Toward the end of their correspondence, which spanned years 1851-79, John Ruskin, who hitherto had addressed Thomas Carlyle more or less in terms of deferential formality (‘Dear Mr Carlyle’), suddenly shifted to ‘Dearest Papa’, signing himself ‘Ever your loving disciple-son’. Whatever the immediate reasons for the change, it simply made explicit Ruskin’s steady conception of his relation to Carlyle, the older man by 24 years. In 1866, indeed, as if he were not busy enough, he had offered to become Carlyle’s amanuensis. ‘I have a notion it would be very wholesome work for me, & it would be very proud & dear for me.’
The 154 letters they exchanged – 80 published for the first time in George Allan Cate’s thoroughly introduced and annotated collection – shed agreeable light on the friendship of the two Victorian sages who strikingly resembled each other in some ways and yet in others were polar opposites. Both were of Scottish descent, but one was the child of peasants (the elder Carlyle was a stonemason) and the other the son of a wealthy London wine merchant. The temperament and world view of both were essentially determined by a common rooting in the neo-Puritanical atmosphere of Calvinism. Carlyle and Ruskin shared a prophetic mission, and together they raised passionate dogmatism to the state of a profession and a fine art. Neither man yielded to the other in his espousal of their sacred cause – nothing less than the radical transformation of society – or in the complicated neuroses which both disabled them (notably in their sexual lives) and drove them.
And yet they saw the world about them through different lenses. In 1861 Ruskin wrote an ecstatic letter to Jane Carlyle, who participated in the correspondence, on the beauties of Lucerne and the surrounding Alps in the bleak month of November. It was only grudgingly that, six years later, Carlyle, recalling to Ruskin that he cared ‘next to nothing’ for scenery, admitted that the mountains near Mentone had their fascination. But, characteristically, he found the sight less sublime than terrifying: ‘the strangest and grandest things of the mountain kind I ever saw; bare-rocks, sharp as steeples, jagged as if hewn by lightning; most grim, perilous, cruel; “sitting there,” I sometimes say, “like so many witches of Endor.” ’ Carlyle’s personality was craggy, formidable, his conversation a further outlet for his aggressiveness. While he may not have talked for victory, it is said that his verbal tirades were a faithful copy of the way he wrote. Ruskin had all the social graces, as well as a fine-honed aesthetic sense which Carlyle totally lacked. ‘Airt, airt, what is it all about?’ he once exclaimed to the painter William Bell Scott. ‘If all art, except good portraits, faces of great men well done, if all art but these was swept out of the world we would be all the better!’
A passage in Ruskin’s autobiographical Praeterita, deleted when the book was in proof, vividly sums up the antithetical side of their relationship. Carlyle sometimes went down to Denmark Hill to visit Ruskin and his parents. ‘But,’ wrote Ruskin, ‘there was one insuperable obstacle: the smoking. For his sake, I would have borne with the forms of American frankincense obtained by the combination of tobacco with lilac blossoms or laburnum; but I could not stand the spitting. The entire service of the garden, to me, depended on the perfect cleanliness of its ground, so that I could always lie down either on the gravel walks, the lawns, or the dry flower-beds, with no more harm than some dust on my coat.’
But Carlyle’s personal habits, some of which were attributed to his rough-and-ready upbringing in the country, were of little account to the genteel Ruskin compared with his intellectual powers and his dedication to their joint crusade to save England from herself. He had reason to be grateful to the older man for the help and encouragement he received at a crucial moment in his career, when the heterodox social and economic opinions he expressed in Unto This Last turned against him the considerable audience he had attracted with his eloquent volumes of art criticism. ‘More power to yr elbow,’ Carlyle wrote him. ‘My joy is great to find myself henceforth in a minority of two at any rate!’
They exchanged views, mostly congenial, on various topics of the day. But these can be read much more extensively in their books, and the interest of their correspondence lies chiefly in its preservation of personal and domestic details. Ruskin’s regard for Carlyle took practical forms. He brought eggs from Denmark Hill, a print of Dürer’s Melencholia I, and – for use in the tiny garden at the rear of 24 Cheyne Row, where there were few flowers to desecrate – boxes of fine cigars. In 1861, Carlyle thanked him for two bottles of ‘yr exquisite Cognac’, which, he said, he was going to set aside ‘that this house, in case of real emergency, may never be withtBrandy that can be depended on.’ Some months later, though, he reported that the second bottle had been sent next door, to the family of Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, several of whom, including (fatally) the father, lay ill of scarlet fever. In another charitable deed they collaborated to aid the aged, indigent daughters of a remarkably incompetent painter, Mauritius Lowe, one of whose canvases Dr Johnson once succeeded in having accepted by the Royal Academy after the Hanging Committee had rejected it. (Carlyle, who knew his Boswell, would have remembered that this was the occasion of one of Johnson’s rare dicta in art criticism. ‘Sir,’ he told Lowe, ‘your picture is noble and probable.’)
