Friday, August 31, 2012


This coming week I teach my undergraduates Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – or rather, I teach “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” the version of the poem printed in the 1798 version of Lyrical Ballads. I’m willing to bet at least half my students, many of them too penurious, parsimonious, or simply lazy to buy the assigned course text, will be reading one of Coleridge’s later versions of the poem plucked from some website.

The differences between the original “Rime” and STC’s later versions are minor but crucial, most notable among them probably the addition of marginal glosses (in the style of the Geneva Bible) explaining and commenting upon the more arcane events of the poem, and sometimes veering off into strange and lovely digressions. I think of them as his version of Eliot’s Notes to The Waste Land.

Coincidentally, the seminar will be reading (and Rebecca will be presenting on) Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, a book first published in May 1849. The edition we’ll be working from, however, is a handy Dover reprint (1989) of the 1880 reprint of the book. There are not a lot of textual changes from the first edition to this reprint, in contrast to the new editions of the early volumes of Modern Painters, where JR went to considerable pains to tinker with the text, removing offensive bits, softening the rhetoric, etc. With Seven Lamps, he’s left the text pretty much unchanged save for the excision of some “pieces of rabid and utterly false Protestantism” – part and parcel of his rejection of his early Evangelical rhetoric and its concomitant fierce anti-Catholic stance. (How much of which was assumed, one wonders, to placate his parents, worried that their pious son’s poking about the glorious monuments of medieval Papism?)

He has added a number of notes at the foot of the page (in of course a smaller typeface), which constitute a kind of running 30-years-later commentary on the work. Many of them congratulate his younger self on getting things right; some of them, amusingly, note precisely how bloody wrong he was in 1849. All in all, the footnotes give one the sense of reading an author's own annotated copy of his earlier work.

The only significant change to the actual text of the 1880 Seven Lamps, that most programmatic of Ruskin’s volumes, is the addition of marginal tags noting the heads of his arguments, and the setting apart of important points in an absurdly magnified and bolded typeface. Alas, these changes have nothing of the effect of Coleridge’s glosses in “Rime,” which serve to deepen the mystery of the poem & its air of antiquity. Ruskin’s typographical additions, to my eye, have the effect of adding a series of managerial bullet points, of turning a long and eloquent peroration in the direction of a memo.
Yes, I finished reading Ruskin’s Works proper in the Library Edition the other day, knocking off Praeterita and Dilecta (volume 35); now I’m midway thru the first big volume of letters. Thanks to Lancaster’s RuskinCentre, I’ve downloaded glorious PDFs of 30 volumes of the Library Edition onto my iPad, and have instant access not merely to almost all of JR’s major works, but to the edition’s comprehensive bibliography and (full-volume) index as well. One learns something new every day – I discovered, as part of the Index (volume 39)’s entry on “Ruskin, John,” a year-by-year biographical record, which includes everything he was writing on any given year, every place he visited, etc. Magnificent. But being never quite satisfied, I lament that the index isn’t hyperlinked to the various volumes – now that would make things interesting!

I continue trundling thru Ruskin criticism, in recent weeks PD Anthony’s John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory (a rather useful study by a chap who is I gather a management theorist, and who’s written a book on the ideology of work that I’ve got to get to) and Michael Wheeler’s Ruskin’s God, a scrupulous study marred only by Wheeler’s all-too-evident need to prove that Ruskin never really fell into agnosticism – honest, he didn’t!

But even more recent is Kristine Ottesen Garrigan’s Ruskin on Architecture: His Thought and Influence (Wisconsin, 1973), a book which has made me think about the whole enterprise of “taking an author whole” – in particular, of trying to get a global view of a writer whose works span some X-million words. Bob Archambeau groused somewhere lately (probably on Facebook, where all the poets have gone now blogging's declassĂ©) about Fredric Jameson’s sloppy misreading of Yeats; and while I’m the first to admit and admire Jameson’s genius, he’s the sort of critic who’s happy to write profoundly on an author on the basis of having read one or two books by him, to make a sweeping statement about a poet after reading the anthology texts.

