Showing posts with label john ruskin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label john ruskin. Show all posts

Sunday, May 19, 2013

more – yes – Ruskin

It's become abundantly clear to me that one could make a life's work, not on Ruskin, but on secondary Ruskin materials alone. That's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess – one could probably read thru the whole corpus in a couple of years, if one didn't do anything else – but there is an awful lot out there. One of the great attractions of doing LZ in graduate school was that I could master the secondary literature in no more than a few weeks' time; and the really good secondary literature probably in a single week. Not so with Ruskin; of course, there's been a century more for the critical and biographical studies to accumulate.

Over this spring semester I've worked my way thru a few things, notably most of the editions Van Akin Burd has edited – Ruskin's letters to the girls at the Winnington School, Rose La Touche's diaries, and a strange book entitled Christmas Story, which is essentially a series of letters from JR recounting his paranormal experiences in Venice in 1876-7. Burd's MO in each of these latter two volumes is the same: under the guise of editing a fairly short text, he presents a behemoth introduction which in itself amounts to a monograph, then crushes the text itself under a mountain of annotation & commentary. This is okay for the La Touche texts; Burd's edition is the most complete account of Ruskin's late love affair. It's rather more tiresome for the "Xmas Story," whose introduction goes very far afield indeed in exploring the most tenuous connections JR had with the spiritualist community.

I've also been working thru Helen Gill Viljoen's editions of JR. I read her Ruskin's Scottish Heritage, and now I'm mired in her edition of JR's Brantwood Diaries. I may take a break – aside from the passages leading up to his breakdown, it's pretty dreary reading – and read her edition of his correspondence with Froude.
At any rate, most recently I tackled JR's letters to a longtime friend, Lady Pauline Trevelyan, as edited by Virginia Surtees. And realized before getting very far that I was reading another "Effie" book – that PT was one of his confidants in the wake of the breakup of his marriage in 1854. Now I'd already read some of the canonical texts on that event – Admiral William James's (Effie's grandson's) The Order of Release, and the rather weird response by JH Whitehouse, Vindication of Ruskin (one of the most astonishing books I know – Whitehouse reprints JR's note to his solicitors as if it were a "vindication," seemingly unaware that the note's major effect is to make Ruskin look like the biggest dick on the planet) – and I'd even read Suzanne Fagence Cooper's potboiler of a biography. But I'd never tackled the primary source on the business: Mary Lutyens's Millais and the Ruskins, the second of a trilogy of books (the first was Effie in Venice, covering their first married years, the third The Ruskins and the Grays, covering their courtship) on the Effie-John marriage.

Millais and the Ruskins is actually quite excellent: scrupulously edited, very well-written indeed, and seemingly quite balanced. Lutyens is careful to give JR credit wherever it's due, and to draw attention to any lapses on Effie's part. Her sympathy – quite rightly – is with Effie (as history's has been – Emma Thompson's film version, with Dakota Fanning as Effie, should be out any day now), but she's doing her best to present a narrative – or really an interlinked series of documents (letters, etc.) with commentary – that gives a fair deal to everyone involved. So it was quite a jolt, after breezing thru Lutyens in a couple of enthralled days, to return to Surtees's edition of the Trevelyan correspondence (under the anodyne title Reflections of a Friendship) and find a full-throated defense of Ruskin every bit as sniffy as Whitehouse's back in the 1940s. Sigh.

Ruskin was a creep in so many ways; he was also incredibly generous. He was a genius, but he was also, in many ways, an idiot. I find myself liking him more and more, the more I read, and at the same time disliking him. I try to hold the two emotions in balance, at once, rather than swinging back & forth in the manner Edel describes in his Principia Biographia. But it's never boring – tho god knows some of the letters these editors feel compelled to print are so trivial that they would have been better tossed into a Jamesian bonfire.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


[James Spates]

One of the few treasures in my Ruskin collection – and it's a working library, not a collector's treasure-trove – is a little vanity-press production from 1966, The Ruskin-Froude Friendship as Represented Through Letters. I picked it up in The Strand the year before last, along with a bunch of other Ruskiniana. It's inscribed by its author/editor, Helen Gill Viljoen "To Dr. Rosenberg – With kind regard and best wishes." Of course, that's John D. Rosenberg, author of The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin's Genius (1961), the book that's widely regarded as having kicked off contemporary Ruskin criticism, & a book which would start Rosenberg's career as a distinguished Victorianist. In 1966, Rosenberg was a young scholar; he had joined the Columbia faculty four years earlier; Viljoen was 67, & had retired from Queens College the year before. Since 1929, she had been working on Dark Star, a revolutionary biography of John Ruskin.

I'm most of the way thru James L. Spates's very strange and very absorbing The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen's Life of Ruskin. I'll be frank: this is a weird book. It's a smart book, if a bit eccentric. Spates is a professor of sociology, not a literary scholar, and he's sometimes a bit wobbly on the norms of the discipline – how to insert comments and emendations into quoted letters, how to cite cross-references in footnotes, and so forth. And he's not a critic or theorist of biography. Nonetheless, this is one of the most compelling pieces of writing about biography I've encountered in a very long time.

Helen Gill Viljoen (pronounced "Fil-yoon," if you were wondering) was an American Ruskin scholar. She's remembered for three books: a massive and incredibly detailed edition of Ruskin's late Brantwood Diary (Yale UP, 1971); a little book on Ruskin's friendship with Froude (Pageant, 1966); and Ruskin's Scottish Heritage (U of Illinois P, 1956), a large-scale "prelude" to a full-scale biography of Ruskin that she never wrote, or never brought to the point of publication.

Viljoen visited Brantwood in 1929, when Ruskin's library and papers were still in the house, pretty much in the state Ruskin had left them. Well, in the state Cook and Wedderburn had left them, after going thru everything in the course of preparing their 39-volume Library Edition of his works. She wasn't planning on doing much research; she had just finished her PhD at Wisconsin (on Modern Painters) and thought perhaps to follow up on some of her hunches about Ruskin's reading. But in the course of going thru the bookcases, she discovered Ruskin's diaries (which had never been published), and in reading thru them – and pretty much transcribing them whole over the next few weeks – she came to the conclusion that the Library Edition editors had systematically distorted the record of Ruskin's life – repressing the story of his obsession with Rose La Touche, airbrushing out the terrific tension in his relationship with his parents.

What she had in the diaries, Viljoen decided, was the basis for a new, revisionary life of Ruskin, one that would completely eclipse the "standard" lives of WG Collingwood and ET Cook, and would sweep away the handful of Stracheyan productions written in the first decades of the century. So for the rest of her life she was laboring towards a massive, multi-volume biography that would capture the true essence of Ruskin, that would set straight the mistaken record that almost all Ruskin scholars were relying on.

Viljoen's career, as Spates presents it, is a tragedy of an over-scrupulous scholar who could never stop researching, could never sit down and just write the book that she had been working her entire adult life to make real. Decade after decade, Viljoen accumulates more and more notes for her Ruskin biography, comes upon new caches of letters and stacks of documents. Time and again, she gets sidetracked: Before she writes the biography proper, she needs to transcribe and edit all of the sermon notebooks Ruskin kept as a teenager; and then she has to account for all of his ancestors, and remove various myths surrounding his parents' background; and then, disgusted with the way most of his diaries have been edited and published, she has to do her own massive job on his "Brantwood" diary, appending full biographical sketches of every person mentioned, annotating every single reference in his maddening allusive text (that last project seems to have eaten up around a decade of her working life).

Every job takes longer than she's planned; every ancillary project ends up sidetracking her from writing the biography proper. It's almost heartbreaking, really. Part of me admires Viljoen unreservedly: in her desire from absolute accuracy, and complete thoroughness, she's kind of a patron saint of scholars. But even scholarship has to stop somewhere. There's no such thing as total knowledge, & the desire for total knowledge can keep one from offering any of one's knowledge to the world in print.

Spates clearly reads Viljoen as kind of an unsung hero of Ruskin studies, and I'm inclined to agree. But my admiration for her is rather less whole-hearted than his. Yes, she probably knew more about Ruskin than anyone else alive – maybe more than anyone else ever will know. But the inability to know when to stop, to call a more or less temporary halt to the quest for information & to set down what one already knows, is at least as important a faculty of the scholar as the drive for continued research.

And frankly, I'm less than convinced that Viljoen's critical acumen is all that Spates makes it out to be. As he narrates in The Imperfect Round, Viljoen spent a number of years pursuing an allegorical reading of Ruskin's work, in which almost all of his writings, from the early Poetry of Architecture thru Praeterita (& even including his private diaries) are coded allegories of his own family, & later of his pursuit of Rose La Touche. Viljoen never published any of this work – she told everyone she knew about it, and received scant encouragement from the scholarly community – but apparently she clung to this reading to the very end. It distracted her from working on Ruskin's life for a number of years, and heaven knows how it would have affected the biography she never really wrote. The very notion of an extended allegory, running thru and structuring all of Ruskin's works, strikes me as incredibly unlikely; it goes against everything I know about how Ruskin wrote and thought, every intuition I've had about his work over the past decade of reading him. He's simply not that kind of writer. Alas, there's something all too Casaubon-like in this bit of Viljoen's intellectual history.

