Sunday 18 October 2015


2015-42  Magic Spell of a Book: John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies

John Ruskin [1819-1900]
Ruskin's Style

Ruskin's style is wonderfully eloquent, a living voice, trumpet-toned. The grave and the gay, the satiric and the serious, narration and reflection, appeal and argument, philosophic discourse and artistic revelation, are all finely interwoven into a grand, luminous web of words. It is the style of a man pouring out his whole soul with its aspirations, fears, love, and hope and joy in flowing strains of impassioned prose.

The great merit of Ruskin's style is its combination of the poetic and the prophetic, the moral and the aesthetic. He never toys with words, but places them in all their beauty of association and suggestion, and in all their force of truth and reality. Candid, brave and tearlessly assertive, his shining weapon of speech is never employed without purpose or effect.

So daring is his originality that it is hard to trace the influences which have fashioned his literary style. Still one dominant factor which has exercised its potent power over the whole body of his writings is the style of [the King James Version of] the Holy Bible. Ruskin is saturated with its spirit, and to it, no doubt, we can ascribe his appealing fervour, picturesqueness, tenderness, unaffected grandeur and sublimity. 


கான மயிலாடக் கண்டிருந்த வான்கோழி*  தானும் அதுவாகப் பாவித்துத் - தானும் தன்* பொல்லாச் சிறகை விரித்து ஆடினால் போலுமே* கல்லாதான் கற்ற கவி. 
Kaana mayil aadak kandirundha vaan kozhi* thaanum atuvaka paviththut tanum tan* polla cirakai virittu atinaar polume* kallathan katra kavi.   [Moodurai 14]
An illiterate person writing a poem pretending to be learned, is like a turkey that pretends to be a peacock, spreading its ugly wings and trying to dance.  

So writes the saintly poetess, Auvaiyar in her Verses of Wisdom, Moodurai. With no such pretensions of the alluded turkey, I humbly present, here, the Magic Spell of a Book -- John Ruskin's Seasame and Lilies -- on me:

Excerpts from Lecture I:  Sesame Of King's Treasuries

I want to speak to you about the treasures hidden in books; and about the way we find them [1]*A book is written not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence... The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events [9] Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men -- by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice. [11]

You must love them, and show your love in these two ways: First, by a true desire to be taught by them, and to enter into their thoughts. To enter into theirs, observe; not to find your own expressed by them. Very ready we are to say of a book, "How good this is—that's exactly what I think!" But the right feeling is, "How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day." [13]

[As examples] I will take the following lines of Milton’s Lycidas:-

”…for their bellies' sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!

Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest;

Blind mouths!” 
Let us think over this passage, and examine its words. [The clergy who] "for their bellies' sake, creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold." [20]
Never think Milton uses those three words to fill up his verse, as a loose writer would. He needs all the three;—especially those three, and no more than those—"creep," and "intrude," and "climb;" no other words would or could serve the turn, and no more could be added. For they exhaustively comprehend the three classes of men who dishonestly seek ecclesiastical power.
First, those who "creep" into the fold; who do not care for office, nor name, but for secret influence, and do all things occultly and cunningly, consenting to any servility of office or conduct, so only that they may intimately discern, and unawares direct, the minds of men.
Then those who "intrude" (thrust) themselves into the fold, who by natural insolence of heart, and stout eloquence of tongue, and fearlessly perseverant self-assertion, obtain hearing and authority with the common crowd.
Lastly, those who "climb," who, by labour and learning, both stout and sound, but selfishly exerted in the cause of their own ambition, gain high dignities and authorities, and become "lords over the heritage," though not "ensamples to the flock." [21]
Now go on to "Blind Mouths"I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly. Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, in the two great offices of the Church—those of bishop and pastor.
A "Bishop" means "a person who sees." A "Pastor" means "a person who feeds." The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind. The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed,—to be a Mouth. Take the two reverses together, and you have "blind mouths"! [22]

We have got somethiing out of the lines, I think, and much more is yet to be found in them. But we have done enough by way of example of the kind of word by word examination of your author which is rightly called "reading". [25]

My friends, I do not know why any of us should talk about reading. We want some sharper discipline than that of reading. [31]

I say, first we have despised literature. What do we, as a nation, care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether or our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses? [32]

I say we have despised Science. What have we publicly done for Science? [33] I say you have despised Art! [34] You have despised Nature; that is to say, all the deep and sacred sensations of natural sceneary. [35] Lastly, you despise Compassion. [36]

There is a true Church wherever one hand meets another helpfully, and that is the only holy or Mother Church which ever was, or ever shall be. [37]

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour petals out of a fruitful flower! [39]

Excerpts from Lecture III:  Mystery of Life and its Arts

While the wisdom and rightness of every act and art of life could only be consistent with a right understanding of the ends of life, we were all plunged as in a languid dream -- our hearts fat, and our eyes heavy, and our ears closed, lest the inspiration of hand or voice should reach us -- lest we should see with our eyes and understand with our hearts, and be healed. [107] This intense apathy in all of us is the first great mystery of life; it stands in the way of every perception; every virtue. [108] 

About this human life that is to be, or that is, the wise religious men tell us nothing that we can trust; and the wise contemplative men, nothing that can give us peace. But there is yet, one class of men, more: -- men, not capable of vision, nor sensitive to sorrow, but firm of purpose -- practised in business. What will they say to us, or show us by example? [116] I think, I can best tell you their answer, by telling a dream that I had once. [117]

                                    Dream of a child's Mayday party

"I have dreams sometimes:- I dreamed I was at a child's Mayday party, in which every means of entertainment had been provided for them, by a wise and kind host. It was in a stately house, with beautiful gardens attached to it; and the children had been set free in the rooms and gardens, with no care whatever but how to pass their afternoon rejoicingly. 

