Sunday, November 14, 2010

General Introduction John Ruskin

General Introduction

The influence which Ruskin, the critic and philosopher and the master of a prose-style, eminently poetic in quality, exercised, not merely over the literature, but over the whole life and thought of two generations, is not the least extraordinary phenomenon of the nine­teenth century.

Parentage and Boyhood––If origin, if early training and habits of life, if tastes and character and associations, fix a man’s nationality, then John Ruskin must be reckoned a Scotsman. The source of his name and pedigree is obscure. Soon after the dissolution of the Furness Abbey, Richard Ruskin and his family were land-owners at Dalton in Furness. Other Ruskins are known in the North of England ; one branch settled in Edinburgh.
John Ruskin, our aurthor’s grandfather, married a gentle woman of Galloway, Catherine Tweddale. Their son, John James Ruskin, having finished his education at the High School of Edinburgh, went to London and became a wine-merchant. He married his cousin, Margaret Cox, and their only child, John Ruskin, was born at 54, Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, on February 8, 1819. Four years later they moved to Herne Hill, their home, until John was grown up.
At the age of seven, he began to compose rhymes. He did not draw pictures until he was twelve, but frequent travel familiarised him with scenery, and home education gave him the opportunity to read for himself. At fifteen, he published notes on Alpine geology, and a year later appeared his verses on Salzburg, the first of many contributions to periodicals which seemed to promise success as a poet in the dark time before Tennyson’s star arose.
Early in 1836, the quiet of Herne Hill was fluttered by a visit from the daughters of Mr. Domecq, the wealthy Spanish-Parisian partner of the wine-merchant. To a romantic boy, in a London suburb, the apparition was dazzling. The eldest, Adele, bewitched him at once with her graceful figure and the oval face which was so admired in those times. He was on the brink of seventeen and fell passionately in love with her.
When the party left for London, Ruskin was alone with his poetry again, but all his plans were dropped for a new style of verse–– the love poems of 1836. His father approved the verses, and did not disapprove his views on the young lady. But to Mrs. Ruskin, with her religious feelings, it was intolerable that the son whom she had brought up in the strictest protestantism, should fix his heart on an alien in race and creed.
Ruskin was, then, a student at Oxford. He had already won the Newdigate prize for English verse, and his college-tutor seemed to think he might get a First in Greats. But in May he was pro­nounced consumptive, and had to give up all hopes of academic distinc­tions and with that all the plans that had been entertained for his distinction in the church. He was taken abroad, and dragged about from place to place in search of health for many months in vain. But in Italy he occupied himself with pencil and pen, and at length recovered strength among the Alps. He records that one day in a church at Geneva, he resolved to be something, to do something useful. He had been reading Carlyle’s Heroes.
The work he found was the defence of Turner and the exposition of modern aims in landscape. Some years earlier, before going up to Oxford, he had written a reply to the severe criticisms of Black-wood’s Magazine on Turner’s Juliet and sent it to the artist who replied pleasantly, but deprecated publication. Now, under the influence of Harding, the Chief Landscape teacher of the time, and with fuller knowledge of scenery and of painting, Ruskin felt that he had found a new vocation. He was not to be a poet—that was bound up with the past, which he wanted to forget—nor an artist, struggling with the rest to please a public he could teach ; nor a man of science, for his science, for his botany and geology were to be means, not the ends, of his teaching ; but the mission was laid upon him to tell the world that art also had its heroes, that the mainspring of their energy was sincerity, and the burden of their utterance was truth.
As Art Critic In May 1843, Modern Painters (Vol. I) appeared. The five volumes of Modern Painters appeared from 1843, at intervals over a period of twenty years. It was meant to be audacious and naturally created a storm. In these five volumes, Ruskin set forth the principles of painting with a thoroughness and insight that had never been attempted before. The free criticisms of public favourites made an impression, not because they were put into strong language—for the tone of the press was stronger than now—but because they were backed with illustration and argument. The descriptive passages were such as had never before appeared in prose, and the obvious usefulness of the analyses of natural form and effect made many an artist read on, while he shook his head.
