School Education Volume 3 Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII

WE ARE EDUCATED BY OUR INTIMACIES
PART II.—FURTHER AFFINITIES

         Affinity for Material: Ruskin’s Opportunities.—Of the Affinity for Material, the joy of handling and making, Wordsworth says little, but Ruskin sent out feelers in this direction which began with ‘two boxes of well-cut wooden bricks’ and culminated, perhaps, in the road-making of the Oxford days:—

          “I was afterwards,” he says, “gifted with a two-arched bridge, admirable in fittings of voussior and keystone, and adjustment of the level courses of masonry with beveled edges, into which they dovetailed in the style of Waterloo Bridge. Well-made centrings, and a course of inlaid steps down to the water, made this model largely, as accurately, instructive: and I was never weary of building, un-building—(it was too strong to be thrown down, but had always to be taken down)—and re-building it.”

          We know how he busied himself with making a small dam and reservoir at both the Herne Hill and Denmark Hill homes; and how, while still a boy, he scrubbed down, with pail of water and broom, the dirty steps of an Alpine hotel, because they offended his mother. We feel that in this direction, again, his nature cried aloud for opportunities.

          Intimacy with Natural Objects.—We do not
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hear much of the intimacy of either boy with Natural Objects, such as birds and flowers; but here, again, we feel that Ruskin was deprived of opportunity. His flower friends were garden dwellers; and could anything be more pathetic than this: “My chief prayer for the kindness of heaven, in its flowerful seasons, was that the frost might not touch the almond blossom.”[1]
          Wordsworth appears to have waited for his intimacy with wild-flowers until he could say of his sister Dorothy, “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.” Birds, as we have seen, he knew through the wicked joy of birdsnesting; but not only so, that day when the wild cavalcade rode to Furness Abbey, he marked—

                             “That simple wren
                   Which one day sang so sweetly in the nave
                   Of the old church, that. . . .
                              I could have made
                    My dwelling-place, and lived for ever there
                   To hear such music.”

         Ruskin’s Flower Studies.—If Ruskin had not, as a child, a wide acquaintance with the flowers of the field, he made up, perhaps, by the enormous attention be gave to such as came in his way; and, just as his toy bricks and his bridge gave him his initiation in the principles of architecture, so, perhaps, his early flower studies resulted in his power of seeing and expressing detail. He says of flowers: “My whole time passed in staring at them or into them. In no morbid curiosity, but in admiring wonder, I pulled every flower to pieces till I knew all that could be seen of it with a child’s eyes; and used to lay up
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little treasures of seeds, by way of pearls and beads,—never with any thought of sowing them.” He complains that books of Botany were harder than the Latin Grammar.

          His Pebble Studies.—“Had there been anybody then to teach me anything about plants or pebbles,” he says, “it had been good for me.” He loved the pebbles of the Tay, and followed up his acquaintance with pebbles at Matlock. “In the glittering white broken spar, speckled with galena, by which the walks of the hotel garden were made bright, and in the slopes of the pretty village, and in many a happy walk along its cliffs, I pursued my mineralogical studies on fluor, calcite, and the ores of lead, and with indescribable rapture when I was allowed to go into a cave.”

          A Life-shaping Intimacy.—Later we find him going up Snowdon, “of which ascent I remember, as the most exciting event, the finding for the first time in my life a real ‘mineral’ for myself, a piece of copper pyrites!” This eagerly sought acquaintance with pebbles resulted in the life-shaping intimacy with minerals to which we owe The Ethics of the Dust.

         Insatiate delight in a Book—Ruskin’s.—As for Books, we are told how Ruskin grew up upon the Waverly Novels, on Pope’s Homer’s Iliad, many of Shakespeare’s plays, and much else that is delightful; but he does not give us an instance of the sort of thing we are looking for—the sudden keen, insatiate delight in a book which means kinship—until he is introduced to Byron. His first acquaintance with Byron he puts “about the beginning of the teen period”:—

          “But very certainly, by the end of this year 1834, I knew my Byron pretty well all through, all but Cain, Werner, the
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Deformed Transformed, and Vision of Judgment, none of which I could understand, nor did papa and mamma think it would be well I should try to. . . . So far as I could understand it, I rejoiced in all the sarcasm of Don Juan. But my firm decision, as soon as I got well into the later cantos of it, that Byron was to be my master in verse, as Turner in colour, was made of course in that gosling (or say cygnet) epoch of existence, without consciousness of the deeper instincts that prompted it: only two things I consciously recognised, that his truth of observation was the most exact, and his chosen expression the most concentrated, that I had yet found in literature. . . . But the thing wholly new and precious to me in Byron was his measured and living truth—measured, as compared with Homer; and living, as compared with everybody else. . . . He taught me the meaning of Chillon and of Meillerie, and bade me seek first in Venice—the ruined homes of Foscari and Falieri. . . . Byron told me of, and reanimated for me, the real people whose feet had worn the marble I trod on.”

