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or analytical critic must labour to express an " idea
subsisting only in the mind : the sight never beheld
it, nor has the hand expressed it ; it is an idea residing
in the breast of the artist, which he is always labouring
to impart, and which he dies at last without im-
parting."

We have said that this high standard of criticism,
insisted on by Mr. Euskin, accounts for much of the
enmity which has been excited against him. The
reason of this is perfectly obvious. If power of
thought and vigour of imagination are required to
make an artist, artists will be few. Now it is a
melancholy fact that there are more second-rate
painters than second-rate anything else in the world,
except, perhaps, second-rate wines. Whole hosts of
worthy men, doubtless perfectly well adapted to
the ordinary pursuits of life, are encouraged by Art
Unions to cover canvas with inane combinations
of bad colouring which they call pictures, and are
in consequence deluded into the belief that they
are men of genius, and that Charles v., were he
now alive, would think it an honour to pick up
their palette-brush, as he did the brush of Titian. In
the productions of these men there are no traces of
thought, because they are incapable of thinking ; and
they are, not unnaturally, impatient of a canon of
criticism which exposes their deficiencies. Mr. Euskin
has done no better service than the exposure of such
foolish pretension. " The gems alone of thought and
fancy," says Mill, " are worth setting with the finished
and elaborate workmanship of verse ; and even of
them, only those whose effect is heightened by it."



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RU6KIN. 335

Dr. Arnold used to say there was no waste of time so
great as that of reading second-rate poetry, and disap-
proved even of schoolboys being drilled over Tibullus
and Propertius. What is true of poetry is not less
true of painting. Second-rate painters do no good to
the world, and do much harm to themselves. The
specimens of hopeless mediocrity which are yearly
multiplied on the walls of our Exhibitions are a
melancholy spectacle. They afford no amusement,
neither can they elevate the mind or improve the
taste. They are but examples of energies, which
surely might have been good for some purpose, utterly
wasted devoted to a pursuit which can never reward
them, save by ministering to a foolish vanity. If a
man be not really a true genius, he had better never
seek to rise above scene-painting.

Mr. Buskin's writings have done more for us than
give us conclusions and estimates ; they have fulfilled
the true end of criticism in this, that they have taught
us to think rightly on artistic subjects. Nor should
we forget to mention, what Mr. Kuskin himself would
regard their chief est glory, that they have taught
us to value and understand the greatest of English
painters. It was Bayle, we think, who said of Scaliger,
that " his learning and talents were too great for a
good commentator ; the one making him discover in
authors more hidden sense than they possessed, the
other leading him to perceive a thousand allusions
which had never been designed." The remark, though
paradoxical, has much truth, and is eminently appli-
cable to Kuskin on Turner. On the other hand, no
one has any love for art who does not read in pictures
or statues far more than is actually expressed. They
must be looked on with the eye of faith, as well as
with the faculty of appreciation. In proportion to
the grandeur and the beauty of the conception of the



336 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

artist, must be the self-surrender of the gazer, must
be his readiness to bring all his sensibility and ima-
gination to complete and perfect the idea which
the imperfection of the painter's language can but
dimly shadow forth. The best artists are the most
suggestive ; and he is a bold critic who will venture
to limit the suggestiveness of Turner. To measure
his genius is like attempting to measure the genius
of Shakespeare. Hallam, with his usual calm, clear
criticism, says of our great dramatist, that " no man
ever had at once so much strength and so much
variety of imagination. " The same words may be
applied to our great painter. His artist-life seems to
us marked by three stages of progress. The first
stage is when he is a patient and humble student of
other artists and of nature, his "noble and puissant"
imagination is "mewing its mighty youth." This
early time is marked, especially in his water-colours,
by sweetness, solemnity, and peace. Then came the
second stage the period of his middle life, when his
genius had attained bold independence the days of
his golden prime, when we see him "soaring with
supreme dominion through the azure depths of air,"
when he realised the infinity of space the days of
the Bay of Baiae and of the Old Temeraire, of the
horrors of his shipwrecks, and of the glowing beauty
of the sunny fields of France and the mountain glories
of Switzerland. And at last came to him, as to all
men, the inevitable decay, when this great light went
down in wild and wasted splendour. Mr. Kuskin will
of course think us very commonplace ; but we really
do not see how this is explained by saying that Turner
" died without hope " (whatever that may mean) ; or
that England, " the Iron-hearted," killed him, as she
had killed Byron and Keats. Whatever may be
thought of the treatment these poets received from



