Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

. . . some shared writings from Wine Brook Cottage . . .

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sharing from books again

I quite like what John Ruskin had to say about books, and how he was as a man himself.


(The following extracts are from "Sesame and Lilies," two lectures on books and reading given in Manchester, England, in 1864. "Sesame," the first lecture, is so called from an oriental grain, the name of which, when spoken, opened the robbers' cave in "The Arabian Nights"; Ruskin means by it that reading is the key which will open the treasuries of knowledge and power found in books.)

Granting that we had both the will and the sense to choose our friends well, how few of us have the power! We may, by good fortune, obtain a glimpse of a great poet and hear the sound of his voice, or put a question to a man of science and be answered good-humoredly. We may intrude ten minutes' talk on a cabinet minister, answered probably with words worse than silence, being deceptive; or snatch once or twice in our lives the privilege of throwing a bouquet in the path of a princess or arresting the kind glance of a queen. And yet these momentary chances we covet, and spend our years and passions and powers in pursuit of little more than these; while, meantime, there is a society continually open to us, of people who will talk to us as long as we like, whatever our rank or occupation - talk to us in the best words they can choose and of the things nearest their hearts. And this society, because it is so numerous and so gentle and can be kept waiting round us all day long - kings and statesmen lingering patiently, not to grant an audience, but to gain it! - in those plainly furnished and narrow anterooms, our book-case shelves, - we make no account of that company - perhaps never listen to a word they say, all day long! . . .

Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men - by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice, and life is short. You have heard as much before - yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, that if you read this, that you cannot read that - that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid or your stableboy, when you may talk with queens and kings, or flatter yourselves that it is with any consciousness of your own claims to respect that you jostle with the hungry and common crowd for entree here and audience there, when all the while this eternal court is open to you, with its society wide as the world, multitudinous as its days, the chosen and the mighty of every place and time? Into that you may enter always; in that you may take fellowship and rank according to your wish; from that, once entered into it, you can never be outcast but by your own fault. . . .

This court of the past differs from all living aristocracy in this: it is open to labor and to merit, but to nothing else. Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise? Learn to understand it, and you shall hear it. But on other terms? - no. If you will not rise to us, we cannot stoop to you. The living lord may assume courtesy, the living philosopher explain his thought to you with considerate pains; but here we neither feign nor interpret; you must rise to the level of our thoughts if you would be gladdened by them, and share our feelings if you would recognize our presence.

This, then, is what you have to do, and I admit that it is much. You must, in a word, love these people, if you are to be among them. . . .

No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and reread, and loved, and loved again, and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armory, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store. Bread of flour is good; but there is bread, sweet as honey, if we would eat it, in a good book; and the family must be poor indeed which once in their lives cannot for such multipliable barley loaves, pay their baker's bill.

John Ruskin

Think for a moment of a deary row of houses in the smokiest part of London - square, brick, substantial, and very ugly houses - and put into one of them a child who loves beauty with a love that is almost a passion; you will then have the John Ruskin of near a century ago. He was born in that smoky row near Brunswick Square, in 1819, and was the son of an honest Scotch merchant who had come from Edinburgh and had by hard labor built up a prosperous business. The boy was an only son, and his parents were not only entirely devoted to him, but determined that he should receive every advantage which they could give him. It was probably for his sake that they moved a few years later into the suburbs and took a house at Herne Hill. There was a wonderful garden at Herne Hill, with lilacs and other blooming shrubs, apple, pear, and mulberry trees, and all that could appeal to a boy who had been hungry for beautiful things.

But both father and mother, though very fond of their son, were also very strict with him. He was allowed neither toys nor sweetmeats. It is said that a kind-hearted aunt, who was visiting the family, once gave him a remarkable "Punch and Judy," which would dance when attached to the leg of a chair. This greatly delighted his childish heart, but as soon as the aunt departed he was told that such things were not good for him, and he never saw the treasure again. He would look out to sea from the upper windows of his home, but was not allowed to go near it for fear he would be drowned. Even the garden had its drawbacks. He writes: "The differences . . . which I observed between the nature of this garden and that of Eden, as I had imagined it, wer that in this one all the fruit was forbidden, and there were no companionable beasts.

If you compare Ruskin's childhood with that of Dickens, you will not fail to notice that while Dickens had too little care, Ruskin had altogether too much. Yet neither was seriously injured by his surroundings - which goes to show that one who is determined to do worthy things and to make the most of oneself can generally do it, whether his family is rich or poor, over-careful or under-careful of him.

The greatest delight of young John Ruskin's life was a two months' jaunt which the family took each summer. They went in a family carriage or "traveling chariot," as it was called, driving in leisurely fashion from town to town. The elder Ruskin made it partly a business trip, but to the boy it was pure joy. One of these summer outings took him to Switzerland and the Alps and opened a new world of beauty to him.

