Raymond Fitch begins his remarkable intellectual biography of John Ruskin (The Poison Sky) by observing that Ruskin was, before all other things,

the great Victorian prophet of what we would now call the apparent deterioration of life. Stylist, aesthete, economist, moralist, glaciologist, naturalist, or nympholept he may also have been, but the compulsive current of his many works is his rising nausea at the prospect of a global slum, a depleted planet…something close to our own recurrent sense that chaos is coming again, that our culture has been blighted, that the world’s body has been infected by its mind…[and by] life’s struggle with wealth.

Here are eleven books published within recent months, 3,527 pages, more than a million words. Does this mean that people are reading Ruskin again with some dawning sense of the relevance of his gloomy prophecies—and with the strange pleasure we feel at the idea that things, even horrible things, can be foreknown?

Ruskin’s work, which is classified as criticism or, more vaguely, as “literature,” though it is neither biography, nor poetry, nor fiction, has never been widely read, and only some of it has been interesting to any one generation or faction at a time, facets of Ruskin coming in and out of fashion like phases of the moon. Today we share his regard for Turner as his contemporaries did not, but until only recently we have derided his taste for architectural decoration; postmodern architects may well be reading him on that. Brian Maidment talks about how Ruskin’s works have become a “source of authority for almost any kind of anti-industrial social melioration, a rallying place for an extraordinary diversity of ruralist, progressive, liberal, reactionary, or anti-Victorian views, many of them never remotely mindful of the original intentions of his work.” Perhaps it seems newly important to divine these original intentions; the difficulties remain apparent. Or perhaps instead of a reflection of our common yearnings, the new tide of words is mere academic coincidence, the operation of some cyclical principle that governs the ebb and flow of literary reputations or university jobs.

Or yet again, perhaps there is always a vanguard of exegetes going over rediscovered texts, like a mine squad, so that regular people may swim safely. In the vanguard scholars speak, as here, mostly to each other, and the number of knowledgeable Ruskinians, to judge from the recurrence of names in the indexes and bibliographies of these books, is small. Of these books, only John Dixon Hunt’s biography The Wider Sea, and Ruskin’s correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, edited by George Allan Cate, are apt to have much general interest, though most readers would find something or other among the many good essays in the three volumes of miscellaneous essays: The Ruskin Polygon, edited by Hunt, with Faith Holland; New Approaches to Ruskin, edited by Robert Hewison, who also contributes to a third miscellany, Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd, edited by Robert Rhodes and Del Ivan Janik. John Hayman, editor of Letters from the Continent 1858, also contributes an essay in Approaches, as do among others Van Akin Burd, John Unrau, and John D. Rosenberg. Brian Maidment and Jeffrey Spear contribute to both Approaches and Polygon; the Studies volume contains essays by other distinguished Ruskinians, notably Mary Lutyens and George Landow, and by Elizabeth Helsinger, who has also written Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, a book about Ruskin’s practices and views as an art critic.

Among all these books and essays there is inevitably some repetition of subject and approach; Lutyens, talking of Ruskin and Effie in Venice, touches on things that come up also in Jeanne Clegg’s Ruskin and Venice (and in her own previous work). Marc Simpson, talking about Ruskin’s use of serpent imagery, anticipates, or duplicates, matters that come up in Fitch’s The Poison Sky; John Hayman, talking about the theme or image of the labyrinth in Ruskin’s lectures as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, leads us into the maze that concerns (and characterizes) Jay Fellows’s second book on Ruskin, Ruskin’s Maze: Mastery and Madness in His Art. The richness and redundancy of all this remind of Ruskin’s own writings.

Approaches to Ruskin (of which, in New Approaches, none is strictly new) divide roughly into works whose object is to know more about him—his life or the character of his mind—either in the interest of biography alone or as a way of approaching his ideas, and others which simply try to organize and systematize his thoughts, setting into some sort of meaningful order his random but brilliant discussions, whether of architecture, political economy, painting, botany, morals, religion. Because his extraordinary style was highly figurative—composed of Biblical, classical, and literary allusions and numberless recurring images—and was discursive in the extreme, it has been a continuing scholarly labor to extract his ideas and set them in an order more accessible to logic, or at least to our logic. The most modish of recent studies try to show how mere logic is not the way to approach him at all, and attempt the difficult task of explaining the method in his madness. These rearrangements of Ruskinian ideas and images, which are presumably infinite, produce, like musical notes, new compositions of, sometimes, great attractiveness in themselves, although whether any have or can produce a definitive Ruskin is still in question.