So I have reservations, both about Helen Gill Viljoen's work and about James Spates's full-throated praise of that work. But The Imperfect Round is a book every Ruskinian needs to own, and indeed every biographer ought to read. It's the most absorbing cautionary tale about the art of life-writing I've encountered, and gives us in scrupulous detail the moving human tragedy of a gifted writer's encounter with, and ultimate absorption in, the endless vortex of the record of the past.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Yes, back to blogging, with no fanfare, no trumpets, no FB announcements (maybe). With a welcome cold front, and an even more welcome end to the endless election season, the time seems right to resume posting occasional reminders (perhaps only to myself) of my existence.

Reading, as always. Very near the end of another trundle thru JH Prynne's huge Poems; re-reading Red D Gypsum (1998), Pearls That Were (1999), and Triodes (1999), found myself shocked by how much they had shaped my own idiom in both Torture Garden and in Red Arcadia. Never too old to be influenced, I guess, or too weak-minded.

Much Ruskin. As for the Library Edition, it's all over but the letters, specifically the last half of the second volume of letters. Along the way, as I continue to accumulate ancillary JR materials, I read a book or two a week of criticism or ephemera. J. H. Whitehouse's edition of The Solitary Warrior: New Letters by Ruskin (Houghton Mifflin, 1930) is definitely among the latter. 179 small pages, large type, huge margins – numerous blank pages between sections; I'd guess there's a 50-page ordinary book lurking in here. Perhaps there are a half-dozen letters of real (but only mild) interest in the volume – discussions of JR's relationship with Rose La Touche, socio-political speculations, early intimations of the Guild of St. George. The rest are invitations to tea, apologies for not writing, "staying in touch" notes. One marvels, by the end, that a major publisher bothered to bring this out at all. An index, I suppose of how precious any scrap of Ruskin's writing seemed at one time.

Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships (Röde Orm) is the bomb. My Swedish friend Göran gave me a British (HarperCollins) paperback a year or two ago, but I only started it the other day. Delicious, even guiltily delicious, reading. Flashman meets Dumas meets the Icelandic sagas.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

last ruskin

Once again I've reached a crossroads point in my Ruskin reading, & it's time to take a deep breath. I have, for all intents & purposes, finished the Library Edition. That is, I've finished the first 34 volumes. All that remains are Vol. 35, Praeterita and Dilecta (which I've already read a few times in other editions), vols. 36 & 37, which are a small sample (but hefty in themselves – well over 1000 pages) of Ruskin's letters, and vols. 38 & 39, a bibliography and index. Maybe in days to come I'll post a few notes on the last few volumes I've read (but not here – see note at end of post); right now I'm wondering about Praeterita.

You see, I'm teaching a graduate seminar devoted to JR this fall (beginning in a bit over two weeks – eek!), and of course Praeterita is on the reading list. And this summer I read well into the book in the edition I'll be using, a nice Oxford World's Classics edited by Francis O'Gorman. It's gotten pretty marked up, as any teaching text should be. But I'm wondering: I've got just about enough time, given the various projects on my desk – a major essay to finish by next week, a couple of tenure review files, the usual beginning-of-semester mishugas – to reread the book before classes begin. Should I a) forge ahead in O'Gorman, leaving the Library Edition volume untouched, or b) begin again with the Library Edition, and then read the rest of O'Gorman along with my students over the course of the semester (which, truth to tell, I'd do anyway), or c) do a "parallel" reading, working mainly in (and marking) O'Gorman, while consulting each page of the LE for useful footnotes and snazzy illustrations?

This "quandary," I'm afraid, does little more than illustrate my mild OCD, which gets more & more obvious as the years go by.

Cook & Wedderburn's introduction to this volume, however, is quite interesting. As usual (every volume in the LE has an introduction that clocks in somewhere over 50 pages), they give a narrative of Ruskin's life during the years in question, then a compositional history of the works contained in the volume proper. Here, there's very much a valedictory feel to the whole thing. They know it's really the last volume, so they provide a touching but not over-thorough account of Ruskin's last years, along with a summary of all the memorials given him. The latest, they point out, is this very edition: "Last among the memorials to Ruskin comes the present edition of his Life, Letters, and Works."

I'm struck by this formulation, how much it sets the LE within a very Victorian context (think Strachey's preface to Eminent Victorians, where he slams the Victorian commemorative biography:  
Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshop style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortége of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary, as the final item of his job.
Cook would later digest the biographical portions of his volume introductions into a single two-volume biography of JR.) The LE, unlike most modern editions of an author – think the Oxford Shakespeare, or the Oxford Middleton, or the California Duncan – aims to give us the whole of Ruskin. Not just the works, but the life, the letters, every possible interesting scrap. In the volume I've just finished (#33), there's a substantial section of "Ruskiniana," which consists of descriptions of Ruskin's writing habits, his thoughts on typography, reported conversations with him, etc. etc. ("Ruskin on Cats in Heaven," for instance.) 

As I recall, Auden is the most recent author for which we have a volume devoted wholly to "table talk." I can't say I wouldn't welcome such collections for any number of contemporaries. But then, I'm turning into a Victorian as I speak.
For those of my 7 readers who've borne patiently with my Ruskin-obsession over the past few years – you'll be glad to know that I'm farming off further Ruskin commentary onto another blog, which will run parallel with the Ruskin seminar I'm teaching this fall semester. So Culture Industry will be devoted, as I always meant it to be, to poetry & music & other matters of kulchural interest, & this irritating Ruskiniana will be thankfully sequestered to its own little space on the blogosphere. But I'll let you know when that's up & running, in case you're interested.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

reading Ruskin: endgame

In his luminous autobiography, Praeterita, Ruskin recalls how he read the Bible with his mother, from the time he was able to make out the words to the time he went up to Oxford. They went thru 2 to 3 chapters a day, each one reading alternate verses aloud: "she began with the first verse of Genesis, and went straight through, to the last verse of the Apocalypse; hard names, numbers, Levitical law, and all; and began again at Genesis the next day." Margaret Ruskin corrected her son's pronunciation and intonation, quizzed him on the meaning of hard passages, and set him verses to memorize each day. Unsurprisingly, he came out of it with an unparalleled familiarity with the language and ideas of the King James Bible. (Apparently, they made a brief foray into learning Hebrew as well, which didn't stick; in later years Ruskin would correct habitually correct KJV renderings with his own translations from the Vulgate or the Septuagint, but never from the Hebrew text.)

I feel a bit like the child Ruskin with my own Ruskin reading. Every morning, after getting the girls off to school (or driving them myself), I settle down with my coffee and a volume of the Library Edition for an hour or so. Typically, I've been covering around 50 pages a day, reading at a moderate pace, marking passages (in pencil, Tom!), making notes. When I finish a volume, I immediately pull out the next and begin the Editors' Introduction.

This sort of wholesale & roughly chronological reading, as I found when working my way thru LZ, is essential to getting a firm grasp of the shape & details of an author's career. But it's also dreadfully wearing. I've already mentioned how trying Deucalion, Ruskin's mineralogical "treatise" was. His books on ornithology and botany (Love's Meinie and Proserpina) were similarly tough trudges, for different reasons. Indeed, the Library Edition is so complete that there're whole volumes of what amount to laundry lists – Vol. XIII on Turner, for instance, is largely composed of Ruskin's catalogues of Turner drawings, and Vol. XXI, The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford, enumerates all of the specimen works he donated for his drawing school, in hundreds of pages. I confess to doing a bit of skimming when I come across a page which consists of nothing but the numbered names of drawings I've never seen, & whose subjects I can't imagine – but there's not a page I haven't cast my eye over carefully, looking for some interesting passage of description or commentary.

The day before yesterday – my mother's yahrzeit, a melancholy (and rainy) day – I finished the last letters (and appendices) of Fors Clavigera (Vol. XXIX) and a volume I'd been reading concurrently, The Guild and Museum of St. George (XXX), a collection mostly of notes, statements, correspondence, and catalogues relating to Ruskin's quixotic project to reclaim waste agricultural land in Britain and set up model cooperative (but rigidly hierarchical) farm communities, and to stock a museum for the edification of the workers. I fear from now on it's all downhill, however. The last two volumes of the Library Edition are a bibliography and an index. Volumes XXXVI and XXXVII are letters, which I intend to read, but at my own pace, piecemeal. And Volume XXXV is Praeterita itself, which I've already been thru several times.

Which leaves the odds & sods of Volumes XXXI thru XXXIV: a couple of volumes of other people's writing which Ruskin edited for the use of the Guild of St. George (right now I'm in the midst of XXXI, Biblioteca Pastorum, the beginnings of a kind of eccentric "household library" for Guild members); a number of very late Oxford lectures; a collection of public letters on various subjects; and various & sundry other sweepings (presented by the editors under the title "Ruskiniana"). I'm sure there will be some jewels – or at least some interesting bits – here. I do indeed look forward to The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Ruskin's own version of Silent Spring, and to Fiction Fair and Foul, his assessment of the English novel. But I'm pretty sure that nothing's going to measure up to the work of the '60s and '70s, from Unto this Last thru the fiery middle letters of Fors.