Young Ruskin's favorite books were Scott and Homer - his Homer coming to him from in the form of Pope's translation. Nor should we overlook his reading of the Bible, which, he has said, had the greatest influence upon his literary style when he came to write. He read two or three chapters with his mother every morning and then learned a chapter or a psalm by heart.

He began to write poetry when very young, copying it neatly into little books which he made and illustrated with original pictures. These books were made with the utmost care. Ruskin even in childhood did everything well and carefully as he knew how to do it.

He was prepared for college by private tutors, spent a few terms at an academy, and at seventeen entered Oxford. In the midst of his college work he was threatened with consumption and was obliged to leave, but after nearly two years of rest and travel in Italy he was restored to health, went back to Oxford, and graduated with honor.

During his Italian visit he made a study of the great painters of olden times, whose work he found in the Italian galleries and churches. This led him to write his first book, "Modern Painters," which compared the work of Turner and other modern artists with that of the old masters and showed that the moderns were in some ways better. Ruskin wrote a number of other books on art, including "Seven Lamps of Architecture" and "Stones of Venice." During these years he made frequent journeys to Italy and spent much time in the great galleries. In 1869 he become professor of art at Oxford University.

At about fourty he turned his attention to other subjects. He saw that the working people of England were deprived of things that seemed to him necessary to life - for he know that beauty and truth and justice should belong to the poor as well as the rich. So he wrote four essays in the Cornhill Magazine, of which Thackeray was then editor. They were afterwards published in a book entitled "Unto This Last." Among other books which Ruskin wrote were "Sesame and Lilies," the "Crown of Wild Olive," and "Ethics of the Dust." One of his last books is "Praeterita" (that is, "things passed by"), which tells the story of own childhood.

Ruskin received from his father a large fortune, all of which he spent in making other people happier and better. He built model homes for working people, paid for cleaning certain of the streets of London that were not properly cared for, and founded a society of working men called St. George's Guild, giving it land and a museum . He was himself a painter and left many pictures that show his skill, but especially was he a painter in words, and his descriptions of natural scenes are among the finest in English prose. He loved beauty as few love it; he loved nature, - the rivers and the clouds and the forests and the sea, and especially the great mountains with their snow-capped tops stretching up into the sky, - but nothing was beautiful to him that was not good and true and straightforward and pure. He was a great man, but above all he was a good man, and he taught those around him and those who came after him to see God in nature everywhere.

. . . . Readings-From-English-And-American-Literature
Walter Taylor Field


At Saturday, March 11, 2006 1:31:00 p.m., Blogger Leslie Shelor said...

This is great! I'm not as familar as I should be with Ruskin; have to take another look at his work!

At Saturday, March 11, 2006 1:57:00 p.m., Blogger Dawn said...

Interesting fellow eh? Glad I brought him to your attention. I noted that he is an only son and that his parents were strict with him. Being an only daughter/child myself and having been raised strictly, I feel perhaps that I can understand this man quite well. Though an only child, I was not spoiled, and I dreaded hearing the same words from people who had only just been introduced and did not know me . . . "Spoiled rotten I suppose." Silly adults. They couldn't have been further from the truth. No wonders my hackles rise nowadays when I encounter 'assumers.'

At Saturday, March 11, 2006 8:09:00 p.m., Blogger cyndy said...

A really interesting fellow...thanks for the extracts and for the insights into his upbringing....I learned a lot just reading your post today!

"He began to write poetry when very young, copying it neatly into little books which he made and illustrated with original pictures. These books were made with the utmost care."....any chance there is a place where one could look at these books? ... they sound delightful....

Also, because I am just getting caught up on back post's...about spinning those cattails...I've read that the Native American Indians would use the leaves to weave with, and they would add the seed head to other fiber to spin with. I have never done it...seems like it would be to short by itself, but blended with somethin else...yea, I would try it! The photos from your walk look great!

At Sunday, March 12, 2006 6:54:00 a.m., Blogger Dawn said...

Thanks Cyndy . . . glad you enjoyed the posting. I had the same thought about those little books of Ruskin's. Wonder if they do survive; and if so, where? Way back when, both the Native Indians and the settlers were real good at finding uses for just about anything. Maybe we'll find out more info in this direction some day.

At Monday, March 13, 2006 2:34:00 p.m., Blogger Sharon said...

How wise the words... This entry has made me go on quite a reflective journey...

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 7:43:00 p.m., Blogger Dawn said...

I hope it was a pleasant journey Sharon.

At Monday, April 10, 2006 11:37:00 p.m., Blogger alberthaanstra said...

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