When the secret of the “Oxford Graduate”—Ruskin’s pseu­donym—leaked out, he was lionised. During the winter of 1843, he met celebrities at fashionable dinner-tables ; and now that his parents were established in their grander house on Denmark Hill, they could duly return the hospitalities of the world
On his way home from the Alps in 1844, a few days at the Louvre made him a devotee of ancient art. He determined to go to Florence and Venice and study the old religious painters. Of the volume thus produced, Sidney Smith said that it “would work a complete revolution in the world of taste,” and his prophecy was fulfilled.
Ruskin’s next work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, similarly called popular attention to French and Italian Gothic architect ire. This book owes its origin to certain conclusions Ruskin had arrived at while preparing his third volume of Modern Painters. The Stones of Venice, which followed, was undertaken as a description of mediaeval palaces and churches, but became, as Carlyle wrote, “a strange, unexpected and I believe, most true and excellent Sermon in Stones,” in which Ruskin contended that art cannot be produced except by artists. Great architecture, in his view, never arose from mechanical execution, by unintelligent workmen from the working drawings of an architect’s office ; and as Socrates -postponed the thy of justice until philosophers were kings, so he looked for a time when the workman should be a true artist.
This book deals with the archaeology and history of Venice, and expounds the causes of her glory and strength, and of her downfall and ruin. The chief purpose is to show that the Gothic Architecture of Venice arose out of her purity of faith and national virtue which it mirrored forth in such triumphant perfections, while her Renaissance architecture arose out of her concealed national infidelity and domestic corruption.
At the opening of the Working Men’s College (1854), a reprint of one chapter was distributed as a statement of conclusions drawn from the study of art respecting the conditions under which the life of the workman should be regulated and Ruskin thenceforward taught drawing at the college. His object was, as he said before the Royal Commission on National Institutions, not to create painters, but to educate the workmen. The result proved that they could be interested in art ; that the capacity shown in Gothic times, had not entirely died out, in spite of a century of manufacture ; and the experience led him forward to wider views in the nature of art and of social economy.
His chief colleague in these drawing classes was Rossetti, who had headed the Pre-Raphaelite movement, with Millais and Holman Hunt, some years earlier. They were not originally Ruskin’s pupils, but their moment was the outcome of a tendency which he, more than any man, had fostered with his advice to “go to Nature, selecting nothing, rejecting nothing and scorning nothing.” His pamphlet on Pre-Raphaelitism (1851) showed that the leading motive of the new school was that of Turner-sincerity as opposed to mechanical, academic art.
Turner died in that year, and Ruskin transferred his active sympathy to the Pre-Raphaelites, championing, them in his Edinburgh Lectures (1853) and annual Notes on the Royal Academy, as well as in the later volumes of Modern Painters. By 1854 he was already recognized as the leading authority upon taste, and trusted by the public, who had not failed to notice how completely he and his friends were winning the day.
Still a young man, Ruskin had wealth and fame and as his readers fancied, all that could make life happy. They did not know how the labour involved in his work and the drawback of ill-health made society distasteful to him and domestic life difficult.
The Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester, 1857 and the opening of the South Kensington Museum, 1858 gave occasion for important public addresses by Ruskin, printed in his Political Economy of Art and The Two Paths. The trend of his thought was now less toward technical criticism, but more toward the ethical aspects of art in its relation to the artists and the community.
Spending the summer of 1858 alone in Switzerland for the study of local history, he noted that the virtues of poor and laborious people did not make them artistic, while the vices of Venice, though not, as commonly supposed, the cause of the great school of painting, were unable for some generations to degrade it. He formed the generalisation that art is the product of human happiness, created by pleasure, not for pleasure ; and, as a consequence of that doctrine, he felt that the one thing needful was to seek the grounds of national well-being from which art would spontaneously arise. “The kind of painting they most wanted in London,” he said in an address to a school of art, “was painting cheeks red with health.” A new career opened before him, to face broader issues and sterner realities.
