[From Manx Quarterly #20 1919]
RUSKIN'S ASSOCIATION WITH THE ISLE OF MAN,
Whether the general reader regards Ruskin as a prophet or not, nevertheless his influence on art and politics has been considerable and not altogether fruitless.
The century beginning 1801 gave birth to many men who became illustrious in art, letters, or politics. Carlyle and Ruskin, Tennyson and Browning, Disraeli and Gladstone may be cited as some of that galaxy of talent that shone through the now somewhat disparaged Victorian era. Ruskin, " the most purple of all great masters of English,"- the, century of whose birth has just been celebrated, had a most solitary childhood, a sad manhood, and a darkened old age.
Like Carlyle, whom be called his master, he hated shams. A preacher of righteousness and an apostle of beauty. He was a veritable prophet in the sense that he was a foreteller, His work as a social reformer was a necessary consequence of his principles of art.
When turning from his work as an art critic to the work of political economy, he retired from the busy world borne down by the burden of his new mission, " The spirit driveth him into the wilderness." Writing to a friend from his retreat, he said; " The loneliness is very great, and the peace in which I am at present is only as if I had buried myself in a tuft of grass on a battlefield wet with blood-for the cry of the earth about me is in my ears continually if I do not lay my head to the very ground"; and later he wrote: " I am still unwell and tormented between the longing for rest and lonely life and the sense of this terrific call of human crime for resistance and of human misery for help, though it seems to me as the voice of a river of blood which can but sweep me down in the midst of its black clots, helpless."
The kindly Thackeray was compelled, as editor of the " Cornhill," to withdraw " Unto this Last," in the preface of which Ruskin describes the violent manner in which the articles were reprobated. But he himself considered the book to be the best, that is to say the truest, rightest-worded, and most serviceable thing he had ever written.
'The real gist of the work was to give for the first time in plain English a logical definition of wealth. " It may be discovered," says Ruskin, " that the true veins of wealth are purple-and not in Rock, but in Flesh."
" There is no wealth but life; life, including all its powers of love, joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings."
Such is the keynote of Ruskin's social teaching, and is it out of date?
All that he advocated, and which the angry readers of the " Cornhill" would not listen to, are now practical politics, or in the process of being accomplished. National education, national hygiene, national housing of the poor, national dealing with the land, are not subjects that present-day readers would reprobate in the violent manner " Unto this Last" received.
Laughed at as a dreamer, he has proved himself in his own generation to be a great practical reformer. His dream of an old age pension is still an unaccomplished dream as far as Manxland goes-" it ought to be quite as natural and straightforward a matter for a labourer who has served his country with his spade, as another with sword, pen, or lancet, to take his pension, because of the services he has rendered."
There are those who say, " Who reads Ruskin now?" One might ask, " Who reads Carlyle now ?" or Dickens or Thackeray, for that matter. No one would claim for Ruskin the infallibility which belongs to no man, were he even an Isaiah or a Shakespeare; but in the midst of an evil generation that laboured busily with the muck-rake and delighted in its filthy toil, Ruskin raised his voice and declaimed against the sordid views of life that then obtained. He was never tired of proclaiming that the grime and squalor of the modern city were the results of ignorance and greed, the desire for an acquisition of that " wealth" which meant " illth" for others.
But to mention the association of Ruskin with the Isle of Man was the primary intention of this article.
For the number that do read Ruskin in this " emerald gem set in the silver sea," how many have given thought to the-association of Ruskin with Manxland, and how that association came into being. That is best fully explained in Cook's " Studies in Ruskin." The founding of the St. George's Guild, of which " Fors Clavigera" was the monthly journal, led to the late Egbert Rydings, of Laxey, corresponding with Mr Ruskin. Mr Ruskin gave encouragement to Mr Rydings, who was made " the Keeper of the Glass Pockets of the Guild," to revive, maintain and extend the making of home-spun wool at Laxey, and suggested the adoption of " the square yard of Laxey homespun of a given weight" as " one of the standards of value in St. George's currency." (" Fors Clavigera" letter 72.) Ruskin himself, it should be stated, never visited the mill, but the late Egbert Rydings visited Ruskin at Brantwood, Lake Coniston. In " The Young Man" for July, 1895, Mr Rydings gives some delightful reminiscences of Ruskin. As the Keeper of the Glass Pockets, considerable correspondence passed between Ruskin and Rydings. One famous letter, the original of which is with Mrs Rydings, widow of Egbert Rydings, is on the subject of fathers leaving fortunes to their children, a practice which the Sage of Coniston denounces most heartily. His own father left a considerable fortune behind him.
With the centenary of Ruskin, a revived interest has sprung up for his works. The Douglas Free Library has, owing to the efforts of the late John Taylor, a complete edition of Ruskin's own works, together with other works relating to Ruskin, such as Collingwood's " Life of Ruskin" and the lately added work of Sir E. T. Cook, in two volumes, " The Life of Ruskin." What growing boy or girl has not read " The King of the Golden River"? If there is a boy or girl who has not yet done so, then forthwith he or she should read and delight therein.