like so many modern prophets, such as Lawrence and Mailer, he is also speaking about the death of pleasure, of all pleasure, of that which gives one joy and will to live. As he warns that soon there will be no more "art, no more science, no more pleasure," he descends through the Ruskinian hierarchy of human faculties, for he is warning about the death of imagination and emotions that produce art, the intellect that produces science, and the bodily affections that are the seat of pleasure (For Ruskin's version of the ancient hierarchy of the faculties, see Works, 16.294, which is discussed in my Aesthetic and Critical Theories, 51-53). His prophet's curse upon the people, succinct as it is, is complete and pronounced with care.

Then, again following the tripartite pattern of biblical prophecy, Ruskin attempts to inspirit his listeners with a vision of that good which will come from returning to the ways of God and nature, for having expounded the law and stated the prophet's warning, he reassures them:

But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for- life, good for all men, as for yourselves; 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 "common wealth," all your art, your literature, your daily labors, 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. (18.458)

Alluding to Proverbs 3:17, a text which employs the full pattern of Old Testament prophecy, Ruskin offers his listeners a vision of life-giving harmony if they return to divine law. Then, rather than build commercial exchanges, they will build places of truer "exchange" — places of community and commonwealth, rather than edifices to house competition and the worship of the Goddess of Getting-on. Rather than traffic in the Temple, they will worship there and elsewhere correctly, vitally, pleasurably.

As he employs each of the three stages of this prophetic structure Ruskin also follows another manner of proceeding learned from Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other Hebrew prophets, for like them he adroitly positions himself in relation to his audience. Only once — when he mentions that such worship of golden idols or idolized gold is forbidden to "us" — does Ruskin place himself in the same position as his listeners. Only then does he permit them to take him as a man like them. This employment of the first-person-plural pronoun, however, serves as his only gesture of community and commonality during this closing section of "Traffic." On the other hand, gestures of opposition, rhetorical strategies that place him at a distance from his listeners, occur frequently in the course of his attack upon his audience and what he terms "this idol of yours" (18.457), and this opposition of speaker (or writer) and audience in fact characterizes the pronouncements of the Victorian sage. Such risky rhetorical strategies both set off this genre from most other literary forms and inevitably require special techniques to avoid alienating the sage's intended audience. In other words, the crucial difficulty in thus positioning the prophetic voice outside and above the society of the prophet's intended listeners is that he must find a way to be superior to them, and to convince them that he is superior to them, without alienating them. Or, to state this fundamental problem in slightly different terms: the Victorian audience is only willing to pay attention to someone extraordinary and set apart from the majority of men, but any claim that one possesses special insight threatens to drive it away.

This characteristic positioning of himself as sage in relation to his listeners appears earlier in "Traffic" when Ruskin first instructs them that England will inevitably pass away and then, moving to solace his listeners, he reassures them that they have come to such a dilemma only because they have been deluded by those Others, by the false prophets of Laissez faire capitalist economics. Ruskin opens this attack by forcing his listeners to realize that worshipping material success inevitably impoverishes a large portion of English society, after which he anticipates his audience's objections, openly admitting its hostility to him and his revelation: "you will tell me I need not preach against these things, for I cannot mend them. No, good friends, I cannot; but you can, and you will; or something else can and will. Even good things have no abiding power — and shall these evil things persist in victorious evil?" (18.455). After characterizing his audience's inadequate spiritual and political understanding by the fact that they mistakenly take the words of the sage to be mere preaching — a ploy he adopts elsewhere in this lecture — Ruskin then once again demonstrates his credentials, his credibility as sage. He is not simply haranguing against a phenomenon he finds wrong. Rather he is undertaking something far more serious, for he shows, in a manner typical of the sage's whole enterprise, that England's worship of worldly success has a precise, identifiable, interpretative significance. This worship exists within a decipherable system of signifying elements, and its meaning can be read to all who will listen, for that meaning is clear to the sage. That meaning appears in history, since "All history shows" that "change must come; but it is ours to determine whether change of growth, or change of death" (18.455). Having briefly joined with his listeners when he tells them that they can choose their own destinies, he immediately draws apart from them as, again striking the prophet's stance, he places contemporary phenomena within the context of eternity. "Shall the Parthenon," he asks, "be in the ruins on its rock, and Bolton priory in its meadow, but these mills of yours be the consummation of the buildings of the earth, and their wheels be as the wheels of eternity?" (18.455).