Hermit and Heretic—At forty years of age, Ruskin finished Modern Painters, which concluded the cycle of work by which he is popularly known as a writer upon art. From that time art was some-times his text, rarely his theme. He used it as the opportunity for teachings about life as a whole, conclusions in ethics, economics and religion, to which he sought to lead others as he was led by the way of art. During the next few years he lived much alone among the Alps or at home, thinking out the problems, sometimes feeling more acutely than was good for clear thought, the burden of the mission laid upon him.
His Alpine hermitage was at Mornex, on the Saleve, near Geneva, where his chief recreation was the study of physical geology and the structure of minerals, especially agates, about which he lectured at the Royal Institution later on. But his work was political economy, or rather, the relation of economy to ethics. On this, he wrote two series of papers, Unto This Last (in Cornhill Magazine) and Munera Pulveris (in Fraser’s Magazine).
Both series came to an untimely end ; the outcry against the heresies they preached was-too loud for editors and publishers, and the papers were stopped. Worst of all, his father strongly disapproved Carlyle, his firm ally, wrote to the old man that “when Solomon’s temple was built, ten thousand sparrows sitting on the trees round declared that it was entirely wrong ; nevertheless it got finished.” By such advocacy the breach was healed and at the death of his father, in 1864, all signs of difference had disappeared. His mother lived on for nearly eight years, to find in her last days, his later works becoming, as she wrote, more and more what they always ought to have been to her.
The loss of his father recalled Ruskin from abroad. Under the will he received about £ 1,57,000, and was able to indulge tases and the generosity which in twenty years made away with his fortune, together with another £ 50,000 left him by his mother. For the time, he devoted himself to preaching his new doctrines one thics and education.
The first important publication was that of the two lectures given in Manchester in 1864 as Sesame and Lilies, followed by the addresses collected in The Crown of Wild Olive, and the talks to school-girls at Winnington on minerals and morals—Ethics of the Dust. The series of letters named Time and Tide, in which he set forth the sketch of his Utopia, were written in 1867, and in that year he was invited to deliver the Rede Lecture at Cambridge, receiving the honorary degree of LL. D.
In the summer he revisited, after a long interval, the English lake district, and found “the loveliest rock scenery, with silver waterfalls, that he ever set foot or heart upon.” But it was not yet that he abandoned his ideal of a home among the Alps for one at Coniston.
Next year he was in Ireland and delivered at Dublin the third lecture of Sesame and Lilies. By this time his mother had the com­panionship of his young cousin, Miss Agnew, afterwards Mrs. Arthur Severn, and he was able to go abroad again—to Switzerland in 1866, to Abbeville in 1868, and in 1869 to Verona and Venice, where he made acquaintance with the mystic paintings of Carpaccio.
The study of mythology as a revelation of human ideals was taking the place of other interests ; the first chapter of The Queen of the Air, an attempt to explain Greek Nature myths, was given as a lecture at University College, London in 1869, and the interpretation of faith as expressed in art led him into many lbyways of research, not always on firm ground. But it was the logica sequence of widen­ing aims and views, embracing broader issues than the connoisseurship of Modern Painters, the didacticism of Seven Lamps, and the historical imagination of Stones of Venice, though it became a contributing cause to the strange mysticism of his later period, which can hardly be understood without the key of biographical development.
On his way home from Verona, he heard that he had been elected to the newly founded Slade professorship in Fine Art at Oxford, and on February 8, 1870, gave his inaugural lecture in the Sheldonian.
Professor and Prophet—Ruskin’s lectures are still fresh in the memory of many who have forgotten much else of what they saw and learnt at Oxford. It was not strictly academic, the way he used to come into the room, fling off his long-sleeved mister’s gown and plunge into his discourse. He would begin by reading carefully written passages of rhetoric ; by and by he would break off and with quite another air extemporise the liveliest interpolations. His voice till then artificially cadenced, became vivacious ; his gestures, at first constrained, became dramatic ; and the manner as well as the matter carried his hearers with him.
In his first three years at Oxford, he delivered five courses, reconstructing his teaching upon general principles of art. In 1871 the drawing-school he founded and endowed was opened. And, indeed Ruskin’s aim was not to attract amateurs, but those who were to be thinkers and workers. As he could not make them draw, he made them dig at his Hinksey road mending—a pretext for getting together disciples for the doctrines he was preaching in Fors Clavigera.
