Sunday, November 14, 2010


Ruskin occupies a prominent place in the history of English prose. He is certainly one of the greatest masters of English prose style. Living in an age, when grand style was popular, he made his contribution to English prose without indulging in “Lylyan antitheses and similes or Johnsonian parellelism and balance.” Language is a flexible instrument in his hand and he bends it to many uses—argu­ment, pictorial description, eulogy, invective, persuasion, passionate appeal. It is correct that he read Pope, Hooker and Dr. Johnson quite carefully but he maintains his unique individuality in forming his style. He stands now as a supreme master of the English tongue.

In the earlier writings of Ruskin, we find an ornamental, gorg­eous prose. There are brilliant descriptive passages which demon­strate his feeling for beauty of form and colour and a tendency to go into superlatives. Beginning as an art-critic, he cannot avoid the picturesque in his literary expressions. He clothes his thought in the language of exceptional beauty. He writes in Modern Painters
“Thank heaven, we are in sunshine again—and what sunshine : Not the lurid, gloomy, plague-like oppression of Canaletti, but while flashing fullness of dazzling light, which the waves drink and the clouds breathe, bounding and burning in intensity of Joy.” Here we have rhetorical, poetic tinge. The words have been used for orna­mentation. The writer shows the mastery of sound, colour and motion of words. He is rich in the power of illustration. There is a sense of being clamoured at rather than of being persuaded.
But in the later style and especially in his socio-economic writings, the sentences are simpler and they are not so overloaded with ornament as in The Modern Painters. The writer in the later Ards tries to convince the reader by clear arguments, expressed in a plain, clear-cut style. There is no scope for vagueness. Facts-are put forth in the most vigorous and convincing manner.
“You knock a man into a ditch and then you tell him to remain content in the position in which providence has placed him. That is modern Christianity.”                                                                        —Work.
Rhythm is the principal weapon of Ruskin. Saintsbury remarks “It is of a piece with the wilful lawlessness and want of self-criticism which distinguish all his work that he too often transgresses the bound­ary between rhythm and metre.” His prose, consequently becomes blank verse. The influence of the Bible is responsible for the rhymic flow of sentences. Choice of words and the beauty of his imagery create the rhythm :
“Ye sheep without shepherd, it is not the posture that has been shut from you, but the presence.”      Unto This Last.
Words flow as rhythmically as the waves in a sea :
“……sick, we do not enquire for a physician who takes less than,
a guinea, litigious we never think of reducing eight pence to four and six pence, caught in a shower, we do not canvass the cabman to find one who values his driving at less than six pence a mile.”
The other salient feature of Ruskin’s style is the length of his sentences. He is the first writer since the seventeenth century who dared indulge in sentences of twenty or thirty lines and even more of a whole page. The sentences contain 200 words or more, 250, nay 280 words without a single pause—each sentence with 40, 59, 60 commas, colons and semi-colons and yet the whole symphony flows on with such just modulation, the images melt so naturally into each other, the harmony of tone and the ease of words are so complete that we hasten through the passage in a rapture of admiration. The example of a long sentence is given below from the lecture on Work :
“But if you put him to base labour, if you bind his thoughts, if you blind his eyes, if you blunt his hopes, if you steal his joys, if you stunt his body and blast his soul and at last leave him not so much as strength to reap the poor fruit of his degradation, but gather that for yourself, and dismiss him to the grave, when you have done with him, having, so far as in you lay, made the walls of the grave everlasting, (though, indeed, I fancy the goodly bricks of some of our family vaults will hold closer in the resurrection day than the sod over the labourer’s head), this you think is no waste, and no sin !” The language is powerful and alliterative. We have the simple mono-syllabic words—base, bind, etc. There is rhyme in ‘blunt’ and ‘stunt.’ Ruskin’s great power lies in the skilful handling of mono-syllabic words. In this long sentence, the only words which are not monosyllabic are ‘body’ and ‘degradation’. Such lengthy sentences remind us of liana, the Sanskrit author. According to Saintsbury, “This extreme length is also partially justified by the fact that Ruskin, even when nominally arguing, is for the most part, building up pictures for the eye by successful strokes...” G. K. Chesterton sums up this special trait of Ruskin’s style as follows : “A Ruskin sentence is long as the swimming creeper is long ; it is long as the line of the Napoleonic army was long.”
