Put roses in their hair, put precious stones
on their breasts; see that they are clothed in purple and scarlet, with
other delights; that they also learn to read the gilded heraldry of the
sky; and upon the earth be taught not only the labors of it but the
At Windermere, a good friend, told me that I must abandon all hope of
seeing Mr. Ruskin; for I had no special business with him, no letters of
introduction, and then the fact that I am an American made it final.
Americans in England are supposed to pick flowers in private gardens, cut
their names on trees, laugh boisterously at trifles, and often to make
invidious comparisons. Very properly, Mr. Ruskin does not admire these
Then Mr. Ruskin is a very busy man. Occasionally he issues a printed
manifesto to his friends requesting them to give him peace. A copy of one
such circular was shown to me. It runs, "Mr. J. Ruskin is about to begin a
work of great importance, and therefore begs that in reference to calls
and correspondence you will consider him dead for the next two months." A
similar notice is reproduced in "Arrows of the Chace," and this one thing,
I think, illustrates as forcibly as anything in Mr. Ruskin's work the
self-contained characteristics of the man himself.
Surely if a man is pleased to be considered "dead" occasionally, even to
his kinsmen and friends, he should not be expected to receive with open
arms an enemy to steal away his time. This is assuming, of course, that
all individuals who pick flowers in other folks' gardens, cut their names
on trees, and laugh boisterously at trifles, are enemies. I therefore
decided that I would simply walk over to Brantwood, view it from a
distance, tramp over its hills, row across the lake, and at nightfall take
a swim in its waters. Then I would rest at the Inn for a space and go my
Lake Coniston is ten miles from Grasmere, and even alone the walk is not
long. If, however, you are delightfully attended by "King's Daughters"
with whom you sit and commune now and then on the bankside, the distance
will seem to be much less. Then there is a pleasant little break in the
journey at Hawkshead. Here one may see the quaint old schoolhouse where
Wordsworth when a boy dangled his feet from a bench and proved his
humanity by carving his initials on the seat.
The Inn at the head of Coniston Water appeared very inviting and restful
when I saw it that afternoon. Built in sections from generation to
generation, half-covered with ivy and embowered in climbing roses, it is
an institution entirely different from the "Grand Palace Hotel" at
Oshkosh. In America we have gongs that are fiercely beaten at stated times
by gentlemen of color, just as they are supposed to do in their native
Congo jungles. This din proclaims to the "guests" and to the public at
large that it is time to come in and be fed. But this refinement of
civilization is not yet in Coniston, and the Inn is quiet and homelike.
You may go to bed when you are tired, get up when you choose, and eat when
you are hungry.
There were no visitors about when I arrived, and I thought I would have
the coffeeroom all to myself at luncheon-time; but presently there came in
a pleasant-faced old gentleman in knickerbockers. He bowed to me and then
took a place at the table. He said that it was a fine day and I agreed
with him, adding that the mountains were very beautiful. He assented,
putting in a codicil to the effect that the lake was very pretty.
Then the waiter came for our orders.
"Together, I s'pose?" remarked Thomas, inquiringly, as he halted at the
door and balanced the tray on his finger-tips.
"Yes, serve lunch for us together," said the ruddy old gentleman as he
looked at me and smiled; "to eat alone is bad for the digestion."
I nodded assent.
"Can you tell me how far it is to Brantwood?" I asked.
"Oh, not far—just across the lake."
He arose and flung the shutter open so I could see the old, yellow house
about a mile across the water, nestling in its wealth of green on the
hillside. Soon the waiter brought our lunch, and while we discussed the
chops and new potatoes we talked Ruskiniana.
The old gentleman knew a deal more of "Stones of Venice" and "Modern
Painters" than I; but I told him how Thoreau introduced Ruskin to America
and how Concord was the first place in the New World to recognize this
star in the East. And upon my saying this, the old gentleman brought his
knife-handle down on the table, declaring that Thoreau and Whitman were
the only two men of genius that America had produced. I begged him to make
it three and include Emerson, which he finally consented to do.