This was the series of monthly Letters to Working Men, carried on from his date, with some intermissions until 1884. The pamphlets were not regularly published, but sold by his engraver, George Allen, formerly a Working Men’s College student, through whose agency, Ruskin ultimately issued all his books, thus becoming his own publisher.
In Fors he gradually developed his suggestions for a Guild of St. George, by which he hoped to influence public opinion towards his altruistic ideals. He had begun with successful attempts, under the management of Miss Octavia Hill, to reclaim London slums, and to set an example in trade with his tea-shop in Paddington. Now he proposed an organisation to promote simplicity of life, renunciation of commercial methods, and the betterment of agricultural labour—not as a charitable colony, but introducing his principles—educational, social and economic—into existing farms and factories.
As one branch of this work he founded the Museum at Sheffield; as attempts in other directions, several pieces of land, and a mill at Laxey, Isle of Man, came under the Guild’s control, with varying fortune; the home industries of the Lake district owed their origin to the movement But Ruskin was neither presonally fitted, nor, after this time, in sufficient health to manage an enterprise of this nature.
In 1876 at Venice, he showed definite signs of a great mental change. For many years, he had been deeply attached to a young lady who had been a child, his pupil in drawing; estrangement, arising chiefly from religious differences, and at last her death put an end to his romance. A medium had professed to show him her spirit; and ever since he had watched eagerly for evidences of another life. The assurance seemed to have come with the reawakening of religious feelings and the strengthening of the mysticism derived from his study of mythology. He recanted his scepticism, depreciated his former heroes, and searched the Bible for hidden meanings. Under the new inspiration, he wrapped the prophet’s mantle more closely round him as he denounced with growing fervour the crimes of an unbelieving age.
In 1879 he retired from his professorship to the quiet of his home at Coniston. He had bought the cottage of Brantwood in 1871, with a few acres of moor and woad, fronting on the Lake, and the finest view, he wrote in Cumberland or Lancashire (Coniston being in Lancashire), “with the sunset visible over the same.” He repaired and enlarged the dilapidated house, filled it with pictures and books, and spent his afternoons in opening paths in the woods or engineering rock-gardens and reservoirs on the moors. He found new friends in the neighbourhood, and took a great interest in the village-school and institute, and in the life of his rustic neighbours.
In retirement he still wrote, recasting his botanical and geological studies in Proserpina and Deucalion. After a tour in France in 1880, he began The Bible of Amiens as part of a series on old French history. A more extended tour, in 1882, to revisit old haunts in view of an autobiography (Praeterita), so far restored his health that he ventured once again to attempt the work of professorship at Oxford. But the effort ended in another and more complete break-down. His last lectures, vehement protests against modern life and thought in the strain of a Hebrew prophet denouncing a Babylon, alarmed his strongest supporters. The action of the university in establishing a physiological laboratory meant to him the endowment of vivisection to which he was energetically opposed. He resigned his post, feeling he was completely out of touch with the age, and that he must give up the unequal fight.
For a few years more, he spent intervals of comparative health in travel, in writing Praeterita, and in editing several works by friends; but his powers were spent. After 1889, he passed into almost entire seclusion at Coniston, affectionately tended by Mrs. Severn and resigned to inaction.
His eightieth birthday was marked by an outburst of congratu­lations from many unexpected quarters, for though he had survived his strength, the influence of his work had been growing. “You have helped many,” said the address on this occasion from Oxford University, “to find in life more happiness than they thought it held; and we trust there is happiness in the later years of your long life.” But as the year went on, he did not regain his normal summer strength. After an attack of influenza he passed peacefully away an January 20, 1900. A grave in Westminster Abbey was offered, but it had been his own desire to be buried at Coniston, where he lies in the village churchyard among the friends of his later years, and under the crags he loved in his childhood.