         Wordsworth’s.—This is how Wordsworth took to his books:—

                   “A precious treasure had I long possessed,
                   A little yellow canvas-covered book,
                   A slender abstract of the Arabian tales;
                   And, from companions in a new abode,
                   When first I learnt, that this dear prize of mine
                   Was but a block hewn from a mighty quarry—
                   That there were four large volumes, laden all
                   With kindred matter, ’twas to me, in truth,
                   A promise scarcely earthly. . . .
                   And when thereafter to my father’s house
                   The holidays returned me, there to find
                   That golden store of books which I had left,
                   What joy was mine! How often. . . .
                             have I lain
                    Down by thy side, O Derwent! murmuring stream,
                    On the hot stones, and in the glaring sun,
                    And there have read, devouring as I read,
                    Defrauding the day’s glory, desperate!”
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          “They must have their Food” of Romance.—Nor can I omit the counsel that follows:—

         “A gracious spirit o’er this earth presides,
         And o’er the heart of man: invisibly
         It comes, to works of unreproved delight,
         And tendency benign, directing those
         Who care not, know not, think not what they do.
         The tales that charm away the wakeful night
          In Araby romances; legends penned
          For solace by dim light of monkish lamps;
          Fictions, for ladies of their love, devised
          By youthful squires; adventures endless, spun
          By the dismantled warrior in old age,
          Out of the bowels of those very schemes
          In which his youth did first extravagate;
          These spread like day, and something in the shape
          Of these will live till man shall be no more.
          Dumb yearnings, hidden appetites, are ours,
          And they must have their food. Our childhood sits,
          Our simple childhood, sits upon a throne
          That hath more power than all the elements.”

          Children must range at will among Books.—And this other counsel:—

         “Rarely and with reluctance would I stoop
          To transitory themes; yet I rejoice,
          And, by these thoughts admonished, will pour out
          Thanks with uplifted heart, that I was reared
          Safe from an evil which these days have laid
          Upon the children of the land, a pest
          That might have dried me up, body and soul. . . .
         Where had we been, we two, belovèd Friend!
         If in the season of unperilous choice,
         In lieu of wandering, as we did, though vales
         Rich with indigenous produce, open ground
         Of fancy, happy pastures ranged at will,
         We had been followed, hourly watched, and noosed,
         Each in his several melancholy walk.”

          Words, ‘a Passion and  a Power.’’—Later, follows the story of his first enthrallment by poetry:—

                         “Twice five years
               Or less I might have seen, when first my mind
               With conscious pleasure opened to the charm
               Of words in timeful order, found them sweet
               For their own sakes, a passion and a power;
               And phrases pleased me chosen for delight,
               For pomp, or love. Oft, in the public roads
               Yet unfrequented, while the mourning light
               Was yellowing the hill tops, I went abroad
               With a dear friend, and for the better part
               Of two delightful hours we strolled along
               By the still borders of the misty lake,
               Repeating favourite verses with one voice,
               Or cunning more, as happy as the birds
               That round us chaunted.”

          Ruskin’s Local Historic Sense.—The awakening of the Historic Sense in Ruskin appears to be always, and here is a great lesson for us, connected with places: that historic interest and æsthetic delight are one with him, is another thing to take note of. We have seen how Byron served him in this way. Again, he tells us of the “three centres of my life’s thought, Rouen, Geneva, and Pisa, which have been tutoresses of all I know and were mistresses of all I did from the first moments I entered their gates.” These came later, but Abbeville “was entrance for me into immediately healthy labour and joy. . . . My most intense happinesses have of course been among mountains. But for cheerful, unalloyed, unwearying pleasure, the getting sight of Abbeville on a fine summer afternoon, jumping out in the courtyard of the Hôtel de l’Europe and rushing down the street to see St Wulfran again before the
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sun was off the towers, are things to cherish the past for—to the end.”

