English Literature Of The 19th Century:
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The greatest master of English prose is John Ruskin, who after setting out to be an artist, became an art-critic, and thence proceeded to be a critic of everything pertaining to human life. He was born in London in 1819, the only son of a wealthy wine merchant. After a strict religious training at home, he was educated at Oxford, and journeyed on the Continent. After some years' study of art he published, in 1843, the first volume of his "Modern Painters. By an Oxford Graduate." It was a revelation of a new world to art-neglecting, dim-eyed England, immersed in business and politics. In that country aesthetics had not been cultivated; few paintings were publicly exhibited, private collections were small and limited. The new critic, or rather prophet of art, deeply imbued with the Romantic revival, and devoted to Sir Walter Scott, found in the splendid nature-painting of J. W. M. Turner a noble realization of his own ideas, and became the herald of his genius. But he had to teach an ignorant, hostile crowd, and he assailed names hallowed by tradition. He issued a second volume in 1846, and the fifth in 186o, having remodeled the plan on which he started. Meantime his "Seven Lamps of Architecture" (1849) applied to another department the principles on which he insisted, that true art involves the highest morality. The seven lamps are sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, obedience. The "Stones of Venice" (1853) treated of sculpture in the same grand way, working ethics into essential relation with aesthetics. In his enthusiasm for art he insisted that beauty is utility, and in the "Political Economy of Art" (1858) he sought to combine what had been considered opposing elements.
Ruskin's views on art, presented with splendid rhetorical force, made constant headway. Though for a while derided, his influence as an art-teacher rose. He was the inspirer of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which flourished about 1850, but afterwards dissolved. Ruskin was made Slade professor of fine arts at Oxford in 1870, and gave 15,000 to endow a master of drawing. Meantime he had issued a great number of small works with fantastic titles, often in Latin. Among these were "Unto this Last" (1862), opposing common views of political economy; "Sesame and Lilies" (1865), treating of female education; "The Crown of Wild Olive" (1866); "Queen of the Air" (1869). He came to advocate socialistic views, and advanced impracticable projects for the benefit of working men. Though his theories were almost universally rejected, particular applications were adopted. Art and art-literature became popular. But among the new generation of artists there was opposition to his teaching. They insisted on art for art's sake only. Ruskin's royal dogmatism on all subjects provoked revolt, yet his works were eagerly read. For many years (1871-1884) he published at irregular intervals rambling papers called "Fors Clavigera." When it was pointed out that he sometimes contradicted himself, his answer was easy : "I never met with a question yet, 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 severe work for people any way stiff in their opinions."
In 1885 Ruskin began to issue his charming, frank, complacent autobiography, "Praeterita," full of his usual digressions into all manner of subjects. Many of his essays were collected in "Arrows of the Chace." His later writings are often colloquial in style, though sometimes rising into passages of grand eloquence. From the first he had been master of a grand ornate style, surpassing in evenness of power "Christopher North" and DeQuincey. It was sometimes unduly florid, tending to become blank verse in prose. Yet this tendency was held somewhat in check by regard for the beauties of nature and art which he aimed to describe. He excelled Kingsley in his gorgeous descriptions of scenery. As regards matter, his works abounded in childish crotchets and feminine dislikes. In ideas he was an unsafe guide, full of visionary notions. His ample fortune has been largely diminished by his liberal gifts to various schemes for promoting art and benefiting workingmen. His most remarkable self-sacrifice was his relinquishing his wife to the painter Millais when he found that they had fallen in love with each other.