Having first complimented his listeners when he joined with them in the promise that they could choose their own fates, he withdraws from them to place the signs of the times within the context of ancient history and eternity. Immediately after thus reducing the importance of present English architecture (such as this planned exchange) by placing it within the context of eternity, Ruskin again draws close to his audience by partially absolving them of responsibility for the present Condition of England:

I know that none of this wrong is done with deliberate purpose. I know, on the contrary, that you wish your workmen well; that you do much for them, and that you desire to do more for them, if you saw your way to such benevolence safely. I know that even all this wrong and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty. And all our hearts have been betrayed by the plausible impiety of the modern economist, telling us that "To do the best for ourselves, is finally to do the best for others." Friends, our great Master said not so; and most absolutely we shall find this world is not made so. (18.455-6)

Exchanging the second for the first-person pronoun, Ruskin tries to loosen his audience"s allegiance to utilitarian economics, for one way that the sage gains the assent of his listeners is to compliment them or promise them hope after having revealed their present perilous condition. However, it is primarily by means of his unexpectedly convincing interpretations that the sage justifies his superiority to his audience.

In fact, Ruskin makes the inability of his contemporaries to understand supposedly clear phenomena to be a significant sign or symptom of their need for him. In order to emphasize that architecture is the product of an entire society and not merely of its architects or clergy, Ruskin insists: "It is not the monopoly of a clerical company — it is not the exponent of a theological dogma — it is not the hieroglyphic writing of an initiated priesthood; it is the manly language of a people inspired by resolute common purpose, and rendering resolute and common fidelity to the legible laws of an undoubted God" (18.444). Briefly taking a tack opposite to the one he usually adopts as a sage, Ruskin urges that all his listeners should be able to comprehend the significance of a nation's architecture. That they cannot and therefore they need his assistance implies that they have a beclouded spiritual condition that has darkened their understanding of all important issues. Of course, in thus urging that architecture, particularly Gothic architecture, is not the monopoly of a "clerical company," not the "exponent of a theological dogma," he is also continuing his long campaign against High Anglican and Roman Catholic proponents of Gothic architecture, for in attempting to appeal to an England whose worshippers were largely Evangelical Anglicans and dissenters, he had long attempted to convince his audiences that Gothic architecture was a people's architecture and not the possession of a church hierarchy. Ironically, Ruskin, who is here arguing against the High Church assumptions of a division between laity and priesthood, attempts to win from his listeners the admission that he possesses a priestly, prophetic stature, precisely because he can, in the High Church manner, understand mysteries which they do not.

Although the Victorian sage's separation of himself from his audience derives from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, his habitual practice of establishing credibility by interpretive virtuosity does not. Old Testament prophetic figures also frequently authenticate their claims to prophetic status by acts of interpretation, such as Daniel performs for Nebuchadnezzar, but the Victorian sage's acts of interpretation derive from the Victorian sermon, in which the preacher typically undertakes to set forth unexpected but essential meanings of scriptural word and event. Taking an announced biblical passage, the preacher frequently leads his congregation through a hermeneutic exercise, pausing along the way to define key terms, such as "type," "nature," "sacrifice," and "atonement." (For a detailed examination of the kind of sermons which had such great influence on Ruskin, see the first chapter of my Victorian Types.) These related strategies of interpretation and definition, which are derived from the homiletic tradition, furnish the sage with some of his most characteristic rhetorical patterns.

In "Traffic," after Ruskin has finally begun to fulfill his audience's initial expectations by speaking directly to the supposed point of his lecture — the architectural styles suitable for an exchange — he first performs an act of interpretation and then follows it by an exercise in definition. First, he urges that a nation's architecture necessarily exists in a signifying relation to its beliefs and conduct. Architecture, he insists, inevitably records and thus expresses a people's essential nature. He explains the kind of building created by the Greek worship of wisdom, the medieval worship of spiritual comfort and consolation, and the post-medieval worship of pleasure, after which he inquires, "Now, lastly, will you tell me what we worship, and what we build?" (18.447) . Displaying his characteristic alteration of familiar plain style with a rhetorically embellished one, Ruskin confides in his audience, as if he needs to get closer to its members and make them more vulnerable before he can strip them of their blindness and false understanding: "You know we are speaking always of the real, active, continual national worship; that by which men act, while they live; not that which they talk of, when they die" (18.447). Ruskin thereupon makes two claims characteristic of the sage: first, that he knows the true meaning of words, and, second, that he can restore language to a kind of ideal power, purity, and relevance. With this act of definition, the sage adopts the central homiletic device of defining key terms of a discourse in such a way as to seize control of the discussion and thereby make his audience dependent upon him.

