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On This Date Elizabeth Barrett Browning Died

June 29, 2017

On this date in 1861 Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence at the age of 55.

Book Knife-at-Work

Years after her death, her husband Robert Browning found among the posthumously published letters of Edward FitzGerald—author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám—a letter written directly after his wife’s death. FitzGerald wrote, “Mrs. Browning’s death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs. . . . She and her sex had better mind the kitchen and the children.” Browning sent this poem in to the Athenaeum.

To Edward FitzGerald

By Robert Browning

I chanced upon a new book yesterday;
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
‘Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, “thanked God my wife was dead.”
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits.
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.

 

 

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” On this Date in 1812 Robert Browning was Born.

May 7, 2017

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On this date in 1812 Robert Browning was born in London. He died in 1889. In commemoration, how about we read one of his most popular poems, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” The poem’s first appearance in print was in Bells and Pomgranates, number 3, under the title “ Camp and Cloister” and in book form in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics. In both early appearances “Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister” as we have it today was paired with the “Incident of the French Camp” under the title “Camp and Cloister.” In Browning’s later distributions of his poems it remained one of the Dramatic Lyrics.

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in 72 lines, 9 stanzas, consists of the under-the-breath mutterings of a cloistered monk as he observes with hatred Brother Lawrence watering his myrtle-bushes in the convent garden. Everything about Brother Lawrence irritates the speaker deeply. He can’t stand the way that the monk spends refection talking about the weather and his beloved plants, the way he eats and drinks heartily while the speaker is always careful to demonstrate his own piety by laying his knife and fork crosswise and by drinking his watered orange pulp in three sips to represent the trinity.

He imagines how Brother Lawrence must lust deeply, if only he would show it, after brown Dolores who often sits outside the convent wall combing her long, black, lustrous hair. Even as the speaker observes Brother Lawrence trimming his flowers, he takes great pleasure when one snaps, and he gleefully admits keeping the plants “close-nipped on the sly.”

So he contemplates how most effectively to destroy the soul of the hated brother. Perhaps he could trap him in one of the 29 sins listed in a passage in Galatians just as he is at the point of death and send him off to hell. Or perhaps turn down the most lurid page of all in his own pornographic novel and slip it in among the garden tools. That certainly would cause the despised brother to grovel in the hands of Belial.

He even fantasizes selling his soul to the devil (but being sure to leave a loophole in the contract). But just then the vesper bells ring calling the brothers to prayer. The poem closes as the speaker curses Brother Lawrence before they have to enter into prayers together.

So, here’s the poem:

I
GR-R-R—there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims—
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
II
At the meal we sit together:
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
What’s the Latin name for “parsley”?
What’s the Greek name for Swine’s Snout?
III
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own sheld!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for oneself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps—
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
IV
Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
—Can’t I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?
(That is, if he’d let it show!)
V
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu’s praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp.
VI
Oh, those melons? If he’s able
We’re to have a feast! so nice!
One goes to the Abbot’s table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!
VII
There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails:
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?
VIII
Or my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe:
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in’t?
IX
Or, there’s Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine.
‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratiâ
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

 

Forms and Devices

Browning’s appeal has often come from the dramatic presentation of inner psychological character, frequently of figures out of the mainstream of normal experience. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning uses the technique of soliloquy taken from the stage. Whereas the speaker actually voices his thoughts, unlike in dramatic monologues, nobody in the poem hears him. As a result of this technique, the poem achieves immediacy—everything happens within the timeframe of the actual reading of the poem just as it would if this soliloquy were spoken on stage.

Furthermore, the dramatic nature of the form allows Browning to avoid stilted poetic diction and instead to demonstrate the quite forceful language of the speaker in a variety of forms:

If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,

God’s blood, would not mine kill you!

It allows Browning to show us a speaker who sometimes voices his own opinions, sometimes quotes from the Bible, mocks, or parodies Brother Lawrence’s hated affectations. At times we may even sympathize with the speaker in his disdain for the boring Brother Lawrence In short, the dramatic nature of this poem allows the full display of the speaker’s ambiguous personality.

Remarkably, while the poem sounds so dramatically real, Browning reveals his true virtuosity through the poetic forms he uses. Each stanza consists of 8 variously trochaic and iambic tetrameter lines. Tetrameter often is used for fast movement in a poem, as in stanzas 7 and 8, but speed and natural speech cadences also are achieved by the use of irregular rhymes and frequent double rhymes, for example in the last lines of the poem in which every line ends with a double rhyme:

Blasted lay that rose-acacia

We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy,Hine.

‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia

Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

The phrase “Hy, Zy,Hine” represents the ringing of the vesper bells but also are the beginning of the final curse on Brother Lawrence.

