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.

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, May 01, 2012

april's postmortem

Happy May Day, y'all.

April – sweet showers, the cruelest month, etc. National Poetry Month, whatever that means. For a bunch of people, it means NaPoWriMo, a chance to tackle different "prompt" (when did prompt become a noun?) every day, & produce 30 new poems. God bless 'em. It's not something I can do. I decided this year that I'd make my own little NaPoReMo & work thru some of the stacks of slim volumes of unread poetry on the shelves: a book a day.

Frankly, it was not as stupid an idea as I feared it was. I read an awful lot of poetry, some of it very good indeed, some of it very moving – some of it passing as rapidly thru my brain as one of my lectures passes thru the attention of my undergraduates. I got a new sense of the variety of what's out there, or at least the variety of what's on my shelves. I got a list of things I want to reread, perhaps even teach.

But at the same time I was reminded that "bulk" is not the mode in which to consume poetry. At any rate, here's the list of what I trundled thru, with maybe a couple of notes on the books along the way: 
•I Was There for Your Somniloquy, Kelli Anne Noftle (Omnidawn, 2011) [You gotta love a book that includes a sequence on sea slugs!]
Nomadic Foundations, Sandra Meek (Elixir, 2002)

Isles of the Signatories, Marjorie Welish (Coffee House, 2008)

Odi Barbare, Geoffrey Hill (Clutag, 2012) [I'm sure I'll put myself on the outs with the GH enthusiasts when I say that I find this latest run of "Daybooks" (this being the 3rd volume in as many years) rather disappointing...]

Muse & Drudge, Harryette Mullen (Singing Horse, 1995) [For the umpteenth time, as teaching text; but always pleasurable.]

The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, Noah Eli Gordon (Ahsahta, 2004)

Gallowglass, Susan Tichy (Ahsahta, 2010)

Saving the Appearances, Liz Waldner (Ahsahta, 2004)

Knot, Stacy Doris (U of Georgia P, 2006) [Dense, long lines; a "chewy" book, in the best sense.]

The Bone Folders, T. A. Noonan (Sundress, 2011) [Strong sophomore effort from someone who survived Our Fair University's MFA mill...]

The Presentable Art of Reading Absence, Jay Wright (Dalkey Archive, 2008) [Maybe one of the only things Harold Bloom & I agree on is that JW is about the best poet alive...]

Black Life, Dorothea Lasky (Wave, 2010)

The Method, Sasha Steensen (Fence, 2008)
Jammed Transmissions, Paul Naylor (Tinfish, 2009) [Like Wright's, this is a book of "spiritual practice," a business that deeply secular I have trouble wrapping my sensibility around; but like Wright's, its precision of language is exemplary.]

Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems (Carcanet, 2010) [I'd read all these poems in various American venues, but rereading Raworth is always a pleasure.]

S*PeRM*RK*T, Harryette Mullen (Singing Horse, 1993) [Twice; I was disappointed when this came out on the heels of Trimmings; this time thru, I've decided it's actually a stronger collection.]

Gone, Fanny Howe (U of California P, 2003)
My Mohave, Donald Revell (Alice James, 2003) [Revell just keeps getting weirder and more touching as he progresses.]
She's My Best Friend, Jim Behrle (Pressed Wafer, 2006)

Response, Juliana Spahr (Sun & Moon, 1996) [Read this book. Period.]

Pleasure, Brian Teare (Ahsahta, 2010) [Perhaps the most astonishingly moving text of the lot. Heartrending, precise.]

Dance Dance Revolution, Cathy Park Hong (Norton, 2007) [Sigh. Norton's idea of the "adventurous"; not to be classed with Kamau Brathwaite or Jessica Hagedorn, the obvious models emulated.]
Gnostic Frequencies, Patrick Pritchett (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012) [A tasty gnostic stew simmered in the tradition of Duncan, Gershom Scholem, and high modernist parataxis.]
The Escape (Jo Ann Wasserman (Futurepoem, 2003)

Because It Is, Kenneth Patchen (New Directions, 1960) [Finally – a book I can give the girls with an good conscience! tho the drawings are better than the poems...]
Ceteris Paribus, Gale Nelson (Burning Deck, 2000)
This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, Gale Nelson (Burning Deck, 2011) [The Waldrops would be national treasures if they never did anything but publish GN, if you ask me... ]
Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger, Susan Gevirtz (Kelsey St., 2010) [Two lovely, sparse poems on – get this – air travel.]
Erat, Tom Mandel (Burning Deck, 1981) [And to bring it all back home, a splendid chapbook from one of the original Language folks.]

Phew! This might happen again next year, but I wouldn't put my money on it. One thing I can say for sure: the "lyric I" is back in fashion, & with a vengeance.