His death removed from England the last great figure of an age which included Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, and so many other names of the first order. His life is the history of an intellect which underwent many and various changes of position His main enthusiasm was for truth in everything, at first for sincerity in taste and judgement, afterwards for uprightness in public and private life. His remedies for popular errors and national corruptions were numerous ; but, whatever his panacea for the moment happened to be, he was convinced of its specific virtue, and what is more, he managed to infect others with his conviction. The frequently aggressive dogmatism of his eloquence, which must be a little irritating to all, save his immediate followers, was the offspring of intense earnestness. While he strove for truth and righteousness, he himself, in all he said or did, was as consistent with his ideal as it is possible for man to be. And thus there is a distinct and firm bond, connecting all his work, whatever may be its paradoxes and recantations of sentiment. As a teacher and as a moral influence, he enjoyed, during his life-time, a signal triumph : his thought has permeated English life and forms, at the present time, one of the most important elements in its constitution. As a man of letters, his position, so far as it is capable of definition, is founded upon his first books, whose celebrity lay at the root of all his subsequent influence.
A List of Ruskin’s Principal Works
Ruskin is a most voluminous writer. His principal works will be found in the following list in order of date :
1843—Modern Painters, Vol. 1.
1846—Modern Painters, Vol. 2.
1849—The Seven Lamps of Architecture.
1851—The King of the Golden River.
1851—The Stones of Venice, Vol. 1.
1851—Examples of the Architecture of Venice.
1853—The Stones of Venice, Vols. 2 and 3.
1853—Giotto and his Works in Padua, Part 1.
1854—Giotto and his Works in Padua, Part 2.
1854—Lectures on Architecture and Painting.
1855—The Seven Lamps of Architecture, second edition (New Preface).
1856—Modern Painters, Vols. 3 and 4.
1857—The Political Economy of Art.
1859—The Two Paths.
1860—Modern Painters, Vol. 5.
1860 —Unto this Last (Cornhill Magazine).
1862—Essays on Political Economy (Fraser’s Magazine), Essays 1, 2, 3.
1863—Essays on Political Economy (Fraser’s Magazine), Essay, 4.
1865—Sesame and Lilies, second edition (New Preface).
1866—The Ethics of the Dust.
1866—The Crown of the Wild Olive.
1869—The Queen of the Air.
1870—Lectures of Art.
1871—Fors Clavigera, Vol. 1.
1872—Fors Clavigera, Vol. 2.
1872—Munera Pulveris (with Preface).
1872—The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret.
1872—Time and Tide.
18731-Fors Clavigera, Vol. 3 and index to Vols. 1, 2.
1874—Fors Clavigera, Vol. 4.
1875— Fors Clavigera, Vol 5, and index to Vols. 3 and 4.
1875—Mornings in Florence, parts 1, 2, 3, 4.
1876-Fors Clavigera, Vol. 6.
1876—Mornings in Florence, part 5.
1876—Letters on Pre-Raphaelite Pictures.
1877—Fors Clavigera, Vol. 7.
1877—Mornings in Florence, part 6.
1878—Fors Clavigera, Vol. 8, letters 1, 2, 3.
1879—Letters to the Clergy of the Lord’s Prayer.
1880 —A Joy for Ever (New Preface).
1883—Mornings in Florence, part 6 (second editon).
1884—The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.
1884—The Pleasures of England, lectures 1, 2.
1884—Roadside Songs of Tuscany, parts 1-4.
1885—The Pleasures of Egland, lectures 3, 4.
1885—Praeterita, parts 1—7—Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts perhaps Worthy of Memory in my Past Life.
1885—Roadside Songs of Tuscany, parts 5—10.
1886—Praeterita, parts 8—21.
1887—Praeterita, parts 22—24.
1888—Praeterita, parts 25, 26.
1892—Letters upon Subjects of General Interest.
1892—Letters to a London Bibliopole.
1892—The Poetry of Architecture.
1893— Letters from J. Ruskin to William Ward, 2 Vols.
1893––Three Letters, and an Essay on Literature, 1836—1841.
1894—Letters to a College Friend, 1840—1845.
1894—Letters on Art and Literature.
1898—Lectures on Landscape illustrated.