They did not, indeed, know much about what was to happen next day; and some of them, I thought, were a little frightened, because there was a chance of their being sent to a new school where there were examinations; but they kept the thoughts of that out of their heads as well as they could, and resolved to enjoy themselves. 

The house, I said, was in a beautiful garden, and in the garden were all kinds of flowers; sweet, grassy banks for rest; and smooth lawns for play; and pleasant streams and woods; and rocky places for climbing. And the children were happy for a little while, but presently they separated themselves into parties; and then each party declared it would have a piece of the garden for its own, and that none of the others should have anything to do with that piece. 

Next, they quarreled violently which pieces they would have; and at last the boys took up the thing, as boys should do, "practically," and fought in the flower-beds till there was hardly a flower left standing; then they trampled down each other's bits of the garden out of spite; and the girls cried till they could cry no more; and so they all lay down at last breathless in the ruin, and waited for the time when they were to be taken home in the evening. 

Meanwhile, the children in the house had been making themselves happy also in their manner. For them, there had been provided every kind of indoor pleasure: there was music for them to dance to; and the library was open, with all manner of amusing books; and there was a museum full of the most curious shells, and animals, and birds; and there was a workshop, with lathes and carpenter's tools, for the ingenious boys; and there were pretty fantastic dresses, for the girls to dress in; and there were microscopes, and kaleidoscopes; and whatever toys a child could fancy; and a table, in the dining-room, loaded with everything nice to eat.

But, in the midst of all this, it struck two or three of the more "practical" children, that they would like some of the brass-headed nails that studded the chairs; and so they set to work to pull them out. Presently, the others, who were reading, or looking at shells, took a fancy to do the like; and, in a little while, all the children, nearly, were spraining their fingers, in pulling out brass-headed nails. With all that they could pull out, they were not satisfied; and then, everybody wanted some of somebody else's. 

And at last, the really practical and sensible ones declared, that nothing was of any real consequence, that afternoon, except to get plenty of brass-headed nails; and that the books, and the cakes, and the microscopes were of no use at all in themselves, but only, if they could be exchanged for nail-heads. And at last they began to fight for nail-heads, as the others fought for the bits of garden. 

Only here and there, a despised one shrank away into a corner, and tried to get a little quiet with a book, in the midst of the noise; but all the practical ones thought of nothing else but counting nail-heads all the afternoon—even though they knew they would not be allowed to carry so much as one brass knob away with them.

But no—it was—"Who has most nails? I have a hundred, and you have fifty; or, I have a thousand, and you have two. I must have as many as you before I leave the house, or I cannot possibly go home in peace." 

At last, they made so much noise that I awoke, and thought to myself, "What a false dream that is, of CHILDREN!" The child is the father of the man; and wiser. Children never do such foolish things. Only men do." [118]


But there is yet one last class of persons to be interrogated... These, -- hewers of wood, and drawers of water, -- these, bent under burdens, or torn of scourges -- these, that dig and weave -- that plant and build; workers in wood, and marble, and in iron -- by whom all food, clothing, habitation, furniture, and means of delight are produced; men, whose deeds are good, though their words may be few; men, whose lives are serviceable -- from these, surely, at least, we may receive some clear message of teaching; and pierce into the mystery of life, and of its arts. [119]

Does a bird need to theorize about building its nest, or boast of it when built? All good work is essentially done that way -- without hesitation, without difficulty, without boasting. [121]

"The work of men" -- and what is that? ... Whatever our station in life may be, those of us who mean to fulfill our duty ought first to live on as little as we can; and secondly, to do all the wholesome work for it we can, and to spend all we can spare in doing all the sure good we can. And sure good is, first in feeding people than in dressing people, then in lodging people and lastly in pleasing people with arts or sciences or any other subject of thought. [135]

These, then are the three first needs of civilized life [feeding people, dressing people and lastly in pleasing people]. Out of such exertion in plain duty all other good will come. [139] 

There is just one law, which obeyed, keeps all religions pure. "At every moment of our lives we should be trying to find out, not in what we differ from other people, but in what we agree with them." [140]

Can our youths plough, can they sow, can they plant at the right time, or build with a steady hand? Is it the effort of their lives to be chaste, knightly, faithful, holy in thought, lovely in word and deed? We have to turn their courage from the toil of war to the toil of mercy; and their intellect from dispute of words to discernment of things; from the errantry of adventure to the fidelity of kingly power. [140]

And then, indeed, shall abide an incorruptible felicity, and infallible religion, shall abide for us Faith, shall abide with us Hope and shall abide for us, and with us, the greatest of these, Charity. [140]

*The numbers within square brackets denote the paragraph numbers in the book Sesame and Lilies:


YouTube Video: John Ruskin - Artist and Observer: [Click Here] 11m

NGC Director Marc Mayer and Christopher Newall, a leading Ruskin scholar and the co-curator of John Ruskin: Artist and Observer take a walking tour of the exhibition and discuss the art and the man.