John Ruskin.

The Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford online

. (page 2 of 7)
Online LibraryJohn RuskinThe Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford → online text (page 2 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Then, roughly, a hundred years later, in 590, Ethelbert, the fifth
from Hengist, and Bertha, the third from Clotilde, are king and queen
of Kent. I cannot find the date of their marriage, but the date, 590,
which you must recollect for cardinal, is that of Gregory's accession
to the pontificate, and I believe Bertha was then in middle life,
having persevered in her religion firmly, but inoffensively, and
made herself beloved by her husband and people. She, in England,
Theodolinda in Lombardy, and St. Gregory in Rome: - in their hands,
virtually lay the destiny of Europe.

Then the period from Bertha to Osburga, 590 to 849 - say 250 years - is
passed by the Saxon people in the daily more reverent learning of the
Christian faith, and daily more peaceful and skilful practice of the
humane arts and duties which it invented and inculcated.

The statement given by Sir Edward Creasy of the result of these 250
years of lesson is, with one correction, the most simple and just that
I can find.

"A few years before the close of the sixth century, the country was
little more than a wide battle-field, where gallant but rude warriors
fought with each other, or against the neighbouring Welsh or Scots;
unheeding and unheeded by the rest of Europe, or, if they attracted
casual attention, regarded with dread and disgust as the fiercest of
barbarians and the most untameable of pagans. In the eighth century,
England was looked up to with admiration and gratitude, as superior to
all the other countries of Western Europe in piety and learning, and
as the land whence the most zealous and successful saints and teachers
came forth to convert and enlighten the still barbarous regions of the

This statement is broadly true; yet the correction it needs is a very
important one. England, - under her first Alfred of Northumberland,
and under Ina of Wessex, is indeed during these centuries the most
learned, thoughtful, and progressive of European states. But she is
not a missionary power. The missionaries are always to her, not from
her: - for the very reason that she is learning so eagerly, she does
not take to preaching. Ina founds his Saxon school at Rome not to
teach Rome, nor convert the Pope, but to drink at the source of
knowledge, and to receive laws from direct and unquestioned authority.
The missionary power was wholly Scotch and Irish, and that power was
wholly one of zeal and faith, not of learning. I will ask you, in the
course of my next lecture, to regard it attentively; to-day, I must
rapidly draw to the conclusions I would leave with you.

It is more and more wonderful to me as I think of it, that no effect
whatever was produced on the Saxon, nor on any other healthy race
of the North, either by the luxury of Rome, or by her art, whether
constructive or imitative. The Saxon builds no aqueducts - designs
no roads, rounds no theatres in imitation of her, - envies none of
her vile pleasures, - admires, so far as I can judge, none of her
far-carried realistic art. I suppose that it needs intelligence of
a more advanced kind to see the qualities of complete sculpture: and
that we may think of the Northern intellect as still like that of a
child, who cares to picture its own thoughts in its own way, but does
not care for the thoughts of older people, or attempt to copy what it
feels too difficult. This much at least is certain, that for one cause
or another, everything that now at Paris or London our painters most
care for and try to realize, of ancient Rome, was utterly innocuous
and unattractive to the Saxon: while his mind was frankly open to
the direct teaching of Greece and to the methods of bright decoration
employed in the Byzantine Empire: for these alone seemed to his
fancy suggestive of the glories of the brighter world promised by
Christianity. Jewellery, vessels of gold and silver, beautifully
written books, and music, are the gifts of St. Gregory alike to the
Saxon and Lombard; all these beautiful things being used, not for the
pleasure of the present life, but as the symbols of another; while
the drawings in Saxon manuscripts, in which, better than in any other
remains of their life, we can read the people's character, are rapid
endeavours to express for themselves, and convey to others, some
likeness of the realities of sacred event in which they had been
instructed. They differ from every archaic school of former design
in this evident correspondence with an imagined reality. All previous
archaic art whatsoever is symbolic and decorative - not realistic. The
contest of Herakles with the Hydra on a Greek vase is a mere sign that
such a contest took place, not a picture of it, and in drawing that
sign the potter is always thinking of the effect of the engraved
lines on the curves of his pot, and taking care to keep out of the
way of the handle; - but a Saxon monk would scratch his idea of the
Fall of the angels or the Temptation of Christ over a whole page of
his manuscript in variously explanatory scenes, evidently full of
inexpressible vision, and eager to explain and illustrate all that he
felt or believed.

