‘Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin’
“Looking back nearly forty years, I find that I once wrote the following words: ‘The nineteenth century was rich in presiding intellects… but after the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, it had only one nervous system, and that was Ruskin’s.’ At the time,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg, “I was a doctoral candidate in English literature at Princeton and a curatorial assistant at the Pierpont Morgan Library, writing catalog entries for an exhibition of the library’s British literary manuscripts. The sentence I’ve quoted represents the summit of my Ruskin knowledge for the next forty years until I reread Praeterita, his late, incomplete autobiography—’this too dimly explicit narrative,’ he called it—with a student at Yale last month in this, the two hundredth year since John Ruskin was born.
The preceding is as Ruskinian a paragraph as I ever hope to write. If you’ve read Ruskin, you know what he would have done with an opening like that—how he would have wandered, geologizing and sketching, among his memories, contemplating not the nature of time but the nature of himself and his affections, barely able to withstand the mixed joy and suffering of recollection. At age twelve, in 1831, he was writing to his father about the pleasure he took in breaking the wax seal of one of his father’s letters to him—’your very soul up at your eyes,’ is how he described the feeling. Skip ahead nearly forty years in Ruskin’s life, and his soul-eyed gaze has become what he called, in 1869, ‘the infinite pain of seeing.’ Ruskin’s eyes were blue, and he liked to emphasize their color by wearing a bright blue stock, visible in most portraits of him. Had the hue of his eyes washed away with the force of his seeing—a measure of how much he saw and how hard he looked—they would have been transparent by the time he lapsed into his final madness in 1889.
I can no longer sum up Ruskin as neatly as I did when I was working at the Morgan Library. I was a young, privateering scholar then, conducting swift, efficient raids on the legacy of one writer after another as the manuscript exhibition came together. Ruskin was a prescient critic of the industrializing world around him and an early witness of climate change, as Tim Barringer notes in Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of Ruskin, the catalog accompanying the exhibition of the same name currently showing at the Yale Center for British Art. Ruskin’s lectures called ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’—delivered in 1884 and based on a lifetime of cloud-watching—portray the ‘plague-wind” that originated, he believed, in the smokestacks of industrial England. ‘By the plague-wind every breath of air you draw is polluted, half round the world.'”
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