In heaven I mean to go and talk to Pythagoras and Socrates and Valerius Publicola. I shan’t care a bit for Rosie there, she needn’t think it. What will grey eyes and red cheeks be good for there?
— John Ruskin, letter to Susan Beever, from Assisi, Sacristan’s Cell, June 25, 1874
To-day, being my sixty-first birthday, I would ask leave to say a few words to the friends who care for me, and the readers who are anxious about me, touching the above-named illness itself. For a physician’s estimate of it, indeed, I can only refer them to my physicians. But there were some conditions of it which I knew better than they could: namely, first, the precise and sharp distinction between the state of morbid inflammation of brain which gave rise to false visions (whether in sleep, or trance, or waking, in broad daylight, with perfect knowledge of the real things in the room, while yet I saw others that were not there), and the not morbid, however dangerous, states of more or less excited temper, and too much quickened thought, which gradually led up to the illness, accelerating in action during the eight or ten days preceding the actual giving way of the brain.
— John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera Letter 88 (February 8, 1880)
Too fast and far again! by much; the impetus of phrase running away with me.
— John Ruskin, additional note no. 54 to Modern Painters Vol. 2 (1883 revised ed.)
My dear little birds,
before me on my desk this morning
where I sit preparing tomorrow’s lesson
lies a copy of The Witches’ Rout by Agostino de’ Musi —
Agostino Veneziano your teachers will call him —
wherein a carriage made of dragon bones
and drawn by two naked figures
is depicted making topsy-turvy progress through a jungle
scattering goats & geese & winged skeletal reptiles
and there, look now, there atop it all the witch squats
as one at stool — manly forearm,
muscular shoulder, pendulis mammis —
the narrow dugs it is
her business to possess —
filthy hair streaming contra natura —
out in a headwind of mephitic vapors ...
Time out of mind such creatures have impressed
the dreams of those who live, as it were, by watchfires,
fearful of neighbors, fearful that the law
they hammered into whatsoever shape as pleased them
may yet prove versatile —
their sensual rites & ceremonies,
novelties & conceits;
their pharisaical holiness ... —
and this is but a scholar’s imitation you will say, rude work
though of a fine school — a fine school be it allowed, and good enough
to lose itself beside the master’s —
steady the hand that hovers over
the acid-bitten cliché
steady the elbow
engraving on paper
Fro spot my spyryt þer sprang in space
Piazza Sta Maria del Pianto, Rome (1840). A pensive study of old clothes sun-sipped dry in the Jews’ quarter, hanging out of a marble architrave smashed & built into a piece of Roman frieze moldering into broken brickwork projected over wooden windows propped on gray entablature. A vestige of yet-legible inscription: nomine fortuna. No important lines, no beauty of object. A pendent hodgepodge of contrasted feeling cheesecaked into picturesque febrility. An episode. A grief in, as it were, parenthesis. A match without a marriage, as after news of an engagement. A church embedded sans façade among the common sort of houses. A succor from St. Peter’s mere bewilderment & worry. Graphite heightened w/ touches of white body color on gray-green paper.
Beresford Chapel, Walworth: a bare, oblong,
low-ceilinged barn, each brick-arched window filled
with small-paned glass requiring iron bars
threaded like halves of cobweb to stay true.
No traceries, no clustered shafts, no vaulting.
No fantasies. No perpendicular flights
of aspiration. Clean lines, and severe.
Pews shut-in with partitions of plain deal
and neatly brass-hatched doors. No pulpit, merely
a stout, four-legged box of well-grained wainscot,
but decorated with a velvet cushion —
crimson, with golden tassels at the corners —
which formed my one resource, for when I tired
of Dr. Andrews’s sermon I could watch
the colors texturing the folds & creases
each time he thumped it. Beresford. That’s where
we worshipped: Papa, Mama, and I.
Poor preparation, this, for Rouen! Rouen
wardered by groups of solemn statuary
clasped by stems of sculpted leafage crowned
by fretted niche & fairy pediment
like inextricably meshed gossamer;
Rouen with her surge & foam of pious chivalry
breaking on crystal cliffs to stand revealed
as every hidden thing shall be, insatiable at prayer
or pillage, lending grace to English rudeness,
venom to Italy’s cunning ... Rouen with all
her avarice & intricacies, gargoyles
open-mawed, molten, drenching ornament
down spires vertiginously pinnacled —
insanae substructiones! Inutiles domos! —
yet piping pastoral songs of innocence —
Worn somewhat, and not a little weary,
Sandro’s uncommon Fortitude, in this
his first recorded work. Consider it
a moment, if you please, before you pass
hurriedly on to see The Birth of Venus
next door, and notice that Sandro began
where you perhaps will end: with weariness.
