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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Ruskin
by Long, William J.

The prose of Ruskin is a treasure house. Nature portrayed as everyman's Holy Land; descriptions of mountain or landscape, and more beautiful descriptions of leaf or lichen or the glint of light on a breaking wave; appreciations of literature, and finer appreciations of life itself; startling views of art, and more revolutionary views of that frightful waste of human life and labor which we call political economy,--all these and many more impressions of nature, art and human society are eloquently recorded in the ten thousand pages which are the work of Ruskin's hand.

If you would know the secret that binds all his work together, it may be expressed in two words, sensitiveness and sincerity. From childhood Ruskin was extremely sensitive to both beauty and ugliness. The beauty of the world and of all noble things that ever were accomplished in the world affected him like music; but he shrank, as if from a blow, from all sordidness and evil, from the mammon-worship of trade, from the cloud of smoke that hung over a factory district as if trying to shield from the eye of heaven so much needless poverty and aimless toil below. So Ruskin was a man halting between two opinions: the artist in him was forever troubled by the reformer seeking to make the crooked places of life straight and its rough places plain. He made as many mistakes as another man; in his pages you may light upon error or vagary; but you will find nothing to make you doubt his entire sincerity, his desire to speak truth, his passion for helping his fellow men.


The early training of Ruskin may explain both the strength and the weakness of his work. His father was a wealthy wine merchant, his mother a devout woman with puritanic ideas of duty. Both parents were of Scottish and, as Ruskin boasted, of plebeian descent. They had but one child, and in training him they used a strange mixture of severity and coddling, of wisdom and nonsense.

The young Ruskin was kept apart from other boys and from the sports which breed a modesty of one's own opinion; his time, work and lonely play were minutely regulated; the slightest infringement of rules brought the stern discipline of rod or reproof. On the other hand he was given the best pictures and the best books; he was taken on luxurious journeys through England and the Continent; he was furnished with tutors for any study to which he turned his mind. When he went up to Oxford, at seventeen, he knew many things which are Greek to the ordinary boy, but was ignorant of almost everything that a boy knows, and that a man finds useful in dealing with the world.

Training and its Results

There were several results of this early discipline. One was Ruskin's devotion to art, which came from his familiarity with pictures and galleries; another was his minute study of natural objects, which were to him in place of toys; a third was his habit of "speaking his mind" on every subject; a fourth was his rhythmic prose style, which came largely from his daily habit of memorizing the Bible. Still another result of his lonely magnificence, in which he was deprived of boys' society, was that his affection went out on a flood tide of romance to the first attractive girl he met. So he loved, and was laughed at, and was desperately unhappy. Then he married, not the woman of his choice, but one whom his parents picked out for him. The tastes of the couple were hopelessly different; the end was estrangement, with humiliation and sorrow for Ruskin.

Twenty Years of Art

At twenty-four he produced his first important work, Modern Painters (1843), which he began as a defense of the neglected artist Turner. This controversial book led Ruskin to a deeper study of his subject, which resulted in four more volumes on modern painting. Before these were completed he had "fairly created a new literature of art" by his Seven Lamps of Architecture and Stones of Venice. He was appointed professor of fine arts at Oxford; he gave several series of lectures which appeared later as Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Michael Angelo and Tintoret, Val d'Arno and The Art of England.

By this time he was renowned as an art critic; but his theories were strongly opposed and he was continually in hot water. In his zeal to defend Turner or Millais or Burne-Jones he was rather slashing in his criticism of other artists. The libel suit brought against him by Whistler, whom he described as a coxcomb who flung a pot of paint in the face of the public, is still talked about in England. The jury (fancy a jury wrestling with a question of art!) found Ruskin guilty, and decided that he should pay for the artist's damaged reputation the sum of one farthing. Whistler ever afterwards wore the coin on his watch chain.

Ruskin the Reformer

It was about the year 1860 that Ruskin came under the influence of Carlyle, and then began the effort at social reform which made wreck of fame and hope and peace of mind. Carlyle had merely preached of manual work; but Ruskin, wholehearted in whatever he did, went out to mend roads and do other useful tasks to show his belief in the doctrine. Carlyle railed against the industrial system of England; but Ruskin devoted his fortune to remedying its evils. He established model tenements; he founded libraries and centers of recreation for workingmen; he took women and children out of factories and set them to spinning or weaving in their own homes; he founded St. George's Guild, a well-housed community which combined work with education, and which shared profits fairly among the workers.

England at first rubbed its eyes at these reforms, then shrugged its shoulders as at a harmless kind of madman. But Ruskin had the temper of a crusader; his sword was out against what was even then called "vested interests," and presently his theories aroused a tempest of opposition. Thackeray, who as editor of the Cornhill Magazine had gladly published Ruskin's first economic essays, was forced by the clamor of readers to discontinue the series. [Footnote: While these essays were appearing, there was published (1864) a textbook of English literature. It spoke well of Ruskin's books of art, but added, "Of late he has lost his way and has written things--papers in the Cornhill chiefly--which are not likely to add to his fame as a writer or to his character as a man of common sense" (Collier, History of English Literature, p. 512).] To this reform period belong Unto This Last and other books dealing with political economy, and also Sesame and Lilies, Crown of Wild Olive and Ethics of the Dust, which were written chiefly for young people.

End of the Crusade

For twenty years this crusade continued; then, worn out and misunderstood by both capitalists and workingmen, Ruskin retired (1879) to a small estate called "Brantwood" in the Lake District, His fortune had been spent in his attempt to improve labor conditions, and he lived now upon the modest income from his books. Before he died, in 1900, his friend Charles Eliot Norton persuaded him to write the story of his early life in Pręterita. The title is strange, but the book itself is, with one exception, the most interesting of Ruskin's works.

