Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ruskin: The Poetry of Architecture

So I've taken the plunge, tho heaven knows I don't have the time right now: I'm deep into the first volume of the Library Edition of Ruskin, Early Prose Writings. First things first: it's an immense pleasure, on a purely sensual level, to read Ruskin in this edition. The book is big, maybe 6 1/2" x 10", and a good 2 1/2" thick; the paper is delightfully heavy (specially laid for the Library Edition, with Ruskin's crest and initials as watermark), & to my eye as bright as when it came off the press over a century ago. The margins are ample, and the text is clearly & beautifully printed. Best of all are the illustrations, most of them photogravures of Ruskin's own drawings, in perhaps the clearest reproductions I've ever seen. And of course the annotations are delightful, in the best tradition of late-Victorian scholarship – every allusion accounted for, every connection with Ruskin's other works drawn.

This volume, as befits the first volume of the set, is for the most part juvenalia. Cook & Wedderburn have opted to organize their edition mostly chronologically, with a few exceptions: multi-volume works (Modern Painters, Stones of Venice) appear in consecutive volumes; within volumes, more important large works come before odds & sods. That's the case here. The first & largest piece in Early Prose Writings is The Poetry of Architecture, which Ruskin published as a series of articles in The Architectural Magazine in 1837-8, & which was only collected as a book much later.

It's very much a young man's book – Ruskin was 18 & 19 when he wrote it (tho he'd been publishing poems, & the occasional essay or note, for several years) & trying his best to do well at Oxford, which wasn't easy: his strong suits, as he laid them out around this time, were imaginative writing (read: sub-Byronic verse), drawing, & the study of geology & architecture – none of which were on the curriculum at the University. Indeed, while he was stoked to the gills on Sir Walter Scott & the Authorized Version, his Latin & Greek were pretty shaky, which put him at a distinct disadvantage among the Etonians & Harrovians around him. The Poetry of Architecture is a bit of rag-bag, an attempt to argue for the relationship of architecture to national scenery/topography on the one hand and "national character" on the other. Mostly it's JR recounting what he saw on his various family visits to the Continent, & compare it to what he knew from the family's annual wine-selling tours of Great Britain (Ruskin's father was a sherry merchant, in partnership with the Dolmecq family, whose sherries one can still pick up at the supermarket). Lots of descriptions of what characteristic English, Swiss, & Italian cottages look like, & how they best harmonize with the surroundings.

What I'm most struck by in this apprentice work – for JR has yet to formulate a coherent aesthetic in any self-conscious fashion, tho he's already got a good start on his aureate prose – is how astonishingly self-assured he is in his pronouncements. This is the work of a young man whose parents had been telling everyone he was a genius for a decade or more, & he's perfectly aware of it, & perfectly happy to live up to the label. The vast majority of the dissertations I've read, & the vast majority of the first books, have nothing like the consistent sense Ruskin's prose shows of inherent rightness. It gets oppressive after a while – as does the work of any 19-year-old jackanapes, no matter how brilliant – but there's also something rather intoxicating about it, even as he hands down Moses's tablets on matters I couldn't care less about (the proper form of a chimney, the proper angle a roof should make to its supporting wall).


tod_93901 said...


You mention Ruskin a lot; why Ruskin? I've never read him in school or out, and don't know if he's some Victorian stuffed-shirt or some wild creative genius. What do you recommend for starters? Thanks.

Vance Maverick said...

some Victorian stuffed-shirt or some wild creative geniusMake that "and", not "or"....

Vance Maverick said...

Cursed Blogger formatting, eating my newline again!