by Clive Wilmer on Ruskin's "Fors Clavigera"

Fors Clavigera consists of ninety-six open letters addressed 'to the Work-men and Labourers of Great Britain'. They were published as monthly periodicals between 1871 and 1878, and then intermittently between 1880 and 1884.

'Workmen and Labourers' means those who, like Ruskin himself, find themselves toiling in the vineyard in the heat of the day-with hand, mind, or both. Inevitably, though, the reader anticipates letters to the working class and, since it is with their welfare (economic and spiritual) that Ruskin is most deeply concerned, it seems probable that this ambiguity was intended. All forms of labour are seen as rooted in nature and having a common purpose-that of promoting the wealth that is life. The sickness of modern society is usury, a name Ruskin now gives to interest of any kind. The usurer alone is idle. Those who make money out of money, not out of their labour, live off the labour of others.

So the letters are about work, but work seen in the perspective of human destiny. This is the primary meaning of this most complex of Ruskin's titles. A simple translation of Fors Clavigera would be 'Fortune the Nail-bearer'. The immediate source of the phrase is in Horace, Odes, I. xxv:

'Ever before you stalks Necessity, the grim goddess with nails and wedges in her brazen hand; the strict hook and molten lead are also there.'

The figure of Fortune, or Chance, or Necessity, is derived from various mythologies:

'she offers to men the conditions of prosperity', says Ruskin; 'and as these conditions are accepted or refused, nails down and fastens their fate for ever . . .'

This lesson applies first of all to England: the richest and most powerful nation in the world, yet riddled with poverty, starvation and injustice. The letters are an attempt to awaken England to her own good fortune and to show her 'How you make your fortune or mar it'. But the title was also meant 'to indicate the desultory and accidental character of the work itself: so Fortune in the role of Chance presided over its composition. In other words, the letters were written much as any extended correspondence is — topically, taking up the hints chance offers, weaving disparate matter into a single integrated text, referring back and forth from letter to letter. And the title applies to Ruskin himself: first, because he sees Fors Clavigera as a task imposed on him by destiny and necessity; and secondly, because he is aware of impending crisis and the role of fortune in his own life. This last point explains why the letters are so personal, even confessional.

These are still not the only significances.

'Fors Clavigera is the best part of three good English words, Force, Fortitude, and Fortune.'

The Latin clavus means a nail, but clavis means a key and clava a club (-gera means bearer). So different archetypes can be drawn from the phrase. Force is the Club-bearer, typified by Hercules (and other monster-slaying heroes who figure in the letters, notably St George, the patron of England and therefore of Ruskin's Guild): this is 'the power of doing good work'. Fortitude is the Key-bearer, typified by Ulysses, and stands for 'the power of bearing necessary pain, or trial of patience'. Fortune the Nail-bearer is typified by the legendary law-maker of ancient Sparta, Lycurgus, and as such stands for necessary law and unchangeable fate. In this last sense it is important to realize that fortune can be a matter of accident or destiny or providence. These are all different, but, as Ruskin often implies, they are connected. Thus, man may be the victim of fate but also the maker of his own good fortune.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, it is almost impossible to select satisfactorily from Fors Clavigera, since each letter depends for its effect on our sense of it as part of a series. Running through the book are a number of disparate themes that intermesh in unexpected ways, so that each letter contains echoes of others. The reader soon develops expectations of the different elements that will combine within them. I have selected Letters 7 and 10, not because they are the best, but because taken together they effectively illustrate the book's character. For instance, both of them attempt political self-definitions, and it is only through their juxtaposition that the necessary irony is achieved — for in one of them Ruskin is a Tory and in the other a Communist. Moreover, Ruskin's contempt for political partisanship is one of the work's minor themes. Most of the letters also draw attention to current events. The first year of Fors Clavigera, for instance, is dominated by political upheavals in France. (The events referred to are summarized in my notes.) Against this topical news, Ruskin sets the evidence of 'authorities' — cultural heroes of past and present, many of whom make frequent appearances from letter to letter: examples of these in the numbers selected are Scott and Carlyle, Dante and Giotto. Extended quotation is another feature of the work, whether from the daily papers or from classic texts (such as More's Utopia). And Ruskin now makes use of his personal history. Letter 10, for example, includes a passage that later appeared in Praeterita. This was partly because, in a state of crisis, he felt impelled to do so. But his conscious intention was to show his readers something of the early experiences that first shaped the values he sought to teach — in particular, the habit of admiration. In its use of juxtaposition, the contingent charged with significance, and the fragmentary, Fors Clavigera is technically innovative and anticipates much of the literature of our century.

« Fors Clavigera » « Introduction To Ruskin » « Ruskin's Works » « Library » « Home »