Ruskin the Refined

By Heitman, Danny | Humanities, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Ruskin the Refined


Heitman, Danny, Humanities


NEAR the dawn of the twentieth century, a young Englishwoman named Lucy is visiting an ancient church in Florence, unsure of what she is looking at, or how, exactly, to see it. She doesn't have her Baedeker, a popular travel guide, and is feeling lost without it. "She walked about disdainfully," we learn, "unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin."

The woman unsure of her own reaction to a lovely church without consulting "Mr. Ruskin" is Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E. M. Forster's celebrated 1908 novel, A Room with a View. The reference to "Mr. Ruskin" might be lost on many modern readers, although Forster obviously felt no obligation to explain it when he wrote his story. The man in question, John Ruskin, had died eight years earlier, in 1900, but his memory was still fresh in popular culture. In Ruskin's heyday, just about every educated Victorian knew who he was.

Born in 1819 to a wealthy merchant and an overbearing mother, Ruskin was an English writer on art, nature, literature, and political economy who dominated cultural thought throughout Britain-and, to some degree, the Western world-in the second half of the nineteenth century. Given his relative obscurity today, it's hard for contemporary readers to grasp how famous Ruskin once was. Reverently read and reflexively quoted, his pronouncements on everything from painting to poetry to private capital rang among his fans with an almost scriptural authority. His mother had once longed for him to be a bishop, and as an arbiter of his society's standards, Ruskin, in his own way, came close. "Taste ... is the only morality.... Tell me what you like," Ruskin asserted, "And I'll tell you what you are."

Forster was being wry when he mentioned Lucy's predicament-that she didn't know what to think until Ruskin had told her what to think. But Forster's tongue-in-cheek remark also acknowledged the spell Ruskin once cast over people of culture-or, at the very least, people who wanted to be considered culturally sophisticated. The slavish devotion of Ruskin's disciples irritated D. H. Lawrence, who found it all a bit much. "The deep damnation of selfrighteousness ... lies thick over the Ruskinite," Lawrence lamented, "like painted feathers on a skinny peacock."

Maybe Lawrence's dart came poisoned with a little envy. What author, after all, wouldn't want the kind of reception Ruskin enjoyed in his prime? Ruskin's many books, "bound in vellum or limp leather, were to be found lying beside the Idylls of the King on the tables of those who did not normally read, but wished to show some evidence of refinement," the late art historian Kenneth Clark observed. "For almost fifty years, to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul."

Ruskin was revered not only by the public, but by other writers and noted thinkers, including British prime minister William Gladstone. "From Wordsworth to Proust there was hardly a distinguished man of letters who did not admire him," Clark wrote. "Austere critics like Leslie Stephen believed him to be one of the unassailable masters of English prose, and, on the death of Tennyson, Gladstone (whom he habitually insulted) wished to make him Poet Laureate." Gandhi and Tolstoy would claim him as a powerful influence, too. Charlotte Brontë claimed that she did not truly perceive visual art until she read Ruskin's Modern Painters. Ruskin, she said, "seems to give me eyes."

Ruskin did not become England's poet laureate, which was no doubt for the best, since he wrote very little poetry, and most of it was forgettable. Even so, readers tended to think of Ruskin as a kind of poet, since his prose style, rich in metaphor, leaned toward the rhapsodically romantic. Victorians versed in Wordsworth loved this sort of thing, but to the modern ear, Ruskin can often seem overdone. …

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