Would you have guessed that Fortitude allows
(allows? approves of!) reverie? See how
her fingers play in restless idleness
or nervousness about her sword hilt
(sword or mace? I’ve lost my notes about her ... ).
She is no match, it may be, for the trials
that are to come, yet see her armor shine
in readiness, her gentle fingers apt
to grip her sword (or mace) should she be called.
Lips pursed and eyes averted, she has smiled,
and not a little ruefully, at her fate
from time to time. She has no smile today.
Her quality must be borne daylong, lifelong.
To flaunt it ever is not to possess
it quite. See Pollaiolo’s Virtues pose
and attitudinize: thus they perform
their various meanings. Fortitude must
contain — must be — all that she stands for. Go,
see whatever the Uffizi has
to tempt you; but remember Fortitude
whose battle did not begin today,
nor yesterday, nor on the Sunday last.
Many a day has passed since it began.
They are so wedded to their righteousness,
those lesser Virtues, quite incapable
of being tempted. They would not dare risk
complacency. She would be lost without it.
But sword or mace? Go now. It is no matter.
I will not need you until tomorrow morning.
Last night St. Ursula sent me her dianthus
out of her bedroom window, with her love —
living dianthus, and a single dried
sprig of her other window flower, vervain ...
how many flowers are named in Genesis?
Good answer! Not one. Plenty of trees, however.
It was a poet planted flowerbeds
that Eden might be filled with tremulous,
frivolous petals — I dare say he was right,
they were made to be noticed! And to see
a poppy husk fall from a bursting flower
is to know something of the life to come
once the body has turned to dust & ashes,
even as our dying breath aspires
toward our Father’s house ... as for the trees,
what can we learn of noble constancy
more than we find in the pure laurel leaf,
so numerable, so sequent and serene?
Now, if I say “St. Ursula has sent me
a pot of pinks!”
is that the flowers I received of late
(from the hand of whatsoever friend or stranger)
helped greatly in my work, and afterward
reproved me in their own way for its failure.
because one poor sick child would not receive
the part of love that yet belongs to her!
Think now, sweet milkmaids of Albion
whose face is your fortune, think of one
lying still there, nearly a skeleton,
and ask yourselves: We have a little sister
and she has no breasts: what shall we do for our sister
in the day of her espousals?
Up my spirit leapt, so glad
to shed this gross flesh and have done!
My ghost, given up by the grace of God,
was led where marvels are counted common.
I climbed to where cliff-top meets cloud —
vertiginous heights no man has known —
my soul drawn on toward a wood
decked with countless jewels & stones.
It is hard to credit a sight so fine
as the wash of light in which they shone:
woman never wove a gown
so dearly adorned, so lit with splendor.
In splendor, cliffs of crystal stood
crisp as ice, clear & clean.
At their foot, a forest spread:
the trees were touched with a red-blue sheen
and leaves of burnished silver slid
quivering to & fro between
limbs that shimmered like blue jade
each time a light-gleam touched the scene.
The gravel underfoot was strewn
with gems, and the sun seemed quite outshone
by those precious, oriental stones
so dearly adorned, so lit with splendor.
The splendor of the grove was such
that my grief left me — it lifted clear;
the fragrance of the fruit so fresh,
I found I needed no other fare.
Birds flew together, branch to branch
like flecks of flame — now here now there;
no human symphony can match,
nor voice nor string delight the ear
with such a song: they blessed the air
with a sweet accord that swooned & shone
with harmonies you will never hear
but there where all is lit with splendor.
So adorned in splendor was
that forest where I met my fate,
a cunning man could not devise
a fitting way to tell of it.
Climbing pear trees, apple trees;
browsing wonders — pretty sport!
And soon the flowers & fields & hedgerows
turned beautifully intricate
with burns & water gardens. Bright
as burnished gold the fellside shone
where I trailed a stream that ran with light,
dearly adorned & lit with splendor.
But a greater splendor was yet to come:
a riverbank of beryl ablaze
where water swept & swirled in a foam
of hurrying murmurs & confused airs.
