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John Ruskin

( Originally Published 1912 )



Son of man, I have made thee a watchman; therefore hear the word of my mouth and give them warning from me. Hebrew Prophet.

The pulpit sustains so many relations to literature that when a great writer dies it cannot pass the event unnoticed. The preacher is not a literary man, but he is deeply indebted to those men who, by the greatness of their thought, the power of their imagination, and the freedom and eloquence of their expression, are worthy to be called literary men. Sometimes it is said that the preacher only needs to know one book—the Bible. But he who only knows one book does not know it. The value of things can only be known by comparison. No one has the right to say that the Bible is the greatest religious book the 'world has ever produced until he becomes acquainted with all the religious books the world has produced. It is only then that his opinion is of any importance. Books interpret books. ,Aeschylus throws light on Job. The odes of Anacreon are a commentary on the Songs of Solomon. The reader of Seneca can the better understand Paul. Moreover, literature is the best portrait of humanity. All other pictures are, by comparison, faded and distorted. They are lacking in color and expression. This picture shows man as he actually is. His thought and fancy, wisdom and foolishness, happiness and sadness may all be found in life size. Thus the pulpit cannot well avoid expressing its indebtedness to literature.

These meditations are made appropriate at this time by the recent death of Ruskin. With his name might be coupled those of two other men—James Martineau and R. D. Blackmore, one of whom used his pen in defense of a spiritual basis and meaning of the world, the other used his in telling graceful and wholesome stories of English life, and all three of whom, within a few days, have gone away from earth. Each to the measure of his ability has been helpful to our century. Words of praise can only be truly uttered for all of them. But, of the three, the first stands as the largest figure and the best representative of the class to which they all belonged. He possessed the ethical sentiment of the one, the graceful speech of the other, together with an insight into nature, a passion for the beautiful, and a mastering desire to better economic and social conditions which the others did not possess to the same degree. Thus this seems a proper time for those of us who esteem these qualities to express our admiration for and our debt of gratitude to him who possessed them in so great abundance. We may freely acknowledge that there has gone from the world not only one of its greatest writers, ,but one of its greatest moral leaders. His defects are known, but they are by far the smallest things that are known concerning him. The spots on the sun are curious, but they are not essential. They do not lessen our admiration of the brilliance or the usefulness of that blazing world. Thus, in thinking of this man, his defects have not much prominence when compared with his perfections. At least they should not come between us and his real excellence. Greatness of soul is none too frequent on our earth. We should make the most of it when it does appear and regret it after it has gone. In a sincere way we may express our conviction that, in spite of his limitations, here is one great enough to awaken in our hearts gratitude for the past and 'hope for the future.

Born in the year 1819, Ruskin passed four score years in one of the greatest centuries of human history. It is doubtful if any one of the large company of writers who have lived within this era has made a deeper impression on the public mind and heart. The first quarter of this century contains the birthdays of a notable group of writers. Between 1802 and 1823 the following names appear : Hugo, Mill, Emerson, Tennyson, Thackeray, Dickens, Darwin, Tyndall, Spencer, Browning, Froude, Arnold, Longfellow and Lowell. Carlyle's birthday came only five years before the opening of this century. In a constellation so brilliant it is a bright star that is not dimmed by comparison. There can be no doubt that Ruskin is equal to his companions.

Heredity and training are two factors not to be over-looked in accounting for a personality. But these forces are not everything. There is a third unaccountable something which does much to determine a career and its destiny. It cannot be an immediate inheritance, for often neither parent possesses it. It cannot be the result of training or of any external circumstances, for it sometimes reverses the consequences of early training and triumphs over circumstances. As growing from the same tree and surrounded by the same air and sunshine, yet two leaves cannot be found precisely alike, so, growing from the same race and encircled by the same influences, yet every soul is different from every other soul. There seems to be a spontaneous, involuntary power which determines the path to be traveled and points the footsteps toward it. It is what each one possesses of the uncorrupted, original Mind. It is what the Mystic hinted, when he spoke of those exalted ones, "born, not of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."

This was a marked quality in Ruskin. Born of Scotch parents in London, trained in religious doctrines and duties with much firmness and exactness, traveling much while still a child, all the circumstances related ,by his biographer perhaps shaped and colored his life; but they did not do everything. There was a unique individuality, a strongly original soul that played with these circumstances as if they were toys. The theological tenets were cast aside. Destined by his father for the church, he ignored that decree. Breaking away from the worship prescribed by the church he became a worshiper of truth and beauty as seen in nature. He never came into direct and violent collision either with the church or his home, but from both he gradually drifted away and voyaged on seas of thought which his parents feared would wreck all his hopes. Of delicate health, he put his weakness to one side and worked prodigiously for more than fifty years. He inherited wealth, but he placed the lowest estimate upon it. First he divided his income by ten and then by three, then by two and gave it to better the condition of the unfortunate. Famous when he was only twenty-one, he closed his ears to the voice of praise and heard only the sighs and moans of the poor and outcast. Of poetic temperament and with a passion-ate love of the ideally beautiful, yet the grappled with the brute dullness of things and all of life's deformed realities. He founded clubs for workingmen and taught them honor and self-reliance. He bought material and made poor women self-supporting. He placed before artisans his rare paintings and marbles that they might make their own products more beautiful. He became the advance guard of social re-form. While other men have given money for bettering human conditions, he did more. He gave money, but he also gave himself. While others may have believed in Christ, he did more. He not only believed in, he acted like the Christ. Thus from childhood on-ward to old age may be traced an unfolding personality. Having once seen the 'heavenly vision he was never disobedient. Whither it led, he fearlessly followed.