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 337

their country, there can, we think, be little doubt of
this, that the genius of no man was ever more appre-
ciated in his lifetime, or more tangibly rewarded, than
the genius of Turner, except perhaps the genius of
Scott whom, to be sure, Mr. Kuskin includes in his
dolorous list of great men who have died heart-broken
by the cruel neglect of their country. We believe the
cause to have been merely the decay of his physical
powers. And even in these works of the time of
decay there is the old glory, though obscured. But
in the works of the fulness of his strength there is a
boundless prodigality of thought, which distinguishes
them from all other pictures. As we look, one
thing after another comes out and reveals itself,
just as in nature ; and one idea after another is
awakened in the mind, exactly in the same way
as when we look on some surpassing landscape. It
is idle criticism to limit the suggestiveness of the
works of a man of genius by his own conscious
meaning. For is it not true that the highest genius
is, like prophecy, in a great measure unconscious of
itself? People go about repeating the cuckoo-cry,
"Oh, Turner himself said that Mr. Euskin saw
things in his pictures he had never meant." And
why not 1 That very power of vision is itself genius ;
and why should Mr. Kuskin be hindered from its
use, or from teaching us to understand it? When
we look on Turner's scenes of beauty, bathed in sun-
shine his glittering lagunes of Venice, foaming
English seas, and fairy sunsets, why should we be
forced to restrict our thoughts to what was actually
before the mind of the painter ? No one supposes
that Shakespeare wrote with a full and adequate con-
ception of his meaning ; and Shakespeare is not more
indisputably the first of dramatists than Turner is
the first of landscape-painters.



338 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

What now remains of our task is less pleasant ; for
we have to speak of Mr. Kuskin as a writer on other
matters than upon art, and it is impossible to do this
without fault-finding. He tells us, with a sort of
self-gratulation, that his work is broken by digressions
respecting social questions, which had for him " an
interest tenfold greater than the work he had been
forced into undertaking." He digresses not only into
social questions ; but into questions of metaphysics,
of literature, and of politics, unfortunately for his
reputation. It is not too much to say, that in hand-
ling these matters Mr. Euskin has succeeded in giving
his enemies an easy triumph, and causing sorrow and
shame to his sincere admirers. He is seldom right
except by chance ; and that chance is very rare.
Here all his faults as a writer become painfully
apparent. For his dogmatism is now the dogmatism
of ignorance; his inconsistencies are the inconsistencies
of caprice ; his intolerance is the intolerance of arro-
gance. Few things, perhaps, test better the value of a
man's opinion on any subject than his familiarity with
its details. Mr. Euskin is never impatient of the
minutest point in art or nature ; in all other things
accuracy is held of no account. Thus, he writes on
political economy, and lectures on the economy of art;
and yet he tells us that he never read any work on
economical science save Adam Smith, and for the
reason, that all the rest go too deeply into details. 1
Nor is this the worst. His language regarding
some of the great names in art, though sometimes
bad enough, was always justifiable by some show
of reason ; but nothing can excuse the following
sneer at the fame of Newton : " I hear of a
wonderful solution of nettles, or other unlovely
herb, which is green when shallow, red when deep.

1 " Lectiires on the Economy of Art."



THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 339

Perhaps some day, as the motion of the heavenly
bodies by the help of an apple, their light by the
help of a nettle, may be explained to mankind." 1 Of
metaphysics that is, of everybody's metaphysics but
his own he seems to think as lightly as he does of
science. His own metaphysics, as explained in vol. ii.,
are a sort of Aristotle and water. The value of his
literary judgments may be estimated by what he tells
us of his literary instructors. In the third appendix to
the third volume he tells us he owes most to Wordsworth,
Carlyle, and Helps. Mr. Helps is a very painstaking
writer, and sometimes shows considerable ingenuity in
making ordinary ideas appear imposing; but really
his name in this society does remind us of the fly
in amber. As Mr. Euskin advances, or, as we ven-
ture to think, deteriorates, Mr. Helps changes his
position. He becomes himself the leading spirit. In
a note to page 288 of the fifth volume, we find : " I
had hoped, before concluding this book, to have given
it a higher value by extracts from the works which
have chiefly helped or guided me, especially from the
writings of Helps, Lowell, and the Kev. A. J. Scott.
But if I were to begin making such extracts, I find
that I should not know, either in justice or affection,
how to end/' But though Carlyle is discarded, traces
of Carlyleism linger long. Even in the fifth volume
we have many passages which look like intentional
caricatures of that author's faults. The following has
numerous parallels : "The public remonstrated loudly
in the cause of Python : he had been so yellow, quiet,
and pleasant a creature ; what meant these azure-
shafted arrows, this sudden glare into darkness, this
Iris message ; Thaumantian miracle-working ; scat-
tering our slumber down in Cocy tus \ " Mr. Euskin
may take our word for it, the British public never

