Friday, May 25, 2012

like that anymore

[Sir Philip Sidney, an 18th-century copy of a 1578 original]

I realize that my blogging has been largely Ruskin-related for a while now, which is more than apt to put off some readers (like the old friend from grad school I've reconnected with on Facebook, whose most printable names for JR are a "pompous asshole" and "neurotic pedophile").  But one has to follow one's obsessions.

So I'm well into Bibliotheca Pastorum, Ruskin's "shepherd's library" for the home. The first volume was a translation of Xenophon's Economist, which mostly proved to me that (a) there's a reason we read Plato's Socratic dialogues, and not Xenophon's, and (b) if I want classical agricultural instruction, I'll go to Hesiod or Virgil, thank you very much. Volume 2 is titled (by Ruskin) "Rock Honeycomb," and consists of an edited version of Sir Philip Sidney's translations of the Psalms. (Mostly Sir Philip's – many of the latter, and better, specimens are by his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

Ruskin's edited these poems, not because he feels the KJV Psalms are somehow inadequate, but because he feels the various metrical psalters available are inadequate. The Psalms are after all songs, meant to be sung, and therefore should be presented in a form fit for musical setting. The Sidneys' Psalms are in Ruskin's account both fine poetry, accurate translation, and eminently singable. I dunno – as translations, they seem to be as full of verbal padding and syntactic inversion as any metrical psalter I've met. But they are, many of them, exquisite examples of Elizabethan verse, and very interesting and varied metrically. If I must have my Psalms in meter, however, I think I'll stick with Milton. ("Milt does more than Philip can / To justify God's ways to man...")
It's way too often that I find myself reading a book of criticism or biography from 60 or 70 years ago & thinking to myself, they just don't produce them like this anymore. And of course there's writers out there who do, whether it's a matter of "big picture" reconceptualization or painstaking close reading. But two very old Ruskin books have been striking me repeatedly with their smarts. One is Derek Leon's posthumously published Ruskin: The Great Victorian (RKP,  1949). While Tim Hilton's big two-volume Yale life is going to be the biography of record for decades to come, and while I can't count the number of Ruskin biographies I've read up to this point, several of them very good indeed, nobody comes close to Leon's package of graceful writing, psychological insight, and abundant, incisive detail. A tremendous read, even if in its pacing it sometimes feels a bit Victorian itself.

Real Ruskin criticism didn't really get off the ground, despite a continuous flow of books, articles and monographs from the the 1880s thru the 1920s, until R. H. Wilenski's John Ruskin: An Introduction to Further Study of His Life and Work (Faber, 1933). Most of those earlier works were pieces of explanation or hagiography (or hagiographical biography), and despite some valiant efforts like Frederic Harrison's little book in the English Men of Letters series, no-one had made the full-scale effort of untangling what had become the Ruskin "myth," sorting out the bullshit from the brilliance, and figuring out how the one was related to the other. Wilenski was an art historian of some note; he explains in his preface how he'd gotten a copy of the Library Edition at some point, & was in the habit of turning its pages over regularly, wondering at how a single man could say such penetrating and silly things from book to book.

Wilenski's premise is simple but powerful: One must key any statement of Ruskin's to its personal and historical context; once one plots out the details and overall curve of JR's emotional, intellectual, and social life, the imagery and ideas of the books and lectures become entirely explicable. As I say, it's a powerful premise, and the first half of Wilenski's book is devoted to an admittedly amateur, but entirely persuasive, critical psychobiography of Ruskin, one which makes sense of his shifts of attention, his changing obsessions, and his varying voices. (I've just plunged into the second half of the book, which is marked "critical" – I'll keep you posted on how persuasive this part is.)

Perhaps most fascinating is Wilenski's relentless deflation of the Ruskin myths. Ruskin, he shows, learned everything he knew about art more or less before he was 30, and spent the rest of his life either refining those lessons or turning away from art altogether – but most definitely not making any new discoveries, or revising earlier positions. The "overwork" Ruskin so complained of in later years? Mostly imaginary – he had armies of secretaries and copyists to deal with piddling correspondence and to make the artistic "records" he had once pursued himself; Ruskin was plagued, not by overwork, but by his own inability to focus on one thing at a time. And most importantly – Wilenski shows to my mind unanswerably that Ruskin's public reputation in the 1850s and '60s was actually rather circumscribed, that very few people outside of art circles (where he was widely hated) had ever heard his name. It was only with his assumption of the Oxford Professorship in 1870 that Ruskin began his ascent to Victorian sagedom. (Helped along by the earlier publication of a "selection" of purple passages from Modern Painters, which became a bestseller, and Sesame and Lilies, which for some reason became the prize book of choice for girls' schools.)

The view of Ruskin as an "art-dictator" in the '50s and '60s, ruling the aesthetic world from the bastion of Modern Painters, Seven Lamps of Architecture, and Stones of Venice, is sheerest myth (sorry, fans of the BBC's Desperate Romantics, a wonderful romp but about as historically accurate as Shakespeare in Love), a myth produced by Ruskinians and Ruskin-readers of the 1880s, '90s, and first decades of the 20th century, reading Ruskin's later Fors-era prominence back into his past. That insight alone is worth the price of admission, whatever the value of the stretches of Wilenski I've yet to read.

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