The stream bed glinted with a gleam
like sunlight filtered through stained glass
or winter starlight, when it may seem
we’re all alone when the clouds pass.
Each pebble bright as Hesperus:
sapphire, emerald — each one shone
with a light too bright for similes,
dearly adorned & lit with splendor.
In Santa Croce, here we are
well quit of restoration, for who cares
about this slab with its poor bit of sculpture?
An old man in the deeply-folded cap
worn by the scholars & gentlemen of Florence
a book upon his breast, and over it
his hands lie folded. At his feet, the legend:
atq • medicine • cvlmen • fvit • et magister
galilevs • degalileis • olim • bonaivtis • qvi
etiam • svmmo • inmagistratv • miro •
qvodam • modo • rem • pvblicam dilexit
cvivs • sancte • memorie • bene acte •
vitepie • benedictvs • filivs • hvnc • tvmv
lvm • patri • sibi • svis • & • posteris • edidit
The worn face, still the old man’s perfect portrait —
though one struck out by a master’s chisel
at a venture, just so, with a few rough touches;
the falling drapery of his citizen’s cap
subtle beyond description, with the choice of folds
exquisite in its ornamental pattern;
the carpet he lies on almost uninjured,
elaborate with fringe & frond
relieving the severity of the figure ...
and see now, see how the cushion’s nearly-perfect tassels
balance to fill the angles of the stone —
pink! pink! pink! cherry-erry-erry
the chaffinches chirp but feebly; this June snow
bright as glass
by an undiscerning hand
showing like flaws in planes of fine crystal
troubling & troubled
What is it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven?
Child, according to this morning’s Spectator
’tis nothing but the filtration of money from above downwards —
an oft-observed phenomenon
concessum propter duritiem cordis
a thing allowed
and properly recorded in our holy book of double entry
I mean St. Usura’s Gospel of Filth
wherein we learn his doctrine of arithmetic
that 2 + 2 = 5 ...
O we are so humane,
forsooth, we are so wise,
that whereas our ancestors had tar barrels for witches
we have them for everybody else —
and we will have our cauldrons cooled, please Hecate,
after Mr. Darwin’s theory
with baboon blood!
Occulted by daylight
we will drive the witches’ trade ourselves
as, once, I saw a boy with his basket of rotten figs
poor little costermonger
before the south façade of the Ducal Palace
stooping to cry Fighiaie! Fighiaie!
Inibito a chiunque il vendere frutti cattivi
19th June, 1516
(i.e. before that nobody thought of doing so)
fordolked of luf-daungere too fast & far,
boiled to rags by morbid violence — No
they cannot touch me for coyning
me so misby — so misby — so misby
me wish me was a clergyman
tellin lies all day
& Flint — & Tukup — & But —
cujus sancte memorie
those rich-left heirs
sane as the proud flesh
about a healing wound
in the side of my nation
that yet may pass
at a crisis
into morbific substance,
let this man work.
give us work
and set us to it,
for we are corrigible:
O fettle us
for we are not
after all entirely corrigible
& stay our hand
when we would set our soul upon a cast:
teach us how to give & hazard all
we hath upon your coming, for the soul
cannot be bargained otherwise — only lost.
Impregnable to our economies
whatever the deceiver promises,
the soul is not for sale. And now, the cost
diligently accounted for, the sum
entered in the ledger, see this bound
and shelved in sequence where it may be found
by any who enquire, should any come ...
Love sets no term. Love schedules its appearances
according to no clock of ours:
to moon-bewildered waves we each of us receive
our summons, unreluctant. Let walk upon them
all who can.
... came Phaedra then, and Procris,
next Ariadnè, fairest of all,
whose daddy’s mind was a slaughterhouse
whom Theseus once from Crete
to the tilled acres of sacred Athens led —
nor had he the joy of her, his heart’s desire,
fair, moon-bewildered —
false Dionys̄us witnessed against her;
Artěmis slew her ...
O, feed her with apricocks & dewberries,
with purple grapes, green figs & mulberries
Is she not with me here among the hawthorn blossom?
Diodati, a year with no summer,
and the world was void —
þe fyrre in þe fryth
— she was the Universe
pipistrelles flit like black rags torn at the edge
riding the vortex
all round the terrace
all day have I sat here
preparing the lesson
My dear little birds, did you not see the gleam of sunshine yesterday?
Hadst thou but seen her in it
between the laurels & the primrose bank