 

Themes and Meanings

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” ostensibly deals with the lives of only two monks, but Browning intends to give us a glimpse into the whole monastic system while unintentionally revealing his own protestant prejudices against asceticism. No historic basis serves as a source for the poem; instead, Browning treats the cloister as a breeding ground for extremely narrow-minded thinking and gross jealousy of all that does not satisfy powerful egos. Here we have a poem that gives the sour-natured attitude of mind of a monk jealous of a brother whom he hates merely because of his genial nature and goodness. Of course, Brother Lawrence does come off seeming like a terrible bore, and perhaps his dullness lends to the humorous counterpoint of the speaker’s lust for physical enjoyment in life. In Stanza 1 Brother Lawrence’s simple caring for his garden galls the speaker utterly:

What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming?

Oh, that rose has prior claims—

Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?

Hell dry you up with its flames!

The speaker further despises Brother Lawrence for his simple interest in spiritual life, and his neglect of those petty superstitious forms the observance of which the ill-natured monk congratulates himself.

When he finishes refection,

Knife and fork he never lays

Cross-wise, to my recollection,

As I do, in Jesu’s praise.

I the Trinity illustrate,

Drinking watered orange pulp—

In three sips the Arian frustrate;

While he drains his at one gulp.

 

We delight in this at times humorous portrait of the monk, even though we disapprove of his attitude, but we enjoy his shocking exuberance, his demonic intensity, his zest for earthly pleasure. But, when everything is finally considered, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s brilliant analysis of emotional hatred such as too close and too long association might develop in an uncharitable person.

 

I have taken my material for today’s post from notes to an essay I published many years ago for Salem Press.

 

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Paul Varner

 

 

 

 

 

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou: Edward FitzGerald’s Birthday

March 31, 2017

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou

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On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.

FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.

What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.

Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.

I
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
II
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
III
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
VII
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
VIII
. . . .

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
IX
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
XII
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born

February 21, 2017

On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born

young-newman-200x300

On this date in 1801, John Henry, Cardinal Newman was born in London. A spokesperson for the spiritual struggles of the Victorian Age in light of Charles Darwin’s publications, Newman’s best writings deal with the nature of education, the idea of the university, and the deep personal spiritual reflection of a highly educated man. His Apologia pro vita sua (“Explanation of his life”) relates Newman’s spiritual quest as he wrestled with theology and the life of his own soul. Newman died on August 11th, 1890.

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art, Part Two

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October 27, 2016

Sometimes nowadays it’s not fashionable to talk about one work of literature being better than another much less that any given work of literature might be GREAT while a similar work might be not so great. Especially when it comes to contemporary literature or fairly recent literature. Is Cormac McCarthy a great novelist? What about Larry McMurtry? Are either what we might call a Great novelist? Usually we just let the question alone.

Even when it comes to the writers in the Canon we generally just let matters rest where they are. Of course there was that time back in the old days of the Canon Wars when a hardy few even questioned Shakespeare’s and Milton’s greatness.

Still–we generally can’t let the question go. What determines greatness in literature? It’s a Big Question.

But maybe help is on the way. Or not. Anyway, I’ve been working with John Ruskin here in The Literary Life lately, and for the last two installments I’ve been examining what this great thinker of the Victorian era had to say about greatness. Don’t forget, here’s a guy who had a mental breakdown because he was afraid he wasn’t being taken as a Great writer.

So I’ve posted an excerpt from Ruskin’s Modern Painters where he tackles this Big Question. Then yesterday I posted Part One of this series. There I quoted Ruskin on what matters in determining Greatness. All that’s well and good, but: What things are we not concerned with in determining what great art is? Remember, Ruskin said, “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

But then,  “I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.”

There you go. I hope that resolves all your questions. Of course there is the little matter of the “higher faculty of the mind.” A great idea, by which a work’s greatness is determined (and the more great ideas the better) can operate only on the “higher faculty” of your mind. So—do you have a higher faculty?

So, what makes a great writer or poet? Back to John Ruskin: “If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.”

You want to know which writer is greater than another? Add up the number of great ideas in each other’s work and compare them. Maybe I’m being a bit silly here and I apologize. Surely a work of literature that involves substantial ideas, substantial thinking, and that is received in a profound way by readers who really have a depth of mind that matters is a greater work of literature than another one that deals with less substantial thought. And the writer who in his or her whole body of work demonstrates such depth is greater than a writer whose work is less demonstrative of such. Right?

But what about works without such great ideas? What about comedy? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest?) Or farce? (Moliere’s A Physician in Spite of Himself?)

Or, what kinds of literary art in our time, I mean today, cannot be considered great (so says Ruskin) simply based upon their essential premise? Maybe fantasy? Or action thrillers? Cheap romance? I’d better stop before someone gets mad.

But, really, does John Ruskin have a point about what makes a work of literature GREAT. Is Ruskin correct? (Don’t forget the higher faculty of your mind when answering this question.)

