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THE IMPASSIONED CRITIC
ATTHEW ARNOLD once spoke of
poetry as a criticism of life." He
might better have called it a personal interpretation of life. In the sense that Mr. Arnold used the word criticism, the writings of all the great essay writers have been essentially criticisms of life. Bacon's was an analytic criticism, Swift's a satirical criticism, Lamb's a loving criticism, and so on. But all these writers chose for the most part subjects which they could only illustrate, or which they might use as a vehicle for conveying their own personality or their view of life to the reader. When the subject itself is the centre of the writer's interest, and he seriously wishes to analyze or illustrate it, he becomes a critic in the modern technical sense of the word.
Ruskin was from beginning to end essentially a critic.
He first undertook in his “Modern Painters ” to illustrate and analyze certain phases of modern painting. To accomplish his object fully he must present by description the things of which he wishes to speak, or he must present by means of descriptions certain objects which he
wishes to use for purposes of illustration. It was the vividness of these incidental descriptions that first attracted attention to Ruskin's style and gave him the name " prose poet." To create “prose poems," however, was farthest from his own thought, and we should fail to understand these
purple patches ” (purpureus pannus, in the language of Horace), such, for example, as the description of Turner's “ Slave Ship” at the end of the chapter on “Sea-painting," should we separate them from their practical use of incidental illustration. Ruskin wrote these highly colored bits almost unconsciously, we must believe, and simply for the reason that he was passionately interested in his subject. Being a man of passionate devotion, he wrote with passion. Had he been a mere seer of pictures, he would have been a poet; but as he was a thinker, and his mind had an analytic turn, he became a true critic, though none the less passionate because he wrote criticism instead of poetry.
Ruskin began as a young man with art criticism and the criticism of architecture. His real interest was in nature and the effect of art on human nature. His study of the whole problem of the action of art on humanity and humanity on art led him at last to look into the conditions which made human beings blind to art. As was always the case with him, he entered upon this investigation with passionate interest. It led him into political economy, of which he knew little historically or philosophically; but he plunged with his usual passionate interest into the general subject of human relations and especially the condition of the masses. In this work he met many rebuffs and much discouragement. At last in the guise of a series of fortnightly letters to workingmen he wrote his series “Fors Clavigera,” in which he appears as the satirical though sympathetic critic of all phases of human relationship. Through these three different kinds of writing we see the passionate element changing, but never disappearing. First it shows itself as highly colored description, then as daring and fearless philosophy, at last as the bitterness of satire.
1 We find the same picturesque language in his note-books, intended merely for his own personal reference.
Ruskin had the gift of a silvery eloquence above any other writer of the nineteenth century. His mástery of the musical element of language is equal in prose to that of Tennyson in poetry; but whereas Tennyson's gifts were partly acquired, or at any rate assiduously cultivated, Ruskin's gifts in this direction were largely natural, or were developed unconsciously by his enthusiasm in his subject. United with this musical mastery is a fine sense of logical relationship. The two qualities together make such a simple story as “ The King of the Golden River” an almost perfect specimen of natural prose style. As a model of style, however, it is so simple and so