There are the inevitable health bulletins from Chelsea: ‘Unluckily until Death itself come there is no escaping the dismal necessity to eat food and the still more dismal and almost impossible ditto to digest the same.’ As the shades of the psychotic prison house begin to darken his life, Ruskin supplies bulletins of his own. Emerging from a three-month attack of delirium in 1878, he reports: ‘It was utterly wonderful for me to find that I could go so heartily & headily mad; for you know I had been priding myself on my peculiar sanity! And it was more wonderful yet to find the madness made up into things so dreadful, out of things so trivial. One of the most provoking and disagreeable of the spectres was developed out of the firelight on my mahogany bedpost – and my fate, for all futurity, seemed continually to turn on the humour of dark personages who were materially nothing but the stains of damp on the ceiling.’
Still, the letters are not overburdened with hypochondria and early attacks of madness. Cheerfulness keeps breaking in, and we are surprised as well as gratified to discover Carlyle, like Ruskin the denouncer of the modern scene in all its aspects, positively exulting in the completion of Bazalgette’s Chelsea Embankment: ‘I have never seen anything, of any description whatever, nearly so well done in this monstrous City since I knew it first.’ For his part, at this very moment, Ruskin sends reports of his happy progress through the Italy that still holds him in thrall, notwithstanding the disappointments and outright disasters in his private life, culminating in his terrible, doomed love affair with the child Rose La Touche. Once more, Rome, Assisi, Perugia, Lucca and Florence delight his unwearying eye.
The experiences of that golden summer revived in Ruskin’s letters some glimmers of his old genius for descriptive prose, a genius liberally represented in Lord Clark’s Ruskin Today, first published in 1964, which Penguin has restored to print. Generally, however, the famous lapidary style of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice doesn’t often appear in Ruskin’s side of the correspondence. The Carlyle of the letters, on the other hand, is recognisably the man who, at the time he began to correspond with Ruskin, had just published Latter-Day Pamphlets, a series of tracts-for-the-moment energised by his usual vehemence. Speculating, as both he and Ruskin were bound to do, given the failure so far of their attempts at society-wide reformation, whether there actually was a public to which they could appeal, he wrote: ‘for my share, I often think I do not know where it lives at present, – and in fact have taken shelter by withdrawing out of the dirty welter altogether for the time; and never by any chance look into a morning Newspaper; but keep well to windward rather, while these big Tumbrils of the Spiritual Night-soil are in passage, poisoning the blessed air of the Heaven-sent new Day of one’s life!’ Nobody else on the face of the earth could have written a sentence like that.
Ruskin’s letters to his father from Switzerland and Italy in the summer of 1858, capably edited by John Hayman, complement Cate’s harvest. Instead of being the desultory record of a long acquaintanceship, they comprise the almost complete series of reports Ruskin sent to Denmark Hill over the limited span of five months and are, in the main, devoted to one topic: his return to the places memorialised in Turner’s drawings. The tour was undertaken partly as a means of recuperating after his laborious task of arranging and cataloguing the 19,000 pieces Turner had left to the British Museum and partly as a pilgrimage to scenes he had himself visited, in the hope of reviving old spiritual and aesthetic memories. In these letters, as in the drawings he made from day to day, Ruskin ‘read’ landscape as he had always urged others to ‘read’ paintings as well.
The result in this compact edition is a fresh gathering of freehand prose sketches, distinguished by the same spontaneity and acute perceptiveness that are found in Ruskin’s diaries. Unlike some of the raw material in the diaries, however, these vignettes were not, on the whole, recycled into a published volume. The exception was the notes on the Turin gallery, where he busied himself in copying portions of Veronese’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He subsequently incorporated a selection of these notes in the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters.
Although the letters are mainly devoted to his appreciations of the colour and texture of the Swiss and Italian landscape, as well as of the faces and costumes of the picturesque human figures in the scene, Ruskin also discussed with his father, as he did with Carlyle, timely matters such as the arrival of industrialisation – silk mills, railways, lake steamers, telegraph poles – to blight the Northern Italian landscape. Closer to home, at that moment the stench from the polluted Thames was forcing the Houses of Parliament to sit with canvas over their windows wet with chloride of lime. Father and son compared notes on the impact of untreated sewage – Carlyle’s ‘night soil’ in fact, not merely figure – on life in London and along Continental streams and lakes, and Ruskin’s report that the Swiss used it to fertilise theirs fields led to the elder man’s writing a letter to the Daily News at the end of July, endorsing a current proposal to divert London’s ordure from the Thames to the farms of Kent. ‘The problem to be solved,’ he said, ‘is, how to dispose of the dirt of the world without polluting its streams?’ John James Ruskin, the wine merchant, was an environmentalist well ahead of his time.
Perhaps it is best that Ruskin’s voluminous correspondence is being edited piecemeal and independently by scholars in Britain, Canada and the United States instead of in a formidable single collection to match Cook and Wedderburn’s 38-volume edition of his works, however convenient such a comprehensive edition would be. As these relatively thin volumes come from the press, each one freshly illustrates the towering first truth about Ruskin: that in his complex, eager, troubled mind, as in no one else’s in his time at least, were merged the concerns of the artist and critic and those of the tirelessly dedicated, stubbornly hopeful, public man. His vision was stereoscopic in a very special sense.