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Ruskin

I do not think anyone could find any fault with the way in which Mr.
Collingwood has discharged his task, except, of course, Mr. Ruskin
himself, who would certainly have scored through all the eulogies in
passionate red ink and declared that his dear friend had selected for
admiration the very parts of his work which were vile, brainless, and
revolting. That, however, was merely Ruskin's humour, and one of the
deepest disappointments with Mr. Collingwood is that he, like everyone
else, fails to appreciate Ruskin as a humourist. Yet he was a great
humourist: half the explosions which are solemnly scolded as "one-sided"
were simply meant to be one-sided, were mere laughing experiments in
language. Like a woman, he saw the humour of his own prejudices, did not
sophisticate them by logic, but deliberately exaggerated them by
rhetoric. One tenth of his paradoxes would have made the fortune of a
modern young man with gloves of an art yellow. He was as fond of
nonsense as Mr. Max Beerbohm. Only ... he was fond of other things too.
He did not ask humanity to dine on pickles.

But while his kaleidoscope of fancy and epigram gives him some kinship
with the present day, he was essentially of an earlier type: he was the
last of the prophets. With him vanishes the secret of that early
Victorian simplicity which gave a man the courage to mount a pulpit
above the head of his fellows. Many elements, good and bad, have
destroyed it; humility as well as fear, camaraderie as well as
scepticism, have bred in us a desire to give our advice lightly and
persuasively, to mask our morality, to whisper a word and glide away.
The contrast was in some degree typified in the House of Commons under
the last leadership of Mr. Gladstone: the old order with its fist on the
box, and the new order with its feet on the table. Doubtless the wine of
that prophecy was too strong even for the strong heads that carried it.
It made Ruskin capricious and despotic, Tennyson lonely and whimsical,
Carlyle harsh to the point of hatred, and Kingsley often rabid to the
ruin of logic and charity. One alone of that race of giants, the
greatest and most neglected, was sober after the cup. No mission, no
frustration could touch with hysteria the humanity of Robert Browning.

But though Ruskin seems to close the roll of the militant prophets, we
feel how needful are such figures when we consider with what pathetic
eagerness men pay prophetic honours even to those who disclaim the
prophetic character. Ibsen declares that he only depicts life, that as
far as he is concerned there is nothing to be done, and still armies of
"Ibsenites" rally to the flag and enthusiastically do nothing. I have
found traces of a school which avowedly follows Mr. Henry James: an idea
full of humour. I like to think of a crowd with pikes and torches
shouting passages from "The Awkward Age." It is right and proper for a
multitude to declare its readiness to follow a prophet to the end of the
world, but if he himself explains, with pathetic gesticulations, that
he is only going for a walk in the park, there is not much for the
multitude to do. But the disciple of Ruskin had plenty to do. He made
roads; in his spare moments he studied the whole of geology and botany.
He lifted up paving stones and got down into early Florentine cellars,
where, by hanging upside down, he could catch a glimpse of a Cimabue
unpraisable but by divine silence. He rushed from one end of a city to
the other comparing ceilings. His limbs were weary, his clothes were
torn, and in his eyes was that unfathomable joy of life which man will
never know again until once more he takes himself seriously.

Mr. Collingwood's excellent chapters on the art criticism of Ruskin
would be better, in my opinion, if they showed more consciousness of the
after revolutions that have reversed, at least in detail, much of
Ruskin's teaching. We no longer think that art became valueless when it
was first corrupted with anatomical accuracy. But if we return to that
Raphaelism to which he was so unjust, let us not fall into the old
error of intelligent reactionaries, that of ignoring our own debt to
revolutions. Ruskin could not destroy the market of Raphaelism, but he
could and did destroy its monopoly. We may go back to the Renaissance,
but let us remember that we go back free. We can picnic now in the ruins
of our dungeon and deride our deliverer.

But neither in Mr. Collingwood's book nor in Ruskin's own delightful
"Pręterita" shall we ever get to the heart of the matter. The work of
Ruskin and his peers remains incomprehensible by the very completeness
of their victory. Fallen forever is that vast brick temple of
Utilitarianism, of which we may find the fragments but never renew the
spell. Liberal Unionists howl in its high places, and in its ruins Mr.
Lecky builds his nest. Its records read with something of the mysterious
arrogance of Chinese: hardly a generation away from us, we read of a
race who believed in the present with the same sort of servile optimism
with which the Oriental believes in the past. It may be that banging his
head against that roof for twenty years did not improve the temper of
the prophet. But he made what he praised in the old Italian
pictures--"an opening into eternity."


Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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