The first half of our century was marked by great intellectual activity. There was much revolt against precedent and established authority. Intellectual pro-test was in the air and no earnest soul could escape its influence. It is seen in the poetry of Shelley and Byron. It appeared in the theology of Robertson and Maurice. It compelled a new historic method as seen in Carlyle and Fronde. Under its influence John Stu-art Mill introduced a new form of logic and Mansel a new form of philosophy and Cobden a' new form of political economy and Darwin a new form of science. Every department of human knowledge was brought up for examination. It was an era of new departures.

Coming into the midst of this condition, Ruskin could not avoid its influence. He must needs take the prevailing direction. What was being done in the field of philosophy and theology and political economy he began to do in the field of art. Tradition was to be set aside and new principles were to command. A picture is an expression of mind. But the ideas in the mind, expressed in the picture, were first the product of sensation and meditation. Since the mind that meditates is nobler than the senses which merely perceives it follows that the picture should contain not merely the objects which the eye sees in nature, but what the mind thinks about these objects. Thus the true landscape is not that which the animal sees, but that which the poet or artist sees. The picture of the landscape contains the hills and fields and trees and river touched by the imagination and enveloped by the feeling of beauty and mystery and reverence of the artist. It is nature suffused by the human soul.

To set forth this principle he wrote the volumes called Modern Painters. They are five in number. The first one was published in 1843, when Ruskin was only 24 years old. The last one was published in 186o. The first one grew out of a pamphlet which, in a spirit of knight errantry, he wrote in vindication of Turner against his critics. But once started, his mind could not halt until it had gone over the 'whole great field of art. Going "out to water his garden, the stream became a brook; the brook a river; and the river a sea."

Whether his art principles are correct or not, these volumes are the best statement of art criticism in existence. But they contain something besides art criticism. They contain life criticism. They not only teach, but they inspire. They abound in descriptive passages which for purity of style and sublimity of expression are not surpassed in any literature. They have become classics in the English language. But more than that is found in them. To the writer, all material beauty forms the body of which moral beauty is the soul. No one can rise from reading his pages without perceiving that a true and beautiful life is the only worthy aim of human existence. All things—architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, commerce, travel, education, Swiss Alps, Cumberland Hills, glaciers, crystals, plants, the solid earth and the firmament pierced with stars,—all, all exist to the one end of making man helpful toward his fellow men and reverent toward' God. Among all the century's great teachers he stands among the first of those who "show man how he may make himself eternal."

Recalling the great English writers of our era, in the free and inexact way of rhetoric it may be said that Tennyson stands for the perfect melody and rhythm of human speech; Mill for human liberty; Carlyle for human heroism ; Browning is the interpreter of the human soul in all its many moods ; Arnold stands for human culture ; George Eliot stands for the complex motives determining human destiny. Of Ruskin it may be said that he stood for righteousness. Art is the minister of Beauty ; but Beauty is the minis-ter of Holiness. What he taught, he was. Unlike Burns and Byron, Shelley and Goethe, no vice stained his own life. Wishing that earth might become an abode of purity and peace, he first made a home in his own heart for these blessed angels. His soul was an Eden upon which no serpent had left its trail.

It has been said of him that he taught us how to look at nature. This is true, inasmuch as he considered the world in its two-fold aspect as fact and symbol. He studied all its phenomena with the accuracy of a man of science. Perhaps no one, not even Tyndall, understood the geology of the Alps any better tha he. His "Ethics of the Dust" shows how he had studied mineralogy; and he was as much of a botanist as he was mineralogist or geologist. But, having with pains-taking care studied all the facts and phenomena of the world and set them down in due order, he immediately invested them with something not found in them, but in himself ;—with sentiment, ,with beauty, with love, with mystery. With his clear intellect he gave the science, with his ardent imagination he gave the poetry of the world. He saw nature like Darwin ; he worshiped it like Wordsworth. Thus he did teach his generation the true way to regard earth and sky. Among all the material facts of the universe be rational and always rational. But in presence of its beauty and mystery forget not to be reverent and evermore reverent.