To put it simply: After his first major mental breakdown in early 1878, Ruskin never really gets his mojo back. It makes for sad reading, to say the least. The last nine numbers of Fors, written after his convalescence, are wan imitations of the earlier ones. Where the best letters of Fors read like muscular, proto-modernist ideograms of juxtaposed materials, iced off at the end with scrappy chunks of correspondence (think Paterson, in prose), the late ones feel like Ruskin desperately trying to focus his attention, trying time and again to sum up what's he's been about over the past 20 years. And he can't stop thinking about Rose La Touche, the Irish girl he fell in love with when she was 9 or 10, who died insane (at 27) in 1875, and whose name and specter (as St. Ursula) keep haunting all his writings. Praeterita manages to be his last masterpiece because it's an exercise in autobiography as therapy, Ruskin looking back at all the things in his life that make him happy, scrupulously avoiding everything that would upset him or send him back over the edge.

Reading the last run of Fors in conjunction with a few other Ruskin-related items – his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, his letters to Lady Mount-Temple (his great confidant on the Rose La Touche affair), a little monograph by Van Akin Burd on JR's flirtation with the spiritualists (yes, Rose communicated with him from the other world), JL Bradley's Ruskin chronology (what, you don't read chronologies?) – has given me a deeper sense of Ruskin's longstanding mental problems, the degree to which he struggled with depression for pretty much his whole life. But it's sad to see the man succumbing in the end, sad to watch the five-volume extinguishing of the lamp. Of all of the literary careers I've worked my way thru, Ruskin's is the most precipitous in its dropping-off. Well, maybe there's one comparable – from Praeterita, again:
The series of Waverley novels, then drawing towards its close, was still the chief source of delight in all households caring for literature; and I can no more recollect the time when I did not know them than when I did not know the Bible; but I still have a vivid remembrance of my father's intense expression of sorrow mixed with scorn, as he threw down Count Robert of Paris, after reading three or four pages; and knew that the life of Scott was ended: the scorn being a very complex and bitter feeling in him, – partly, indeed, of the book itself, but chiefly of the wretches who were tormenting and selling the wrecked intellect, and not a little, deep down, of the subtle dishonour which had essentially caused the ruin. My father never could forgive Scott his concealment of the Ballantyne partnership.*
*Scott was a silent partner in the firm of his publisher, James Ballantyne; when Ballantyne went belly-up in the banking crisis of 1826, Scott refused to declare himself bankrupt, & determined to write his way out of his enormous debts. Over the next six years he essentially ruined his health and his mind by overwork, producing some seven volumes of fiction, a six-volume life of Napoleon, a two-volume history of Scotland, and various other books.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

late Ruskin, on the rocks

Reading late Ruskin can be a disspiriting affair. There is a heady charm to the digressiveness of Fors Clavigera, a wonderful sense that one never quite knows what's coming next, and that very surprise is part of the power and – one might venture – innovation of the ongoing text (though Ruskin does indeed at one point in Deucalion refer to it as a "book"). But when it comes to the more straightforward "books" of his later years, the incompletion and digressiveness seem less charming or exciting than simply depressing, as though one were witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of a great mind. The effect is not unlike that produced by the later Cantos, I fear, where Pound's shored fragments no longer hold any luminosity in and of themselves, but simply function as shirt-cuff notes, shorthand indices to intellectual complexes that he can no longer be bothered to spell out or to explore in any detail.

Ruskin is of course always more discursive than Pound at even Pound's most voluble, but that very discursiveness, in the later books, is too often directed towards arcane polemics (as in the arguments with geologists in Deucalion) or, when he's lecturing, in puerile whimsy. The other week I finished the twenty-fifth volume of the Library Edition, that containing Love's Meinie (lectures on birds and bird-lore, mostly delivered at Oxford) and Proserpina (essays on flowers and floral classification, intended for various educative purposes). I'll admit I don't know much, and alas don't really care much, about either ornithology or botany. That may be one of my own failings. But neither did I learn much from either of Ruskin's books, and more than anything else found myself frustrated by their incompletion and air of general thrown-togetherness.

The twenty-sixth volume, containing Deucalion and various other writings on geology and mineralogy, is even more frustrating. It begins with a couple of articles on mineralogical subjects frankly too arcane for me to even begin to follow. The volume Deucalion itself, issued like so many of Ruskin's later works in serial installments, is a self-admitted ragbag. Ruskin begins the book proper by lamenting how many projects he has worked himself up for, how many books he could write, had he the proper time and his connected wits about him. But in the meantime, he concedes, he will throw together what notes he has accumulated on various subjects into books, and in Deucalion he will collect materials on his first and longest-lasting intellectual passion, geology. (More or less concurrently, Ruskin is also selecting passages – or overseeing the selection of passages – from earlier works such as Modern Painters to be reissued in various "Ruskin on ____" collections, all of which will be given typically arcane Latin titles.)

Despite all the passion as Ruskin invested in mineralogy, what's collected in Deucalion falls far short of gripping reading. There are several chapters on the "denudation" of landscape, which seem to grapple with the implications of Lyell's geological theories – that most aspects of currently observable geology can be explained by the action of forces we can observe every day (erosion by wind or water, most notably), only extrapolated over an enormous period of time. Ruskin is no young-earth creationist (though he takes many ill-directed jabs at Thomas Huxley along the way), but his arguments with the long-span incrementalists seem remarkably naive and obtuse. He wants there to be a shaping hand in the landscape, but he can't quite bring himself to throw out Lyell for Genesis; he just can't see, or can't stretch his time-vistas long enough to comprehend, how a small river can wear out a deep canyon.

Even more depressing are the several chapters devoted to explaining the movement of glaciers. It's not worth going into the details here, as much of this material is devoted to picking fights with one previous geologist, and promoting the work of another. Suffice it to say that Ruskin is convinced that a glacier cannot carve out a valley or a lakebed – any more, he explains, than honey is able to carve out a runnel in his teaspoon. He takes great delight in describing his glacial experiments in the kitchen of his friend Lady Mount-Temple, in which various cooking-pots and folded napkins play the role of mountains, while great quantities of ice cream represent glaciers.

The first volume of Deucalion ends with a discussion of the stratification and folds of mountains, in which Ruskin demonstrates his own counter-experiments to observations of other geologists by careful drawings of dyed and squashed folds of uncooked pie-crust. The second volume begins with of all things a lecture on the movement of snakes. It is frankly one of Ruskin's most embarrassing performances, all the more so because of the deep fascination he had with serpents (played out at great length in his discussion of Apollo and Python in the final volume of Modern Painters). "Living Waves" is a jumble-sale of drawings of snakes, first-hand observation of them at the zoological gardens, snake-lore from England to India, and some mildly interesting discussion of serpentine iconography in medieval art. It's most interesting when Ruskin takes on Huxley's evolutionary discussion of how the snake is related to the lizard; Ruskin prefers a moral, functional conception, in which the snake is midway between the trout and the bird.

It's hard to imagine what a live audience made of this performance. Ruskin notes at the outset of the lecture text that he had been cautioned that the lecture was somewhat discontinuous, so he provides a his reader with a thumbnail outline – which frankly does nothing more than underline its discontinuity. The brief chapter which follows, however, almost makes Deucalion worth the reading. "Revision" is in essence a reassertion of the whole of Ruskin's writings on nature and natural science, and on the representation of nature in art. It recapitulates and reasserts his faith that all observation and representation of natural form has the effect of giving the human observer access to knowledge of the divine hand that has made everything. Natural religion, Ruskin explicitly notes here, has always underlain his own commitment to nature itself.

Following this rather moving reassertion of Ruskin's life-work, there is a brief chapter on stellar shapes in minerals which trails off (abruptly and unconvincingly) into a piece of classical iconography. And then Deucalion, mercifully, is over. Well, almost – for like all of Ruskin's other late books, the text proper is followed by a score of pages of notes, drafts, and fragments for its continuation.

I have suffered for my Ruskin-obsession. Someday, if I ever get around to writing and publishing this book, you'll have the same opportunity.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

illustrated living

A couple of years ago in this space I reported on "brief lives" of Ruskin, offering capsule reviews of capsule biographies by Quentin Bell, George Landow, Robert Hewison, and Francis O'Gorman. I won't take back anything I said there – the recommendations still stand – but I've got to admit that, so far as the possibly mythical "general reader" goes, Kevin Jackson's The Worlds of John Ruskin (Pallas Athene & the Ruskin Foundation, 2010) is the brand-new, shiny and beautiful state-of-the-art vade mecum.

Last time I mentioned the role which biographical series played in the production of those earlier books: Bell's Ruskin was written for the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series; Landow's for Oxford UP's "Past Masters"; Hewison's for the grandparent of all English capsule biography series, the Dictionary of National Biography (then republished in OUP's "Very Interesting People" series). One series I didn't mention, and one book I didn't note, was Frederic Harrison's John Ruskin (Macmillan, 1902), published in the "English Men of Letters" series, edited by John Morley. That series, which Morley took on in 1877, seems to have attained almost Cliff's Note status for British students. As John Gross notes in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,
No comparable series has ever come so close to attaining the rank of a traditional British institution. In [Harold Nicolson's] Some People, the unlovable J. D. Marstock keeps a complete set on his mantelpiece while cramming for the Foreign Office examination, a long row of thin yellow Men of Letters and square red ones: '"My tutor," Marstock would say, "told me that the examiners expect one to have read the E.M. of L.S."'
Be that as it may, Harrison's is a really delightful little book. Harrison was an erstwhile disciple of Ruskin's who found his true spiritual home with the religion of Positivism, but who retained his deep love and respect for Ruskin's thought. He writes very well indeed; his remarks on Ruskin's celebrated "purple" style are matched only by Chesterton's.