The sage's devices of definition, redefinition, and satirical redefinition allow him to restore language to its true meaning by placing the word in proper relation to the thing or idea it represents. Definition thus allows one to function truthfully and well, since it enables one to exist in a proper relation to the truths of nature, man, and God, rather than in disjunction with them. Ruskin, like other sages, therefore usually begins by rejecting — and hence redefining — common words that we all use so casually, or else he hands down a pronouncement about a basic term. Characteristically, the sage thus asserts his control over the act of discourse by imposing his understanding of crucial terms upon the reader, for he rejects and often mocks his audience's usual understanding of such terms and their assumptions about them. Thereby, once again, the sage both demonstrates to his audience his essential superiority and places it in a relation dependent upon him. Thus, Carlyle's definitions of "mechanical," "symbol," or "clothing," like Arnold's of "culture," "criticism," and "poetry," seize control of the discourses in which they appear, and throughout his career as critic of art and society, Ruskin himself placed the greatest importance upon his definition and redefinition of key terms. In Modern Painters, for instance, he defines, among many other terms, "imagination," "beauty," "sublimity," "imitation," "greatness in art," "poetry," "proportion,, and "ideas of relation" (or composition), while his socio-political writings similarly offer the true meanings of "value," "wealth," and "justice."

"Traffic," which continually redefines the notions of traffic and exchange, also expounds the true meaning of "taste," "architecture," and other terms. When in this same lecture Ruskin comes to define religion and emphasizes that he seeks an essential, not a superficial, meaning, he draws upon William Wilberforce's popular Evangelical devotional work Practical Christianity in making a distinction between nominal and practical religion. According to Ruskin, "we have, indeed, a nominal religion, to which we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time, but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nine-tenths of our property, and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the "Goddess of Getting-on," or "Britannia of the Market'" (18.447-8 ). Having revealed the true meaning of a central term, a word upon which the entire argument rests, Ruskin once again withdraws from his listeners, placing them at that moral distance which signifies their unimproved, fallen, dependent state. As he makes this transition in emotional and moral distance, he also changes style and tone and employs elaborate parallels and rhetorical flourishes to emphasize that Victorian England possesses its own architectural style which too accurately expresses the nature of the country's practical religion:

It is long since you built a great cathedral; and how you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon, your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! — all these are built to your great Goddess of "Getting-on;" and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her; and it is quite vain to ask me to tell you how to build to her; you know far better than I. (18.448)

As Ruskin's redefinition of religion suggests, the Victorian sage's attempts to impose the meanings of key terms upon his audience often function as satiric sallies against the cloudy understandings of its members. Like other sages, Ruskin not only thus adopts the rhetorical patterns, tone, and ideas of both the biblical prophet and the contemporary preacher of the gospel but he also adds major elements of satire to these techniques. Drawing upon a wide range of satiric methods, Ruskin, like Carlyle and Arnold, attacks both his audience's understanding and its actions. Here the Victorian sage differs from neoclassical satirists, such as Swift, who had a profound influence upon their methods and ideas, for the secular prophet frequently makes his listeners the direct targets of attack. Swift wrote that satire is a glass in which we see everyone's face except our own, but Ruskin characteristically undertakes the grave rhetorical risk of attacking his audience directly and thus forcing its members to see their faces in the mirror. This kind of satire requires consolatory and other techniques to retain one's listeners. Such an approach to chastening one's listeners owes much to the homiletic tradition, since the social and spiritual situation of the sermon requires that the congregation recognize its inferiority to the preacher. Unlike the prophets Jeremiah or Isaiah, who speak as men removed from their contemporaries, the preacher is accepted by his listeners from the beginning of his discourse as one existing, however briefly, on a higher, more spiritual plane.

A second point at which the sages' applications of satire differ from those neoclassical masters of the form who so importantly influenced them is that in these Victorian works satire provides only a part of tone and structure, since the creations of the sage characteristically alternate between satirical attack and visionary solace and encouragement.

