Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What I have to say about field herbage - some notes on Ruskin's The Queen of the Air

The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884) is about air pollution, likely as vivid a screed against air pollution as exists (“And yet observe: that thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy, miserable cloud, for all the depth of it, can’t turn the sun red, as a good, business-like fog does with a hundred feet of itself”).  Part VII of Book V of Modern Painters (1860), “Of Cloud Beauty,” appears to be about clouds, how they form, how to draw them, what they mean.  You never know with John Ruskin.  Anything can lead anywhere.

The Queen of the Air (1869) is also about clouds.  It is about Athena, more specifically, and the interpretation of Greek myth and art, the dual roots of myth, in religion and in physical phenomena, like clouds and dew and birds:

We will take the bird first.  It is little more than a drift of the air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it, -- is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.  (para. 65)

Birds share the colors of clouds, “woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume… infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand” (66).  Each color and form picks up a symbolic religious meaning along the way.  Art is the human attempt to capture the Truth of the relationship, both the physical reality and the human meaning.  The more reality and the more meaning, the better the art.  The Muses preside over beauty, Athena over truth:

She does not make men learned, but prudent and subtle; she does not teach them to make their work beautiful, but to make it right.  (101)

I remind myself that Ruskin’s concept of truth and reality is flexible enough to distinguish true griffins from false.  Everything he writes is like the myths he interprets in The Queen of the Air, simultaneously literal and metaphorical.

Much of the above is meant to serve as a prod to my memory when, a week or two from now, I discover that I have forgotten the most basic aspects of the book.  Ruskin is complex, but also bizarre, and hilariously digressive to the point that sense is impeded:

I have no time now to trace for you the hundredth part of the different ways in which it bears both upon natural beauty, and on the best order and happiness of men's lives.  I hope to follow out some of these trains of thought in gathering together what I have to say about field herbage…  (38)

I love nonsense, but it can be awfully hard to retain.  At his best, Ruskin writes as well as anyone of his time – criticism, like biography, is literature.  Who cares about mid-19th century anthropological theories about Greek myths?  All of that stuff has been replaced by books that are more up to date, accurate, and heaven knows better organized, but none of them are written like Ruskin.


  1. "All of that stuff has been replaced by books that are more up to date, accurate, and heaven knows better organized"

    One of the things I found really thought-provoking when I was doing my dissertation research on obscure 19thC women historians was that (at that point) not a lot of their work had in fact been replaced by up-to-date scholarship, or at any rate they were still go-to sources (Agnes Strickland, for instance, is widely cited). Yet they had no staying power in the literary world of 19th-century non-fiction, unlike Macaulay (outdated, updated, but read for his writing ... as Ruskin is). Just another example of the push-pull relationship between writing as art and writing as function.

  2. That is interesting. People need to get to work on the queens of England!

    I suppose philosophy is where this sort of thing is most common. The concepts of Kant are so complex that they resist summary - or every summary is itself an interpretation - so readers have to continually return to the source to see for themselves, no matter how much pain is required.

    By contrast the great but simpler contribution of Thomas Malthus is more easily restated by better writers, freeing us from his thick, gluey prose.

    Ruskin, Carlyle, Pater - they are closer to the philosophers. Conceptually rich and slippery. But also: pleasing writers.