Ruskin emerged as a critic of Political Economy in 1857. In 1869 he became a Professor of Fine Art. During those twelve years, he put most of his creative effort into public statements. The genre that dominates this phase of his career is the public lecture, the best examples of which are collected in Sesame and Lilies (1865) and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). He also became a prolific contributor of letters to the press on issues of the day; as innumerable asides in the lectures 'Traffic' and 'Of Kings' Treasuries' indicate, he was now almost as concerned with the direction of foreign policy as with domestic questions. Though the period includes books on Greek mythology, for instance, and the formation of crystals, most of his writings are primarily concerned with topical problems. These can be strikingly diverse — war, commerce, work, education and public libraries, to name just a few at random. A by-product of this new emphasis is the juxtapository structure of his works, his many and various interests being brought together in a single lecture and made to reflect on one another.
In spite of Ruskin's habitually apocalyptic tone, the enterprise began with an assumption of optimism. He seemed not yet to have given up hope of persuading the middle classes to abandon the economics and social morality of the market. The nation was not in good health but the disease was curable. Hence the sermonizing manner, which presupposes confidence in his own powers of persuasion. As the period drew to a close, however, this hope was gradually darkened by despair and the public manner frequently yielded to subjectivity and inwardness. This had much to do with his personal life, which now turned towards tragedy. It was also because he had begun to feel the immensity of the task and to see the evils of the modern age as irreversible.
To understand these changes it will be necessary to look briefly at Ruskin's emotional life. In 1854, his seven-year-old marriage to Effie Gray was annulled on grounds of non-consummation. Effie alleged that this was due to her husband's impotence, a charge which Ruskin always denied. In any event, the marriage had been a terrible burden to both of them and Ruskin felt relieved that it was over. There can be no doubt that, even by Victorian standards, Ruskin's sexual repression was pathological. The whole emphasis on sight in his work, valuable as the depth of it is, must surely be connected with a neurotic distaste for physical intimacy. Much of the blame was presumably due to the overpowering possessiveness of his parents. In spite of growing disagreements, he continued to live with them and allowed much of his life to be ruled by them till their deaths. (His father died when he was forty-five; his mother when he was fifty-two.) The failure of his marriage was hardly tragic but it gives us a foretaste of the impending disaster. What made the repression wholly intolerable was his love for a girl thirty years his junior, which dominated his life for nearly seventeen years.
Ruskin met Rose La Touche in 1858 when she was nine and he was thirty-nine. This was the year in which he lost his religious faith: a dreadful irony, for Rose was soon to prove a religious fanatic. It seems probable that the sexuality of adult women terrified Ruskin and repelled him; in consequence, perhaps, he found it easier to direct his emotions to girls. In 1866, when Rose reached the age of sixteen, he asked her to marry him. Discouraged by her parents, she asked him to wait until she was older for an answer. He lived in hope for six years, aware all the while that her mind was increasingly threatened by religious mania. Gradually her neurosis began to express itself in symptoms of physical and mental illness. In 1872 she reached her decision and refused the offer of marriage. During the next few years, Ruskin staved off the emotional collapse that awaited him by increasing his already awesome load of work. In 1874, while studying the Giotto frescoes at Assisi, he even experienced a renewal of his religious faith, now purged of sectarian dogma. But in 1875 Rose died insane.
This tragic sequence of events ran through the busiest period of Ruskin's life. In 1869, just as he had begun to feel the hopelessness of the tasks he had set himself, he was given the opportunity to fulfil one of his greatest ambitions. He was asked to become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. This was a chance to provide the young with an art education on Ruskinian lines. It meant that he would be able, in one sphere of his interests, to influence the future of England substantially. He therefore accepted, but not without some searching of his conscience. The professorship, as Ruskin saw it, demanded a vast amount of work, for he was not prepared to give up his political endeavours. Inevitably, though he refused to exclude social comment from his lectures, most of his energy would have to go into his art work. This meant that social questions would have to be dealt with elsewhere. Part of the solution was provided by Fors Clavigera, which began appearing in 1871.
Fors Clavigera is a series of open letters addressed 'to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain'. It was in effect a monthly periodical of which Ruskin was author, editor and publisher. It gave him the opportunity to speak on any subject and in any manner he chose. The epistolary form was a logical extension of his lecture-hall sermons. Characteristic of both is his use of the personal pronoun: the denunciatory 'you' with its Old Testament over-tones modulating into the more ambiguous 'we' with its implications of shared guilt. By the late 1860s, the public lecture no longer met Ruskin's needs. Something more personal was required that could reach a less exclusively bourgeois audience and address a variety of topical themes, as they arose, without neglecting general principles. In The Ethics of the Dust (1866), a school textbook on geology, he experimented unsuccessfully with Platonic dialogue. He hit upon the genre he needed, however, as a result of his correspondence with Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter from Sunderland and one of the many self-educated readers who drew sustenance from his writings. What began as a private correspondence developed into a series of open letters on 'the Laws of Work' published in 1867 as Time and Tide. A second series of these letters was promised but never written. The need for them was met instead by Fors Clavigera.
Throughout the series of ninety-six letters, Ruskin manages to sustain the informal atmosphere of correspondence, including a large element of autobiography. This was necessitated by his growing pessimism and the inevitable inwardness that followed from it, exacerbated by the deepening disturbance of his mind. Pursuing his old technique of intermeshing disparate themes and expressing his judgements as much through juxta-position as through statement, he also achieves variety of tone. The urgency of what he has to say removes the last traces of 'fine writing' from his style. It is replaced by an unrivalled sense of rhythm, which modulates between anger, compassion, self-pity, satire, irony, tenderness, exasperation, confessional intimacy, lyrical description and a kind of controlled insanity. The variety is also hospitable to quotation — from the Bible, from classic literary texts, and from the daily papers.