Ruskin employs satiric thrusts right from the beginning of his lecture when he informs the members of his audience in his opening paragraph that he will not tell them what they have come to hear because, in truth, they don't care about the subject. According to him, the total cost of such an exchange is to them, collectively, nothing, and, in fact, buying a new coat is a more important financial outlay to him than erecting this planned building will be to them.

But you think you may as well have the right thing for your money. You know that there are a great many odd styles of architecture about; you don't want to do anything ridiculous; you hear of me, among others, as a respectable architectural man-milliner; and you send for me, that I may tell you the leading fashion; and what is, in our shops, for the moment, the newest and sweetest thing in pinnacles. (18.434)

By reducing his enterprise as a critic of architecture to the level of a milliner, he mocks himself for receiving so little of his audience's respect, and in this way he makes some small amends for the abrasive opening of "Traffic." But, of course, drawing such an analogy between himself and the female milliner not only points out how little respect his listeners have for him as man and thinker, it tells far more harshly upon them, since this analogy implies that they perceive little more in a matter crucial to their society than transitory fashion. (Paradoxically, like many satirical analogies that cut at least two ways, this one begins to take on an unexpected validity by the close of the lecture, for as the audience gradually recognizes that architecture does indeed clothe and body forth a nation's inner self, one also perceives that Ruskin's initial satire has a Carlylean application and truth. Like Teufelsdrockh, the fictional author of Carlyle's Clothes Philosophy, Ruskin has shown that buildings are in a sense clothes, symbols of spiritual facts that they embody.) In addition to his deployments of satiric analogy and definition, Ruskin also makes fine use of what he himself termed symbolical grotesques — set pieces in which his initial conceit takes the form of an allegorical image, emblem, or fable. Ruskin's notions of the Symbolical Grotesque, which are the nexus of his theories of allegory, artist and imagination, appear in the third volume of Modern Painters (5.130-32), and The Stones of Venice (11.181-82). (The Aesthetic and Critical Theories, 370-99 provides an introduction to these Ruskinian theories of allegorical imagery and their relation to his conceptions of art and artist.)

For instance, after explaining the relation between the various religious faiths that have pervaded European culture since the days of classical Greece, Ruskin tells his listeners that if they based their society on a true religion and made modern labor a matter of heroism and not drudgery, he could then

carve something for you on your exchange worth looking at. But I can only at present suggest decorating its frieze with pendant purses; and making its pillars broad at the base, for the sticking of bills. And in the innermost chambers of it there might be a statue of Britannia of the Market, who may have, perhaps advisably, a partridge for her crest, typical at once of her courage in fighting for noble ideas, and of her interest in game; and on her shield, instead of St. George's Cross, the Milanese boar, semi-fleeced, with the town of Gennesaret proper, in the field; and the legend, "In the best market," and her corslet, of leather, folded over her heart in the shape of a purse, with thirty slits in it, for a piece of money to go in it, on each day of the month. And I doubt not but that people would come to see your exchange, and its goddess, with applause. (18.450-51)

Employing a version of the old satiric convention known as "Advice to a Painter," Ruskin creates a fictional work of art that functions as a satiric emblem mocking the spiritual Condition of England. The first details mentioned strike a comparatively light note, for they attack little more than the nation's tastelessness, but, as his entire lecture thus far has tried to demonstrate, such a condition represents a fearful inner state. Ruskin's allusions to his nation's abandonment of the way of St. George, like his reference to the Gennesaret pigs and to Judas's thirty pieces of silver, make clear his belief that such faith in worldly success is essentially satanic. Therefore his detailing the goddess's attributes becomes a means of charging that Victorian England has abandoned its earlier Christian beliefs, allowed itself to become possessed like the Gennesaret swine, and finally betrayed Christ himself. This fittingly grotesque assemblage of a nation's sins in visual form, like his parable of two householders and his parody of the capitalist's vision of earthly paradise (18.438-9, 453), permits him to make a harsh, detailed analysis of the state of England without assuming the tone or harangue of the moral preacher, which he can then reserve for special points of emphasis and instruction. Furthermore, the elements of indirection contained in such elaborate satirical images provide an economical means of stating truths which might otherwise appear too overtly hostile to his listeners.