Garrigan, on the other hand, has achieved over who knows how many years of labor (labor, mind you, not facilitated by having an electronically searchable version of the LE) a comprehensive view of Ruskin’s entire enterprise, and she’s able to tie her remarkably even-handed assessment of his architectural criticism (two chapter titles: “What Ruskin Emphasized in Architecture”; “What Ruskin Ignored in Architecture” – hint: the latter chapter is rather longer than the former, & includes most of what most architects and scholars of architecture consider significant about the art) into, by the end of the book, a global interpretation of Ruskin’s whole imaginative and cultural enterprise. Of course, it’s an interpretation modeled on what she reads as Ruskin’s own basic drive to make cultural wholes out of fragments – and, it strikes me, that’s a familiar drive on the part of the high modernists, as well. I begin to suspect there’s something to be said for Guy Davenport’s derivation of so much of twentieth-century writing from the “meditation on the ruins” genre. Gotta dig out that copy of Volney.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

re: florida looks

"Presumably, a painter might reproduce the effect of of looking into the water, past the water lilies on the surface & the reflections of what's on the banks, by painting them blurred."

But you see, that is where painting fails in this respect. When the eye changes its focus and efforts into the second mode in order to observe distinctly reflections of sky, etc, it cannot move and it is my speculation that all image from without this eye's concentrated locus cannot be seen clearly, whether on the surface or beneath it. In order to observe these other portions of cloud reflections, etc, the eye has then to "release," pan to the new section and re-concentrate. Thus, a painter who would attempt the depiction of an observed body of water, the observer's eye being in the second, efforted mode, should paint not all under-surface images distinctly, but a locus of cloud, etc, leaving all else, whether above or below surface, unclear. The impracticality of this method is of course that the viewer would need be instructed and required to look upon the painting as if from the literal point-of-view of the painting's implied spectator, who is looking, with this focus, upon this body of water. One cannot browse a painting of this kind in any manner, and it is further interesting to speculate whether or not one must oneself concentrate or not the eye in observing the depiction of one who has done as much himself/herself, and what effect this would have on more ordinary painting. That is, if one were to effort the eye on a painting of a body of water, does one create the same "locus" of clarity and indistinct remainder, which the painting itself does not, as in the above, itself attempt?

"Ruskin castigates the conventional landscape painter for his handling of reflections; but precisely how are they mishandled?"

In nature, one may observe a body of water in one of two ways: concentrated, or unfocused which is the "default," always-already mode of observation. If we suddenly turn our gaze upon a body of water, we observe in the unfocused manner, that is, without an additional effort our eye looks upon the water and what it is prepared to see clearly and distinctly, Ruskin says, is objects upon the water's surface, such as our lily pads. Images which come to us from below the water's surface, such as clouds and far off trees, or a mountain's top, must be indistinct and unclear. This is due to the eye's unfocused character. In order to observe with similar clarity these under-surface images one must concentrate the eye by some effort. Thus, in observing a body of water one of two views is possible, and never both because each negates the other. When a landscape painter depicts with equal clarity lily pads and sky (which is easy to do, if you imagine the literal process of his/her painting, though it is not, I've observed myself, an understanding which comes naturally in reading Of Truth of Water), he/she depicts a visual consistency which is in nature impossible, and thus foreign to any real observing eye. It is that error in the typing of a good story or glance in the direction of the camera which gives away the illusion as such.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

florida looks

The photograph Erick has uploaded below might have been snapped in any number of neighborhoods around the area these past few days, given the deluge wrought by Tropical Storm Isaac. It's worth noting, however, how the camera here manages to capture the human depth of focus of which Ruskin writes in the "Truth of Water" section: that is, it captures the surface of the water by a short focus on what's on the surface – the water lilies, the ripples, the reflection of the banyan (?) tree; these are in clear focus. What's blurry is what's further off – the trees in the background, their reflections in the water.

