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CHAPTER I.

HIS POEMS.

FTER the great artist, the great critic. For half a century

before John Ruskin was born (February, 1819), the art which delineates nature's beauty, whether with pen or with pencil, had been gloriously at work in Great Britain. Cowper and Burns had leaped back to nature, flinging from them, by the mcrc expanding energy of their manhood and genius, the traditions of the artificial schools, whose intellectual sovereign is Pope; and so sweet and strange and enchanting was the charm which nature lent them, that poets and painters hastened to follow their example. Scott, in simple boy-liko enjoyment of morning clouds and breezy hills, of sward begemmed with dewdrops and torrents flashing in keen lightnings down the gorge; Byron, with less depth and sincerity of love for nature than Scott, but a more fiery and imaginative sympathy for her sterner aspects and moods, for the throbbing of the earthquake and the answering of mountain to mountain in the thunderstorm; Keats, with a town - bred boy's eestasy, almost sickly in its yearning intensity, over every glimpse of green leafage "sprouting a tender boon for nibbling sheep;" Wordsworth, looking upon himself as a poet-seer, hierophant of the sacredness and the mystery of nature, watching the shadow of the daisy on the stone, and listening to the syllables of the brook in the wood; Shelley, exulting in the beauty of the world and casting over it the light of a loftier idealization than that of any of the others; these, and not these alone, but Campbell, and Uogg, and Christopher North, had filled their works with landscape description, and had made their readers familiar with the countless changes of nature's grandeur and loveliness, from the purpling of the lake at dawn to "the lustrous gloom of leaden-colored even."

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The painter had followed in the wake of the poet, or had accompanied him, sharing a common inspiration. Gainsborough, writing in color, was as true a poet as ever lived, and stood somewhat in the same relation to our recent school of landscape-painting as Cowpcr and Burns to our recent school of landscape-poetry. But it was the English Water-color School of painting that was pre-eminently the school of landscape. No other school known to the historian of art ever did so much to show what the forms and hues of nature really are; what witchery of grace, what eye-music of delicately woven lines, there is among the forest boughs; with what splendor, "ensaffroning the whole hill-side," the sun can flood the air when near his setting; in one word, what beauty and comeliness this dwelling-place of man has received from the hand of its Maker. When we recollect Who it was that declared the loveliness of the lily of the field to excel that of Solomon in all his glory, we may be prepared to recognize a natural sacredness in the art that concerns itself with the trees and the flowers; and cannot but feel an appropriateness in the indisputable fact that the English school of landscape is distinguished by a vestal purity of feeling and association, placing it, in moral respects, almost on a level with the art of Angelico. Or why should I say "almost" on a level? Why should I not dare to be just to my own time, and affirm that the school of landscape-painting, which has flourished in Great Britain, occupies a higher moral level than that of Angelico? The art of Angelico, with its mawkish saints, its monastic quaintnesses, its enervating air of simpleton piety and nursery innocence, is unhealthy, and, to the extent of its unhealthiness, unholy. Without purism, without sectarianism, the landscape art of England is delicately reverent of all manly religion, all home-bred virtue,

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and as wholesome in its influence as the grass of the mountains and the rain of the sky.

The English Water-color School was just strong enough to furnish him with the instruments of his art, when there appeared in. England one of those men of unique and transcendent powers, who are seldom born except at intervals of centuries—J. M. W. Turner. He stood in much the same relation, in respect of comprehensiveness and energy of genius, to the other landscape artists of his day, in which Shakspeare stood to the other dramatists of the Elizabethan age. The dramatists contemporary with Shakspeare were great—greater than any who have succeeded them in England—but none of them approached the greatness of Shakspeare. Prout, Fielding, Cotman, Crome, Bonington, Constable, Caleott, Dc Wint, and many others, contemporary with Turner, were admirable landscapists, but none was equal, none was second, to him. It was in vin- \ dication of Turner against the depreciation of reviewers that > Ruskin wrote his first great book; and it then became appar-' ,ent that, in addition to the English poets who had described . 'nature in melodious verse, and the English painters who had i depicted nature in expressive color, an English critic of the 'first order had arisen, whose prose revealed the subtlety and the opulence of nature's beauty with an imaginative splendor 'equalling that of the poet, and a precision and graphic power , hardly inferior to those of the painter.

Mr. Ruskin has sprinkled over his writings a good many intimations, all deeply interesting, as to his infancy and youth. "The first thing," he writes, " which I remember, as an event in life, was being taken by my nurse to the brow of Friar's Crag on Dcrwentwater; the intense joy, mingled with awe, that I had in looking through the hollows in the mossy roots, over the crag, into the dark lake, has associated itself more or less with all twining roots of trees ever since." Two other things he remembers as being, " in a sort, beginnings of life: crossing Shapfclls (being let out of the chaise to run up the hills), and going through Glen Farg, near Kinross, in a winter's morning, when the rocks were hung with icicles." When he came near mountains he had a pleasure, from the earliest time he can recollect until he was eighteen or twenty, "infinitely greater" than he has since found in anything; "comparable for intensity only to the joy of a lover in being near a noble and kind mistress, but no more explicable or definable than that feelmg of love itself."

The correctness of these reminiscences is proved in those verses which, from the years of earliest boyhood until he reached the age of twenty-six, he continued to produce. He prints m The Queen of the Air " one of many" of his childish rhymes, " written on a frosty day in Glen Farg, just north of Loch Leven," when he had almost completed his ninth year.

Fapa, how pretty those icicles arc.

That are seen so near, that arc seen so far;

Those dropping waters that come from the rocks,

And many a hole, like the haunt of a fox.

That silvery stream that runs babbling along,

Making a murmuring, dancing song.

Those trees that stand waving upon the rock's-side,

And men, that, like spectres, among them glide,

And water-falls that are heard from far,

And come in sight when very near.

And the water-wheel that turns slowly round,

Grinding the corn that requires to be ground—

And mountains at a distance seen,

And rivers winding through the plain.

And quarries with their craggy stones,

And the wind among them moans.

What a great deal the little fellow manages to get into his lines! And is not his observation nice? are not his epithets happy? Every one who has approached a water-fall through woodland must remember how long he has heard it sounding

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through the trees, and how often he was disappointed when he thought that, after the next clump of foliage, it would surely open on him.

The landscape described in these lines is not, however, necessarily mountainous; the wheel grinding the corn suggests rather that it is not far from the lowlands; but Ruskin's general love of nature concentrated itself, in later boyhood, into that passion for mountains which we have already found attested in his own words. I am privileged to possess a small volume in which his early poems were printed for circulation among his relatives and friends. They form, in a striking degree, an autobiographical introduction to his prose works. The first in the scries, written when he was fourteen, expresses the lyric passion and longing of the writer for mountains. This is the first verse:

I weary for the torrent leaping

From off the scaur's rough crest;
My muse is on the mountain sleeping,

My harp is sunk to rest .

It is profoundly touching, at the present moment, to find that already he has been impressed by Coniston.*

The crags are lone on Coniston,

And Loweswatcr's dell;
And dreary on the mighty one,

The cloud-inwrcathed Scawfell.

The hand of the great describer is now beginning to make itself still more distinctly felt than in the Glen Farg verses.

I long to tread the mountain-head

Above the valley swelling;
I long to feel the breezes sped

From gray and gaunt,Helvellyn.

* At the time when these words were written Mr. Ruskin lay dangerously ill at Brantwood, Coniston..

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