In addition to thus making use of these satiric devices, Ruskin also employs a naive observer whose ingenuous observations reveal a disparity between the way things arc supposed to be and the way they in fact are. For example, when introducing the connection between a nation's architecture and its beliefs, he assumes this pose. The posture of the alien is in part natural to the Victorian sage since he addresses his audience so frequently from outside his society's usual points of view; but whereas he speaks then with unusual authority, the naive satiric persona, such as Goldsmith's Chinese citizen of the world, fails to understand and hence speaks with an unusual lack of authority. "I notice," Ruskin tells his Bradford audience, "that among the new buildings which cover your once wild hills, churches and schools are mixed in due, that is to say, in large proportion, with your mills and mansions" (18.440). Ruskin, having adopted this persona, begins with an implicit compliment to his listeners, for he points out that they have not stinted on churches or schools but have provided them in proper proportion to the mills which provide the economic strength of the region. In concluding this same sentence, however, Ruskin as a naive observer raises what proves to be an important question. Like Goldsmith's foreigner observing an odd custom, Ruskin tells his audience that he has noticed that "the churches and schools are almost always Gothic, and the mansions and mills are never Gothic. May I ask the meaning of this?" (18.440). Using the device of the alien or naive observer to set common things in a novel light, Ruskin draws his listeners' attention to their architectural eclecticism. At this point he abruptly abandons the mask of the naif, since he points out, as only a knowledgeable authority could, that such assignment of different styles to different building types "is a peculiarly modern phenomenon" (18.440), and that when medieval Gothic cathedrals were constructed the builders' homes and town halls took the same form.

Returning to this pose of the naif, he provides an unexpected interpretation of these apparently neutral facts. Earlier men built all their structures in the same style, "but now you live under one school of architecture, and worship under another. What do you mean by doing this?" (18.440).Satirists frequently derive conceits from plays upon the ontological status of things and ideas, often taking idiomatic expressions as if they were objects and moving something from the status of an idea to an object, or from an object to an idea- as Swift does so effectively when he rings changes on the ideas of afflatus, flatulence, inspiration, and wind in The Tale of a Tub. Ruskin similarly plays upon the ideas of "living under" a particular architectural style, intentionally running together the idiom's various usages to suggest both the physical act of living beneath a structure erected in a particular style and also the notion of granting allegiance to an abstract doctrine. Still assuming the pose of the naive observer, Ruskin thereupon confronts his audience as if they were fully conscious of what their manner of building implies about the nature of their religious belief. Asking the embarrassing questions permitted to outsiders, children, and fools, he inquires, "Am I to understand that you are thinking of changing your architecture back to Gothic; and that you treat your churches experimentally, because it does not matter what mistakes you make in a church?" (18.440). Then, as do all good satirists, skillfully varying his tone and point of attack, Ruskin then asks another disturbing question: "Or am I to understand that you consider Gothic a pre-eminently sacred and beautiful mode of building, which, you think, should be mixed for the tabernacle only, and reserved for your religious services? (18.440).

Such a conclusion at first seems quite complimentary to his audience, particularly if one recalls that it bears resemblances to Ruskin's own arguments in the first chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture for lavishing expense upon ecclesiastical buildings. But Ruskin's statements on architecture demonstrate that although he wished churches built in more lavish style than other structures, he did not accept that Gothic was a style set apart for ecclesiastical applications. In fact, having apparently set the division of architectural styles in a favorable light with his suggestion, Ruskin springs a rhetorical trap upon his audience, for abruptly abandoning the pose and tone of the na�f, he again speaks as a sage, pronouncing the full implications of such phenomena: "For if this be the feeling, though it may seem at first as if it were graceful and reverent, at the root of the matter, it signifies neither more nor less than that you have separated your religion from your life" (18.440).

Immediately after he has claimed that his listeners have "separated your religion from your life" — a charge he will expand upon when he later argues that they are six-sevenths pagan — Ruskin assumes the preacher's voice. In order to prove to his audience that religion cannot be isolated from other human affairs, he begins, as he so frequently does at crucial stages in an argument, by citing scripture in the manner of the Evangelical profounder of the Gospel. Ruskin had made elaborate use of scripture to argue for the importance of lavishing expenditure upon church architecture in The Seven Lamps and for the sacred nature of color in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, and now, alluding to Jacob's dream of a ladder joining earth and heaven in Genesis 28:12-17, he argues that God must be worshipped everywhere and not only in buildings set aside for that purpose. (Ruskin's arguments for the sacredness of color, which appear in 10.174-75) and (7.417-18), are discussed in the context of his applications of biblical typology to the enterprise of the sage in my Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows.) Ruskin's procedure, adopted in part surely because it answered to the experience and expectations of many in his audience, demands comment, because other evidence reveals that he was no longer a believing Christian at this point in his career, though within a decade he was to become one again. Like Carlyle, a master of such techniques of accommodation, Ruskin frequently employs the language, images, and rhythms of the Bible to suggest to an aggressively Protestant audience that he had more in common with its fundamental beliefs than he in fact did. With Carlyle such accommodation most commonly takes the form of redefining Christian terminology until it takes on his own meaning, and Ruskin also occasionally makes such uses of it. Here, however, he merely cites the source of that text found above so many dissenting chapels — "This is the house of God and this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:17) — and sets forth its original meaning. His combined act of interpretation and restorative definition has a cutting edge, because, whether or not Ruskin accepts Christian belief, he can use it to reveal that, judged by their own supposed faith, his listeners have separated their religion from their lives.