Biographies of Ruskin have been appearing since before his death, each era getting more or less the biography it wants or deserves—pious, debunking, psychoanalytic. An early work by Ruskin’s contemporary W.G. Collingwood referred to him throughout as Mr. Ruskin and barely mentioned a wife. Biographies now, of which John Dixon Hunt’s is a good one, must take account of all the awkward matters: his impotence, white marriage, dependency upon his parents, affection for little girls, madness, and these provide a challenge for anyone who would produce a sympathetic account. The commonest strategy has been to dramatize the crucial relationships of his life, rather as he himself did, as conflicts in which he is the hero-victim, someone else the villain, his domineering parents or his wife Effie, whose escape from their unconsummated marriage and subsequent marriage to the painter Millais, continues to be felt by some Ruskinians as, if not betrayal, tactlessness at least. Or there was the mother of Rose La Touche, the little girl he hoped to marry, who wrote to Effie to inquire whether Ruskin sexually could be considered a possible husband for Rose (“He is incapable of making a woman happy,” replied Effie, a revealing euphemism from a Victorian lady).

These villains take their places successively on the Ruskin stage, to be vindicated in turn by some sympathetic revisionist. If there are villains in Hunt’s evenhanded work it is the Severns—Joan Agnew Severn, Ruskin’s cousin, and her husband Arthur, who acted as his guardians during his last decade when his recurring bouts of madness had left him docile, blank, and silent, “as if the sea had closed over him,” in Hunt’s words. Hunt’s view is that their care “challenged his authority and threatened the command of himself and his concerns,” perhaps ending earlier than necessary his working life.

Ruskin biography is now at the stage where, because so much is known, a biographer must choose between writing one readable volume, depriving himself of the leisure to dramatize, quote at length, speculate, and other indulgences of a biographer less burdened by information, and plunging into a big, many-volumed Complete Life, the kind that is so worthy and so boring to read. To assemble many volumes would in Ruskin’s case be thankless because there are so many special little books that illumine particular aspects of his life—the diaries of Rose La Touche, or an account of his friendship with Kate Greenaway or the relationship of his parents to his wife’s parents, or Effie’s letters from Venice. These close-ups are so much more satisfactory, vivid, thorough, and readable that they must discourage any but the liveliest and most industrious from attempting the giant compendium; meantime the best way to read about Ruskin is to browse among the short books, especially of letters. Hunt’s treatment of Ruskin’s famous “unconversion” from evangelical Protestantism in 1858, while visiting Turin, described in a paragraph (an allotment with which, however, one would not quarrel), is somehow more touching and bleak as it emerges from Ruskin’s own gingerly description of it, carefully phrased to avoid alarming his pious parents (in Letters from the Continent 1858, edited by John Hayman):

I went to the Protestant church last Sunday, (having usually spent all the forenoon in hunting regiments)—and very sorry I was that I did go. Protestantism persecuted or pastoral in a plain room, or a hill chapel whitewashed inside and ivied outside, is all very well; but Protestantism clumsily triumphant, allowed all its own way in a capital like this, & building itself vulgar churches with nobody to put into them, is a very disagreeable form of piety. Execrable sermon;—cold singing….

Hayman has printed Ruskin’s letters only, which reminds how really much more satisfactory it is to read two sides of a correspondence, especially if, as in George Allan Cate’s edition of the letters to each other of Ruskin and the Carlyles, all are great writers and there are disputes and drama, for instance the bitter little quarrel which arose in 1867 when Ruskin in an issue of the Manchester Examiner and Times published an account of a conversation he had had with Carlyle, attributing to Carlyle some rude remarks about British workingmen (that he couldn’t walk the streets “without being insulted, chiefly because he is a grey, old man; and also because he is cleanly dressed”), statements which Carlyle in a letter to a newspaper denied making. Carlyle was angry that Ruskin would misconstrue and misreport a private conversation, Ruskin was offended that his old friend would humiliate him publicly by impugning his truthfulness.