Of the progress and arrest of these gifts, I shall have to speak in my
next address; but I must regretfully conclude to-day with some brief
warning against the complacency which might lead you to regard them
as either at that time entirely original in the Saxon race, or at the
present day as signally characteristic of it. That form of complacency
is exhibited in its most amiable but, therefore, most deceptive guise,
in the passage with which the late Dean of Westminster concluded his
lecture at Canterbury in April, 1854, on the subject of the landing of
Augustine. I will not spoil the emphasis of the passage by comment as
I read, but must take leave afterwards to intimate some grounds for
abatement in the fervour of its self-gratulatory ecstasy.

"Let any one sit on the hill of the little church of St. Martin, and
look on the view which is there spread before his eyes. Immediately
below are the towers of the great abbey of St. Augustine, where
Christian learning and civilization first struck root in the
Anglo-Saxon race; and within which now, after a lapse of many
centuries, a new institution has arisen, intended to carry far and
wide, to countries of which Gregory and Augustine never heard, the
blessings which they gave to us. Carry your view on - and there
rises high above all the magnificent pile of our cathedral, equal
in splendour and state to any, the noblest temple or church that
Augustine could have seen in ancient Rome, rising on the very ground
which derives its consecration from him. And still more than the
grandeur of the outward buildings that rose from the little church
of Augustine and the little palace of Ethelbert have been the
institutions of all kinds of which these were the earliest cradle.
From Canterbury, the first English Christian city, - from Kent, the
first English Christian kingdom - has by degrees arisen the whole
constitution of Church and State in England which now binds together
the whole British Empire. And from the Christianity here established
in England has flowed, by direct consequence, first the Christianity
of Germany; then, after a long interval, of North America; and lastly,
we may trust, in time, of all India and all Australasia. The view from
St. Martin's Church is indeed one of the most inspiriting that can be
found in the world; there is none to which I would more willingly take
any one who doubted whether a small beginning could lead to a great
and lasting good; - none which carries us more vividly back into the
past, or more hopefully forward into the future."

To this Gregorian canticle in praise of the British constitution,
I grieve, but am compelled, to take these following historical
objections. The first missionary to Germany was Ulphilas, and what she
owes to these islands she owes to Iona, not to Thanet. Our missionary
offices to America as to Africa, consist I believe principally in
the stealing of land, and the extermination of its proprietors by
intoxication. Our rule in India has introduced there, Paisley instead
of Cashmere shawls: in Australasia our Christian aid supplies, I
suppose, the pious farmer with convict labour. And although, when
the Dean wrote the above passage, St. Augustine's and the cathedral
were - I take it on trust from his description - the principal
objects in the prospect from St. Martin's Hill, I believe even the
cheerfullest of my audience would not now think the scene one of
the most inspiriting in the world. For recent progress has entirely
accommodated the architecture of the scene to the convenience of the
missionary workers above enumerated; to the peculiar necessities
of the civilization they have achieved. For the sake of which the
cathedral, the monastery, the temple, and the tomb, of Bertha,
contract themselves in distant or despised subservience under the
colossal walls of the county gaol.