1 " Modern Painters," vol. v. p. 110.



340 THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

remonstrated, on this or any other subject, in such
very unintelligible language.

We cannot wonder at any literary eccentricities on
the part of a man who has made for himself such gods.
Sir Walter Scott is perhaps the only author whom Mr.
Kuskin fairly estimates. But this arises, we suspect,
only from Scott's love of nature. That it is not based
upon any principle of literary judgment, is shown con-
clusively by his instancing, as rival specimens of the
perfect play of the imagination, Ariel, Titania, and the
White Lady of Avenel 1 that vulgar and most un-
spiritual spirit, admitted by Scott himself to have been
a hopeless failure. The same capricious taste prefers
Gary's Dante to our own Milton ; 2 and quotes to us,
as "rivalless" in pathos and tenderness of heart, such
characters as Virginia and Fleur de Marie. 3 As to
" Paul and Virginia," we will only quote Carlyle's
" What a world of prurient corruption lies visible in
that super-sublime of modesty !" But, as for the
other, it is with astonishment that we see Mr.
Euskin selecting for praise any character in the
" Mysteries of Paris," a book beside which the broad
indecencies of Paul de Kock seem virtuous. Nor
are Mr. Buskin's inconsistencies on literary points
less extraordinary than his capricious judgments. In
one place he condemns Keats as "sickly;" and in
another he says that he has " come to such a pass of
admiration for him, that he dare not read him." In
his third volume of " Modern Painters" he tells us that
Shakespeare's view of Fate "closely resembled that
of the ancients ;" and in his fifth he draws an elaborate
contrast between the two developing the astounding
theory, that Shakespeare's tragedy is but the sport of
Fortune ending in darkness and final death ; while,

1 " Modern Painters," vol. iii. p. 98. 2 " Stones of Venice," vol. ii. p. 2C4.
3 " Modern Painters," vol. iii. p. 302.



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 341

" at the close of a Greek tragedy, there are far-off
sounds of a divine triumph, and a glory as of resurrec-
tion." So, too, we are told in vol. v. of "Modern
Painters" that the Homeric temper is "tender, and
practical, and cheerful;" and but a few pages farther
on, we read of " the deep horror which vexed the soul
of ./Eschylus or Homer." Indeed, on all questions of
ancient literature, Mr. Euskin exhibits his faults as a
writer in painful prominence. He is for ever dogma-
tising about Greek and the Greeks; while it is per-
fectly obvious that he knows little or nothing either
of their nature or their language. His telling us to
conceive of the Greek mind, by taking as its type " a
good, conscientious, but illiterate, Scotch Presbyterian
Border farmer of a century or two back," is one of the
most ludicrous things in literature. He gives Homer
as the best representative of the Greek nature ; which
is precisely what Homer is not, and from the scope of
his genius could not possibly have been. He never
even alludes to Thucydides or Sophocles, the two most
purely classical of all Greek authors. He admires
Plato, without understanding him ; and when he men-
tions Aristotle, it is to pass upon him the preposterous
criticism, that he is " forced, false, confused ; and has
given rise to inaccurate habits of thought, and forced
love of systematising." 1 Throughout the fifth volume
especially towards the close of it he interprets the old
Greek mythology into subtle meanings, after the fashion
of the later Greek schools a fashion all sound criti-
cism has long ago rejected. The theory which would
explain the early mythology of Greece by making it
symbolical of moral or philosophical truths, is as absurd
as the theory which would ascribe it to the inventive
genius of Homer and Hesiod. The mythopceic age
was neither conscious nor artificial. Mythology in its

1 " Stones of Venice," vol. ii. pp. 3, 19.