By and by the waiter cleared the table preparatory to bringing in the
coffee. The old gentleman pushed his chair back, took the napkin from
under his double chin, brushed the crumbs from his goodly front, and
"I'm going over to Brantwood this afternoon to call on Mr. Ruskin—just to
pay my respects to him, as I always do when I come here. Can't you go with
I think this was about the most pleasing question I ever had asked me. I
was going to request him to "come again" just for the joy of hearing the
words, but I pulled my dignity together, straightened up, swallowed my
coffee red-hot, pushed my chair back, flourished my napkin, and said, "I
shall be very pleased to go."
So we went—we two—he in his knickerbockers and I in my checks and
outing-shirt. I congratulated myself on looking no worse than he, and as
for him, he never seemed to think that our costumes were not exactly what
they should be; and after all it matters little how you dress when you
call on one of Nature's noblemen—they demand no livery.
We walked around the northern end of Coniston Water, along the eastern
edge, past Tent House, where Tennyson once lived (and found it "outrageous
quiet"), and a mile farther on we came to Brantwood.
The road curves in to the back of the house—which, by the way, is the
front—and the driveway is lined with great trees that form a complete
archway. There is no lodge-keeper, no flowerbeds laid out with square and
compass, no trees trimmed to appear like elephants, no cast-iron dogs, nor
terra-cotta deer, and, strangest of all, no sign of the lawn-mower. There
is nothing, in fact, to give forth a sign that the great Apostle of Beauty
lives in this very old-fashioned spot. Big boulders are to be seen here
and there where Nature left them, tangles of vines running over old
stumps, part of the meadow cut close with a scythe, and part growing up as
if the owner knew the price of hay. Then there are flowerbeds, where grow
clusters of poppies and hollyhocks (purple, and scarlet, and white),
prosaic gooseberry-bushes, plain Yankee pieplant (from which the English
make tarts), rue and sweet marjoram, with patches of fennel, sage, thyme
and catnip, all lined off with boxwood, making me think of my
grandmother's garden at Roxbury.
On the hillside above the garden we saw the entrance to the cave that Mr.
Ruskin once filled with ice, just to show the world how to keep its head
cool at small expense. He even wrote a letter to the papers giving the
bright idea to humanity—that the way to utilize caves was to fill them
with ice. Then he forgot all about the matter. But the following June,
when the cook, wishing to make some ice-cream as a glad surprise for the
Sunday dinner, opened the natural ice-chest, she found only a pool of
muddy water, and exclaimed, "Botheration!" Then they had custard instead
We walked up the steps, and my friend let the brass knocker drop just
once, for only Americans give a rat-a-tat-tat, and the door was opened by
a white-whiskered butler, who took our cards and ushered us into the
library. My heart beat a trifle fast as I took inventory of the room; for
I never before had called on a man who was believed to have refused the
poet-laureateship. A dimly lighted room was this library—walls painted
brown, running up to mellow yellow at the ceiling, high bookshelves, with
a stepladder, and only five pictures on the walls, and of these three were
etchings, and two water-colors of a very simple sort; leather-covered
chairs; a long table in the center, on which were strewn sundry magazines
and papers, also several photographs; and at one end of the room a big
fireplace, where a yew log smoldered. Here my inventory was cut short by a
cheery voice behind:
"Ah! now, gentlemen, I am glad to see you."
There was no time nor necessity for a formal introduction. The great man
took my hand as if he had always known me, as perhaps he thought he had.
Then he greeted my friend in the same way, stirred up the fire, for it was
a North of England summer day, and took a seat by the table. We were all
silent for a space—a silence without embarrassment.
"You are looking at the etching over the fireplace—it was sent to me by a
young lady in America," said Mr. Ruskin, "and I placed it there to get
acquainted with it. I like it more and more. Do you know the scene?" I
knew the scene and explained somewhat about it.
Mr. Ruskin has the faculty of making his interviewer do most of the
talking. He is a rare listener, and leans forward, putting a hand behind
his right ear to get each word you say. He was particularly interested in
the industrial conditions of America, and I soon found myself "occupying
the time," while an occasional word of interrogation from Mr. Ruskin gave
me no chance to stop. I came to hear him, not to defend our "republican
experiment," as he was pleased to call the United States of America. Yet
Mr. Ruskin was so gentle and respectful in his manner, and so
complimentary in his attitude of listener, that my impatience at his want
of sympathy for our "experiment" only caused me to feel a little heated.
"The fact of women being elected to mayoralties in Kansas makes me think
of certain African tribes that exalt their women into warriors—you want
your women to fight your political battles!"