I was forced in my last lecture to pass by altogether, and to-day
can only with momentary definition notice, the part taken by Scottish
missionaries in the Christianizing of England and Burgundy. I would
pray you therefore, in order to fill the gap which I think it better
to leave distinctly, than close confusedly, to read the histories of
St. Patrick, St. Columba, and St. Columban, as they are given you by
Montalembert in his 'Moines d'Occident.' You will find in his pages
all the essential facts that are known, encircled with a nimbus of
enthusiastic sympathy which I hope you will like better to see them
through, than distorted by blackening fog of contemptuous rationalism.
But although I ask you thus to make yourselves aware of the greatness
of my omission, I must also certify you that it does not break the
unity of our own immediate subject. The influence of Celtic passion
and art both on Northumbria and the Continent, beneficent in all
respects while it lasted, expired without any permanent share in the
work or emotion of the Saxon and Frank. The book of Kells, and the
bell of St. Patrick, represent sufficiently the peculiar character
of Celtic design; and long since, in the first lecture of the 'Two
Paths,' I explained both the modes of skill, and points of weakness,
which rendered such design unprogressive. Perfect in its peculiar
manner, and exulting in the faultless practice of a narrow skill, it
remained century after century incapable alike of inner growth, or
foreign instruction; inimitable, yet incorrigible; marvellous, yet
despicable, to its death. Despicable, I mean, only in the limitation
of its capacity, not in its quality or nature. If you make a
Christian of a lamb or a squirrel - what can you expect of the lamb
but jumping - what of the squirrel, but pretty spirals, traced with
his tail? He won't steal your nuts any more, and he'll say his prayers
like this - [2]; but you cannot make a Beatrice's griffin, and emblem
of all the Catholic Church, out of him.

[Footnote 2: Making a sign.]

You will have observed, also, that the plan of these lectures does
not include any reference to the Roman Period in England; of which
you will find all I think necessary to say, in the part called _Valle
Crucis_ of 'Our Fathers have told us.' But I must here warn you, with
reference to it, of one gravely false prejudice of Montalembert. He is
entirely blind to the conditions of Roman virtue, which existed in the
midst of the corruptions of the Empire, forming the characters of such
Emperors as Pertinax, Carus, Probus, the second Claudius, Aurelian,
and our own Constantius; and he denies, with abusive violence, the
power for good, of Roman Law, over the Gauls and Britons.

Respecting Roman national character, I will simply beg you to
remember, that both St. Benedict and St. Gregory are Roman patricians,
before they are either monk or pope; respecting its influence on
Britain, I think you may rest content with Shakespeare's estimate of
it. Both Lear and Cymbeline belong to this time, so difficult to our
apprehension, when the Briton accepted both Roman laws and Roman gods.
There is indeed the born Kentish gentleman's protest against them in
Kent's -

"Now, by Apollo, king,
Thou swear'st thy gods in vain";

but both Cordelia and Imogen are just as thoroughly Roman ladies, as
Virgilia or Calphurnia.

Of British Christianity and the Arthurian Legends, I shall have a word
or two to say in my lecture on "Fancy," in connection with the similar
romance which surrounds Theodoric and Charlemagne: only the worst of
it is, that while both Dietrich and Karl are themselves more wonderful
than the legends of them, Arthur fades into intangible vision: - this
much, however, remains to this day, of Arthurian blood in us, that
the richest fighting element in the British army and navy is British
native, - that is to say, Highlander, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish.

Content, therefore, (means being now given you for filling gaps,)
with the estimates given you in the preceding lecture of the sources
of instruction possessed by the Saxon capital, I pursue to-day our
question originally proposed, what London might have been by this
time, if the nature of the flowers, trees, and children, born at the
Thames-side, had been rightly understood and cultivated.

Many of my hearers can imagine far better than I, the look that London
must have had in Alfred's and Canute's days.[3] I have not, indeed,
the least idea myself what its buildings were like, but certainly
the groups of its shipping must have been superb; small, but
entirely seaworthy vessels, manned by the best seamen in the then
world. Of course, now, at Chatham and Portsmouth we have our
ironclads, - extremely beautiful and beautifully manageable things, no
doubt - to set against this Saxon and Danish shipping; but the Saxon
war-ships lay here at London shore - bright with banner and shield
and dragon prow, - instead of these you may be happier, but are not
handsomer, in having, now, the coal-barge, the penny steamer, and the
wherry full of shop boys and girls. I dwell however for a moment only
on the naval aspect of the tidal waters in the days of Alfred, because
I can refer you for all detail on this part of our subject to the
wonderful opening chapter of Dean Stanley's History of Westminster
Abbey, where you will find the origin of the name of London given as
"The City of Ships." He does not, however, tell you, that there were
built, then and there, the biggest war-ships in the world. I have
often said to friends who praised my own books that I would rather
have written that chapter than any one of them; yet if I _had_ been
able to write the historical part of it, the conclusions drawn would
have been extremely different. The Dean indeed describes with a
poet's joy the River of wells, which rose from those "once consecrated
springs which now lie choked in Holywell and Clerkenwell, and the
rivulet of Ulebrig which crossed the Strand under the Ivy bridge";
but it is only in the spirit of a modern citizen of Belgravia that he
exults in the fact that "the great arteries of our crowded streets,
the vast sewers which cleanse our habitations, are fed by the
life-blood of those old and living streams; that underneath our tread
the Tyburn, and the Holborn, and the Fleet, and the Wall Brook, are
still pursuing their ceaseless course, still ministering to the good
of man, though in a far different fashion than when Druids drank
of their sacred springs, and Saxons were baptized in their rushing
waters, ages ago."