Ruskin was born in the middle of the Industrial Revolution which changed the lives of people immensely. Material culture began to gain ground. The revolution brought in use steam and power-driven machinery and the growth of large mills and factories with the result that green fields and clear streams could not be seen fre­quently. In the Preface to The Crown of Wild Olive, the author cites an instance in this connection :
“……just in the very rush and murmur of the first spreading
currents, the human wretches of the place cast their street and house foulness ; heaps of dust and slime and broken shreds of old metal and rags of putrid clothes.” Thousands of acres of common land were in possession of factory-owners. Poor people had to sell their little farms and became hired labourers at low wages. The bulk of the rural population migrated to towns in the hope of improving their economic status as is the tendency in modern
The other bad effect of the Industrial Revolution was the predominance of machines. Cottage industries began to dwindle away. The factory-goods attracted customers and captured the market and hence small industries suffered. Workers who before the Industrial Revolution wove and spun and sold the finished goods in the market gracefully and profitably could not compete with mill-made goods. They sank from the position of skilled craftsmen to that of poorly employed mechanical hands in factories. Mahatma Gandhi, keeping this point in view, opposed the growth of mills and factories and favoured the prosperity of village industries. The large growth of mills and factories is bound to throttle village industries and handicrafts as is seen in India. The effect of the Industrial Revolution was Mammon-worship :
“It brought prosperity……In fine, Mammon-worship grew. It also brought about a depopulation of rural areas. Big towns––factory-towns grew up. It divided England into the industrial north and the rural south.”
The industrialisation in England led to an evil exploitation of labour. Inhuman treatment was meted out to workers. Low wages and the employment of women and children were quite common. In 1825 about three millions of the wage-earners were children who earned as little as one shilling a week. Out of four million adult males, the great majority earned from 8 s. to 12 s. a week. Trade unions could not be formed owing to severe penalty. Nobody could take part in a strike. Employers were generally the magistrates ; hence more atrocities were done fearlessly. Workhouse children were auctioned and carried off by contractors to work sometimes 200 miles from their relatives. Contracts could not be dishonoured. In 1825, a woman of 22 was sent to jail for breaking a contract to work twelve hours a day (exclusive of meal times) for two years at 3s 6d a week for the first year and 4s a week for the second ; she lived almost entirely on bread and water.
Children in factories were compelled to work even longer hours. In 1833, Carlyle wrote of little children, labouring for 16 hours a day, inhaling at every breath a quantity of cotton fuzz, falling asleep over their wheels and roused again by the lash of thongs over their backs or the slop of ‘billy rollers’ over their little crowns, in factories with temperature of 80o––85o. It is, then, no surprise that writers like Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens attacked most vehemently this type of social system. Dickens describes the inhuman treatment meted out to children in David Copperfield.
Until 1832 even the better-paid working people had no votes. Ruskin opposed the current political economy which believed in laissez-faire. When the matter was referred to the Parliament, it rejected any attempt to regulate hours and working conditions by law because the magistrates were mainly mill owners. It was only in 1847 that the working hours of all factory children under 18 were limited to 10 a day, exclusive of meal-times. But the hours of children not working in factories remained unlimited.
J. H. Fowler mentions, “In the sixties of last century, the mid-Victorian period as it has come to be called, the great changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution were already showing their effects. England had become a country of huge, busy, over-crowded towns, continually encroaching upon and destroying the green fields upon their margin ; wealth was growing fast, but it rested in mounded heaps, enriching the few instead of alleviating the lot of the toiling multitudes ; power had been taken from the aristo­cracy by the Reform Bill of 1832, but it had passed to the middle classes, the prosperous trades-people of the towns, not to the artisans who in the infancy of the trade-unions were still very much at the mercy of their employers and who were not for many years to make full use of the enfranchisement so soon to be given them by the Reform Bill of 1867. The middle-classes thriving themselves and enjoying the additional comforts which the development of trade, manufactures and mechanical inventions had brought within their reach, were disposed to believe that all was well ; that commercial intercourse would bind the nations together and put an end to wars and that with the increase of trade and the spread of education, crime and poverty would gradually diminish if they did not altogether disappear. As one’s prosperity increases, it is so comforting to believe that all the world’s prosperity must increase likewise.
