Sunday, 13 May 2012

Selections from Ruskin: Two Orders of Poets

I got this book by John Ruskin, patron and critic of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement that championed the paintings of those before Raphael. The most prominent member, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, loved the poems of Petrarch and Dante. I would have written something on the PRB, but realised I know precious little about the literary side. So I present this to you: Selections from Ruskin. I should add, these are a collection of articles from his books, and if you want a good idea of Ruskin's seminal work, get hold of Modern Painters. I don't have that book, unfortunately. I happened to be in a second-hand bookshop and saw this book. It was printed in 1871 (there's even the dedication to somebody, March 1871) and an illustration of Ruskin. It cost 14 pounds, by the way. It's a hardcover, leather-bound brown book, in gold lettering and colourful paper inside. (So don't be cheated by expensive antique books online!) It may have been rebound, for the inside paper is in mint condition. It's mainly on painting and the visual arts, but I'll turn to poets.

Two orders of poets. - I admit two orders of poets, but no third; and by these two orders I mean the Creative (Shakespere, Homer, Dante), and Reflective or Perceptive (Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson). But both of these must be first-rate in their range, though their range is different; and with poetry second-rate in quality no one ought to be allowed to trouble mankind.  There is quite enough of the best, - much more than we can ever read or enjoy in the length of life; and it is a literal wrong or sin in any person to encumber us with inferios work.  I have no patience with aqpologies made by oung pseudo-poets, "that they believe there is some good in what they have written: that they hope to do better in time," &c. Some good! If there is not all good, why do they trouble us now? Let them rather courageously burn all they have done, and wait for the better days.  Ther are few men, orfinarily educated, who in moments of strong feeling could not strike out a potential thought, and afterwards polish it so as to be prsentable.  But men of sense  know better than so to waste their time; and those who sincerely love poetry know the touch of the master's hand on the chords too well to fumble them after him. Nay, more than this; all inferior poetry is an injury to the good, inasmuch as it takes away the freshness the rhymes, blunders upon and gives a wretched commonalty to good thoughts; and. in  general, adds to the weight of human weariness in a most woful and culpable manner. There are few thoughts likely to come across ordinary men, which have not already been expressed by greater men in the best possible way; abd it is a wiser, more generous, more noble thing ot remember and point out the perfect words, than to invent poorer ones, wherewith to encumber temporarily the world.

(From Modern Painters, III. Part IV. Note to Chapter XII).

For those of you who are able to keep your eyes on a screen, here's the electronic version of Modern Painters, Volume I. Note this is about painting rather than literature though.


  1. Ruskin is another one I've long intended to read something by (especially since I'm quite interested in the film coming out about him and Effie Gray). Selections sound like a good choice, and I really enjoyed the quote, though it means _I_ shouldn't attempt poetry. ;)

    1. Hadn't heard about the film. Hope it'll be good! I suspect Effie was charming, clever but shallow, and that requires careful portrayal. She spoke five languages, was popular among the men, and was attached to two at a time. Mrs Gaskell, generally kind to people, spoke harshly of her, so I think there is truth in her report. I've seen many people like Effie, they are intelligent and well-read though without much inner depth or feeling.

      Don't say that, go on writing poetry for the fun even if you don't publish. It helps you analyse other poets better.

  2. (After the stress of moving I'm finally making late replies to my old discussions.) The film (titled "Effie") is written by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise is playing Ruskin, so I'm looking forward to it. (There's also a Kiera Knightley film coming out on the failed wedding night. I wonder why such sudden interest among film-makers?)

    I don't know a lot about Effie yet, though I plan to read a bio before I see the film. I've also read Mrs Gaskell's remarks on her and I tend to think that her social position probably made her more shallow. Yet learning about her will probably give a greater understanding of the lives of the Blanche Ingrams of her day.