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John Ruskin
from A History of English Literature


by Robert Huntington Fletcher

Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments

from Chapter XI. Period IX. The Victorian Period. About 1830 To 1901


Among the other great Victorian writers the most obvious disciple of Carlyle in his opposition to the materialism of modern life is John Ruskin. But Ruskin is much more than any man's disciple; and he also contrasts strongly with Carlyle, first because a large part of his life was devoted to the study of Art--he is the single great art-critic in English Literature--and also because he is one of the great preachers of that nineteenth century humanitarianism at which Carlyle was wont to sneer.

Ruskin's parents were Scotch, but his father, a man of artistic tastes, was established as a wine-merchant in London and had amassed a fortune before the boy's birth in 1819. The atmosphere of the household was sternly Puritan, and Ruskin was brought up under rigid discipline, especially by his mother, who gave him most of his early education. He read, wrote, and drew precociously; his knowledge of the Bible, in which his mother's training was relentlessly thorough, of Scott, Pope, and Homer, dates from his fifth or sixth year. For many years during his boyhood he accompanied his parents on long annual driving trips through Great Britain and parts of Europe, especially the Alps. By these experiences his inborn passion for the beautiful and the grand in Nature and Art was early developed. During seven years he was at Oxford, where his mother lived with him and watched over him; until her death in his fifty-second year she always continued to treat him like a child, an attitude to which, habit and affection led him to submit with a matter-of-course docility that his usual wilfulness and his later fame render at first sight astonishing. At Oxford, as throughout his life, he showed himself brilliant but not a close or careful student, and he was at that time theologically too rigid a Puritan to be interested in the Oxford Movement, then in its most intense stage.

His career as a writer began immediately after he left the University. It falls naturally into two parts, the first of about twenty years, when he was concerned almost altogether with Art, chiefly Painting and Architecture; and the second somewhat longer, when he was intensely absorbed in the problems of society and strenuously working as a social reformer. From the outset, however, he was actuated by an ardent didactic purpose; he wrote of Art in order to awake men's spiritual natures to a joyful delight in the Beautiful and thus to lead, them to God, its Author.

The particular external direction of Ruskin's work in Art was given, as usual, more or less by accident. His own practice in water-color drawing led him as a mere youth to a devoted admiration for the landscape paintings of the contemporary artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner, a romantic revolutionist against the eighteenth century theory of the grand style, was then little appreciated; and when Ruskin left the University he began, with characteristic enthusiasm, an article on 'Modern Painters,' designed to demonstrate Turner's superiority to all possible rivals. Even the first part of this work expanded itself into a volume, published in 1843, when Ruskin was only twenty-four; and at intervals during the next seventeen years he issued four additional volumes, the result of prolonged study both of Nature and of almost all the great paintings in Europe. The completed book is a discursive treatise, the various volumes necessarily written from more or less different view-points, on many of the main aspects, general and technical, of all art, literary as well as pictorial. For Ruskin held, and brilliantly demonstrated, that the underlying principles of all the Fine Arts are identical, and 'Modern Painters' contains some of the most famous and suggestive passages of general literary criticism ever written, for example those on The Pathetic Fallacy and The Grand Style. Still further, to Ruskin morality and religion are inseparable from Art, so that he deals searchingly, if incidentally, with those subjects as well. Among his fundamental principles are the ideas that a beneficent God has created the world and its beauty directly for man's use and pleasure; that all true art and all true life are service of God and should be filled with a spirit of reverence; that art should reveal truth; and that really great and good art can spring only from noble natures and a sound national life. The style of the book is as notable as the substance. It is eloquent with Ruskin's enthusiastic admiration for Beauty and with his magnificent romantic rhetoric (largely the result, according to his own testimony, of his mother's exacting drill in the Bible), which here and elsewhere make him one of the greatest of all masters of gorgeous description and of fervid exhortation. The book displays fully, too, another of his chief traits, an intolerant dogmatism, violently contemptuous of any judgments but his own. On the religious side, especially, Ruskin's Protestantism is narrow, and even bigoted, but it softens as the book proceeds (and decidedly more in his later years). With all its faults, 'Modern Painters' is probably the greatest book ever written on Art and is an immense storehouse, of noble material, and suggestion.