          Living Touch with the Past necessary.—But Ruskin’s want of living touch with the past, except as such touch was given by the newly discovered history of a place he happened to be in, is shown in his first impressions of Rome:—

          “My stock of Latin learning, with which to begin my studies of the city, consisted of the two first books of Livy, never well known, and the names of places remembered without ever looking where they were on a map; Juvenal, a page or two of Tacitus, and in Virgil the burning of Troy, the story of Dido, the episode of Euryalus, and the last battle. Of course, I had nominally read the whole Æneid, but thought most of it nonsense. Of later Roman history, I had read English abstracts of the imperial vices, and supposed the malaria in the Campagna to be the consequence of the Papacy. I had never heard of a good Roman Emperor, or a good Pope; was not quite sure whether Trajan lived before Christ or after, and would have thanked, with a sense of relieved satisfaction, anybody who might have told me that Marcus Antoninus was a Roman philosopher contemporary with Socrates. . . . We of course drove about the town, and saw the Forum, Coliseum, and so on. I had no distinct idea what the Forum was or ever had been, or how the three pillars, or the seven, were connected with it, or the Arch of Severus. . . . What the Forum or capitol had been, I did not in the least care; the pillars of the Forum I saw were on a small scale, and their capitals rudely carved, and the houses above them nothing like so interesting as the side of any close in the ‘auld toun’ of Edinburgh.”

         Wordsworth and Ruskin, aloof from the Past.—Wordsworth, too, stood aloof. He was aware of

                              “Old, unhappy, far-off things
                             And battles long ago;”

but the past of nations did not enthrall him; even the throes of the French Revolution, to judge by what he
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tells us in the Prelude, hardly shook him to his foundation, though he took a walking tour on the Continent at the moment when, as he himself says—

                    “As if awaked from sleep, the nations hailed
                    Their great expectancy.”

But for him—

                             “I looked upon these things
                   As from a distance; heard and saw and felt,
                    Was touched, but with no intimate concern.”

         Knowledge learned in Schools.—As for the Knowledge learned in Schools, Ruskin gives us rather dry details of his experiences in Euclid, the Latin grammar, and the like, but neither boy appears to have been ‘stung with the rapture of a sudden thought’ in the course of his lessons, unless Hawkshead Grammar School can take this to itself:—

                              “Many are our joys
                    In youth, but oh! what happiness to live
                    When every hour brings palpable access
                    Of knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
                    And sorrow is not there!”

But the praise of the unfolding of the seasons follows, and I am afraid it is the lore they brought with them that the poet had in his mind’s eye.

          Comradeship.—We have all been interested in the late Mr Rhodes’s illuminating will, and I suppose most mothers and most masters have pondered the four groups of qualifications for scholarships. In (3) we have ‘fellowship,’ in (4) ‘instincts to lead and take an interest in his schoolmates.’ It is well that a talent for Comradeship should be brought before us in this prominent way as a sine quâ non. Here is the rock
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upon which Ruskin’s education split, as he was sadly aware; he never knew the joys of comradeship. Having spoken of ‘peace, obedience, faith; these three for chief good; next to these the habit of fixed attention with both eyes and mind,’ as the main blessings of his childhood, he goes on to enumerate ‘the equally dominant calamities’;—

     “First, that I had nothing to love. My parents were—in a sort—visible powers of nature to me, no more loved that the sun and the moon: only I should have been annoyed and puzzled if either of them had gone out; (how much, now, when both are darkened!)—still less did I love God; not that I had any quarrel with Him, or fear of Him; but simply found what people told me was His service, disagreeable; and what people told me was His book, not entertaining. I had no companions to quarrel with neither; nobody to assist, and nobody to thank. Not a servant was ever allowed to do anything for me, but what it was their duty to do; and why should I have been grateful to the cook for cooking, or the gardener for gardening?. . . . My present verdict, therefore, on the general tenor of my education at that time, must be, that it was at once to formal and too luxurious; leaving my character at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed, but not disciplined; and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.”

     Wordsworth, on the contrary, as we have seen, lived the life of his school-fellows with entire abandon. He was with a crowd of his mates or he was with a friend, and was only alone in those moments of deeper intimacy which we shall speak of presently. The simple life of his ‘belovèd Vale; took such hold on his tenacious northern nature that not Cambridge, nor London, nor (as we have seen) Europe in its time of convulsion, could displace the earlier images or give new direction to his profoundest thought.
     Scott laid claim to ‘intimacy with all ranks of my countrymen from the Scottish peer to the Scottish
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ploughman,’ and—we get the Waverly Novels. Wordsworth was satisfied to know the fine-natured peasant folk of his own dales, and poet-souls like his own. Perhaps such limitations went to the making of the poet of plain living and high thinking; but limitations are hazardous.

 

[1] Students of Love’s Meinie and Proserpine will known what rich compensations later life brought for the child’s disadvantages.