As this example of Ruskin's methods as a Victorian sage suggests, he derives many techniques from Victorian homiletics, eighteenth-century satire, and Old Testament prophecy. Setting "Traffic" within the context of such contemporary and earlier traditions of discourse emphasizes how necessary it was for the sage to adjust certain older techniques if they were to be used effectively in this new kind of prose. For instance, although Ruskin and other sages use the structural patterns, tone, and language of the jeremiad, they had to make major adjustments before they could apply such biblical materials to contemporary political and aesthetic issues. Because neither Ruskin nor other Victorians were literally prophets inspired by God, as had been Daniel and Isaiah, they could not deliver their predecessors' message to their contemporaries. At the very least, Ruskin and his fellow secular prophets had to demonstrate the way the old familiar points of faith lay hidden in their newer statements of them. Similarly, although Ruskin, Carlyle, and others use the tropes and procedures of the Victorian preacher, they never begin a discourse with their audiences in the same friendly, even acquiescent position as are those of the minister of Christ. Therefore, the sage must demonstrate his superiority, his greater vision, to the audience before he can hope to win its assent. Similarly, although the Victorian sages possess fine skill as satirists, they never remain satisfied with the satirist's goals of chastening foolish humanity for its specific foibles and general flaws. Rather, after using satire as merely the opening move in a complex attack upon erring thought and audience, finally establish his credibility, since as soon as his listeners accept that his satire is correct, they find themselves in the position of people who need guidance. Their old ideas have been attacked and they need others to replace them.

In addition to these devices, the Victorian sage employs several directly related to the creation of ethos. The careful positioning and adjustment of the sage's relation to his audience represents one such device. Another frequently employed is the use of self-denigration or confession of weakness to convince his hearers that he can be trusted. Such devices can take the form of the speaker's admission that he does not have the full respect of his audience, or they can appear in a form (used at the opening of "Traffic") of the claim that circumstances beyond his control force the sage to utter unpleasant truths. Both forms of self-denigration, which appear to derive ultimately from Montaigne, ingratiate the speaker with his listeners, for they imply that the sage, like the listener, has human weaknesses. More important, such admissions of weakness further imply that the speaker has courageously revealed all his flaws, all his weaknesses, and that the rest is strength. The speaker implies, "You can believe anyone who would so sincerely confess such embarrassing weakness in the interests of truth." Ruskin's characteristic layering of footnotes, which often turns portions of Modern Painters into a palimpsest, exemplify such confessions of weakness, for they clearly, almost aggressively, suggest that so much of what Ruskin has written is valid that he can willingly admit his few errors.

The sage's citations of personal experience are closely related to these devices derived from romantic emphases on sincerity. The presence of major autobiographical elements in so many nonautobiographical works of Victorian prose, which David J. DeLaura has observed, derives largely from this need to create ethos by suggesting to the reader that the conclusions presented have in fact been tested upon the writer's own pulse. Much of Ruskin's most important work — though not "Traffic" — functions in a manner analogous to In Memoriam, making the claim: "Reader, I was there, I experienced it myself," for many of his major writings, like Tennyson's great poem, use ideas, experiences, and even patterns of argument, not to convince the reader by intellectual means, but rather to allow him to re-experience what the author has felt. Tennyson begins with a fundamental action, the Victorian sages move on to provide replacements for those positions they have scorned.