[Footnote 3: Here Alfred's Silver Penny was shown and commented on,
thus: - Of what London was like in the days of faith, I can show you
one piece of artistic evidence. It is Alfred's silver penny struck in
London mint. The character of a coinage is quite conclusive evidence
in national history, and there is no great empire in progress, but
tells its story in beautiful coins. Here in Alfred's penny, a round
coin with L.O.N.D.I.N.I.A. struck on it, you have just the same
beauty of design, the same enigmatical arrangement of letters, as in
the early inscription, which it is "the pride of my life" to have
discovered at Venice. This inscription ("the first words that Venice
ever speaks aloud") is, it will be remembered, on the Church of St.
Giacomo di Rialto, and runs, being interpreted - "Around this temple,
let the merchant's law be just, his weights true, and his covenants

Whatever sympathy you may feel with these eloquent expressions of that
entire complacency in the present, past, and future, which peculiarly
animates Dean Stanley's writings, I must, in this case, pray you
to observe that the transmutation of holy wells into sewers has,
at least, destroyed the charm and utility of the Thames as a salmon
stream, and I must ask you to read with attention the succeeding
portions of the chapter which record the legends of the river
fisheries in their relation to the first Abbey of Westminster;
dedicated by its builders to St. Peter, not merely in his office of
cornerstone of the Church, nor even figuratively as a fisher of men,
but directly as a fisher of fish: - and which maintained themselves,
you will see, in actual ceremony down to 1382, when a fisherman still
annually took his place beside the Prior, after having brought in a
salmon for St. Peter, which was carried in state down the middle of
the refectory.

But as I refer to this page for the exact word, my eye is caught by
one of the sentences of Londonian[4] thought which constantly pervert
the well-meant books of pious England. "We see also," says the Dean,
"the union of innocent fiction with worldly craft, which marks so
many of the legends both of Pagan and Christian times." I might simply
reply to this insinuation that times which have no legends differ
from the legendary ones merely by uniting guilty, instead of innocent,
fiction, with worldly craft; but I must farther advise you that the
legends of these passionate times are in no wise, and in no sense,
fiction at all; but the true record of impressions made on the minds
of persons in a state of eager spiritual excitement, brought into
bright focus by acting steadily and frankly under its impulses. I
could tell you a great deal more about such things than you would
believe, and therefore, a great deal more than it would do you the
least good to hear; - but this much any who care to use their common
sense modestly, cannot but admit, that unless they choose to try the
rough life of the Christian ages, they cannot understand its practical
consequences. You have all been taught by Lord Macaulay and his school
that because you have Carpets instead of rushes for your feet; and
Feather-beds instead of fern for your backs; and Kickshaws instead
of beef for your eating; and Drains instead of Holy Wells for your
drinking; - that, therefore, you are the Cream of Creation, and
every one of you a seven-headed Solomon. Stay in those pleasant
circumstances and convictions if you please; but don't accuse your
roughly bred and fed fathers of telling lies about the aspect the
earth and sky bore to _them_, - till you have trodden the earth as
they, barefoot, and seen the heavens as they, face to face. If you
care to see and to know for yourselves, you may do it with little
pains; you need not do any great thing, you needn't keep one eye open
and the other shut for ten years over a microscope, nor fight your way
through icebergs and darkness to knowledge of the _celestial_ pole.
Simply, do as much as king after king of the Saxons did, - put rough
shoes on your feet and a rough cloak on your shoulders, and walk to
Rome and back. Sleep by the roadside, when it is fine, - in the first
outhouse you can find, when it is wet; and live on bread and water,
with an onion or two, all the way; and if the experiences which you
will have to relate on your return do not, as may well be, deserve the
name of spiritual; at all events you will not be disposed to let other
people regard them either as Poetry or Fiction.

