John Ruskin (1819-1900) – Writing on ‘Peace’

John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Probably around 12 years ago, I had the very good fortune to visit Coniston situated in the beautiful Lake District (at least 3 times, usually on my way to Scotland). Here, I frequented ‘Brantwood’ – for former home of John Ruskin, and the nearby St Andrew’s Church where I made an extensive photographic investigation of his rather ornate grave stone (the finished pamphlet of mine was later included in the literature of the local museum). I also visited the local library and workers’ school that John Ruskin had personally established, as he believed the working class should be educated and intellectually and spiritually uplifted with culture. I purchased (and read) all 39 volumes of John Ruskin’s Collected Works, and studied his biography as written by W Collingwood. Although I purchased a copy of his autobiography entitled ‘Praeterita’ (Greek for ‘past things’), I did not have the time to read it properly or even fully. This omission I am remedying now. John Ruskin was most definitely a ‘Socialist’, but despite being a contemporary of Karl Marx (1818-1883) he does not seem to have encountered him neither intellectually, nor physically. As Marx tended to write most of his work in the German language, this might explain why Ruskin never encountered ‘Scientific Socialism’ in English (although this is not a wholly satisfactory explanation, as Charles Darwin owned a copy of Das Kapital in the early 1870s). Did John Ruskin meet Karl Marx whilst the latter studied in the rotunda of the British Museum (the former location of the ‘British Library’)? John Ruskin, was, of course, associated with the British Museum in London for quite some time, and yet he makes no mention of Karl Marx. John Ruskin’s mother used to have her son read continuously from the Bible every day of the week, from cover to cover, until he got every word correct and every pronunciation as intended.  This was because he was being trained for the priesthood, but he soon diverted into more secular academic studies, becoming a master of art, architecture and of the subject of wild birds, their identities and their habits.  

‘And it is perhaps already time to mark what advantage and mischief, by the chances of life up to seven years old, had been irrevocably determined for me. 

I first count my blessings (as a not unwise friend once recommended me to do, continually; whereas I have a bad trick of always numbering the thorns in my fingers and not the bones in them). 

And the best and truest beginnings of all blessings, I had been taught the perfect meaning of Peace, in thought, act, and word. 

I never had heard my father’s or mother’s voice once raised to any question with each other; nor seen an angry, or even slightly hurt or offended, glance in the eyes of either. I had never heard a servant scolded, nor even suddenly, passionately, or in any severe manner, blamed.I had never seen a moment’s trouble or disorder in any household matter; nor anything whatever either done in a hurry, or undone in due time. I had no conception of such a feeling as anxiety; my father’s occasional vexation in the afternoons, when he had only got an order for twelve butts after expecting one for fifteen, as I have just stated, was never manifested to me; and itself related only to the question whether his name would be a step higher or lower in the year’s list of sherry exporters; for he never spent more than half his income, and therefore found himself little incommoded by occasional variations in the total of it. I had never done any wrong that I know of – beyond occasionally delaying the commitment to heart of some improving sentence, that I might watch a wasp on the window pane, or a bird in the cherry tree, and I had never seen any grief.’ (Page 19)

‘I have allowed this tale of the little I knew of their early trials and virtues to be thus chance told, because I think my history, will, in the end, be completest if I write as its connected subjects occur to me, and not with formal chronology of plan. My reason for telling it in this place was chiefly to explain how my mother obtained her perfect skill in English reading, through the hard effort which, through the years of writing, she made to efface the faults, and supply the defects, of her early education; effort which was aided and directed unerringly by her natural – for its intensity I might justly call it supernatural – purity of heart and conduct, leading her always to take most delight in the right and clear language which only can relate lovely things. Her unquestioning evangelical faith in the literal truth of the Bible placed me, as soon as I could conceive or think, in the presence of an unseen world; and set my active analytic power early to work on the question of conscience, free will, and responsibility, which are easily determined in days of innocence; but are approached too often with prejudice, and always with disadvantage, after men become stupefied by the opinions, or tainted by the sins, of the outer world; while the gloom, and even terror, with which the restrictions of the Sunday, and the doctrines of the Pilgrim’s Progress, the Holy War, and Quatles’s Emblems, oppressed the seventh part of my time, was useful to me as the only form of vexation which was called on to endure; and redeemed by the otherwise uninterrupted cheerfulness and tranquillity of a household wherein the common ways were all of pleasantness, and its single and strait path, of perfect peace.’ (Page 114)   

John Ruskin: Praeterita, Everyman Library, (2005), Page 19 & Page 114 

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