Hunt in his biography deals swiftly with all this: “Ironically, it was precisely one of their personal conversations which Ruskin misinterpreted in public that nearly caused a final breach of the good friendship. It seems to have been quickly resolved.” But the joys for the reader are, of course, in the rhetoric, not in the facts of the quarrel:

Dear Ruskin,

With a Poet’s temperament,…you in yr headlong incautious way, with the best and truest intentions in the world, strode into one of the foolishest practical puddles recently heard of, and dragged a most unwitting friend along with you,—who refuses to lie there with you (especially to lie undermost, as he chanced to be), and, finding you took no steps and did not even recognize the puddle much, has striven honestly to save first himself, and then his more or less blameable compan[io]n too,—really with his best endeavour, and utmost stretch of faculty and skill, exerted in an element infinitely foreign and unpleast to him.

Ruskin replies placatingly to Carlyle that he will come to tea, but “Now, Father, if you are going to speak or teaze me, on such and such matters, I won’t come; I have no mind to come, merely to be scolded—still less to find fault with you….”

Ruskin here employs the rather irritating playful tone he usually reserved for female correspondents. Ordinarily the grave prophets exchange their morose forebodings with ecclesiastical ponderousness. Ruskin writes to his “dearest Papa” Carlyle of his “deeper sense of the advancing ruin of every country except your Germany,—nor do I believe it will escape unpunished for its cruelty,” and Carlyle too feels Europe to be advancing toward a

nameless doom. Not towards absolute destruction, I always hope….The curse of Boundless wealth which they call “unexampled prosperity” lies heavy on them; giving such unbounded arena to the development of all their low desires & endeavors, that nothing of real spiritual health is likely to be possible for a long while yet. God help them, poor wretches,—& us too ditto, ditto!

Ruskin’s disapproval of things generally hailed as progress, and his sense that he was to some extent at fault for a spate of bad buildings in England caused him to refuse an architectural medal:

I cannot accept medals from people who let themselves to build Gothic Advertisements for Railroads—Greek Advertisements for firms in the city…while they allow every beautiful building in France and Italy to be destroyed….

What Ruskin did approve of in the way of buildings is the subject of Eve Blau’s study of Ruskinian Gothic, some of the most familiar examples of which (the Oxford Museum, the Oxford Union) were the work of the Anglo-Irish architects Benjamin Woodward and Sir Thomas Deane, who were influenced by and admired Ruskin, but who also contributed much that was original or influenced by other figures. Blau recapitulates discussion of the interesting question of how much and what Victorian Gothic buildings were influenced not by Ruskin but by Butterfield or Pugin, and, despite Ruskin’s own regretful claim, that he had “indirect influence on nearly every cheap villa-builder between this and Bromley; and there is scarcely a public house near the Crystal Palace but sells its gin and bitters under pseudo-Venetian capitals,” concludes that his influence was principally confined to ideas about the importance of craft and the craftsman and to treatments of façades, Ruskinian façades being in fact quite different from the identifying characteristics of many famous High Victorian Gothic landmarks (Westminster Cathedral).

“Why does Ruskin pick scarlet rather than crimson?” asks Stephen Bann, in Polygon. George Hersey in the same volume remarks a resemblance between Ruskin in 1894 and nineteenth-century depictions of Leonardo, and wonders whether Ruskin “consciously adopted a Leonardesque persona. Certainly one can say that he attempted to fuse art, optics and the scientific study of Nature in a Leonardesque way.” (Probably not, since he was by then in the care of the Severns, unless it was their view, or his barber’s, that he was Leonardesque.)

Intrigued by such small matters, or merely bemused, the interested Ruskin reader can track biographemes (in Barthes’s wonderful word), a number of minor but absorbing questions among the eleven books. Does Helsinger in her study of influences on Ruskin’s aesthetic ideas mention Leonardo? No, which is perhaps strange, for Ruskin did obviously derive many ideas from Leonardo, for instance in Elements of Drawing, an important and neglected little work which she does not deal with. She regards Ruskin primarily as a writer—some critics have seen him foremost as a viewer (or seer)—and she is really most concerned with the language of descriptions, and literary influences on his writing, for instance Byron and Wordsworth. She traces to the Romantics certain of his ideas and demonstrates how orthodox Romantic theories of the imagination (as associative or expressive) become in Ruskin’s thought more Victorian, moral, and public, having gone from an “emphasis on imagination as the province of literature (and art) to a more Victorian concern with imaginative perception understood as essential to cultural health.”

