A commentor on my last Ruskin post asks, quite rightly, "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?" (Vance replies that it shouldn't be "or" but "and.") I'm not entirely sure why I've become so obsessed with Ruskin over the past few years. My records show I started reading Ruskin back in 2001 or so. Heaven knows I never heard his name as an undergraduate, tho I took at least two or 3 Victorian lit courses. And he never popped up in my graduate career, either, even tho I did a course on Victorian poetry with Paul Sawyer, the author of one of the finer critical books on the man. (I do recall during my undergrad years reading the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark's A Ruskin Notebook, but I guess I wasn't prompted to look up the source-texts of his poem.)
I think, frankly, it was Guy Davenport who put me onto the man, as he put me onto so much us, both false trails & true. I'd been reading Guy for maybe 15 years when I noticed that he was talking about Ruskin all the time on the occasions we met, & then I noticed and got very excited by his essay "The House that Jack Built" (in The Geography of the Imagination) – yes, the one that posits Fors Clavigera as a kind of Victorian Cantos, & that argues that the symbol of the labyrinth is central to Ruskin & inherited by Joyce, Pound, & practically everyone else. That made me sit up and take notice.
I entered Ruskin rather randomly, by way of an Everyman edition of To this Last (collected with other essays on political economy), & found myself riveted by the man's voice – this eloquent, sometimes indeed "purple," rhetoric furiously excoriating Victorian capitalism & philistinism. It was obvious that Ruskin was not someone whose political solutions I could accept – if he hated capitalism as deeply as Marx or Engels, his solution was not a kind of socialism but a return to something like paternalistic feudalism – but the subtlety and underlying fury of his rhetoric proved intoxicating, ultimately addictive.
And from To this Last I found myself dipping into every sort of Ruskin I could lay my hands on: art criticism, architecture, literary criticism (there's an analysis of a passage from "Lycidas" in Sesame and Lilies that stands as perhaps the best bit of "close reading" before Empson), ecclesiastical criticism, & the wild & wooly digression-upon-digressions of Fors itself. Sometimes you can hear the machinery of his prose creaking, the rhetoric straining at the end of an exhausted essay or lecture to rise up to the expected peak of eloquence at the close – but there's always something there to reward the reading: an unexpected bon mot, a savage stretch of angry criticism, or an extended stretch of utterly insightful interpretation. Yeah, Ruskin is wrong – politically, morally, aesthetically – an astonishingly high percentage of the time. But he's very rarely dull for very long, at least to my ears.*
But what continues to awe me is the range of Ruskin's interests – you name it, he wrote on it: geology, meteorology, political economy, fiction, poetry, ecclesiology, philosophy, painting, ornithology, sculpture, engraving, iconography (a clear line of descent from JR to Panofsky), mythology, the illustration of children's books, architecture both practical & theoretical, the theory of landscape painting, music, and so on. Like Pound, Ruskin felt qualified to express an opinion on everything; unlike Pound, Ruskin's opinions are almost always worth considering. I'm beginning to suspect that a Ruskinian cast of mind – if not Ruskin's ideas directly, those ideas as diffused thru anglophone culture as a whole – is a central backdrop to the whole modernist enterprise, in ways that go well beyond Proust's translating Ruskin or Pound's name-dropping his works in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. (This may end up being a very big book.)
Joe asked the other week where to begin with Ruskin. I stick by my answer, tho I suppose that modernistic/postmodernistically-inclined folks might conceivably want to jump right into Fors: Kenneth Clark's old (but widely available) Penguin anthology, Ruskin Today, is a nice collection of high points; Phaidon still has an excellent selection of his art criticism, The Lamp of Beauty; both Oxford and Penguin have current selections available, and The Stones of Venice (abridged) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture are both available in nice paperbacks. Perhaps the loveliest way to get acquainted with this often unlovely & prickly man is his autobiography, Praeterita. Yes, start with Praeterita, then The Lamp of Beauty, and when your appetite is whetted, go on to the Penguin To this Last for a taste of the angry Ruskin.
*I will confess the first volume The Stones of Venice, after the virtuoso opening, is largely an ultra-technical yawn, & I've only cast my eyes over the disspiriting bulk of Vol. II of the Library Edition, which is devoted to his poetry; I suspect that one will be something of an ordeal.