Economists were in favour of State intervention only in the importation of corn. The State levied heavy duties on imported corn so that the indigenous production might not suffer. The system of protection raised the price of corn and therefore of bread to a level which in the hungry forties meant literal starvation for several workers. Bread was largely made of plaster. Most of the necessaries of life were heavily taxed.
Education was the privilege of the few. Literacy was at low ebb. In 1842, for instance, in South Wales not one grown-up male in fifty could read. On account of heavy work, it was impossible for parents to pass their traditional knowledge to their children. State provided no education. Wealth maddened employers. They did not care for sanitation. A better return on capital could be got from hovels than from wholesome houses. Ruskin hints at this point in the Preface to The Crown of Wild Olive : “……and by this stately arrangement, the little piece of dead ground within, between wall and street, became a protective receptacle of refuse ; cigar ends, and oyster-shells and the like such as an open-hearted English street populace habitually scatters ; and was thus left, unsweepable by an ordinary method.” Hence slums could be seen both in the towns and the country. When cholera broke out in 1855, rich people were also affected by it as their clothes were made by sweated workers in the slums. Then they realised that good business might not mean real wealth. England became the richest country in the world due to the doctrine of non-interference and the Industrial Revolution but she attained to that position at the cost of thousands of young children, worked or stoned to death and millions were ruined in health and reduced to the condition of ignorant slaves.
Ruskin saw that the materialistic tendencies were harming the cause of spiritual bliss. The prosperous classes were wholly blind to the fearful cost at which wealth was being earned. He saw that in spite of talk about peace, wars were not dying out; there was civil war in America, there were wars in Europe, and if England held aloof, it was little to her credit—she had blustered and then betrayed those who had relied upon her support. How could he rejoice in the mechanical triumphs of the century when the whole sky to the horizon was blackening with clouds of impending disaster ?
So the three lectures on Work, Traffic and War, are an arrange­ment of the vaunted civilisation of the nineteeth century ; the work, that was a cause instead of a blessing because it was ill-directed, devoted to the production of things that were ugly, superfluous, trivial or even deadly, work in which the workman could take no joy : the Traffic that was not fostered for the good of mankind, but merely for the merchant’s gain, the worship of the cruel goddess of getting on; the war in which the professional army was to carry out for wages the bidding of a nation of merchants, themselves remote from the peril and suffering of warfare. The falsity of the comfortable doctrine of the political economists—”To do the best for yourself is finally to do the best for others” is relentlessly shown.
Ruskin largely influenced by Carlyle, opposed Mammon-wor­ship on moral grounds. He set himself to work on a saner political economy which should recognise that self-interest is one of the motives that move men and that the only true wealth of a nation is healthy, happy children who have, as far as possible, developed their faculties and are satisfying their creative and artistic, instead of merely their acquisitive instincts. Greed leads to selfishness and selfishness leads to brutality. Hence, man being man, should rise above animal instinct. That is possible when selfless instinct works—when forces of love, kindness, cooperation and sympathy guide humanity. This was the path traversed by Buddha, Gandhi, Christ and that very path was adopted by Ruskin. He sought man’s salvation in moral uplift rather than in material pursuits— “In this, as in all other matters, whosoever will save his life, shall lose it, whosoever loses it shall find it.”
It was Ruskin’s way to choose fanciful but charmingly poetical titles for his books—The Seven Lamps. Sesame and Lilies, Unto This Last, Munera Pulveris. Ethics of the Dust, The Queen of the Air and The Crown of Wild Olive ; Fors Clavigera means fate that holds the Key, Praeterita stands for things past. These are Latin expressions. The title The Crown of Wild Olive has nothing directly to do with Latin. It is connected with Greek life.