In the intervals of this work Ruskin published others less comprehensive, two of which are of the first importance. 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture' argues that great art, as the supreme expression of life, is the result of seven moral and religious principles, Sacrifice, Truth, Power, and the like. 'The Stones of Venice' is an, impassioned exposition of the beauty of Venetian Gothic architecture, and here as always Ruskin expresses his vehement preference for the Gothic art of the Middle Ages as contrasted with the less original and as it seems to him less sincere style of the Renaissance.

The publication of the last volume of 'Modern Painters' in 1860 roughly marks the end of Ruskin's first period. Several influences had by this time begun to sadden him. More than ten years before, with his usual filial meekness, he had obeyed his parents in marrying a lady who proved uncongenial and who after a few years was divorced from him. Meanwhile acquaintance with Carlyle had combined with experience to convince him of the comparative ineffectualness of mere art-criticism as a social and religious force. He had come to feel with increasing indignation that the modern industrial system, the materialistic political economy founded on it, and the whole modern organization of society reduce the mass of men to a state of intellectual, social, and religious squalor and blindness, and that while they continue in this condition it is of little use to talk to them about Beauty. He believed that some of the first steps in the necessary redemptive process must be the education of the poor and a return to what he conceived (certainly with much exaggeration) to have been the conditions of medieval labor, when each craftsman was not a mere machine but an intelligent and original artistic creator; but the underlying essential was to free industry from the spirit of selfish money-getting and permeate it with Christian sympathy and respect for man as man. The ugliness of modern life in its wretched city tenements and its hideous factories Ruskin would have utterly destroyed, substituting such a beautiful background (attractive homes and surroundings) as would help to develop spiritual beauty. With his customary vigor Ruskin proceeded henceforth to devote himself to the enunciation, and so far as possible the realization of these beliefs, first by delivering lectures and writing books. He was met, like all reformers, with a storm of protest, but most of his ideas gradually became the accepted principles of social theory. Among his works dealing with these subjects may be named 'Unto This Last,' 'Munera Pulveris' (The Rewards of the Dust--an attack on materialistic political economy), and 'Fors Clavigera' (Fortune the Key-Bearer), the latter a series of letters to workingmen extending over many years. To 1865 belongs his most widely-read book, 'Sesame and Lilies,' three lectures on the spiritual meaning of great literature in contrast to materialism, the glory of womanhood, and the mysterious significance of life.

From the death of his mother in 1871 Ruskin began to devote his large inherited fortune to 'St. George's Guild,' a series of industrial and social experiments in which with lavish generosity he attempted to put his theories into practical operation. All these experiments, as regards direct results, ended in failure, though their general influence was great. Among other movements now everywhere taken for granted 'social settlements' are a result of his efforts.

All this activity had not caused Ruskin altogether to abandon the teaching of art to the members of the more well-to-do classes, and beginning in 1870 he held for three or four triennial terms the newly-established professorship of Art at Oxford and gave to it much hard labor. But this interest was now clearly secondary in his mind.

Ruskin's temper was always romantically high-strung, excitable, and irritable. His intense moral fervor, his multifarious activities, and his disappointments were also constant strains on his nervous force. In 1872, further, he was rejected in marriage by a young girl for whom he had formed a deep attachment and who on her death-bed, three years later, refused, with strange cruelty, to see him. In 1878 his health temporarily failed, and a few years later he retired to the home, 'Brantwood,' at Coniston in the Lake Region, which he had bought on the death of his mother. Here his mind gradually gave way, but intermittently, so that he was still able to compose 'Praterita' (The Past), a delightful autobiography. He died in 1900.

Ruskin, like Carlyle, was a strange compound of genius, nobility, and unreasonableness, but as time goes on his dogmatism and violence may well be more and more forgotten, while his idealism, his penetrating interpretation of art and life, his fruitful work for a more tolerable social order, and his magnificent mastery of style and description assure him a permanent place in the history of English literature and of civilization.

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