342 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN BUSKIN.

origin was altogether material, connected with place,
derived from language and from the impressions of
external nature. To invest it, in its beginnings,
with a conscious moral teaching, is to falsify its real
character, and destroy all its value as the strangest
phenomenon in the history of the human mind.

Mr. Ruskin's historical and political opinions are
not less singular. Venice is, beyond all others, the
country of his love. " Deep-hearted, majestic, terrible
as the sea the men of Venice moved in sway of
pomp and war ; pure as her pillars of alabaster stood
her mothers and maidens ; from foot to brow all noble,
walked her knights." Such are his grandiloquent
words. The plain fact is, that from the first founda-
tion of the state down to her later days, when she
deserted the allies whose succour she had implored,
and made a shameful peace with the Turks even after
the great victory of Lepanto, the history of Venice is
the unvarying record of a policy of ungenerous self-
seeking. Sparta, the Venice of the ancient world,
grasping, and jealous, and treacherous as she was,
could yet boast the glory of Thermopylae, and was rich
in the virtues of Brasidas and Kallicratides. But the
Queen of the Adriatic, through twelve hundred years
of prosperity and power, can point to not one heroic
name has left the memory of not one noble action.
A haughty and implacable oligarchy oppressed the
people, murdered their best Doges, and performed
their proudest exploit when they sacked the sacred
Capitol which all Christendom was leagued together to
defend. A nation with such a history fell unregretted.
No heart pitied, no hand was raised to succour, when
Venice was cast from her high estate by the confederates
of Cambray. And it is very characteristic of Mr. Ruskin,
that, as he reverences the old government of that
" Den of drunkards with the blood of princes,"



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 343

so he sympathises with her oppressors now. His
deliberate verdict on the Austrian government in Italy
is, that he " never heard a single definite ground of
complaint against it never saw any instance of oppres-
sion, but several of much kindness and consideration." 1
Nor is this to be wondered at ; for he never seems to
regard the wishes of the people to allow them freedom
of thought, or independence of life. His whole theory
of government is that of minute and constant super-
vision the people drilled and trained into education 2
certainly, but, above all, into unhesitating and unin-
telligent obedience. Freedom of action, and the
strength of character, the patriotism, the loyalty,
and the thousand civic virtues which freedom of
action fosters, find no place in his system. And
in perfect keeping with all this, is his selfish aristo-
cratic way of regarding the people, if any real equality
is claimed for them. He will gladly concede them
favours and favours far beyond their wishes or their
power to use ; yet he will not accord them their rights.
He regards them as a Eoman senator of the best type
would have regarded them, with toleration, even with
indulgence ; if so only they will be quiet and obey,
not seeking for power, not intruding on the tasteful
enjoyments of their superiors. Even the beauties of
nature must be reserved for the educated appreciation
of the few, uninjured by the noisy presence of the
uncultivated many. Thus he bewails the bridges over
the Fall of Schaffhausen, and round the Clarens shore
of the Lake of Geneva, because they " have destroyed
the power of two pieces of scenery of which nothing

1 " Stones of Venice," vol. iii. Book in.

2 And what an education ! In addition to reading, writing, etc., every
child should be taught "the first principles of natural history, physiology,
and medicine ; also to sing perfectly, so far as it has any capacity, and to
draw any definite form accurately, to any scale." " Modern Painters,"
vol. v. p. 333, note.

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344 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIX.