Prophets are always more attractive than moralists; the well-known observation that they are never honored in their own country proposes the corollary that they are attended to eventually, and people seem always to feel a satisfaction when the observations of past prophets come true. We are also attracted to madness in a prophet; it is from madness, with its apparent access to higher or farther truths, that prophecy derives authority (as the lives of saints do) and seems to connect holy and occult writing. Ruskin, we might almost say, was a notable prophet because, not although, he was mad. One approach has been to Ruskin the visionary, or seer, with all that the pun implies: to try to understand Ruskin’s manner of seeing looking through his eyes at Venice, or at architecture, or, like Helsinger, at his perceptual theories, or at his hallucinations. George Hersey (in Polygon) argues that Ruskin was, among other things, an “optical” seer, and saw in a manner typically Victorian, influenced by the camera, “an image with high resolution, sharply bounded tonal separation, powerfully distinct detail,” rather like Pre-Raphaelite painting, or the façades that Eve Blau finds to be Ruskinian.

Hersey feels that a valuable approach to Ruskin’s seeing was made by Jay Fellows in his earlier book The Failing Distance (1975), which Hersey summarizes:

The visual world, and especially the prolonged, energetic contemplation of landscape, and of works of art, can generate in certain elect minds a system of thought, of logic, of arrangement that is very different from the systems of thought, logic and arrangement generated by those who are immersed in a purely verbal culture…. For Ruskin, one senses, a visual thing descends into a verbal one much as a Neoplatonic idea descends into its temporal material embodiment…in his vision-filled soul he belongs with the ecphrastic describers, with Ficino, Bruno, Marino, Spenser—Victorian theatres of memory, developments of the humanistic tradition of the universal compendium as a described architectural, garden or landscape space.

To communicate what he saw Ruskin had either to draw, or to try to describe in language; it is at language that most critics have looked, accounting for its incoherencies and digressions by his psychic situation: a brilliant thinker, unfortunately mad. The critic feels his way through the chaos of Ruskin’s thirty-nine volumes by clutching to a theme—ideas on capitalism or views on perspective, or the nature of pediments—or else, as John Hayman says, by attending “to the thread of imagery and allusion…rather than to a line of abstract thought.” Ruskin’s imagery and allusion are found alike in his most lucid, naturalistic observations and in the hallucinations he describes in his private diary. It is up to the critic, having followed the thread of an image of storm clouds, say, or serpents, to tie it to some generalization at the end, his own if not Ruskin’s, to some biographical observation, or some “fact” about Fabianism or the character of Joan Severn.

Imagery itself, though it may arise from natural observations, can also express archetypes; one can therefore try to connect it through language to the real world or backward into whatever personal obsession or universal significance lies below language, linked to the nonverbal, to the seen (or felt) by an interpretation of myth which is not allegorical, which takes myths to be not conscious creations but a form of primordial language or way of knowing. Two ambitious studies, Jay Fellows’s Ruskin’s Maze, and Raymond Fitch’s The Poison Sky, explore this world below or beyond Ruskin’s coherent writings.

Fellows looks at the language of Ruskin’s madness, principally in his diaries and in the late Fors Clavigera where “the madness of genius…watches itself go mad.” (“The devil put a verse into my head just now—’let us not be desirous of vain Glory.’ I am NOT, oh Devil. I want useful glory.”) His madness is “his own uncensored autobiography”: dreaming or performing it is “an eventual part of his later greatness.” Fellows quotes a passage from Foucault which summarizes the premise he is examining:

while error is merely non-truth, while the dream neither affirms nor judges, madness fills the void of error with images, and links hallucinations by affirmation of the false. In a sense, it is thus plenitude, joining to the figures of night the powers of day, to the forms of fantasy the activity of the waking mind; it links the dark content with the forms of light. But is not such plenitude actually the culmination of the void?