The meaning of the title is explained by Ruskin himself in the last paragraph of the Preface to the book—“They (the ancient Greeks) knew that life brought its contests but they expected from it also the Crown of all contests : no proud one ! No Jewelled circlet flaming through Heaven above the height of the unmerited throne : only some few leaves of wild olive, cool to the tired brow, through a few fears of peace. It should have been of gold, they thought but Jupiter was poor ; this was the best the god could give them. Seeking a greater than this, they had known it a mockery. Not in war, not in wealth, not in tyranny, was there any happiness to be found for them, only in kindly peace, fruitful and free. The wreath was to be wild olive, mark you—the tree that grows carelessly, tufting the rocks with no vivid bloom, no verdure of branch ; only with soft snow of blossom, and scarcely fulfilled fruit, mixed with grey leaf and thorn-set stem ; no fastening of diadem for you but with such sharp embroidery ! But this such as it is, you may win while yet you live type of grey honour and sweet rest.” The above passage explains the title fully, The adjective ‘wild’ is significant. It shows the natural growth of the tree everywhere. Even when no gardener is to look after it, it grows—it is available everywhere. Then Olive is symbolical of peace. Happiness, according to Ruskin, can be found only in Kindly peace, fruitful and free. The reward is indicative of honour ‘type of grey honour.’ It discards wealth or riches ‘no jewelled circlet.’ Further, the leaves of the olive presented to the winner were also soothing—‘cool to the tired brow.’ Thus all the reasons for the choice of ‘Crown of Wild Olive’ have been given by the author.
The title refers to the Olympic games of the Greeks which constituted the highest test of the physical strength and skill of the people. The victor in the games was awarded no gold, nor, land but a Grown of Wild Olive, a wreath of Wild Olive leaves, which had no material value. This prize stood for honour, peace and rest-honour, because it signified a public recognition and appreciation of the victor’s triumph and worth, and peace and rest because after his supreme victory, the winner could spend the remaining years of his life in peace and rest, in enjoying the honour he had won. So the Crown of Wild Olive for which the Greeks contested in the Olympic games, signified that the contestants did not seek any material reward but only honour, peace and rest.
The Crown of Wild Olive had another significance for the Greeks. To them, the Olympic contests had a symbolic significance and stood for the fact that all life is a contest or struggle. And the highest reward which one was to expect for victory in this struggle, was not wealth or power but only honour, peace and rest. This was the significance of the Crown of Wild Olive for the Greeks. They did not aspire for any material reward but only moral and spiritual prize.
Such being the significance of the Crown of Wild Olive, how far is it applicable to the three lectures on Work, Traffic and War ? It is an appropriate title because in all the there lectures, Ruskin’s central idea is that our main object in life should not be wealth or power, but public service and the honour, peace and rest which it brings. Just as the ancient Greeks did not desire any material reward for victory in Olympic games but only a Crown of Wild Olive standing for honour, peace and rest, similarly we should, in all our activities, seek not material reward or profit, but the service of our fellowmen and the honour, and happiness which such service brings. In the first lecture on Work, Ruskin explains at length that the duty of the worker is to serve his country first by means of his labour. He may, of course, expect just wages for work, but his primary motive should be public service and not personal gain. In the lecture on Traffic, the same advice is given to the leaders of industry and commerce. Ruskin condemns the capitalistic and profit-seeking system of economy and lectures that the chief duty of industrialists and traders is to serve the public by producing and distributing the essential commodities of life. They should not care for personal gain at all.
In the third lecture, Ruskin applies the same principle to war and tells the soldiers that they should fight, not for the sake of power or wealth, but only for the sake of honour or public services. Only three types of war are justifiable : war as a noble game, under conditions meant to test the courage and skill of the combatants ; war for defending the just laws and institutions of one’s country, and war for conquering evil in another country. All other wars are unjust. Thus the central idea of the three lectures is that the worker, the capitalist and the solider, should not seek material reward or profit but should serve their fellow-men in their respective spheres of activity and win the honour and mental and spiritual peace which such service inevitably brings. In other words, the worker, the capitalist and the solider, should like the ancient Greeks, seek to win the noble reward which is symbolised by the Crown of Wild Olive. The gold perishes and hence men should strive for the approval of all-judging Jove by their self-less work and public service :
“As he pronounces lastly on each deed
Of so much praise in heaven expect the meed.”
Milton’s Lycidas.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!