But the chief effect of the sheltered life and advanced education to which he was subjected was to endow him with depth at the expense of breadth, and to deprive him of a possibly vulgar, but certainly healthy, contact with his kind, which, one must believe, would have checked a certain disposition in him to egotism, sentimentality, and dogmatic vehemence. At Oxford—whither his cautious mother pursued him—Ruskin seems to have been impressed in no very essential manner by curriculum or college mates.
With learning per se he was always dissatisfied and never had much to do; his course was distinguished not so much by erudition as by culture. He easily won the Newdigate prize in poetry; his rooms in Christ Church were hung with excellent examples of Turner's landscapes,—the gift of his art-loving father,—of which he had been an intimate student ever since the age of thirteen. But his course was interrupted by an illness, apparently of a tuberculous nature, which necessitated total relaxation and various trips in Italy and Switzerland, where he seems to have been healed by walking among his beloved Alps.
For many years thereafter he passed months of his time in these two countries, accompanied sometimes by his parents and sometimes rather luxuriously, it seems, by valet and guide. Meanwhile he had commenced his career as author with the first volume of Modern Painters , begun, the world knows, as a short defense of Turner, originally intended for nothing more than a magazine article. But the role of art-critic and law-giver pleased the youth,—he was only twenty-four when the volume appeared,—and having no desire to realize the ambition of his parents and become a bishop, and even less to duplicate his father's career as vintner, he gladly seized the opportunity thus offered him to develop his aesthetic vein and to redeem the public mind from its vulgar apathy thereby.
He continued his work on Modern Painters , with some intermissions, for eighteen years, and supplemented it with the equally famous Seven Lamps of Architecture in , and The Stones of Venice in This life of zealous work and brilliant recognition was interrupted in by Ruskin's amazing marriage to Miss Euphemia Gray, a union into which he entered at the desire of his parents with a docility as stupid as it was stupendous.
Five years later the couple were quietly divorced, that Mrs. Ruskin might marry Millais. All the author's biographers maintain an indiscreet reserve in discussing the affair, but there can be no concealment of the fact that its effect upon Ruskin was profound in its depression. Experiences like this and his later sad passion for Miss La Touche at once presage and indicate his mental disorder, and no doubt had their share—a large one—in causing Ruskin's dissatisfaction with everything, and above all with his own life and work.
Be this as it may, it is at this time in the life of Ruskin that we must begin to reckon with the decline of his aesthetic and the rise of his ethical impulse; his interest passes from art to conduct. It is also the period in which he began his career as lecturer, his chief interest being the social life of his age. By , he was publishing the papers on political economy, later called Unto this Last , which roused so great a storm of protest when they appeared in the Cornhill Magazine that their publication had to be suspended. The attitude of the public toward such works as these,—its alternate excitement and apathy,—the death of his parents, combined with the distressing events mentioned above, darkened Ruskin's life and spoiled his interest in everything that did not tend to make the national life more thoughtfully solemn.
His lectures as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, a post which he held at various times from to , failed to re-establish his undistracted interest in things beautiful.
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The complete triumph of the reformer over the art-critic is marked by Fors Clavigera , a series of letters to workingmen, begun New Year's Day, , in which it was proposed to establish a model colony of peasants, whose lives should be made simple, honest, happy, and even cultured, by a return to more primitive methods of tilling the soil and of making useful and beautiful objects. The Guild of St. George, established to "slay the dragon of industrialism," to dispose of machinery, slums, and discontent, consumed a large part of Ruskin's time and money.
He had inherited a fortune of approximately a million dollars, and he now began to dispose of it in various charitable schemes,—establishing tea-shops, supporting young painters, planning model tenements, but, above all, in elaborating his ideas for the Guild. The result of it all—whatever particular reforms were effected or manual industries established—was, to Ruskin's view, failure, and his mind, weakening under the strain of its profound disappointments, at last crashed in ruin.
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It is needless to follow the broken author through the desolation of his closing years to his death in Ruskin is often described as an author of bewildering variety, whose mind drifted waywardly from topic to topic—from painting to political economy, from architecture to agriculture—with a license as illogical as it was indiscriminating.
To this impression, Ruskin himself sometimes gave currency. He was, for illustration, once announced to lecture on crystallography, but, as we are informed by one present,  he opened by asserting that he was really about to lecture on Cistercian architecture; nor did it greatly matter what the title was; "for," said he, "if I had begun to speak about Cistercian abbeys, I should have been sure to get on crystals presently; and if I had begun upon crystals, I should soon have drifted into architecture.
And yet we cannot insist too often on the essential unity of this work, for, viewed in the large, it betrays one continuous development. The seeds of Fors are in The Stones of Venice. The book was dedicated to the principle that that art is greatest which deals with the greatest number of greatest ideas,—those, we learn presently, which reveal divine truth; the office of the painter, we are told,  is the same as that of the preacher, for "the duty of both is to take for each discourse one essential truth.