Presumably, a painter might reproduce the effect of of looking into the water, past the water lilies on the surface & the reflections of what's on the banks, by painting them blurred. But then does one paint the reflections of distant objects (eg, the trees in the very background) in sharp focus? I'm assuming that Ruskin castigates the conventional landscape painter for his handling of reflections; but precisely how are they mishandled?
Always worth keeping in mind the conventionality of our seeing. As JR points out in the passage on the sky, our notion of what the sky looks like – at least, if we are mid-19th-century viewers likely to be interested in art – is probably conditioned as much by paintings of the sky as it is by actual looking at the sky. We have some of the most spectacular skies in the world here in South Florida (compensation by the divinity, Ruskin would not doubt joke, for the absolute lack on other topographical interest). But we, as 21st-century spectators, no doubt have our heads filled as much with photographical ideas of skyness as 1st-hand impressions.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

re: Of Truth of Water

In Of Truth of Water, Ruskin suggests that Turner's water allows for the eye to behave as it does in nature, that is, with its default mode of focus seeing the duckweed, with reflections of sky and trees vague and indistinct. In painting Ruskin derides, he explains that these artists paint their waters in such a way as to force, in spite of themselves, the eye into (or approximate such focus, that is, to paint as if the eye has itself focused these images)seeing clearly reflections of sky and trees. Ruskin suggests this is false, but it seems rather to be the simple opposite of Turner. There being two "efforts" which the eye can shift between (or, it is that the eye is normally relaxed in a state which is prepared to observe near rays clearly), Turner approximates the visual equivalent of observing clearly objects on the water's surface; this is not the same as our choosing, by effecting the eye into the mode which receives these short or long rays, to observe the surface, as Ruskin reminds one may do in nature. Turner does not give us the choice, he has chosen for us the short view, the observing clearly objects on the surface, opposed to reflections. One cannot choose to effort the eye into observing distinctly these reflections, as one can in nature, yet as one can in such paintings as Ruskin derides. There of course we are neither choosing to observe clearly the water's reflections, but have had this mode of perception forced upon us, no differently as in Turner except that it is its opposite. A point for Turner's water may be had in that it presumes of the two effects of the eye that which is natural to it, i.e. that with which it defaultingly engages water in nature, but this seems not to be as substantial a point as Ruskin makes it out to be. A second may be had in Turner's greater control of the painting, in that he does not in spite of himself paint water in the short-effort of the eye, but purposefully anticipates the eye which has been concentrated in this mode. Turner chooses to paint in such a way, while the other artist, painting in the manner which supposes the opposite effort being present in the eye, does so accidentally, of his own incompetence. Again, this seems not so substantial a difference in that the two results are mere opposites, whatever their more or less intentioned conceptions.

A problem is apparent to me now in making clear reflections of sky and trees, that being surface objects would be similarly clear, suggesting of the eye two efforts simultaneously and a perception of nature which is not in reality possible, only in painting. So, while the bad artist gives an incompatible illusion of things near and far off, and Turner paints clearly surface objects and vaguely sky and trees, it is yet not possible to create the illusion of the long-ray effort of the eye; could one paint sky and trees clearly, leaving surface objects distorted, as is perceived with that effort of the eye in nature? Though Ruskin explains how in nature one alternates freely between these two modes of seeing, perceiving either but not both surface objects or distant objects distinctly, it is not apparent one could reproduce the efforted version of seeing which makes clear the reflection of distant objects, with its adverse effect upon a water's surface, in painting.