[Footnote 4: Not _Londinian_.]

With this warning, presently to be at greater length insisted on,
I trace for you, in Dean Stanley's words, which cannot be bettered
except in the collection of their more earnest passages from among
his interludes of graceful but dangerous qualification, - I trace, with
only such omission, the story he has told us of the foundation of that
Abbey, which, he tells you, was the Mother of London, and has ever
been the shrine and the throne of English faith and truth.

"The gradual formation of a monastic body, indicated in the charters
of Offa and Edgar, marks the spread of the Benedictine order
throughout England, under the influence of Dunstan. The 'terror' of
the spot, which had still been its chief characteristic in the charter
of the wild Offa, had, in the days of the more peaceful Edgar, given
way to a dubious 'renown.' Twelve monks is the number traditionally
said to have been established by Dunstan. A few acres further up the
river formed their chief property, and their monastic character was
sufficiently recognized to have given to the old locality of the
'terrible place' the name of the 'Western Monastery,' or 'Minster of
the West.'"

The Benedictines then - twelve Benedictine monks - thus begin the
building of existent Christian London. You know I told you the
Benedictines are the Doing people, as the disciples of St. Augustine
the Sentimental people. The Benedictines find no terror in their
own thoughts - face the terror of places - change it into beauty of
places, - make this terrible place, a Motherly Place - Mother of London.

This first Westminster, however, the Dean goes on to say, "seems to
have been overrun by the Danes," and it would have had no further
history but for the combination of circumstances which directed hither
the notice of Edward the Confessor.

I haven't time to read you all the combination of circumstances. The
last clinching circumstance was this -

"There was in the neighbourhood of Worcester, 'far from men in the
wilderness, on the slope of a wood, in a cave deep down in the grey
rock,' a holy hermit 'of great age, living on fruits and roots.' One
night when, after reading in the Scriptures 'how hard are the pains of
hell, and how the enduring life of Heaven is sweet and to be desired,'
he could neither sleep nor repose, St. Peter appeared to him,
'bright and beautiful, like to a clerk,' and warned him to tell the
King that he was released from his vow; that on that very day his
messengers would return from Rome;" (that is the combination of
circumstances - bringing Pope's order to build a church to release
the King from his vow of pilgrimage); "that 'at Thorney, two leagues
from the city,' was the spot marked out where, in an ancient church,
'situated low,' he was to establish a perfect Benedictine monastery,
which should be 'the gate of heaven, the ladder of prayer, whence
those who serve St. Peter there, shall by him be admitted into
Paradise.' The hermit writes the account of the vision on parchment,
seals it with wax, and brings it to the King, who compares it with the
answer of the messengers, just arrived from Rome, and determines on
carrying out the design as the Apostle had ordered.

"The ancient church, 'situated low,' indicated in this vision the
one whose attached monastery had been destroyed by the Danes, but its
little church remained, and was already dear to the Confessor, not
only from the lovely tradition of its dedication by the spirit of St.
Peter;" (you must read that for yourselves;) "but also because of two
miracles happening there to the King himself.

"The first was the cure of a cripple, who sat in the road between
the Palace and 'the Chapel of St. Peter,' which was 'near,' and who
explained to the Chamberlain Hugolin that, after six pilgrimages to
Rome in vain, St. Peter had promised his cure if the King would, on
his own royal neck, carry him to the Monastery. The King immediately
consented; and, amidst the scoffs of the court, bore the poor man to
the steps of the High Altar. There the cripple was received by Godric
the sacristan, and walked away on his own restored feet, hanging his
stool on the wall for a trophy.

"Before that same High Altar was also believed to have been seen
one of the Eucharistical portents, so frequent in the Middle Ages. A
child, 'pure and bright like a spirit,' appeared to the King in the
sacramental elements. Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who, with his famous
countess, Godiva, was present, saw it also.

"Such as these were the motives of Edward. Under their influence

2 4 5 6 7

Online LibraryJohn RuskinThe Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford → online text (page 2 of 7)