The range of Ruskin's activities at this time is staggering. In 1875 alone, he was writing seven books at once, most of them for serial publication. These included guide-books to Italian cities and textbooks on natural history, both of which he judged necessary background to his Oxford lectures. He founded a museum in Sheffield and the Ruskin Art Collection in Oxford. He continued to draw and collect; he lectured; he published his own books. He also began to engage in what were intended as practical social projects for the renewal of England. In the first year of Fors Clavigera he undertook to set a tithe of his income aside to contribute to 'a National Store instead of a National Debt' and asked his readers to do the same. This fund initiated what he was soon to christen the Guild of St George.
This Utopian body has been much misunderstood. Quixotic it undoubtedly was, impractical and absurdly idiosyncratic. It was like a cross between the political structure of fourteenth-century Venice, an order of chivalry, a medieval craftsmen's guild and a modern, charitable pressure-group. Its purpose might be compared with the account of medieval labour in 'The Nature of Gothic'. That was to a large extent fantasy, whether Ruskin knew it or not. But the effect of the fantasy was to put modern conditions of labour in perspective, to provide an image of what work might be. In much the same way, the Guild should be understood as a living form of social criticism: one which reflected Ruskin's mental instability, no doubt, but also the madness of an unjust society. To cleanse a spring and cultivate a tiny plot of land around it, as Ruskin did in a village not far from London, or to build a strong country road through a neglected and potentially lovely village near Oxford, as he inspired a group of under-graduates to do, was to show in little what the whole of society might become. It is not impossible that Ruskin knew his enterprise was doomed to failure, yet any English reader who studies his work with care cannot fail to be impressed by how many of his endeavours, particularly those conducted through the Guild, have been absorbed into English life.
But Ruskin was going mad. His obsession with Rose La Touche began to penetrate every aspect of his work; it coloured his most public statements with subjective fantasy. With her death, the problem was exacerbated. He now began to suffer from hallucinations. His writing had always shown tendencies to instability, but the openly confessional form of Fors Clavigera encouraged his extremity. In 1877 he launched a bitterly outspoken attack on the American painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whom he considered guilty of shoddy craftsmanship. Whistler was an aesthete, and the real object of Ruskin's attack was the newly fashionable Aesthetic Movement with its rejection of the social value of art. Witty and iconoclastic, the painter saw his chance to unseat the art-dictator of mid-Victorian England. He sued Ruskin for libel, Ruskin was ordered to pay damages to the value of a farthing, and, in 1878, because the court had seemed to deny him the right to express critical judgements, he resigned his Oxford chair. But the resignation was already inevitable. Earlier in the year, Ruskin had suffered a savage mental breakdown. It was the first of seven. His last breakdown, in 1889, finished his creative life. Still more tragically, Ruskin survived in body, incapacitated and silent, for another ten years.
In the lucid intervals between his attacks of insanity, he continued to write and draw; and even, for a brief, erratic period, resumed his Oxford professorship. Notable among the works of this period are The Bible of Amiens (1880-85), another study of Gothic, which inspired Marcel Proust, and Fiction, Fair and Foul (1880-81), a book of essays which see death as the central theme of the Victorian novel. In 1884 he delivered a series of lectures called The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. No other book of Ruskin's is so unmitigatedly pessimistic. In Modern Painters III he had said that nineteenth-century landscape might be characterized by its loving attention to cloud. The clouds of this late work are foul with pollution and driven across the land by plague winds. In six grim words he prophesies the future: 'Blanched sun, — blighted grass, — blinded man.' The Storm-Cloud is the most despairing, if also the most deranged, of Ruskin's attacks on the industrial age. It is followed by the most lyrical of his hymns to nature, an autobiography from which he deliberately excluded the remembrance of anything that caused him pain. Praeterita was the only book he wrote simply to give pleasure, yet its beauties are as remote as can be from those of Modern Painters. The theme of the book is memory, and its ecstasies occur not outside in the spacious world but within the author's mind. Ruskin's last and most violent breakdown brought this final attempt at wholeness to a premature close. Incapable of holding a pen, he dictated the final chapter to the woman who cared for him in his last years, his cousin Joan (or Joanna) Severn. He gave it the title 'Joanna's Care'. Nothing in his work better demonstrates the power and beauty of his prose. The character of the sentences is determined by his deployment of vividly particularized sensuous detail within a larger conceptual framework. There can be few writers in whose sentences time is so palpable a factor — both the time it takes us to read them and the larger time-scale of memory that our reading is meant to evoke. Ruskin is the master of the long sentence in English, the inclusiveness of the periods matching the range of his preoccupations. One is scarcely surprised to learn that Proust knew Praeterita by heart. Here is the last paragraph of Ruskin's published work. (He has just compared a rivulet in his English garden to the Fountain of Trevi in Rome and Fonte Branda in Siena.)
How things bind and blend themselves together! The last time I saw the Fountain of Trevi, it was from Arthur's father's room — Joseph Severn's, where we both took Joanie to see him in 1872, and the old man made a sweet drawing of his pretty daughter-in-law, now in her schoolroom; he himself then eager in finishing his last picture of the Marriage in Cana, which he had caused to take place under a vine trellis, and delighted himself by painting the crystal and ruby glittering of the changing rivulet of water out of the Greek vase, glowing into wine. Fonte Branda I last saw with Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it. We drank of it together, and walked together that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, 'Cor magis tibi Sena pandit,' and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars.(XXXV, 561-62)