But flashing forward a century, were I asked to put a single book on Ruskin in the hands of a neophyte, right now it would be Jackson's Worlds of John Ruskin. Jackson isn't so much a critic or scholar of Ruskin (as are Hewison, O'Gorman, and Landow) as he is a deeply invested advocate. Jackson is a literary journalist who writes on all manner of subjects for the Independent; he's scripted two comic book adaptations of Ruskin's thought, How To See and How to Be Rich; he apparently has a big illustrated history of high modernism in the works. He writes very well, in the manner of intelligent British journalists. And he's immersed himself in Ruskin to an impressive degree to produce The Worlds of John Ruskin.

This large-format book is not at all in the category of the handy pocket Men of Letters or Past Masters series; it reminds me more of Thames & Hudson's illustrated "Literary Lives" series (Peter Ackroyd on Pound, Chester Anderson on Joyce, etc.). But it's larger & longer than the T&H books, and the typeface is more compact. In the course of his 140 pages, Jackson presents a judicious life of Ruskin – he doesn't pass over any of the weird bits (the messed-up marriage to Effie Gray, the obsession with Rose La Touche, the icky fascination with young girls) – and a thumbnail overview of the works, highlighting what's ground-breaking and not passing over what's problematic (JR's inability in his later years to stick to a point for more than 5 pages, for instance).

So far so good, but Jackson's text is still outclassed at least by Bell, Hewison, and Landow. What's really the selling point in The Worlds of John Ruskin, however, is the illustrations, 165 of them, all beautifully reproduced (if occasionally too small) and lovingly captioned in detail. It's always nice to know what the subject of a biography looks like, & the picture inserts in most big biographies enable us to put faces to the subject & (with luck) many of the other major players. Here we've got plenty of pictures of JR, along with Effie, Millais, Rossetti, William Morris, Rose La Touche, and so forth. But we've also got 111 of Ruskin's own drawings and watercolors, ranging from architectural details, to self-portraits (cf. the cover), to fully-realized landscapes.

Ruskin's writings are peppered with bilious little complaints: while he's got to explain something in prose, he's got to write this lecture or book, he's got somehow to save the world through this piece of writing – but he'd rather be looking at flowers or stones, he'd much rather be drawing. The book manages, as no other biography of Ruskin I've encountered, to keep us in touch with Ruskin's eye, the sense that is at the center of all of his aesthetic and cultural thought.

[John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock at Glenfinlas, 1853]

Monday, December 05, 2011

ruskin crossroads (revised)

Shortly after I posted that last post, I launched into Fors Clavigera, Volume I, 1 January 1871. And it was grand to revisit the texts of those early letters. I had to rein myself in, & allowed myself no more than 3 letters a day. But earlier today I found myself reading the Christmas 1871 letter, getting depressed by the actual vicinity of the holidays, & realizing that if I kept up this pace I would entirely lose the chronological thread of my Ruskin reading, here in this most crucial decade.

So I've revised my plan: Instead of reading a Library Edition volume of Fors, then returning to his concurrent writings & lectures, I'll read a year's worth of Fors (Library Edition vol. 27 contains Fors for 1871-1873) and then that same year's lectures & miscellaneous writings. It will be a wobbly, back-n-forth process, but I think it'll give me a clearer picture of the man's intellectual movements than otherwise. So now that I've read Fors for 1871, I've turned back to Volume 22 of the Library Edition, & will read roughly the first half – Lectures on Landscape, delivered at Oxford in the Lent 1871 term, and "The Relationship of Michael Angelo and Tintoret," delivered later that year. (He didn't seem to give any lectures in the Fall of 1871.)

One of the advantages of this plan is that the introductions to the lecture volumes – roughly 20 through 24 – are not merely overviews of the texts contained in each volume, but contain a more or less complete running biography of Ruskin. (Indeed, E. T. Cook, who wrote the introductions, would later combine their biographical narrative material into an excellent and straightforward two-volume biography.)

All this would be easier, of course, if I had at hand at decent chronology of Ruskin. The internets (specifically, the eBay) yielded up a copy of JL Bradley's A Ruskin Chronology (Macmillan, 1997) the other week, and I'm in total agreement with the general editor's preface to the series ("Author Chronologies") to which that volume belongs:
Most biographies are ill adapted to serve as works of reference... There are times... when anyone reading for business or pleasure needs to check a point quickly or obtain a rapid overview of part of an author's life or career; and at such moments turning over the pages of a biography can be a time-consuming and frustrating occupation.
Alas, I will refrain from commenting on the job Bradley's done of it; suffice it to say that he's vague when I want him to be precise, and precise when couldn't care less. (And I'm thinking that maybe I ought to publish the detailed chronologies and databases I generated when I was working on the LZ biography.)

One of the minor irritants is the fact that Bradley is that most unreliable of chroniclers – a profound partisan. He's a Ruskinian thru and thru. When it comes to 1854 – the year in which Effie Ruskin finally fled her husband and filed suit to annul the marriage – his partisanship becomes unmistakeable. Effie found a friend and councilor in Lady Eastlake, who mounted something of a drawing-room publicity campaign on her behalf after she had left Ruskin; after all, anyone who's read more than a couple Victorian novels knows what an act of desperate courage it would be for a woman to leave her husband in 1854. Bradley's summation: "May: In the aftermath of the scandal Lady Eastlake continues to revel in spreading information."

His July 15 entry is priceless: "A judge, sitting for 'A Hearing of the Cause', declares 'the pretended marriage of [John Ruskin] and [Euphemia Gray] a nullity' and ECGR 'free from all bonds of matrimony'. In the verbal jungle of the case the 'incurable impotency' of JR is alleged." Well, I've read that judgment. It's remarkably clear and straightforward; no jungle about it, more a kind of Saharan simplicity, if indeed couched in legalese. What depths of sympathy have driven Bradley, normally a level editorial scholar, to such contortions? Say it straight, man: "The judge annulled the marriage on the grounds of JR's 'incurable impotency.'" Period.

Of course, one has to retain the scare quotes around "incurable impotency," for Ruskin, in an affadavit to his own lawyers, had strenuously insisted on his own potency, offering to demonstrate if so desired (!): it was just Effie for whom he couldn't – or wouldn't – perform the conjugal obligations. Needless to say, this is an issue around which an older generation of passionate Ruskinians have danced many elaborate dances.

On the other hand, reading Cook's beautifully written, deeply sympathetic, and critically aware biographical introductions to the Library Edition, one is often brought up short as well. Of Ruskin's illness and emotional strife in 1871, Cook comments "The pain to which he referred was suffered in the region of the affections, for this year was a dark one in the chequered story of his romance." Got that? And that's all you'll get, at least from Cook.

The "affection" in question was for Rose La Touche, the Irish girl with whom Ruskin had fallen in love perhaps a decade before – when she was still in her middle teens. The story of Ruskin's passion for Rose, who was fanatically evangelical, perhaps anorexic, and in the end mentally ill, has been largely omitted in the Library Edition – though Ruskin showed his overwhelming cathexis for this troubled young woman by embroidering images of roses through all of his later works. He had written Sesame and Lilies with her in mind; he would come to identify her with St. Ursula, as painted by Carpaccio, and with the tomb statue of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia (in Lucca); after her death in 1875, she would become his Beatrice.

But Edward Cook was writing his introductions under the watchful eye of Ruskin's heir, Joan Severn (née Agnew), Ruskin's cousin, who had married the artist Arthur Severn. (Severn's father Joseph had tended Keats in his final illness in Rome.) Joan had nursed Ruskin through his bouts of madness, and through the long twilight decline of his last years. On some level she probably blamed his breakdowns on Rose La Touche's rejection of his proposals of marriage. And she was not at all interested in having the story of Ruskin's painful and awkward pursuit of this Irish girl told – no more than J. L. Bradley is interested in presenting a balanced account of Ruskin's ridiculous – and for Effie, nearly tragic – wedding night.

Friday, December 02, 2011

ruskin crossroads

So I've reached a crossroads in my Ruskin reading. After he accepts the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford in 1870, our man becomes unconscionably busy – as I think I've mentioned, his attention becomes divided in at least 3 directions: his Oxford duties, which include both his lecture series (most of which get revised into books) and his direction of a drawing school (for which he sets out detailed sets of exercises and organizes a hefty collection of specimen artworks); his pedagogical interests, directed mostly at the girls of the Winnington School, and which result in a series of extraordinarily eccentric "textbooks" – Love's Meinie (on birds), Deucalion (on geology), and Proserpina (on flowers); and his series of monthly "letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which begin in January 1871.*

If I read thru the Library Edition in numerical order – and I've just finished volumes 20 and 21 (the former containing the first year of Ruskin's Oxford lectures, the latter his catalogues and instructions for the Art School) – I'll be reading several more volumes of Oxford lectures, then a couple volumes of the textbooks, before I hit Fors, the 600,000 words of which are contained in volumes 27 thru 29. And I've decided I can't wait.