Instead of the void, Fellows finds and follows in Ruskin’s writing a formally intricate figure, the labyrinth, as Ruskin becomes lost in it. Fellows’s style is curiously analogous to both Ruskin’s and to the labyrinth:

Later, in 1881—in what is essentially after the last Transformation of the Maze, a memory after the last imitative recollection of Lucent Verdure, and in the form of the “multicursal” labyrinth with nodes of options and “queries” that are in fact blind alleys, rather than the earlier “unicursal” (“once-run”) labyrinthine language of solution/salvation as “nothing but process”—there is the language of a kind of gastronomic transcendentalism, whose vertiginous surface of meta-presence gives way to an inward-turning, vortical syntax that spirals, as if informed by an unreversed “instinctive draingage,” toward the bottom, as in a labyrinth of absence, where there is at least “one leg [in] dung” in an act of virtual self-consumption.

Harold Bloom provides a cautious summary statement for the jacket: “I would say that a student of Ruskin, if he struggled with Fellows’ book, would have a deeper and ultimately more rewarding gateway into Ruskin’s literary mind than he can find any place else.” “If” is the salient qualification. But it is true that the reader does have at least a self-congratulatory illusion of heroic pertinacity which will allow a profound penetration of Ruskin’s work, or anyone’s.

The more recent work by Raymond Fitch, a study of myth, theory of myth and mythical consciousness in Ruskin’s writings and life, does indeed seem to link the dark content with the forms of light. This dauntingly long and unpretentiously presented book seems a major contribution to Ruskin studies. Critical systems brought to bear on anything systematize with a clarity that is always suspect; Freudian readings of Ruskin have certainly done much to explain his tormented family life and blighted sexuality. Fitch’s Jungian approach to Ruskin, a man who saw storm clouds or serpents and felt himself to be Saint George—who lived with the same images Jung has described as arising from the collective unconscious—seems to explain Ruskin so well that he might almost have been Jung’s subject.

Briefly to summarize a very long and elaborate book, “the deep conjunction of symbols in Ruskin’s life and work” and the deep conjunction of Ruskin’s symbols with Jung’s affords a way of looking not at his discursive statements but at his symbolic and mythological obsessions, which seem to move, despite the topical fragmentation of his writings, toward “symbolic and mythic integration” through an interpretation of “his works, not as discrete objects, but as moments of a process, a continuous signifying intention in which the private and the public writings appear to be dominated by the same archetypal symbols.”

Fitch notes in Ruskin’s work, from early to late, an interest both meteorologic and mythic in skies, clouds, and plague winds, which are associated with apocalypse, both literal and moral. The darkening, smoky skies of industrial Europe were emblematic, too, of spiritual pollution and anticipated doom. This doom is expressed in elaborate constructions of mythic symbols which were for Ruskin the “quintessential language of the spirit,” a way of communication as well as self-expression. In his diary, Ruskin might write, “The most horrible black-fog all day long, nearly as bad this morning, and a nearly sleepless night, leaves me… wonder-struck at the cruelty of all things,” or in a lecture, “If pursued in that insolence, or that concupicence, the phenomena of all the universe becomes first gloomy, and then spectral; the sunset becomes demoniac fire to you, and the clouds of Heaven as the smoke of Acheron.”

In the Jungian reading, Ruskin’s poison sky, his prophecies of plague and pollution can be seen “not only as a projection of his psychic shadow, but also as his anima, projecting her hostile face, the rage of impotent desire, upon the world.” But they can also be read as literal prescients. For Ruskin, as for Jung, “projections change the world into a replica of one’s own unknown face” (italics mine), and the implication, and perhaps an explanation of Ruskin’s basic project, is that for us there are therefore material and historical consequences, real changes in the real world effected by a collective anima, the “storm cloud of the nineteenth century,” which the prophet, with his access to the primordial language, can foretell. (Fitch, however, avoids, as Ruskin did not, “the claim that his use of mythic symbols in itself confers any special access to truth.”) “Like Marx’s mythology, Ruskin’s dramatizes the antagonism of vital and deadly forces which are global projections of man’s self-conflict.” Ruskin could, to be sure, specify with great clarity the details of the future he anticipated: urban conditions will encourage an unusual degree of sympathy for people in prison; to be moved we will require more and more violent fiction; ecologists will be feared and hated by political conservatives, industry is destroying the ozone layer. More characteristically, to describe the way we are destroying the world he employs an apocalyptic/mythic rhetoric which we can learn from Fitch to read:

the Sun himself, think you he now “rejoices” to run his course, when he plunges westward to the horizon, so widely red, not with clouds, but blood? And it will be red more widely yet. Whatever drought of the early and latter rain may be, there will be none of that red rain.

This Issue

March 31, 1983