Works of Ruskin

The works of Ruskin fall naturally into three classes, which are called criticisms of art, industry and life, but which are, in fact, profound studies of the origin and meaning of art on the one hand, and of the infinite value of human life on the other.

The most popular of his art criticisms are St. Mark's Rest and Mornings in Florence, which are widely used as guidebooks, and which may be postponed until the happy time when, in Venice or Florence, one may read them to best advantage. Meanwhile, in Seven Lamps of Architecture or Stones of Venice or the first two volumes of Modern Painters, one may grow acquainted with Ruskin's theory of art.

His Theory of Art

His fundamental principle was summarized by Pope in the line, "All nature is but art unknown to thee." That nature is the artist's source of inspiration, that art at its best can but copy some natural beauty, and that the copy should be preceded by careful and loving study of the original,--this was the sum of his early teaching. Next, Ruskin looked within the soul of the artist and announced that true art has a spiritual motive, that it springs from the noblest ideals of life, that the moral value of any people may be read in the pictures or buildings which they produced. A third principle was that the best works of art, reflecting as they do the ideals of a community, should belong to the people, not to a few collectors; and a fourth exalted the usefulness of art in increasing not only the pleasure but the power of life. So Ruskin urged that art be taught in all schools and workshops, and that every man be encouraged to put the stamp of beauty as well as of utility upon the work of his hands; so also he formulated a plan to abolish factories, and by a system of hand labor to give every worker the chance and the joy of self-expression.

Theory of Economics

In his theory of economics Ruskin was even more revolutionary. He wrote several works on the subject, but the sum of his teaching may be found in Unto This Last; and the sum is that political economy is merely commercial economy; that it aims to increase trade and wealth at the expense of men and morals. "There is no wealth but life," announced Ruskin, "life including all its power of love, of joy and of admiration." And with minute exactness he outlined a plan for making the nation wealthy, not by more factories and ships, but by increasing the health and happiness of human beings.

Three quarters of a century earlier Thomas Jefferson, in America, had pleaded for the same ideal of national wealth, and had characterized the race of the nations for commercial supremacy as a contagion of insanity. Jefferson was called a demagogue, Ruskin a madman; but both men were profoundly right in estimating the wealth of a nation by its store of happiness for home consumption rather than by its store of goods for export. They were misunderstood because they were too far in advance of their age to speak its trade language. They belong not to the past or present, but to the future.

For Young Readers

If but one work of Ruskin is to be read, let it be Sesame and Lilies (1865), which is one of the books that no intelligent reader can afford to neglect. The first chapter, "Of Kings' Treasuries," is a noble essay on the subject of reading. The second, "Of Queens' Gardens," is a study of woman's life and education, a study which may appear old-fashioned now, but which has so much of truth and beauty that it must again, like Colonial furniture, become our best fashion. These two essays [Footnote: A third essay, "The Mystery of Life," was added to Sesame and Lilies. It is a sad, despairing monologue, and the book might be better off without it.] contain Ruskin's best thought on books and womanly character, and also an outline of his teaching on nature, art and society. If we read Sesame and Lilies in connection with two other little books, Crown of Wild Olive, which treats of work, trade and war, and Ethics of the Dust, which deals with housekeeping, we shall have the best that Ruskin produced for his younger disciples.

The Quality of Ruskin

To the sensitiveness and sincerity of Ruskin we have already called attention. There is a third quality which appears frequently, and which we call pedagogical insistence, because the author seems to labor under the impression that he must drive something into one's head.

This insistent note is apt to offend readers until they learn of Ruskin's motive and experience. He lived in a commercial age, an age that seemed to him blind to the beauty of the world; and the purpose of his whole life was, as he said, to help those who, having eyes, see not. His aim was high, his effort heroic; but for all his pains he was called a visionary, a man with a dream book. Yet he was always exact and specific. He would say, "Go to a certain spot at a certain hour, look in a certain direction, and such and such beauties shall ye see." And people would go, and wag their heads, and declare that no such prospect as Ruskin described was visible to mortal eyes. [Footnote: For example, Ruskin gave in Fors Clavigera a description of a beautiful view from a bridge over the Ettrick, in Scotland. Some people have sought that view in vain, and a recent critic insists that it is invisible (Andrew Lang, History of English Literature, p. 592). In Venice or Florence you may still meet travelers with one of Ruskin's books in hand, peering about for the beauty which he says is apparent from such and such a spot and which every traveler ought to see.]

Naturally Ruskin, with his dogmatic temper, grew impatient of such blindness; hence the increasing note of insistence, of scolding even, to which critics have called attention. But we can forgive much in a writer who, with marvelously clear vision, sought only to point out the beauty of nature and the moral dignity of humanity.

Ruskin's Style

The beauty of Ruskin's style, its musical rhythm or cadence, its wealth of figure and allusion, its brilliant coloring, like a landscape of his favorite artist Turner,--all this is a source of pleasure to the reader, entirely aside from the subject matter. Read, for example, the description of St. Mark's Cathedral in Stones of Venice, or the reflected glories of nature in Pręterita, or the contrast between Salisbury towers and Giotto's campanile in Seven Lamps of Architecture, and see there descriptive eloquence at its best. That this superb eloquence was devoted not to personal or party ends, but to winning men to the love of beauty and truth and right living, is the secret of Ruskin's high place in English letters and of his enduring influence on English life.


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