"You evidently hold the same opinion on the subject of equal rights that
you expressed some years ago," interposed my companion.
"What did I say—really I have forgotten?"
"You replied to a correspondent, saying: 'You are certainly right as to my
views respecting the female franchise. So far from wishing to give votes
to women, I would fain take them away from most men.'"
"Surely that was a sensible answer. My respect for woman is too great to
force on her increased responsibilities. Then as for restricting the
franchise with men, I am of the firm conviction that no man should be
allowed to vote who does not own property, or who can not do considerably
more than read and write. The voter makes the laws, and why should the
laws regulating the holding of property be made by a man who has no
interest in property beyond a covetous desire; or why should he legislate
on education when he possesses none! Then again, women do not bear arms to
protect the State."
"But what do you say to Mrs. Carlock, who answers that inasmuch as men do
not bear children, they have no right to vote: going to war possibly being
necessary and possibly not, but the perpetuity of the State demanding that
some one bear children?"
"The lady's argument is ingenious, but lacks force when we consider that
the bearing of arms is a matter relating to statecraft, while the baby
question is Dame Nature's own, and is not to be regulated even by the
Then Mr. Ruskin talked for nearly fifteen minutes on the duty of the State
to the individual—talked very deliberately, but with the clearness and
force of a man who believes what he says and says what he believes.
Thus, my friend, by a gentle thrust under the fifth rib of Mr. Ruskin's
logic, caused him to come to the rescue of his previously expressed
opinions, and we had the satisfaction of hearing him discourse earnestly
Maiden ladies usually have an opinion ready on the subject of masculine
methods, and, conversely, much of the world's logic on the "woman
question" has come from the bachelor brain.
Mr. Ruskin went quite out of his way on several occasions in times past to
attack John Stuart Mill for heresy "in opening up careers for women other
than that of wife and mother."
When Mill did not answer Mr. Ruskin's newspaper letters, the author of
"Sesame and Lilies" called him a "cretinous wretch" and referred to him as
"the man of no imagination." Mr. Mill may have been a cretinous wretch (I
do not exactly understand the phrase), but the preface to "On Liberty" is
at once the tenderest, highest and most sincere compliment paid to a
woman, of which I know.
The life of Mr. and Mrs. John Stuart Mill shows that perfect mating is
possible; yet Mr. Ruskin has only scorn for the opinions of Mr. Mill on a
subject which Mill came as near personally solving in a matrimonial
"experiment" as any other public man of modern times, not excepting even
Robert Browning. Therefore we might suppose Mr. Mill entitled to speak on
the woman question, and I intimated as much to Mr. Ruskin.
"He might know all about one woman, and if he should regard her as a
sample of all womankind, would he not make a great mistake?"
I was silenced.
In "Fors Clavigera," Letter LIX, the author says: "I never wrote a letter
in my life which all the world is not welcome to read." From this one
might imagine that Mr. Ruskin never loved—no pressed flowers in books; no
passages of poetry double-marked and scored; no bundles of letters faded
and yellow, sacred for his own eye, tied with white or dainty blue ribbon;
no little nothings hidden away in the bottom of a trunk. And yet Mr.
Ruskin has his ideas on the woman question, and very positive ideas they
are too—often sweetly sympathetic and wisely helpful.
I see that one of the encyclopedias mentions Ruskin as a bachelor, which
is giving rather an extended meaning to the word, for although Mr. Ruskin
married, he was not mated. According to Collingwood's account, this
marriage was a quiet arrangement between parents. Anyway, the genius is
like the profligate in this: when he marries he generally makes a woman
miserable. And misery is reactionary as well as infectious. Ruskin is a
Genius is unique. No satisfactory analysis of it has yet been given. We
know a few of its indications—that's all. First among these is ability to
No seed can sow genius; no soil can grow it: its quality is inborn and
defies both cultivation and extermination. To be surpassed is never
pleasant; to feel your inferiority is to feel a pang. Seldom is there a
person great enough to find satisfaction in the success of a friend. The
pleasure that excellence gives is oft tainted by resentment; and so the
woman who marries a genius is usually unhappy.