To some degree Fors is the text to which my whole reading of Ruskin has been tending, the keystone work connecting the early Ruskin of Modern Painters I – as late-Romantic, early-Victorian a production as one can imagine, outside of Carlyle – to the high modernists. Guy Davenport called it "a Victorian prose Cantos." I'm not the first person to see it as a proto-blog; indeed, I had Fors in mind as a kind of model when I began Culture Industry the better part of 7 years ago (let's not mention how poorly I've managed to emulate Ruskin, okay?).

I finished a first reading of Fors two summers ago on a penthouse terrace on Manhattan's West Side, reflecting ironically, as I baked unprotected in the sun, on Ruskin's all-too-wet view from Brantwood in the Lake District, & his increasing despair as the "storm-cloud" of industrial pollution blackened British skies. I'm ready to read it again, letter by letter, allowing myself no more than three letters at a sitting. (There're 96 in all.) But I don't want to stray too far off the track of my roughly chronological trawl thru Ruskin's life-work. So I'll read the first Library Edition volume of Fors, then return to Volume 22 and read thru the rest of his Oxford lectures. Then I'll allow myself a second volume of Fors, after which I'll read his textbooks and guidebooks. And only then will I read the third and final volume of Fors.

Of course, after Fors is done, there still remain 6 more volume of miscellaneous Ruskiniana – his environmental lectures, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, his literary criticism, Fiction Fair and Foul, his luminous autobiography Praeterita, and various other stuff; and then two volumes of collected letters. (The very last two volumes of the 39-volume Library Edition are a bibliography and an index.) I'm not too worried about the letters, or at least the letters collected in the LE seem rather less "canonical" than the other volumes, as I seem to have accumulated almost a dozen other volumes of Ruskin letters along the way, which will eventually want reading.

I think this can be done. Quentin Bell recalls reading thru the Library Edition in a year; but then again, he admits that he wasn't reading anything else. I'll count myself lucky if I finish the maroon wall (as I think of the 3+ shelves of JR that loom over my left shoulder when I sit at my desk) by the end of next year. Assuming the Mayans were wrong.

*That's leaving out his incessant letters to the press and the various European guidebooks he was cranking out with his left hand; at one point in the 1870s Ruskin had seven books at once at some stage of publication.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


So I'm slated to teach Our Fair Department's undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course next year. It's got a bunch of formal requirements – introduce the students to the analysis of 3 different genres, expose them to 3 different schools of literary interpretation, etc. – but I keep thinking, what they really need is some basic study skills: Read the book. Read all of it. Read it as slowly as you need to. Write in your book. Make notes, outline chapters. Look up unfamiliar words. You know, all that shit you're supposed to pick up at least by grad school. Me, I've been turning over bales of Ruskin books & essays I read last summer, gisting articles into little abstracts, copying down useful quotations; stuff, ideally, I should have been doing as or immediately after I read 'em, when they were still fresh in my mind.

It's all tangled up with a bit of professional identity crisis, I must admit. Am I a critic?, I ask myself, looking over the pieces I've written for Parnassus & all the other belletristic reviews I've churned out over the years, or am I a scholar? For I do see those as rather different roles (not that they don't often overlap). Jerome McGann is a scholar who also does a fair bit of smart criticism, as was William Empson; Susan Sontag was mostly critic, but approached scholarhood in the way she worked up some of her essays; James Wood is nothing but critic.

And I've got this rather medieval, uncomfortably rigorous notion of what the scholar does (which someday I'll write up in a kind of list format): Read the book. Read all of it. Know what's in it, and what isn't. Read everything by the author at hand. Read who the author's read, and what his immediate contemporaries said about him, etc. (Followed of course by Know the important secondary texts on your author. Know all the secondary texts dealing with your immediate subject...)

I'm still deep in the process of trying to make myself a quasi-Victorian scholar-type, and it's not easy. The four courses on Victorian lit I took back in the day are gradually coming back to me, admittedly, but there's a tremendous amount of catch-up ball to be played here. Of course, anyone sensible would have tackled a more manageable figure than Ruskin. I'm maybe 3/5 thru the corpus, all 9 million words of it. And I've read a healthy stack of books on Ruskin. And around Ruskin. And about the Victorians.

But one thing's always leading to another. Arnold, at the moment. He's the key counter-Ruskin for much of JR's career. I've read bunches of the poems, most of the important essays, and Culture and Anarchy. But now I'm feeling the need to read more – to achieve a comfortable global knowledge of Arnold. And then there's Pater and Wilde, each of whom I'm deep into. Sigh – Morris and Rossetti still await, and after them no doubt there will be others.

The happy side of all this is that I've actually started writing, however tentatively. Maybe I'll have something ready for the centenary of the big man's birth – after all, it's 8 years away.

Monday, November 07, 2011

ruskin's powerpoint

My odyssey thru the Library Edition of Ruskin continues. Yesterday I finished volume XIX, The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air, with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860-1870. The obvious course (which I'm taking) is to power on into volume XX (Lectures on Art and Aratra Pentelici, with Lectures and Notes on Greek Art and Mythology, 1870). But really one's confronted with a kind of triune fork in the road of Ruskin's career here, for from 1870 his activities become multiple, & it's no longer possible to maintain anything like strict chronological progression in collecting his work.

In 1870, Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor in Art at the University of Oxford, and for several years (until 1878, the date of his first major crack-up) one of his major activities would be be composing the lectures he delivers there. That's usually two series of six or seven lectures each year, which Ruskin took "infinite" pains with, & usually went back and revised for book publication; he published 9 books out of this first stint at the Oxford Professorship.

But at the same time, he was also working on other books and articles, which he published more or less concurrently with his lecture volumes (including no fewer than three travellers' guidebooks to various sites). And he was writing the series of monthly "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which is in some ways the acknowledged telos of my whole reading of Ruskin.

So three major activities at any given time: Oxford duties (which include, besides the lectures, establishing a drawing school and a major collection of specimen works for students); miscellaneous writing (including an incessant series of letters to the press, and a personal correspondence as copious as one would expect from a Victorian writer); and Fors. No wonder the guy broke under the strain.

Ruskin took lecturing very, very seriously. Over the past decade and a half, lectures had become one of his primary means of getting his ideas across to a wide audience, at a variety of venues. And the Victorians were good audiences: they were prepared to attend carefully to what our undergraduates would consider unconscionably long discourses; public lectures were transcribed by reporters and printed in newspapers with remarkable completeness and fidelity.

Ruskin's style of lecturing was memorable. He spoke from a written text – he once told an audience that he had planned to deliver his lecture extemporaneously, but that it was too much trouble to write out what he had to say and memorize it, so they would have to be content with his reading a text – but he would very often depart from his notes, following the thread of whatever idea caught his imagination at the moment. By all accounts he captivated his listeners entirely, tho some confessed themselves entirely unable to remember afterwards what he'd said.

But how, one wonders, does one deliver lectures on art and art history in the pre-PowerPoint, even pre-slide projector era? My own antipathy to PowerPoint runs pretty deep, and having to sit thru two PP presentations earlier this semester has only confirmed it. But I'm pretty willing to believe that it's made the tasks of lecturers in art and architecture far easier; I have just as bad memories of upside-down and reversed slides in my undergraduate art history classes.

Ruskin's own visual aids consisted it seems of lots of sketches and paintings, to which he would point during the lecture, & which would remain on display afterwards for interested students to examine. More useful no doubt were the enlargements of artworks and details of artworks (some of them 250cm X 100cm, which is pretty big), which he had assistants uncover & hold up at crucial moments in his lectures. There were still mishaps: at one point, a sketch from Tintoretto's "Paradise" was displayed upside down; the students laughed. "Ah, well," said the Professor, himself laughing; "what does it matter? for in Tintoret's 'Paradise' you have heaven all round you."

And then there's that moment when Ruskin seems to anticipate all the fancy effects that PP offers: He was bitching about the degradation of modernity, and beside him on an easel was (framed under glass) a Turner watercolor of Leicester.
"The old stone bridge is picturesque," he said, "isn't it? But of course you want something more 'imposing' nowadays. So you shall have it." And taking his paint-box and brush he rapidly sketched in on the glass what is known in modern specifications as "a handsome iron structure." "Then," he continued, "you will want, of course, some tall factory chimneys, and I will give them to you galore." Which he proceeded to do in like fashion. "The blue sky of heaven was pretty, but you cannot have everything, you know." And he painted clouds of black smoke over Turner's sky. "Your 'improvements,'" he went on, are marvellous 'triumphs of modern industry,' I know; but somehow they do not seem to produce nobler men and women, and no modern town is complete, you will admit, without a gaol and a lunatic asylum to crown it. So here they are for you." By which time not an inch of the Turner drawing was left visible under the "improvements" painted upon the glass. "But for my part," said Ruskin, taking his sponge, and with one pass of his hand wiping away those modern improvements against which he has inveighed in so many printed volumes – "for my part, I prefer the old."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ruskin: turner

One of the more disconcerting aspects of reading thru the Library Edition of Ruskin – as yes, I am still doing – is the complicated balancing act editors Wedderburn & Cook have done between a chronological & a thematic, or work-based, arrangement. They've tried to arrange his works in roughly chronological order, but have also kept his multi-volume works (Modern Painters, Stones of Venice) together. Since Ruskin took an ungodly long time to finish the five volumes of Modern Painters, writing a bunch of stuff in between, it's been a complicated dance reading thru his works in more or less the order he wrote them.

