April 19, 1919. Some good people have been celebrating Ruskin, whose centenary it is. And to-day a little friend of mine left her school books so that I might wonder what they were when I saw them on my table. One of them was The Crown of Wild Olive. It put me in a reminiscent mood. I looked at Ruskin's works on my shelves, and tried to recall how long it was since they interested me. Nevertheless, I would not part with them. In my youth Ruskin's works were only for the wealthy, and I remember that my purchase of those volumes was an act of temerity, and even of sacrifice. And who but an ingrate would find fault with Ruskin, or would treat him lightly? With courage and eloquence he denounced dishonesty in the days when it was not supposed that cheating could be wrong if it were successful. He did that when minds were so dark that people blinked with surprise at a light which showed as a social iniquity naked children crawling with chains about them in the galleries of coal-mines. Was it really wrong to make children do that? Or was Ruskin only an impossible idealist? They were the happy years, radiant with the certain knowledge of the British that the Holy Grail would be recognized immediately it was seen, for over it would be proudly floating the confirmatory Union Jack. We had not even begun to suspect that our morals, manners, and laws were fairly poor compared with the standards of the Mohawks and Mohicans whom our settlers had displaced in America a century before. And Ruskin told that Victorian society it had an ugly mind, and did ugly things. When Ruskin said so, with considerable emotion, Thackeray was so hurt that he answered as would any clever editor to-day about a contribution which convinced him that it would make readers angry; he told Ruskin it would never do. Thackeray's readers, of course, were assured they were the best people, and that worldly cynic did well to reject Ruskin, and preserve the Cornhill Magazine.
"Ruskin," it says in the introduction to The Crown of Wild Olive which my little friend reads at school, "is certainly one of the greatest masters of English prose." That has often been declared. But is he? Or is our tribute to Ruskin only a show of gratitude to one who revealed to us the unpleasant character of our national habits when contrasted with a standard for gentlemen? It ought not to have required much eloquence to convince us that Widnes is unlovely; the smell of it should have been enough. It is curious that we needed festoons of chromatic sentences to warn us that cruelty to children, even when profit can be made of it, is not right. But I fear some people really enjoy remorseful sobbing. It is half the fun of doing wrong. Yet I would ask in humility--for it is a fearful thing to doubt Ruskin, the literary divinity of so many right-thinking people--whether English children who are learning the right way to use their language, and the noblest ideas to express, should run the risk of having Ruskin's example set before them by soft-hearted teachers? I think that a parent who knew a child of his, on a certain day, was to take the example of Ruskin as a prose stylist on the subject of war, would do well, on moral and æsthetic grounds, to keep his child away from school on that day to practise a little roller-skating. For humility and gratitude should not blind us to the fact that few writers in English of Ruskin's reputation have ever considered such a rosy cloud of rhetoric as is his lecture on war, in which a reasonable shape no sooner looms than it is lost again, to be worth preserving. The subject of war is of importance, inflammable humanity being what it is, and the results of war being what we know; and the quality of the critical attention we give to so great a matter is unfortunately clear when we regard the list of distinguished critics of letters who have accepted, apparently without difficulty, as great prose, Ruskin's heedless rush of words upon it. Perhaps his language appears noble because the rhythmic pour of its sentences lulls reason into a comfortable and benignant sleepiness.
I remember the solemn voice of a lecturer on English literature, years ago, moving me to buy The Crown of Wild Olive. Such obvious ignorance as I knew mine to be could not be tolerated. Whatever I went without, it could not be that book. I put it in my hold-all when, as was my duty, I went for my training with the artillery volunteers. I read in camp the essay on war, when bombardiers no longer claimed my attention, and the knightly words of sergeant instructors were taking a needed rest. I pondered over that essay, and concluded that though plainly I was very young and very wrong to feel puzzled and even derisive over English prose which fascinated a learned lecturer into solemnity, yet I would sooner learn to make imitation flowers of wool than read that essay to a critical audience, especially if I had written it myself.
Ruskin, in fact, with no more experience of war than a bishop's wife, did not know what he was talking about. Throughout the essay, too, he is in two minds. One is that of a gentleman who knows that war is the same phenomenon, artistically, ethically, and socially, as a public-house riot with broken bottles caused by a dispute over one of those fundamental principles which are often challenged in such a place. Those riots are natural enough. They are caused by the nature of man. They continue to happen, for it has taken the Church longer to improve our manners than it has taken stock-raisers to improve the milking qualities of kine. And Ruskin's other mind is still in the comical Tennysonian stage about war, dwelling with awe on swords and shields, glory, honour, patriotism, courage, spurs, pennants, and tearful but resolute ladies who wave their handkerchiefs in the intervals of sobbing over their "loved ones."
He calls war "noble play." He scorns cricket. As for his "style" and his "thought": "I use," says Ruskin, "in such a question, the test which I have adopted, of the connexion of war with other arts, and I reflect how, as a sculptor, I should feel if I were asked to design a monument for Westminster Abbey, with a carving of a bat at one end and a ball at the other. It may be there remains in me only a savage Gothic prejudice; but I had rather carve it with a shield at one end and a sword at the other."
I cannot tell whether Ruskin reflected so because of a savage Gothic prejudice, but I am certain he wrote like that moved by what we feel--the feeling goes deeper into time even than the Goths--about the victim for sacrifice. We must justify that sacrifice, and so we give it a ceremonial ritual and dignity. Otherwise, I think, Ruskin would not have suggested the shield and sword as the symbolic decorations. He felt instinctively and because of a long-accepted tradition that those antique symbols were the only way to hide the ugly look of the truth. For certainly he could have used a ball at one end--a cannon-ball--and a mortar at the other. Just as we might use an aerial torpedo at one end, and the image of a mutilated child at the other; or a gas cylinder at one end, and a gasmask at the other. But the artist is not going to be deprived of his romance through a touch of the actual, any more than the lady with the handkerchief can be expected to forgo her anguished sob over her hero as he goes forth to battle.
We saw that in our Great War. The ancient appeal of the patriots rushed us away from reason with "last stands," and the shot-riddled banners wavering in the engulfing waves of barbarians, till an irresistible cavalry charge scattered the hordes. All this replaced the plumes, the shining armour, and the chivalrous knights. Ruskin, however, was a subtle improvement even on the last stand with the shot-riddled banner. He anticipated those who have been most popular because they made our War entrancing and endurable. He went to the heart of the matter. He knew that the audience which would the more readily agree with him when he made an emotional case for the ennobling nature of war would be mainly of reclused women. He addressed them. So did, of late, some of our most successful writers on war. They, like , made their appeal to that type of mind which obtains a real satisfaction, a sensuous pleasure, from contemplating the unseen sufferings of the young and vicarious victim, sobbing, and feeling noble and enduring.