Ruskin is biassed towards the Biblical language and scriptural allusions and, phrases. It is the woof of which his style and diction are made. He is fully saturated with its spirited and Biblical phrases which came to him without any effort. As a child sitting at the knees of his mother, he had read or listened to the reading of the Bible, many times over and some of the passages he had got by heart and he had early learnt to think in terms of the Biblical phrases and situations about the incidents of everyday life. To him, for instance, the idea of Rich and Poor was almost inseparable from Dives and Lazarus. This profuse use of Biblical references and phrases, contributes so vitally to the moral earnestness and prophetic fervour of Ruskin. The Biblical references and episodes are very useful when the common people who believe in the Bible, are addressed. In his lecture on Work, he makes use of nearly sixty Texts of scripture. Sixty seems to be modest estimate. In the last paragraph of this lecture, one will be astonished to find not less than ten of the texts accumulated.
Ruskin’s style exhibits the author’s wonderful descriptive power, unequalled anywhere else in English prose. Only loving observation and the trained eye of the landscape artist and the student of paint­ing could make possible such a description as that of the Carshalton pool at the beginning of the Introduction :
“Just where the welling of stainless water, trembling and pure, like a body of light, enters the pool of Carshalton, cutting itself a radiant channel down to the gravel, through warp of feathery weeds, all waving, which it traverses with its deep threads of clearness, like the Chalcedony etc.” The description is the outcome of poetic imagination. The last sentence of the lecture on Traffic is highly poetical :
“You will know then how to build, well enough ; you will build which stone well, but with flesh better ; temples not made with hands, but riveted of hearts ; and that kind of marble crimson-veined, is indeed eternal.”
Ruskin’s style abounds in irony and sarcasm. Ruskin’s irony is incisive but not malicious like that of Swift. It is genial, sweet and tolerant like Chaucer’s and Addison’s. In the lecture on Work, the author does not like the tendency of the well-to-do British citizens to take their well dressed children to church on Sunday. They should have sympathy with the poor little crossing-sweeper. Christian Justice then becomes the butt of the author’s irony :
“Christian Justice has been strongly mute and seemingly blind; and, if not blind, decrepit, this many a day; she keeps her accounts still, however—quite steadily--doing them at nights, carefully, with her bandage off, and through acutest spectacles.” There is again irony in the following words from the lecture on Traffic :
“But your railroad mounds, prolonged masses or Acropolis, your railroad stations, vaster than the Parthenon and innumerable ; your chimneys, now much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires.” Like irony, the other powerful instrument with Ruskin is satire. He satirises London in the following sentence :
“It is only Lord’s cricket ground without the turf —a huge billiard table without the cloth, and with pockets as deepas the bottomless pit : but mainly a billiard table, after all.” Again, he speaks of London as “the foul city of London there—rattling, growling, smok­ing, stinking—a ghastly heap of fermenting brick-work, pouring out poison at every pore.”
Ruskin’s style is thus, effective, incisive, imaginative and lucid. In the words of Harrison, “It is a type of clearness, wit, eloquence, versatility and passion.” It can be simple, and sublime, complex and grand, persuasive, expository, sarcastic or ironical. At times, it becomes the voice of a prophet, at others, like that of a professor of economics. It is rhythmic and sonorous—”Through this exuberance of rhythmic and sonorous language there runs a more familiar, more spontaneous vein : that of some works, like the Fors Clavigera where the artist no longer, strained, instead of exhausting his temperament, draws upon the accumulated energy of his passion and his faith and most happily reconciles forcefulness with simplicity.”
—Legouis and Cazamian.
There are certain defects in Ruskin’s style. It is not self-revelatory like that of Lamb or Montaigne. It lacks the good humoured laughter and agreeable nonsense of Lamb or Cowper. It is ever didactic. He is speaking and we are listening. Sometimes his constructions are complicated. The use of too many Biblical allusions make the style obscure and boring. Thoughts are not developed by the author in a steady order and hence we notice an inherent diffusive­ness in his style. Dr. Johnson advised people to devote their days and nights to the study of Addison’s work for achieving perfection in their style but this advice does not hold good in the case of Ruskin. It is like the bow of Ulysses which no man can bend. Harrison is nearest the mark when he remarks :
“It is indeed, very far from a perfect style : much less is it in any sense a model style or one to be cultivated, studied or followed.” Despite these obvious defects, Ruskin is a great master of an English style, of faultless ease and simplicity. He increased the range of English prose by adding to harmony and animation the resources of the richest imagination and colouring. G. K. Chesterton aptly remarks :
“If there is an age which did not realise that Ruskin wrote great English, it would be an age that had ceased to write English at all.”

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