I began at the beginning – Juvenilia, Volume I – then on to the Poems (Vol. II) and the first 2 volumes of MP (III & IV). At which point Ruskin shifted attention to architecture & Venice, and I shifted forward to Seven Lamps of Architecture (Vol. VIII), the 3 volumes of Stones of Venice (IX, X, & XI), and the lectures that more or less go along with Stones (Vol. XII). Then he returned to Modern Painters, for two further volumes (Vol. V & VI).

So I finished Modern Painters 4 a number of weeks ago, a mediation mostly on mountain geology – or so it seems in retrospect – with a few thoughts on Turner along the way. And I'm all ready to launch into the final volume of the work, when I realize I need to trawl ahead across my shelves to Library Edition Vol. XIII, which is comprised more or less of miscellaneous writings on Turner, most of them produced as a byproduct of Ruskin's being named one of the executors of Turner's will, & spending time cataloguing & sorting Turner's bequest of his paintings, drawing, & sketches to the nation. Modern Painters 4 was finished in 1856; Ruskin didn't publish Modern Painters 5 until 1860. And between those dates, he published enough material to fill four more volumes of the Library Edition (XIII – XVI). So I may or may not complete my long haul thru MP by the end of this year. We'll see.

At any rate, Vol. XIII is thus far rather interesting. The introduction is frankly fascinating, treating as it does Ruskin's work on the Turner bequest, the immense sift of sketches and drawings – thousands upon thousands – left behind in Turner's studio and dwelling. (The Library Edition has the most meaty introductions of any scholarly edition I've ever met; they're really a running biography of Ruskin, & were indeed packaged as such by ET Cook after the LE was finished.) The first real "work" in the volume is The Harbours of England, which amounts to descriptive copy Ruskin wrote for a series of 12 reproductions of Turner seascapes.

It all made me realize how little I really know about Turner (tho I went to the fantastic Turner exhibition year before last at the Metropolitan Museum, & like everyone else was blown away), so I pulled down & read the only Turner book handy – Graham Reynolds's Turner in the "World of Art" (now Thames & Hudson, my own copy OUP) series. A quick & satisfying read, tho the color reproductions in this copy are execrable. There are a few moments of nice prose:
After [Fingal's Cave] remained unsold for thirteen years, C.R. Leslie chose it for James Lenox, whose first reaction was disappointment at its indistinctness. When Turner heard this he made the famous reply: 'You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte.' [My new favorite quotation of the moment]

Yet more private were the sketchbooks in which Turner made compositions of couples in bed, and other Priapic subjects. It is one of the pleasanter ironies of history that Ruskin, who was not conspicuous for matrimonial success, was obliged to review these frankly lustful scenes amidst all the drawings in the Turner Bequest. He inscribed one sketchbook of this kind with the words, 'They are kept as evidence of failure of mind only.'
Paging thru the rest of Library Edition XIII & sampling what amounts to Ruskin's catalogue copy, however, makes me realize how much I enjoy reading art catalogues in general. So I've turned a quarter of my attention to Jane Ferrington's excellent 1980 Wyndham Lewis, a catalogue of a massive Manchester City Galleries exhibition. It makes me want to get out my paints and canvases.

Is it any wonder I never get anything significant done? Well, I did review Marjorie Perloff's latest here, and have just read proofs for a couple of things due out soonest. Word on the street has it that the new Parnassus is out with my essay on Guy Davenport, but I haven't gotten my copies yet.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

reading Lycidas

Thinking about Lycidas over the past few days, rereading the poem again & again. Thinking about Emerson in 1833, on his first transatlantic crossing, the ship caught in a gale & no-one on board knowing whether they were going to be alive or dead an hour hence, fishing the poem out of his memory: "I remembered up nearly the whole of Lycidas, clause by clause, here a verse & there a word, as Isis in the fable the broken body of Osiris."

Edward King, "a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637." "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" And who would sing for Milton, were he to drop dead at 28, author of a handful of minor poems? "So may some gentle muse / With lucky words favor my destined urn..." And who would sing for the 30-year-old Emerson, all his works yet to be written?

Ruskin, in Sesame and Lilies, seizes upon Lycidas – "a book perfectly known to you all" – & gives it an early & still unsurpassed "close reading":
Now go on: –

'Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast.
Blind mouths –'

I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.

Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, int he two great offices of the Church – those of bishop and pastor.

A 'Bishop' means 'a person who sees.'

A 'Pastor' means 'a person who feeds.'

The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.

The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, – to be a Mouth.
In both instances, an immediate laying hands on a text familiar from childhood. (A nineteenth-century phenomenon, this easy assuming of familiarity with Milton's minor poems?) I didn't read Lycidas, I suspect, until I was in my mid-twenties. My students are encountering it, for the most part, for the first time – unless they've read it in another college course. What's lost in the university teaching of canonical poems when students (& for that matter their instructors) don't have that from-childhood familarity with the text? (More importantly, since there's no turning back the cultural clock, what's gained?)

Samuel Johnson hated Lycidas. One of the best "bad review" lines ever: "Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author."

For Johnson, the poem suffered in the first place from being a pastoral, "easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." (Keeping in mind that "vulgar" and "disgusting" meant something rather different in 1779 than they do now.) Its pastoral frame, its allegory, its "inherent improbability" – its lack of shall we say realism – mean that the poem "will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." And Lycidas's "grosser fault" lies precisely in Milton's Renaissance humanism: its mingling of the "awful and sacred truths" of Christian religion with the "trifling fictions" of the classical pastoral. If Lycidas is praised, Johnson concludes, it is because the "blaze" of "reputation justly acquired" "drives the eye away from nice examination."

We could say, I think, that Lycidas just isn't the sort of poem Johnson likes; (and – moreover?) that it violates his criteria of aesthetic valuation, criteria which include a certain "smoothness" of texture, a certain realism, and above all an ironclad decorum: one simply oughtn't higglety-pigglety mix together classical nymphs & singing shepherds with Christian pastors, regardless of the etymology of "pastor" itself.

(Discuss, perhaps, in relation to Michael Thurston's "review" of Black Life?)

Monday, August 30, 2010


Bob Archambeau embarrasses me again. Not so much with his fashion choices – that goes without saying – as with his blog, where he posts these big, meaty literary-historical meditations, while I’m bitching about the weather or department meetings or putting up Marx Brothers clips or other such silliness. Maybe – come to think of it – I’m just plain shallow, or sailing into shallowness even as I plunge deeper into decrepitude.

Anyway, I’m still thinking about Ruskin, & trying to fit him into my sense of how modernism emerges from Victorian culture. I’m hamstrung, of course, by having to learn Victorian culture more or less from scratch. Okay, I took a couple of Victorian classes as an undergrad, and was a reader for a Victorian novel course as a grad student, & even audited a Victorian poetry seminar along the way. So I’ve read a lot of the stuff, even if I still can’t get excited about Trollope the way J. does (there’s always a Trollope novel in some stage of multiple rereading on the nightstand).

(She has, by the way, converted me to Kipling’s Stalky & Co.; finally, a public school novel in which the boys are without exception dire & reprehensible – if immensely funny & sympathetic – shits. Finally, a bit of realism about life between 13 & 17.)

I think the key here is to pursue the Pound-Ruskin nexus, which even on its face doesn’t seem at all unlikely. Here’s the thing: Pound almost never mentions Ruskin; there’s a reference in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and a couple of scattered things in the prose (calls him a “goose” at one point), but I think it can be coherently argued that Pound is absolutely saturated, probably without even knowing it, in a Ruskinian cultural discourse. And Michael Coyle’s already made that argument in EP, Popular Genres, and the Discourse of Culture.

That is, the connection between aesthetic production and the state of the larger polity within which they're produced emerges in the early 19th century (according to Kenneth Clark, as quoted somewhere in Raymond Williams's Culture & Society); it's Ruskin who pushes that connection into an exploration of the social conditions upon which the artist ultimately depends, in the "Nature of Gothic" and then in The Political Economy of Art & the later works passim. So what Ruskin & Pound share is a sense of “culture” as an “organic” totality in which aesthetic productions reflect social relations, in which the general health of a society can be gauged by a close analysis of its artworks, and in which the health of the arts depends upon the health of the society as a whole.

What intervenes between the two figures is Aestheticism, with its doctrine of art's autonomy, of "art for art's sake." And EP, as Moody shows in his biography, is an aesthete thru & thru in the early work. When he turns "political" or "social" (Kenner, Davenport, & other date it to the post-Great War moment), he does so with little sense of how Ruskinian his ultimate stance will be. It's perhaps an impoverished Ruskinianism, for when Ruskin excoriates society, he always does so on a moral basis (at first Evangelical, later a more ill-defined "Christian"); Pound, on the other hand, has always seemed to me less concerned with the actual well-being of individual human beings under capitalism than on the wastage of potential artwork.

