Decorative Initial With the Victorian critic's usual method of arguing from assumed categories, Ruskin states that there are two "orders" of poets. The Creative poet thinks strongly and sees truly, having "a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches a feeling, as it were, from far off." Poets of the second, or Reflective, order, have the kind of "temperment" unsuited to calmness and philosophic distance, "that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion." In periods of crisis the will gives way before an upsurge of feeling, making the mind, "for the time, more or less irrational." Cognitive distinctions between the internal self and external world are blurred. The mind conceives a "morbid, that is to say, a so far false" idea about natural objects, interfusing them with its own emotional force. "All violent feelings have this same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the "pathetic fallacy.'"

Emotionally undisciplined poets allowed into their writings, according to Ruskin, "certain expressions and modes of thought which are in some sort diseased or false." Thus the highest creativity is the triumph of the active will over internal feelings and external objects, a victory of order over fantasy. In Ruskin's dynamic conception of life, health is seen as a process of shock and struggle, not an effortless homeostatis. The absence of morbidity in an artistic work may only reflect the absence of this creative strife, and of life itself. Therefore the pathetic fallacy, though a symptom of disease, "is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being" than is an easy accuracy of perception. "But it is still a grander condition," he declares, "when intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight."

Although the creative process Ruskin described pits the higher against the lower self, the ultimate product is an expression of the whole self, and a declaration that it stands "in due relation" with all things. Ruskin regarded the aesthetic images as the most complete way of conveying this internal-external harmony.

A distinctive feature of Ruskin's critical theory is his view that since man and nature are vitally connected, art should incorporate both human and natural life-forms and processes. The Gothic cathedral, for example, or Gothic style generally, gives the viewer a sense of affinity with divine creation by synthesizing the various aspects of vital growth. The quality of Savageness or Rudeness, the unfinished or unperfected nature of Gothic, is "the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress or change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom, — a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,�is a type of the life of the world." If Savageness is the symbol of growth in all animate things, and of their imperfection at any one time, Rigidity embodies the energy or strength of nature. It is "a stiffness analogous to that of the bones of a limb, or the fibres of a tree." Naturalism, the representation of foliage, symbolizes and marks the artist's responsiveness to the more "tranquil and gentle" aspects of nature: "The green herb is, of all nature, that which is most essential to the healthy spiritual life of man." The qualities of the artist's character are so inevitably transferred to the work of art, his own nature so directly becomes the nature of the work, that its forcefulness, thus implanted, must transfer itself to the audience. In Ruskin's criticism especially, the qualities of the healthy creative mind are identical with those of the healthful work of art. They are: strength and energy, growth or change, a sense of physical relationship with things in general, and a sense of unity and completeness of things in general.


If you accept Haley's interpretation of Ruskin's thought, how is Ruskin representative of his age?

If the Victorian era was one in which individuals felt increasing doubt, uncertainty, and fragmentation, what does it mean to espouse an aesthetic in which "a sense of unity and completeness of things in general" is a key component?

If Ruskin emphasizes the importance of images and the "whole self," what does that imply about the worth�or the intent�of poetry that may either be written in more fragmentary style and about a subject or individual that is fragmented?


Haley, Bruce. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Last modified 1994

6 May 2019