I hope these discussions really make you think. I hope they are relevant to the literary life you lead. If you are new to The Literary Life blog click on #Big Questions in the tags and categories to see similar questions I have been treating this season and last.

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art? Part 1

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October 27, 2016

Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.

Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.

As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.

I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?

First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?

Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”

What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?

Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.

Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”

But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.

Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you.  I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.

There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.

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Paul Varner

 

John Ruskin’s Definition of Greatness in Art: Text from Modern Painters

ruskin-cartoon-as-teacher-an01150308_001_lJohn Ruskin as a Teacher. Contemporary Cartoon.

October 26, 2016

The next several blog posts on John Ruskin will relate to this excerpt from one of the massive works of art criticism and scholarship that primarily make John Ruskin’s reputation of one of the greatest thinkers of Victorian England and beyond. What Ruskin says here in relation to visual art has relevance to literary art as well.

from MODERN PAINTERS, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”

The Text from vol. 1, part 1, section 1, chapter 2

Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing. He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed. He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet. The language is, indeed, more difficult of acquirement in the one case than in the other, and possesses more power of delighting the sense, while it speaks to the intellect; but it is, nevertheless, nothing more than language, and all those excellences which are peculiar to the painter as such, are merely what rhythm, melody, precision, and force are in the words of the orator and the poet, necessary to their greatness, but not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….

***

[If] I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those parts of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of colour and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias, are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.

   If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.

 

 

John Ruskin as a Teacher

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October 25, 2016

We usually remember of the great Victorian critic of art, literature, and culture, John Ruskin, for his massive multivolume works: Modern Painters in five volumes (1843-1960) or Stones of Venice in three volumes (1851-1853). But Ruskin was also the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford for many years. Especially in his later years his reputation among undergraduates filled his lecture rooms. Here is the great English poet A. E. Housman looking back to his college days in 1877 and to a lecture by the eminent Professor Ruskin. The lecture was as much as about water and air pollution in England as about Great Art.

“This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner’s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, ‘You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.’ Then he caught up a paintbrush. ‘These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-ti-ful iron bridge.’ Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. ‘The color of the steam is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.’ Forthwith one side of the steam became indigo. ‘On the other side of the soap factory.’ Soap dashed in. ‘They mix in the middle like curds,’ he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. ‘This field, over which you see the sun setting by the abbey, is now occupied in a proper manner.’ Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. ‘The atmosphere is supplied—thus!’ A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilization amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches.”

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche

artlatouche3

October 20, 2016

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche

Years after John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray collapsed due to his lack of sexual attraction for her (and despite her being regarded as one of the most beautiful women of her day), Ruskin met a nine-year old girl named Rose La Touche. He was 40. But wait. Don’t jump to too many conclusions. Well, maybe you can jump to one or two.

The attraction was not, they say, ahem, entirely one way. But the two maintained a close, probably Platonic relationship, at least in the Victorian style. But La Touche turned Ruskin’s marriage proposal down when she was eighteen.

The sticking point was her staunchly pious Evangelical faith that Ruskin could not embrace. Rose La Touche died at age 25 after bouts of mental illness.

So John Ruskin’s personal life—what a guy, by the way—was fraught with tumult which no doubt contributed to his own numerous breakdowns. How his problems affected him he speculated upon in his autobiography:

“I wonder mightily what sort of creature I should have turned out, if instead of the distracting and useless pain, I had had the joy of approved love, and the untellable, incalculable motive of its sympathy and praise. It seems to me such things are not allowed in the world. The men capable of the highest imaginative passion are always tossed on fiery waves by it.”

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin’s Marriage

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October 18, 2016

You really need to know something about the second most famous literary scandal (behind Oscar Wilde’s problems) of the Victorian age—John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray.

Gray married Ruskin in 1848, but nearly everything about the marriage of six years was trouble. Evidently Ruskin just simply loathed Gray. He could not bring himself to consummate the marriage. It was a completely celibate relationship—not mutually, however. Why? Well, Ruskin testified at the end that to him Effie Gray simply was too ugly; she was not physically attractive.

Don’t stop reading.

Ok, what do you say? But here’s the thing. Effie Gray was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day. Go to Google images and type in her name. You will pull up dozens more images of Ruskin’s “ugly” wife than you see here. She was a favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Her figure and face showed up everywhere in those days. This was a celebrity marriage gone bad. The painter John Millais fell in love with her when she modeled for him and after Ruskin’s annulment they eventually married.

 

Ah well. If you want the details download or stream the 2014 film Effie Gray, starring Dakota Fanning.

Again, what do you say? But alas for Ruskin, his problems did not end with the annulment of his marriage. Have you ever heard of Rose La Touche? Well, stay tuned, because, again, Ruskin’s next affair was not the usual story.

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Paul Varner

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