Ruskin's motto, repeated thrice in a ring on his crest, was "To-day." The above lovely bit of needlepoint is signed, as best I can read it, "E. I. Wilkinson | Brantwood Lodge | Lake Coniston." Brantwood was Ruskin's home in the Lake Country. (Image by way Alec Finlay, Scottish poet/conceptual artist.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Frye on Ruskin

One of those tossed-off insights that so delight in Northrop Frye:

"The fact that the real source of wealth is potential fertility or new life, vegetable or human, has run through romance from ancient myths to Ruskin's King of the Golden River, Ruskin's treatment of wealth in his economic works being essentially a commentary on this fairy tale." (Anatomy of Criticism, 198)

Clive Wilmer calls this an "exaggeration"; I'd propose that we take it seriously indeed. To what extent do the images and themes of "King of the Golden River" ramify throughout, or run like subterranean rivers beneath, all of Ruskin's mature works?

Thursday, August 16, 2012


So I've arrived at a provisional syllabus for the seminar; over the next few months, here is the map of our reading (to be supplemented with various secondary texts). The primary course texts are as follows, though one can easily work along with the downloadable volumes from the Library Edition (all of these texts by John Ruskin):
Praeterita, ed. Francis O’Gorman (Oxford UP, 2012)
Selected Writings, ed. Dinah Birch (Oxford UP, 2004)
Sesame and Lilies, ed. Deborah Epstein Nord (Yale UP, 2002)
The Seven Lamps of Architecture (Dover, 1989)
Unto this Last and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (Penguin, 1985)
Week 1: 22 August: INTRODUCTION

 •“The King of the Golden River” (Wilmer 45-71, or available online)


Modern Painters I – IV (Birch 3-15, 68-81, 82-92)
Modern Painters I, “Of Water, As Painted by Turner” (in The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from his writings, ed. John D. Rosenberg, 32-41 – handout)
•Ruskin’s early years, as recalled in Praeterita (O’Gorman 5-78)


The Seven Lamps of Architecture (entire book)

Week 4: 12 September: THE STONES OF VENICE

The Stones of Venice I, “The Quarry” (Birch 28-31)
The Stones of Venice II, “The Nature of Gothic” (Wilmer 77-109); NB: when you reach the end of Wilmer’s selection, shift to Birch, and read 59-63 in her selection.
The Stones of Venice III, “Grotesque Renaissance” (Birch 64-68)


•“Cambridge School of Art: Inaugural Address” (Birch 93-104)
The Two Paths, “The Work of Iron” (Birch 105-135)
Modern Painters V, “The Two Boyhoods” (Wilmer 141-154)
Modern Painters V, “The Hesperid AeglĂ©” (Birch 136-139)


Thomas Carlyle:
On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Lecture V, “The Hero as Man of Letters: Johnson, Rousseau, Burns”
Past and Present, Book III (“The Modern Worker”), Chapters II (“Gospel of Mammonism”), IV (“Happy”), VII (“Over-Production”), and VIII (“Unworking Aristocracy”)
Latter-Day Pamphlets, No. IV, “The New Downing Street”

Week 7: 3 October: UNTO THIS LAST
Unto this Last (Wilmer 155-228) 

Week 8: 10 October: SESAME AND LILIES
Sesame and Lilies (Nord 3-93)
•Elizabeth Helsinger, “Authority, Desire, and the Pleasures of Reading” (Nord 113-141)


The Crown of Wild Olive, “Traffic” (Wilmer 229-250)
The Queen of the Air, “Athena Chalinitis” (Birch 175-185)
Lectures on Art, “Inaugural” (Birch 186-204)


•Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, Chapters I (“Sweetness and Light”), III (“Barbarians, Philistines, Populace”), and IV (“Hebraism and Hellenism”)
•Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature, Preface, “The School of Giorgione,” and “Conclusion”

Week 11: 31 October: FORS CLAVIGERA I

Fors Clavigera Letter 1: Looking Down from Ingleborough (Library Edition vol. 27, 11-26)*
•Letter 2: The Great Picnic (Library Edition vol. 27, 27-44)*
•Letter 7: Charitas (Wilmer 294-305)
•Letter 10: The Baron’s Gate (Wilmer 306-315)
•Letter 11: The Abbot’s Chapel (Library Edition vol. 27, 181-198)
•Letter 13: Every Man His Due (Library Edition vol. 27, 229-242)
 (Download Fors letters in Library Edition from above link)


