On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to ‘La Bible d’Amiens’ and ‘Sésame et les Lys’ with Selections from the Notes to the Translated Texts
In November of 1880 A.C. Benson was a boy at Eton, and president of the school’s literary and scientific society. As such, he was deputed to meet a distinguished guest speaker:
There were at that time some quaint survivals at Eton,…but the figure before me seemed to have come from a previous century. As I remember, his tight-waisted dress-coat had a velvet collar, the sleeves were long, and the delicate hands that emerged were enveloped in long, somewhat crumpled cuffs; and he showed a soft and many-pleated shirt-front over a double-breasted waistcoat. I think he wore a long gold watchguard.
His hair was thick and grizzled and grew very full, especially over the forehead; he had large side-whiskers and bushy eyebrows; the face was extraordinarily lined, and the big mouth, with a full underlip, gave him a tenacious and, I thought, a rather formidable air. He was standing in silence, and the matron was too much awed to speak. However, she called me by name, and said faintly, “Benson, this is Mr. Ruskin.” Ruskin extended his delicate hand and shook mine very warmly and cordially. And as he did so, he gave me a delightful smile from his pale blue eyes, and set me at my ease at once…. He talked a little of the future, and asked me what I thought of doing in the world, all kindly and confidingly…but there was a sense of strain and weariness in the background. Then he said that he must rest a little and be quiet, and that I might fetch him just before eight. He smiled and nodded, and then sate, leaning his brow upon his hand.
Later in the evening, Benson continues, Ruskin faced his audience and
began in his thin high voice, very clearly and audibly, but with a formal and monotonous cadence and intonation, what I afterwards recognised in The Bible of Amiens, the beautiful and scornful description of the railway-station and the tall warehouses and smoking chimneys, and the slender, lovely minaret of the cathedral rising behind all…. There is little of it that I remember; there was much that I did not understand, for the whole was lacking in coherence and logical connection; but it was an inspiring, appealing, intensely moving performance. I felt that he was a great man, with great and beautiful beliefs passionately held, yet both oppressed and obviously unhappy. He was contending with something, perhaps a vulture gnawing at his heart, like Prometheus…. At the end he looked old and weary. Then he was thanked and cheered to the echo. He listened patiently enough, but with no satisfaction.
How much did Proust, who two decades later was to translate The Bible of Amiens, understand of the man who made such an impression on Benson? His writings on Ruskin, which principally are his prefaces to The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, now appear in English for the first time. A team of translators has been at …