Now to work out the relationship of Ruskin to Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy. Then there's a book.
But then there's Fors. (One of the Stalky boys – Beetle? M’Turk? – is a dedicated reader of Fors Clavigera, which seems less a mark of his social concerns than of his general bookishness.) Guy Davenport advanced a long time ago (in his "The House that Jack Built" essay) the notion that Ruskin, & Fors in general, is kind of a generative protomodernist ur-text, a "Victorian Cantos in prose." I'm of course fascinated by Fors; like those who read Tristram Shandy as proto-postmodernism, I want to see all of the digressiveness & parataxis & random trouvées of high modernism in the book. But it's not the same thing to say that Fors is willy-nilly protomodernist and to say that Fors is an actual model for modernist literary structure.

The problem is one of what EP Thompson, in his Witness Against the Beast, calls "vectors": if one's got a sense that there's something important shared between the 17th-century Muggletonians (Ludowick Muggleton's portrait, by the way, adorns Sussex University's ultra-modern chapel, which otherwise looks like a concrete & brick beehive) & William Blake, one must establish plausible, even probable "vectors" by which Blake would have been exposed in the late 18th century to Muggletonian ideas. (& Thompson does, at least to my satisfaction.)

The temporal stretch between JR & EP is much shorter, & the works & ideas were more widespread – Pound was 14 when Ruskin died, & cheapo editions of Fors & the rest of his works were all over the United States by the time of Pound's birth. But I'm still searching for that hard & fast accounts of Pound's – & the other modernists'* – reading of Ruskin, & what use they made of him.

*Joyce is a gimme; Stanislaus reports in his memoir that his brother absolutely doted on Ruskin, & even wrote a pastiche homage when he learned of JR's death in 1900.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ruskin lectures

The first day of classes – well, the 1st class, day 1 of Milton – is over, & went fairly well. You know: I read the syllabus, made them turn off their little electronic toys, read them the riot act about getting up & going out for potty breaks, & tried to assure them that they wouldn't be spending the next 15 weeks in the presence of a lunatic (at least not me; I can't vouch for Milton). And then launched into a 45-minute capsule summary of Western cultural history from the birth of Xrist thru the beginning of the 17th century.

The aim was not wholly to drive away those of lesser fortitude, but if I lose a few folks who aren't interested in Renaissance Humanism or the politics of the Reformation or the doctrines of Calvinism & Arminianism – well, I won't shed too many tears.
I seem to have reached a watershed in the Ruskin reading, having finished the 3rd & final volume of The Stones of Venice the other day. (I'm reading roughly chronologically, by the way, so I will return to Modern Painters III – V.) And suddenly, mirabile dictu, the shape of the man's career & thought is falling into place for me. Now I've always admitted to being a really slow learner: I've read some of these books a couple of times now, & have read a half-shelf of Ruskin studies & biographies – but only now do I feel firmly in grasp of the direction of the career. So, to recap:

Modern Painters I (1843): everybody who's ever painted landscape has traduced its actual appearance – until JMW Turner, who is the greatest landscape painter of all time; acres of examples of how things really look, & how they've been faked by Poussin et al.

Modern Painters II (1846): an aesthetic theory to buttress the art criticism of the previous book: things are beautiful to our eyes because they possess certain relationships/shapes/colors that manifest aspects of the deity ("ideal beauty"); and they're beautiful because they manifest healthy life ("vital beauty")

Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Stones of Venice (Part I, 1851, II & III, 1853): architecture is meant to delight the eye, to provide visual pleasure – therefore the mere act of putting up buildings is not architecture at all but "building": true architecture lies in ornament, sculpture, coloring; Gothic architecture is the true Xtian architecture, debased by Renaissance neo-Classicism; we can trace the spiritual course of the Venetian republic thru its architecture, at its greatest when the city is pious, falling into Renaissance decay when the city becomes decadent; modern architecture turns the eye of the beholder away from nature, deprives him of the vital aesthetic pleasure; and simultaneously, in its insistence on repetition and uniformity, it reduces the workman to a machine, rather than a fully autonomous human being (“Nature of Gothic”)

So it's here, in the "Nature of Gothic" chapter of Stones II, that one sees the beginnings of Ruskin's decisive turn towards social issues that will flower in the magnificent Unto This Last and find its dotty apotheosis in Fors Clavigera. A kind of cusp in his thinking.

To tell the truth, much of this is summed up beautifully & in a very user-friendly manner in his 1853 Lectures on Architecture and Painting, which he delivered in Edinburgh. Ruskin was by no means a practiced lecturer at this point (tho later in his life the lecture would become his preferred format of communication, and his books became largely collections of his lectures – like Helen Vendler's, say): this was his first go, & he was surprised at his success.

There are four lectures in the 1853 series. The first two present the kernel of both Seven Lamps and Stones in a handy two-hour stretch. The third reiterates his assessment of Turner (ie summarizing much of Modern Painters thus far). And the fourth represents his latest "find," the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais, etc. In the face of all sorts of public rejection of the PRB, Ruskin asserts that they are in essence pursuing the same goal as Turner (whom he calls "the first Pre-Raphaelite"): the accurate representation of visual reality. While Turner was going after the appearance of things thru something like proto-Impressionism, the PRB were doing a sort of photorealism avant la lettre: but the ultimate goal is the same – to get at what God's creation actually looks like.

I'm hankering to get a few volumes further down the line to where Ruskin finally sheds his rather irritating Evangelicism, stops beating on the Whore of Babylon and so forth. But these lectures, after the rather heavy going of some of Stones of Venice (volume I, after all, is a sort of extended primer on the principles of architecture, from the floor to the roof), are really an energizing breath of fresh air. Heaven knows why they aren't in print somewhere.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lumber: The Stones of Venice III

The house is beset with lumber, in the old-fashioned sense – stacks of things, mostly books, useful or un-, but with no clear place to be put away or stored. I have cartons of books I've inherited over the years from friends, colleagues; I have great sifts, middens, of unsorted papers; I have successive Troy-like layers of acquisitions, being gradually sorted & (sometimes) shelved; I have the usual "working" stacks of projects at hand. My study is probably an official fire hazard, a labyrinth that I can't trust visitors to safely pick their way thru.

It makes me think, as I wind thru the innumerable indices to the last volume of Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1853), of the sorts of lumber that fill one's mind. How much of my own imagination is occupied with the songs from some portion of my 13000 track iPod? How much with scenes from Beneath the Planet of the Apes? To what degree does the artwork of Barry Windsor-Smith dwarf that of Giorgione, in terms of mental territory occupied?

Ruskin ends Volume III – or at least he did in 1853 – with a sustained, lyrical (but subdued) plea for a revival of Gothic architecture in England:
an architecture that kindles every faculty of its workman, and addresses every emotion in its beholder; which, with every stone that is laid on its solemn walls, raises some human heart a step nearer heaven, and which from its birth has been incorporated with the existence, and in all its form is symbolical of the faith, of Christianity.
This was of course before the biggest flowering of the (caps) Gothic Revival, where English architects took JR's advice & ran with it into a a wonderland of sham-Gothic and pseudo-Gothic – missing, to his dismay, the point.

In 1881 he added an Epilogue to the book. Given the moment in which it was written (post-Fors, post breakdowns, post his shift of focus to political economy) one might expect more thunder & fire from the Epilogue; but it's surprisingly subdued, if pretty scolding nevertheless. There's one lovely moment, where he berates the ignorant tourist who would try to appreciate Tintoretto's Paradise without knowing anything of the Church Fathers or iconography:
"But if I'm really good, and mean to try to see it, what's to be done?"

Well, you've got to read Homer all through, first, very carefully; then with increasing care, the Prophet Ezekial; then, also with always increasing care, the Gospel of St. John, and then – I'll tell you what to do next.

"But have you?"

I should rather think so! I knew the Iliad and Odyssey and most of the Apocalypse more or less by heart before I was twelve years old: and have worked under them as my tutors ever since. The Gospel of St. John, everybody, in my young days, knew at least something about, and I've read it myself some thousand times, syllable by syllable.
That's the mental furniture that's behind the prophetic thundering of late-period Ruskin (not to mention the evangelical nagging of early Ruskin).

Now I don't know that I've read anything a thousand times (& I suspect a bit of Ruskinian exaggeration there), tho there are certainly some texts I've read scores of times, & even a few poems I know by heart.* But while I'm fascinated & repelled by JR's repetition-compulsion here, I want to embrace the man for the beginning of the next sentence:
That's all mere alphabetical work, the knowing it...
Yes, yes – knowing one's way around the text, knowing what comes next & what goes where, it's like knowing one's ABCs, knowing how to sound out the letters of the words: reading, real reading, takes place only afterwards, when one's gone thru the "alphabetical work" of mapping the surface of what's there.

Is this a matter of old-fashioned "surface" & "depth" reading? Ruskin would say so, I'm sure, but that's only part of it. You can't, that is, even read a "depthless" work immanently, in terms of its movements & structures, without an intimate knowledge of its contours.