But with all his scientific interest and all his poetic joy in nature, he never forgot the world of humanity. If the one filled him with happiness, the other often filled him with sorrow. Until he was forty he wrote largely of art; after that largely of ethics. Life be-came the highest art. The pure life is better than any picture. Of course he was always ethical and always artistic, but human conduct, individual and associated, became a passion with him. The book called "The Seven Lamps ,of Architecture" was written before he was 40 years old. It contains many phophecies of what he was afterward to become, namely, a prophet of the moral law. In 1848 the wrote to a friend:

"I begin to feel that ,all the work I have been doing, and all the loves I have been cherishing, are ineffective and frivolous—that these are not the times for watching clouds or dreaming over quiet waters ; that more serious work is to be done."

The "Seven Lamps" book is a part of that more serious work. But it was later that he became a stern preacher of political and economic righteousness to England and the world. Human suffering weighed upon him with crushing force. Mind and heart he threw himself into the mad vortex of woe and tried to stem its current. Of him in 1872 Carlyle writes thus to Emerson: "Do you read Ruskin's Fors Clavigera? If you don't, do. I advise you. * * * No other man in England that I meet has in him the di-vine rage against iniquity, falsity, and baseness that Ruskin has, and that every man ought to have."

That the work he undertook, that the words he uttered, some of them gentle as sunbeams and musical as the wind-rustled wheat field, some of them fierce as lightning and ominous as thunder peal crashing and rolling among the hills, that all this went for nothing cannot be believed. Whatso he or any man does with an earnest purpose cannot wholly fail. But he began to see what many another earnest man has seen,—that the dreams of reform are never realized in the life-time of him who dreams. He saw that much of his personal sacrifice was not accomplishing that for which it was made. The philanthropic experiments were partial failures.

In half despair he went apart to find peace. But peace did not come. In 1863 he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton from Switzerland: "The loneliness is very great, and the peace in which I am at present is only as if I had buried myself in a tuft of grass on a battle field wet with blood—for the cry of the earth about me is in my ears continually." A few months later he wrote : "I ,am tormented between the longing for rest and lovely life and the sense of this terrific call of human crime for resistance and of human misery for help." To those who understand this condition of the soul no explanation is necessary; to those who do not from experience understand it all explanation would be useless. Like Savonarola he returned to the world with a message of condemnation. He began a battle with society. Its riches, its respectabilities, its religion, established, conventional and legalized was all wrong. Only a social revolution could cure social ills.

That which always happens to that kind of man he could not escape. He was called fanatic and heretic and even lunatic. One by one his friends forsook him until he was left almost alone. Meanwhile he was not idle. Writing open letters to the public he rebuked national and private sins. Not once did he lower his ideals. Gradually he made himself heard and respected as a teacher of social ethics, as in earlier life he had done as a teacher of art. One by one new friends came to him. Oxford finally gave him a lectureship. His influence widened. When in 1886 his mind passed into a twilight he was recognized as one of the greatest of England's great men.

To him as to the Hebrew prophet there came a voice saying : "Son of man I make thee a watchman over the people; give them warning." His sixty years of work show well how he heard and obeyed that command. A Greek poet once exclaimed :

"Farewell truth, philosophy, and heroes;
I shall sing only of love."

This one was willing to reverse this. He bade fare-well to friendship and love that he might freely sing of truth and philosophy and beauty and goodness and heroism. We may be thankful for those men who have more of balance ;—for the calmer poets like Tennyson, the more careful philosophers like Hamilton and Spencer ; for those novelists like Dickens who move us to laughter over human foibles and to tears over human pathos; thankful to scholars; like Max Müller and unimpassioned critics like Matthew Arnold ; thankful to liberty-loving statesmen like John Bright and broad-minded churchmen like Dean Stan-ley. But to all this flowing gratitude we may add the feeling of gladness that such a man as John Ruskin lived in four-score years of our century.

It is not well to over praise. But it is doubtful if any one more represents the many-sided life of humanity than this one. He may well be called the "Son of Man." Beginning life as a poet, he passed to art. From art he journeyed to literature. To literature he added science. To science he added political economy. He is son of that rationalism which has helped make our era great. He spoke for the many unfortunates who weep their way from poverty's cradle to poverty's grave. He was the son of that benevolence which reflects much glory on our era. He is a son of peace, for through all his life he uttered his eloquent denunciations against the battlefield. He is also a noble representative of -a true spiritual religion. If he opposed the Church, he never op-posed that of which the Church was a symbol. If he turned his back on the little altar, it was only that he might turn his face toward the great God.

Whether the near century will contain such forms as his, no one can tell. All we can do is rejoice that our era has been ennobled by his presence. All those youths 'whose greatest activities will be found in the first half of the coming cycle would do well to become acquainted with him. From him many impressive lessons may be learned. He will teach them that goodness is more valuable than gold ; that natural beauty is the stair-way to moral beauty; that being the temple of God, the body should be kept clean and pure. From him they will learn that religion has heights to which even earth's greatest mortals may be glad to climb ; that there is nothing in materialism, nothing in denial to inspire the heart, but only belief and love can awaken its sweetest music; that only when the soul is fully committed to beauty, to truth, to goodness will earth furnish happiness and heaven make it eternal.

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