Genius is excess: it is obstructive to little plans. It is difficult to
warm yourself at a conflagration; the tempest may blow you away; the sun
dazzles; lightning seldom strikes gently; the Nile overflows. Genius has
its times of straying off into the infinite—and then what is the good wife
to do for companionship? Does she protest, and find fault? It could not be
otherwise, for genius is dictatorial without knowing it, obstructive
without wishing to be, intolerant unawares, and unsocial because it can
not help it.
The wife of a genius sometimes takes his fits of abstraction for
stupidity, and having the man's interests at heart she endeavors to arouse
him from his lethargy by chiding him. Occasionally he arouses enough to
chide back; and so it has become an axiom that genius is not domestic.
A short period of mismated life told the wife of Ruskin their mistake, and
she told him. But Mrs. Grundy was at the keyhole, ready to tell the world,
and so Mr. and Mrs. Ruskin sought to deceive society by pretending to live
together. They kept up this appearance for six sorrowful years, and then
the lady simplified the situation by packing her trunks and deliberately
leaving her genius to his chimeras; her soul doubtless softened by the
knowledge that she was bestowing a benefit on him by going away. The lady
afterwards became the happy wife and helpmeet of a great artist.
Ruskin's father was a prosperous importer of wines. He left his son a
fortune equal to a little more than one million dollars. But that vast
fortune has gone—-principal and interest—gone in bequests, gifts and
experiments; and today Mr. Ruskin has no income save that derived from the
sale of his books. Talk about "Distribution of Wealth"! Here we have it.
The bread-and-butter question has never troubled John Ruskin except in his
ever-ardent desire that others should be fed. His days have been given to
study and writing from his very boyhood; he has made money, but he has had
no time to save it.
He has expressed himself on every theme that interests mankind, except
perhaps "housemaid's knee." He has written more letters to the newspapers
than "Old Subscriber," "Fiat Justitia," "Indignant Reader" and "Veritas"
combined. His opinions have carried much weight and directed attention
into necessary lines; but perhaps his success as an inspirer of thought
lies in the fact that his sense of humor exists only as a trace, as the
chemist might say. Men who perceive the ridiculous would never have voiced
many of the things which he has said.
Surely those Sioux Indians who stretched a hay lariat across the Union
Pacific Railroad in order to stop the running of trains had small sense of
the ridiculous. But it looks as if they were apostles of Ruskin, every
Some one has said that no man can appreciate the beautiful who has not a
keen sense of humor. For the beautiful is the harmonious, and the
laughable is the absence of fit adjustment.
Mr. Ruskin disproves the maxim.
But let no hasty soul imagine that John Ruskin's opinions on practical
themes are not useful. He brings to bear an energy on every subject he
touches (and what subject has he not touched?) that is sure to make the
sparks of thought fly. His independent and fearless attitude awakens from
slumber a deal of dozing intellect, and out of this strife of opinion
On account of Mr. Ruskin's refusing at times to see visitors, reports have
gone abroad that his mind was giving way. Not so, for although he is
seventy-four he is as serenely stubborn as he ever was. His opposition to
new inventions in machinery has not relaxed a single pulley's turn. You
grant his premises and in his conclusions you will find that his belt
never slips, and that his logic never jumps a cog. His life is as regular
and exact as the trains on the Great Western, and his days are more
peaceful than ever before. He has regular hours for writing, study,
walking, reading, eating, and working out of doors, superintending the
cultivation of his hundred acres. He told me that he had not varied a
half-hour in two years from a certain time of going to bed or getting up
in the morning. Although his form is bowed, this regularity of life has
borne fruit in the rich russet of his complexion, the mild, clear eye, and
the pleasure in living in spite of occasional pain, which you know the man
feels. His hair is thick and nearly white; the beard is now worn quite
long and gives a patriarchal appearance to the fine face.
When we arose to take our leave, Mr. Ruskin took a white felt hat from the
elk-antlers in the hallway and a stout stick from the corner, and offered
to show us a nearer way back to the village. We walked down a footpath
through the tall grass to the lake, where he called our attention to
various varieties of ferns that he had transplanted there.
We shook hands with the old gentleman and thanked him for the pleasure he
had given us. He was still examining the ferns when we lifted our hats and
bade him good-day.
He evidently did not hear us, for I heard him mutter: "I verily believe
those miserable Cook's tourists that were down here yesterday picked some
of my ferns."