A glance at the following pages of this book will show how Ruskin is for ever halting himself to demand the moral significance of some fair landscape, gorgeous painting, heaven-aspiring cathedral.
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In "Mountain Glory," for example, he refers to the mountains as "kindly in simple lessons to the workman," and inquires later at what times mankind has offered worship in these mountain churches; of the English cathedral he says, "Weigh the influence of those dark towers on all who have passed through the lonely square at their feet for centuries";  of St. Mark's, "And what effect has this splendour on those who pass beneath it?
Now it is clear that a student of the relation of art to life, of work to the character of the workman and of his nation, may, and in fact inevitably must, be led in time to attend to the producer rather than to the product, to the cause rather than to the effect; and if we grant, with Ruskin, that the sources of art, namely, the national life, are denied, it will obviously be the part, not only of humanity but of common sense, for such a student to set about purifying the social life of the nation.
Whether the reformation proposed by Ruskin be the proper method of attack is not the question we are here concerned with; our only object at present being to call attention to the fact that such a lecture as that on "Traffic" in The Crown of Wild Olive is the logical outgrowth of such a chapter as "Ideas of Beauty" in the first volume of Modern Painters.
Between the author who wrote in , of the necessity of revealing new truths in painting, "This, if it be an honest work of art, it must have done, for no man ever yet worked honestly without giving some such help to his race. God appoints to every one of his creatures a separate mission, and if they discharge it honourably They are not contradictory but consistent. Amidst the maze of subjects, then, which Ruskin, with kaleidoscopic suddenness and variety, brings before the astonished gaze of his readers, let them confidently hold this guiding clue. They will find that Ruskin's "facts" are often not facts at all; they will discover that many of Ruskin's choicest theories have been dismissed to the limbo of exploded hypotheses; but they will seek long before they find a more eloquent and convincing plea for the proposition that all great art reposes upon a foundation of personal and national greatness.
Critics of Ruskin will show you that he began Modern Painters while he was yet ignorant of the classic Italians; that he wrote The Stones of Venice without realizing the full indebtedness of the Venetian to the Byzantine architecture; that he proposed to unify the various religious sects although he had no knowledge of theology; that he attempted a reconstruction of society though he had had no scientific training in political economy; but in all this neglect of mere fact the sympathetic reader will discover that contempt for the letter of the law which was characteristic of the nineteenth-century prophet,—of Carlyle, of Arnold, and of Emerson,—and which, if it be blindness, is that produced by an excess of light.
Many people regard the style of Ruskin as his chief claim to greatness. If the time ever come when men no longer study him for sermons in stones, they will nevertheless turn to his pages to enjoy one of the most gorgeous prose styles of the nineteenth century. For a parallel to the sensuous beauties of Ruskin's essays on art, one turns instinctively to poetry; and of all the poets Ruskin is perhaps likest Keats.
His sentences, like the poet's, are thick-set with jeweled phrases; they are full of subtle harmonies that respond, like a Stradivarius, to the player's every mood. In its ornateness Ruskin's style is like his favorite cathedral of Amiens, in the large stately, in detail exquisite, profuse, and not without a touch of the grotesque. It is the style of an artist.
A critical fancy may even discover in the construction of his finest descriptions a method not unlike that of a painter at work upon his canvas. He blocks them out in large masses, then sketches and colors rapidly for general effects, treating detail at first more or less vaguely and collectively, but passing in the end to the elaboration of detail in the concrete, touching the whole with an imaginative gleam that lends a momentary semblance of life to the thing described, after the manner of the "pathetic fallacy.
Mark's:  we are given first the largest general impression, the "long, low pyramid of coloured light," which the artist proceeds to "hollow beneath into five great vaulted porches," whence he leads the eye slowly upwards amidst a mass of bewildering detail—"a confusion of delight"—from which there slowly emerge those concrete details with which the author particularly wishes to impress us, "the breasts of the Greek horses blazing in their breadth of golden strength and St.
Mark's lion lifted on a blue field covered with stars. Equally characteristic of the painter is the ever-present use of color. It is interesting merely to count the number and variety of colors used in the descriptions. It will serve at least to call the reader's attention to the felicitous choice of words used in describing the opalescence of St. Mark's or the skillful combination of the colors characteristic of the great Venetians in such a sentence as, "the low bronzed gleaming of sea-rusted armor shot angrily under their blood-red mantle-folds"  —a glimpse of a Giorgione.
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He is even more attentive to the ear than to the eye. He loves the sentence of stately rhythms and long-drawn harmonies, and he omits no poetic device that can heighten the charm of sound,—alliteration, as in the famous description of the streets of Venice,. But if we wish to see how aptly Ruskin's style responds to the tone of his subject, we need but remark the rich liquid sentence descriptive of Giorgione's home,.