Fors Clavigera Letter 13: Every Man His Due (Library Edition vol. 27, 229-242)
•Letter 20: Benediction (Birch 205-215)
•Letter 23: The Labyrinth (Library Edition vol. 27, 394-416)
•Letter 48: The Advent Collect (Birch 216-224)
•Letter 88: The Convents of St Quentin (Birch 225-236)
•William Morris, “Art under Plutocracy
•William Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil

Week 13: 14 November: PRAETERITA I
Read: •Praeterita Vol. I (O’Gorman 1-153)

Week 14: 21 November: PRAETERITA II
Read: •Praeterita Vols. II and III (O’Gorman 155-363)

Week 15: 28 November
Read: •Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying

I'm hoping this will keep us all busy, out of trouble, off the street, etc...

Monday, August 13, 2012

ruskin's bourne identity

Just re-read a famous passage of Ruskin's fragmentary autobiography, Praeterita; this is from Book II, Chapter III, in which Ruskin is recounting his 1841 family journey to Italy. He's going back over his diaries from the time, and transcribing large chunks, and here he records his arrival at Venice (which will be the center of so much of his writing):
I find a sentence in diary on 8th May, which seems inconsistent with what I have said of the centres of my life work [ie, he has earlier specified that the "centres" of his life's work have been Rouen, Geneva, and Pisa]:–
"Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities.
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
This, and Chamouni, are my two homes of Earth."
That is how the passage is printed in the Library Edition, Volume 35, ed. Cook & Wedderburn (1908). Glancing over my other copies of Praeterita, I find the following:
CLARK: I find a sentence in diary on 6th May, which seems inconsistent with what I have said of the centres of my life work.
"Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities."
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
"This, and Chamouni, are my two bournes of Earth."
 (1949 Rupert Hart-Davis edition, introduced by Kenneth Clark, as reprinted by Oxford UP 1978)
HILTON: I find a sentence in diary on 8th May, which seems inconsistent with what I have said of the centres of my life work.
"Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities.
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
This, and Chamouni, are my two homes of Earth."
(2005 Everyman's Library edition, introduced by Tim Hilton)
O'GORMAN: I find a sentence in diary on 6th May, which seems inconsistent with what I have said of the centres of my life work.
'Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities.'
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
'This, and Chamouni, are my two bournes of Earth.'
(2012 Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by Francis O'Gorman)

Four editions, two different texts: Cook/Wedderburn and Hilton give "8th May";  Clark and O'Gorman give "6th May." Cook/Wedderburn and Hilton give "homes of earth"; Clark and O'Gorman give "bournes of earth." So what's going on?

First of all, it's pretty clear that Ruskin, in drafting Praeteritia, wrote "bournes of earth." It was so printed in the piecemeal publication of the chapter in 1886, and then in the book edition of Volume II in 1887, and in several following book editions preceding the Library Edition of 1908. Ruskin didn't have a lot of involvement in reading proof at this point in his life, but he still knew a good sentence when he heard one, and it's clear that "my two bournes of earth" (think Hamlet's "undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns...) is far richer and sonically superior to "my two homes of earth."

Cook and Wedderburn, however, in editing Praeterita have gone back not merely to JR's manuscript of the autobiography, but to the diaries upon which he's drawing. Their conclusion is that Ruskin, looking back from his sixties, has misread his own 22-year-old's handwriting: "The diary of 1841 shows that Ruskin wrote "homes," not "bournes" (as hitherto printed)" is their note to the passage. So they have amended Praeterita – against Ruskin's own manuscript – on the basis of the diary manuscript upon which his later text is based. Hilton is clearly doing no more than following Cook and Wedderburn (his text is identical to theirs).

