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 declassé) 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.

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