But none knew better than Ruskin that a style so stiff with ornament was likely to produce all manner of faults. In overloading his sentences with jewelry he frequently obscures the sense; his beauties often degenerate into mere prettiness; his sweetness cloys. His free indulgence of the emotions, often at the expense of the intellect, leads to a riotous extravagance of superlative.
But, above all, his richness distracts attention from matter to manner. In the case of an author so profoundly in earnest, this could not but be unfortunate; nothing enraged him more than to have people look upon the beauties of his style rather than ponder the substance of his book. In a passage of complacent self-scourging he says:.
Happily, therefore, the power of using such language—if indeed it ever were mine—is passing away from me; and whatever I am now able to say at all I find myself forced to say with great plainness. But Ruskin's decision to speak with "great plainness" by no means made the people of England attend to what he said rather than the way he said it. He could be, and in his later work he usually was, strong and clear; but the old picturesqueness and exuberance of passion were with him still.
The public discovered that it enjoyed Ruskin's denunciations of machinery much as it had enjoyed his descriptions of mountains, and, without obviously mending its ways, called loudly for more. Lecture-rooms were crowded and editions exhausted by the ladies and gentlemen of England, whose nerves were pleasantly thrilled with a gentle surprise on being told that they had despised literature, art, science, nature, and compassion, and that what they thought upon any subject was "a matter of no serious importance"; that they could not be said to have any thoughts at all—indeed, no right to think.
Let him split the ears of the groundlings, let him out-Herod Herod,—the judicious might grieve, but all would be excitedly attentive. Their Jeremiah seemed at times like to become a jester,—there was a suggestion of the ludicrous in the sudden passage from birds to Greek coins, to mills, to Walter Scott, to millionaire malefactors,—a suggestion of acrobatic tumbling and somersault; but he always got a hearing.
In lecturing to the students of a military academy he had the pleasing audacity to begin:. There can be little doubt that this later manner in which Ruskin allowed his Puritan instincts to defeat his aestheticism, and indulged to an alarming degree his gift of vituperation, was profoundly influenced by his "master," Carlyle, who had long since passed into his later and raucous manner. Carlyle's delight in the disciple's diatribes probably encouraged the younger man in a vehemence of invective to which his love of dogmatic assertion already rendered him too prone.
At his best, Ruskin, like Carlyle, reminds us of a major prophet; at his worst he shrieks and heats the air. His high indignations lead him into all manner of absurdity and self-contradiction. An amusing instance of this may be given from Sesame and Lilies. In the first lecture, which, it will be recalled, was given in aid of a library fund, we find  the remark, "We are filthy and foolish enough to thumb one another's books out of circulating libraries.
And yet in all the tropical luxuriance of his inconsistency, one can never doubt the man's sincerity. He never wrote for effect. He may dazzle us, but his fire is never pyrotechnical; it always springs from the deep volcanic heart of him. His was a fervor too easily stirred and often ill-directed, but its wild brilliance cannot long be mistaken for the sky-rocket's; it flares madly in all directions, now beautifying, now appalling, the night, the fine ardor of the painter passing into the fierce invective of the prophet.
But in the end it is seen that Ruskin's style, like his subject-matter, is a unity,—an emanation from a divine enthusiasm making for "whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report. The five volumes of Modern Painters appeared at various intervals between and , from the time Ruskin was twenty-four until he was forty. The first volume was published in May, ; the second, in April, ; the third, January 15, ; the fourth, April 14, ; the last, in June, As his knowledge of his subject broadened and deepened, we find the later volumes differing greatly in viewpoint and style from the earlier; but, as stated in the preface to the last volume, "in the main aim and principle of the book there is no variation, from its first syllable to its last.
The title Ruskin originally chose for the volume was Turner and the Ancients. Turner, Esq. That, then, was to be our work. How have we ravaged the garden instead of kept it—feeding our war-horses with its flowers, and splintering its trees into spear-shafts! Is its flame quenchless? For what can we conceive of that first Eden which we might not yet win back, if we chose? It was a place full of flowers, we say. Well: the flowers are always striving to grow wherever we suffer them; and the fairer, the closer.
There may, indeed, have been a Fall of Flowers, as a Fall of Man; but assuredly creatures such as we are can now fancy nothing lovelier than roses and lilies, which would grow for us side by side, leaf overlapping leaf, till the Earth was white and red with them, if we cared to have it so.
And Paradise was full of pleasant shades and fruitful avenues. Well: what hinders us from covering as much of the world as we like with pleasant shade, and pure blossom, and goodly fruit? Who forbids its valleys to be covered over with corn till they laugh and sing? Who prevents its dark forests, ghostly and uninhabitable, from being changed into infinite orchards, wreathing the hills with frail-floreted snow, far away to the half-lighted horizon of April, and flushing the face of all the autumnal earth with glow of clustered food?