It gets a trifle more complicated, thanks to Ruskin's devilishly illegible hand. Joan Evans and John Whitehouse, in their 1956 Clarendon edition of Ruskin's diaries, give us "This and Chamouni are my two bournes of earth...," and O'Gorman, independently consulting the diary manuscript (for Evans/Whitehouse is notoriously unreliable), notes "'bournes' is correct though some transcribers give it as 'homes'." My gut follows O'Gorman – "bournes" is far more Ruskinian, far better than "homes" – but his argumentation is lacking: "some people, including Ruskin's first editors who knew him personally & knew his handwriting better than anyone living does, think Ruskin wrote 'homes,' but they're wrong – just because."

Even more interesting is the date, which Cook/Wedderburn and Hilton give as "8th May," and Clark and O'Gorman as "6th May." Evans/Whitehouse makes it quite clear: Ruskin wrote the entry in question on May 6, not May 8. Ruskin, writing in 1886, just plain misread the date of his own diary. Cook & Wedderburn, with access to the diary, chose not to correct his misdating, or even to annotate it. Clark and O'Gorman, on the other hand, have opted to (silently) correct the date.

Which text is to have authority for a printed version of Praeterita? Ruskin's own manuscript of the book, or the materials upon which he drew for that manuscript, and which might be distorted or be misread in his transcription? I'm of the opinion that the Praeterita manuscript should be authoritative, and any differences between it and its source materials (Ruskin's diaries, letters, etc.) should have attention drawn to them in the notes. The book itself, however, should continue to bear the marks of its author's mistakes and misreadings. That's what's frustrating about Cook/Wedderburn: they leave the mistake of "8th May" unannotated, but go to the trouble of "correcting" "bournes" to "homes." Similarly, while Clark fixes the date to "6th May" without comment, he prints "bournes" without any suggestion that there might be a problem with transcription.

To correct "bournes" to "homes" seems to me to mistake the status of the autobiographical text; it's an aesthetic object in its own right, not a transcription of diaries (or life), but a transmutation of them. Who's to say that Ruskin didn't know perfectly well he'd written "homes" in 1841, and quite intentionally changed it to "bournes"? (Unlikely, but just barely possible.)

My ideal presentation of this passage:
I find a sentence in diary on 8th May,* which seems inconsistent with what I have said of the centres of my life work.
"Thank God I am here; it is the Paradise of cities.
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
This, and Chamouni, are my two bournes** of Earth."

*Ruskin's mistake for 6th May.
**Thus in the 1886 Praeterita. The transcription of the diary of 1841 is unclear; Ruskin may have written "homes" there.

Cor magis tibi Sena pandit

Welcome to The Ruskin Seminar, the blog. I've started this blog for two reasons:

First, more practically, I wanted to set up a out-of-seminar-room space to continue (& perhaps to initiate) discussion in parallel to the graduate seminar I'm teaching this fall semester at Our Fair University, beginning in a bit over a week: "Ruskin and the Victorian Crisis." But I wanted to do so in a public-accessible forum, so that all of us who are directly participating in the "brick & mortar" seminar, as it were, could have the benefit of the knowledge & insight of interested internet passers-by.

I will be posting the syllabus for the seminar in a few days. Anyone who wants to read along and chime in is heartily welcomed.

Second, more selfishly, I wanted to set up a space where I could blog about Ruskin without feeling guilty. My more and more frequent Ruskin-posts have almost come to dominate my rather more longstanding blog, Culture Industry. Let them have their own space, I thought, and let them be mitigated & supplemented by other Ruskin-related voices.

The picture, by the way, is by James Northcote, RA, and depicts Ruskin at 3 years of age: "two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance, which were put in by the painter at my request; for I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland; and my Scottish nurse having always sung to me as we approached the Tweed or Esk,–
'For Scotland, my darling, lies full in thy view,
With her barefooted lassies, and mountains so blue,'
the idea of distant hills was connected in my mind with approach to the extreme felicities of life, in my Scottish aunt's garden of gooseberry bushes, sloping to the Tay."