can ever supply the place, in appeal to the higher
ranks of European mind ; " and, in the same spirit,
he lauds Wordsworth's poetical crusades against rail-
ways, as a noble attempt to defend a district from
" the offence and foulness of mercenary uses." Now
in all this we can see nothing but selfishness. To
make railways from large towns into the regions of
lake and mountain, seems to us the very reverse of
"a mercenary use" of nature. Rather is nature thereby
enabled to accomplish fully the best use possible to
her that of refreshing and elevating the mass of man-
kind. Men and women are not to remain throughout
life pent up in lanes and alleys, sighing vainly for
"the meadow's sweet breath," in order that artists
and poets may gaze on nature's beauties undisfigured
by railway bridges. And in the endeavour to veil the
selfish cruelty of such a position, these men of taste
abuse the lanes and alleys, and the manufactures
which create them. But they begin at the wrong
end. They cry out for impossibilities ; and lament
the state of the country because their own pleasures
cannot be preserved. All their eloquent comparisons
between cottages covered with woodbine, and five-
storied mills, 1 will never do away with the latter.
They cannot abolish the lanes and alleys ; and, there-
fore, the best thing they can do is to provide the best
means of escaping from them. It is no true philan-
thropy to demand for the working classes conditions
of happiness which are impossible, while we deny
them those conditions of happiness which are within
our power. It is at once the most rational and the
kindest course to accept things which we cannot
prevent, and at the same time to welcome any
remedy ; and, among others, to build railway bridges
over all the waterfalls and round all the lakes in the

1 See " The Two Paths."



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN KUSKIN. 345

universe, if so the people of our towns are enabled
" to stand sometimes upon grass or heath." We freely
confess that we have more pleasure in the idea of an
excursion-train, full of Manchester working men and
women hurrying to refresh their life of labour with
a glimpse of Windermere, than in the idea of a dozen
Wordsworths reciting their own poetry in the selfish
solitude of unapproachable hills.

But neither in this nor in any other cheerful view
of our present condition does Mr. Kuskin concur.
His heart is filled with gloom, and with disgust at the
times in which he lives. Catholic emancipation is
probably the reason ; but whatever be the reason, the
fact is certain, that the state of England is deplorable.
Lord Macaulay tells us that Burke compared George
Grenville " to the evil spirit whom Ovid described
looking down on the stately temples and wealthy
haven of Athens, and scarce able to refrain from
weeping because she could find nothing at which to
weep." Much of this sort is the temper of Mr. Kuskin.
His baseless discontent has grown upon him gradually.
His tone has become gloomier with every succeeding
volume of his works, until at last it has come to
this, that England is " with her right hand casting
away the souls of men, and with her left the gifts of
God." 1 What this may mean we cannot guess ; but
mills seem to be dimly hinted at, when we are told
that it may be well that " every kind of sordid, foul,
or venomous work, which in other countries men
dreaded or disdained, it should become England's
duty to do, becoming thus the offscourer of the earth,
and taking the hyena instead of the lion upon her
shield." 2 And Carlyle, of course, is imitated in sneers
at our " Houses of Talk." Finally, inquiring readers,
coming at last on a passage like the following, accord-

1 " Modern Painters," vol. v. p. 354. 2 Ibid., vol. v. p. 331.

Z



346 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RU8KIN.

ing to their various tempers, sink into sulky despair,
or break out into vehement indignation :



" In each city and country of past time, the master-minds
had to declare the chief worship which lay at the nation's
heart ; to defend it ; adorn it ; show the range and authority
of it. Thus in Athens, we have the triumph of Pallas ; and
in Venice the assumption of the Virgin ; here, in England,
is our great spiritual fact for ever interpreted to us the
Assumption of the Dragon. No St. George any more to be
heard of ; no more dragon-slaying possible : this child, born
on St. George's Day, can only make manifest the dragon,
not slay him, sea-serpent as he is ; whom the English
Andromeda, not fearing, takes for her lord. The fairy
English Queen once thought to command the waves, but it
is the sea-dragon now who commands her valleys ; of old
the Angel of the Sea ministered to them, but now the Ser-
pent of the Sea ; where once flowed their clear springs now
spreads the black Cocytus pool ; and the fair blooming of
the Hesperid meadows fades into ashes beneath the Nereid's
Guard. Yes, Albert of Nuremberg; the time has at last
come. Another nation has risen in the strength of its
black anger ; and another hand has portrayed the spirit of
its toil. Crowned with fire, and with the wings of the bat."
" Modern Painters," voL v. p. 318.

We confess to have no patience or tolerance at all
for nonsense like this. For such a style of writing
Mr. Kuskin deserves far more severe condemnation
than for all his literary vagaries. These, at the worst,
could do no great harm ; but vague denunciations
like the above may be productive of much mischief.
If any man sees aught that is out of joint in the
times in which he lives, it is his duty to state it
clearly and plainly, so that no one can misunderstand



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 27 of 38)