I wish I knew the Iliad & the Odyssey better; I wish I had Revelation by heart. Oh well – back to the grand essay on Beneath the Planet of the Apes & Barry Windsor-Smith.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ruskin Editions

Oh, by the way – this comment came over the transom last post, courtesy of someone with the wonderful handle of "Epaphroditus Bainton" (don't I recognize that name from William Byrd II?):
I'm looking for good editions of Ruskin. Do you have any advice on the best ways to get at this material (especially Fors Clavigera)? There's the reprints-on-demand on Amazon, but I'm wary of forking out 35-50 bucks for what might be a cheesy reprint.
I've probably blogged this before, but there's no harm in promoting JR. For starters, there're a couple of good selections out there:
Selected Writings, ed. Dinah Birch (Oxford World's Classics) is a fine all-round introduction
Unto This Last and Selected Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (Penguin) is good on the political stuff
And there's millions of used copies of John Rosenberg's great The Genius of John Ruskin floating around.

But the big news is this: Cambridge University Press has released a print-on-demand paperback reprint of the entire Library Edition, the gold standard of Ruskin editing. You can buy the whole thing for $1750 (oof!), or settle for single volumes at between $43 & $50. Now I don't like the quality of CUP's POD things very much (that is, the bindings); but I suspect they're better than some of the other reprints I've seen floating around, & one would be assured that one was getting the very best in terms of the text itself – and it's been a long time since I've seen an original of the Library Edition going for anywhere near as – er – affordable.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ruskin, polygonally

A couple of recent posts on Bob Archambeau's blog have brought Ruskin's Stones of Venice – specifically, the classic "The Nature of Gothic" chapter of volume II – to bear on of all things Anish Kapoor's Chicago sculpture "Cloud Gate" & David Shields's Reality Hunger. Which just goes to show, after all, that Ruskin's work is always appropriate. And of course it renewed my belief in synchronicity, since I'm reading Stones of Venice II right now.

When the Library Edition first arrived, & when I'd finally carved out shelf space for it, I had to decide how I was going to tackle the thing. And what I've come to, after a few waffles and several digressions, is that I'm reading it thru in more or less chronological order. So I've read the first four volumes – the juvenilia (ick), the poetry (argh), and the first 2 volumes of Modern Painters; then I skipped forward to volume 8, The 7 Lamps of Architecture, & thence into Stones of Venice. One of the drawbacks – or potential rewards – of this process – is that for the last 2000 pages or so I've been re-reading things I read several years ago. Modern Painters 2 (the aesthetic theory) was much better this time around; Stones of Venice 1, however, remains a colossal snore. The volume's subtitled "The Foundations," & it's more or less a 500-page detailed primer in architectural terminology (with sumptuous illustrations). There's only so much this limited neural hard drive can absorb about the relative shapes of cornices, window apertures, roof gables, etc.

Volume 2, I'm happy to report, is much better. Here Ruskin settles down to the task of describing, illustrating, & analyzing the history of Venetian architecture, & painstaking (but again sumptuously illustrated) architectural detail is leavened with lots of wonderful theorizing about the tendencies of various stylistic schools. And then of course there's the blockbuster "Nature of Gothic," in which Ruskin starts out describing the spiritual tendencies of the architecture he loves so much & then veers (as is his way) into a full-throated attack on the division of labor & modern manufacturing society. It's the first blast of the trumpet that gets fully unmuted in Unto This Last. William Morris, who read it as an undergraduate along with his friend Edward Burne-Jones, loved the thing. He arranged for its separate publication as an affordable pamphlet – a key text, he believed, in both what would be called the Arts & Crafts movement and more immediately in the socialist struggle – and later reprinted it again as one of the first productions of his Kelmscott Press.

And Archambeau's right: it's one of those rare mid-Victorian pieces that still speaks directly to us.
Proust on Ruskin (1904):
...Ruskin never wholly ceased to commit the sin of idolatry. At the very moment he was preaching sincerity, he lacked it. The doctrines he professed were moral, not aesthetic, yet he chose them for their beauty. And because he did not want to present them formally as things of beauty, but as statements of truth, he was forced to lie to himself about the reasons that had led him to adopt them.
Discuss, paying special attention to Proust's nascent psychoanalytical impulse, & to how much his own post-decadent, aesthetic moment, might blind him to the unity of the moral & the beautiful in JR.
Ruskin, lecturing (channeling Whitman?):
Perhaps some of my hearers this evening may have occasionally heard it stated of me that I am rather apt to contradict myself. I hope I am exceedingly apt to do so. I never met a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting round a polygon is some work for people in any way stiff in their opinions. For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.
Ruskin, a footnote to Stones of Venice 2 (having just quoted Henry Francis Cary's Paradiso):
It is generally better to read ten lines of any poet in the original language, however painfully, than ten cantos of a translation. But an exception must be made in favour of Cary's Dante. If no poet ever was liable to lose more in translation, none was ever so carefully translated; and I hardly know whether most to admire the rigid fidelity, or the sweet and solemn harmony, of Cary's verse.... It is true that the conciseness and rivulet-like melody of Dante must continually be lost; but if I could only read English, and had to choose, for a library narrowed by poverty, between Cary's Dante and our own original Milton, I should choose Cary without an instant's pause.

Friday, April 16, 2010

a shilling life

My idiosyncracies may not be particularly fruitful, but they're mine, & I have to own up to 'em. It occurred to me the other day as I finished Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton Pocket Biographies) (Sutton, 1999) that I've got a real taste for what I can only call "highbrow fast food." That is, while I have more than a half-dozen full-length biographies of John Ruskin on my shelves (& have even read a bunch of them), I also persist in running thru the various super-short capsule "shilling lives" I come upon.

The recent history of the capsule biography – has it been written?? – is I suspect a capsule history of 20th-century intellectual marketing trends. We see capsule biographies, as in Diogenes Laertius' lives of the philosophers, in Plutarch, or in Johnson's Lives of the Poets, emerging even before the full-length biography. And they don't go away with the advent of the post-Boswellian doorstop biography: witness Leslie's Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, and its various spinoffs.

In the latter part of the 20th century, it seems, short-scale biographical/critical studies, aimed at a wide readership, have gotten even more popular. Should this be dated to the inception of the Frank Kermode-edited Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970? Oxford UP responded to the popularity of the Fontana volumes with its own Past Masters series, & in recent years there seems to have been a spate of "Very Short Introductions," pocket lives, & even graphic novel-style adaptations of various figures' lives. (The interchangeability of many of these series is striking – various volumes of the OUP "Very Short Introductions" series are actually reprints of "Past Masters" volumes.)

Is it all an index of a general readership's thirsty demand for immediate enlightenment? Or is it a symptom of our painfully shrinking attention spans?
Herewith an assessment of some of the Ruskin "shorties" out there (if you know of others, do let me know):

Quentin Bell's Ruskin (George Braziller, 1978), which came from my father's library, & was the first Ruskin book I ever read, doesn't quite fit in the "capsule biography" category; it was first published in 1963 as part of the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series, & is actually quite a substantial assessment of JR's life & career, clocking in at around 150 beautifully-written pages. This is probably still the first book (not by Ruskin) I'd press on someone wanting to know more about Ruskin.

George P. Landow is one of the best of the old-school Ruskin scholars, proprietor of the excellent Victorianweb research site. His The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton UP, 1971) is exhaustive & exhausting, but his Ruskin (1985) in the Oxford "Past Masters" series does a splendid job of surveying the life & work in about 90 pages.

Robert Hewison is the most prolific Ruskin scholar I know, paying particular attention to Ruskin's art criticism (of the many Ruskin books he's published, several are exhibition catalogues). Hewison's John Ruskin (2007), in the OUP "Very Interesting People" series, is on its face longer than Landow by about 30 pages, but in reality quite a bit shorter, as it's printed in a larger typeface with far more generous margins & spacing. The "Very Interesting People" series is really just another Oxford recycling project – the series, which features David Levine-style pen & ink caricatures on the covers, & describes itself as "Bite-sized biographies of Britain's most fascinating historical figures, amounts to paperback reprints of some of the more substantial entries in the 2004 Dictionary of National Biography. As befits a DNB entry, Hewison's life of Ruskin is sober & informative, but it's far less lively & searching than Landow's.

Alas, Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton, 1999) is the loser among this bunch. The Sutton Pocket Biographies are "Highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary history." For "highly readable," I'm tempted to read "dumbed down." Fontana's Modern Masters & Oxford Past Masters, for all their implicit popular appeal, never condescended: Jonathan Culler on Saussure or Barthes, Martin Esslin on Artaud, Donald Davie on Pound (all Fontana), Anthony Kenny on Aquinas, Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot, Peter Singer on Hege (all Oxford) – all of these were highly sophisticated advanced introductions. But O'Gorman, who's done his share of real Ruskin criticism, seems to take his assignment from Sutton as a kind of scholarly holiday, chance to ramble over the life & trot out a few touchstone quotations from Ruskin; the Sutton Ruskin is breezy, readable, & in the end as forgettable as a 50-minute History Channel biography.

So there, Ruskinian Padwan: begin with Bell, if you can find him. If not, read Landow (read Landow anyway). Hewison is optional; O'Gorman is not recommended.

Of course, what I'm really hoping for is the graphic novel Ruskin (cf. the "For Beginners" series). If there's an artist who's itching to draw JR, I'm game to script it.