Although Ruskin, like all practitioners of this form of nonfiction from Thomas Carlyle to Norman Mailer, makes elaborate and expert application of devices borrowed from other modes of discourse, the enterprise of the sage cannot be defined solely in terms of these earlier modes or traditions. But by placing "Traffic" and similar writings, such as Culture and Anarchy and Chartism, in the context of traditional rhetorical theory one can observe what distinguishes this form of writing from those others it draws upon. According to classical rhetoricians, argumentation occurs in three basic modes, those of logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos, or the appeal to reason, includes citations of authority, testimony, statistics, and syllogisms, while pathos, the appeal to emotions, includes any devices that allow the speaker to stimulate the audience's feelings on his behalf. Ethos, the appeal to credibility, founds all its attempts to convince on the implicit statement "I am someone worth listening to, I can be trusted." Of course, virtually all rhetorical techniques to some extent achieve ethos, and when any writer or speaker successfully demonstrates that he can use the tools of reason, his accomplishment obviously makes him more believable. Basing an argument entirely upon ethos, however, implies that neither intellectual nor emotional appeals can win an audience's attention and allegiance. The dominant role of ethos in the writings of the Victorian sage indicates quite clearly that this form of discourse arose as a response to the political, spiritual, and aesthetic situation of England in an age of changing beliefs. The sage's appeal to credibility, in other words, particularly well suits not only romantic conceptions of the artist-seer and Carlylean views of the Hero but also the needs of an audience which finds all received opinion has been cast into doubt.

As one might expect, the techniques and structures thus far observed in "Traffic" all contribute to the creation of this essential ethos. Ruskin's practice of definition and redefinition, which forces the audience to depend upon him because it makes him the possessor and creator of its words, obviously establishes him as one who speaks with authority. Similarly, his characteristic acts of interpretation repeatedly establish his sage's claim that he understands matters his listeners do not. Even Ruskin's satiric devices, which risk alienating his epistemological skepticism, one which holds that all faith is essentially subjective, and he proceeds by allowing his reader to enter his past experiences — to enter his subjectivity. This manner of proceeding, which implies that except in the poem's closing sections no single argument or experience can be cited as "Tennyson's," permits the poet to create that kind of work Ruskin argued for in Modern Painters when he held that the great artist-poet had to permit his audience to share his feelings and imagination and so perceive truths and states otherwise inaccessible to them. Unlike Tennyson, however, Ruskin generally employs what Richard L. Stein terms "fables of experience" whose validity is not cast into doubt when they are abstracted from their original context. Furthermore, unlike Tennyson, Ruskin the sage also uses such experiences directly for purposes of satire and argumentation. Throughout the first volume of Modern Painters he thus frequently juxtaposes his experience of a landscape to a painting of it by an artist, such as Claude, whom he wishes to attack. In this manner Ruskin can demonstrate, not only his expertise at wordpainting (which itself tends to win the audience's approval), but also his greater sensitivity to visual fact and visual beauty. (For an extended analysis of Ruskin's use of such word-painting as a satirical device in his criticism of Claude's The Mill (3.41-3), see There Began to be a Great Talking about the Fine Arts.") Ruskin employs his proto-cinematic presentation of particularized landscapes without satirical intent in The Stones of Venice to enable his reader to experience them as he has done, and he also uses it in other places for caustic analyses of false notions of art and life. For example, in the last volume of Modern Painters he demolishes theories of the picturesque by moving the reader closer to a "picturesque" scene in the Highlands, until he has revealed the suffering which underlies an aesthetic that treats people as mere visual objects (7.268-9).

Such rhetorical applications of essentially romantic experience appear to have carried us far from Ruskin the satirical sage and nineteenth-century prophet, but they merely emphasize what a wide range of techniques for creating ethos he can deploy. When he wishes to communicate his experience of landscape or of a painting in his art criticism, he employs his visual style. On the other hand, when he has no visual fact whose experience he wishes to communicate — as is the case in "Traffic" — his set pieces tend to be visionary rather than visual; which is to say that he employs elaborate symbolical grotesques for satiric allegory and parable. Unlike the visual set pieces of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, these satirical images no longer have the primary function of creating ethos, and therefore Ruskin had to develop the wide range of devices which make his audience give credence to the utterance of the Victorian sage.


DeLaura, David J. "The Allegory of Life: The Autobiographical Impulse in Victorian Prose," Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, (ed.) G. P. Landow. Athens, Ohio University Press 1979.

Holloway, John. The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London, Macmillan 1953).

Stein, Richard L. The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press 1975).

Last modified 30 April 2024