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It took several years, but I made my way through Fors Clavigera, a compilation of monthly letters John Ruskin wrote to the British working classes from 1871-1884. It was a treat. His brain is wonderful in its lucidity and honesty.  I’m going to share some of my favorite passages here.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter LXXXII, I was astonished to find the Ruskin exercise plan. Some Ruskin-groupie wrote in asking the great man’s advice on how to stay vital while living the life of a Victorian clerk.  Ruskin’s very specific advice (which I’m totally going to elaborate into a best-selling new weight-loss book):

Of simple exercises, learn to walk and run at the utmost speed consistent with health: do this by always going at the quickest pace you can in the streets, and by steadily, though minutely, increasing your pace over a trial piece of ground, every day. Learn also dancing, with extreme precision; and wrestling, if you have any likely strength; in summer, also rowing in sea-boats; or barge-work, on calm water; and, in winter, (with skating of course,) quarterstaff and sword-exercise.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter LXI, one of his most discursive yet (and that is saying something!), a bit on proper reading habits:

And now let my general readers observe, finally, about all reading,–You must read, for the nourishment of your mind, precisely under the moral laws which regulate your eating for the nourishment of the body. That is to say, you must not eat for the pleasure of eating, nor read, for the pleasure of reading. But, if you manage yourself rightly, you will intensely enjoy your dinner, and your book. If you have any sense, you can easily follow out this analogy: I have not time at present to do it for you; only be sure it holds, to the minutest particular, with this difference only, that the vices and virtues of reading are more harmful on the one side and higher on the other, as the soul is more precious than the body. Gluttonous reading is a worse vice than gluttonous eating; filthy and foul reading, a much more loathsome habit than filthy eating. Epicurism in books is much more difficult of attainment than epicurism in meat, but plain and virtuous feeding the most entirely pleasurable.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter LI, thinking through how to teach children useful things about nature, he gets hung up on bee’s teeth. A bit heartbreaking, as Ruskin’s mind is starting to go, and he seems to be struggling with it.

. . .What are a bee’s teeth like? are they white, or black? do they ever ache? can it bite hard with them? has it got anything to bite? Not only do I find no satisfaction in Mr. Bingley as to these matters; but in a grand, close-printed epitome of entomology lately published simultaneously in London, Paris, and New York, and which has made me sick with disgust by its descriptions, at every other leaf I opened, of all that is horrible in insect life, I find, out of five hundred and seventy-nine figures, not one of a bee’s teeth, the chief architectural instrument of the insect world. And I am the more provoked and plagued by this, because, my brains being, as all the rest of me, desultory and ill under control, I get into another fit of thinking what a bee’s lips can be like, and of wondering why whole meadows-full of flowers are called “cows’ lips” and none called “bees’ lips.” And finding presently, in Cassell and Galpin, something really interesting about bees’ tongues, and that they don’t suck, but lick up, honey, I go on wondering how  soon we shall have a scientific Shakespeare printed for the use of schools, with Ariel’s song altered into, “Where the bee licks, there lurk I,” and “the singing masons building roofs of gold,” explained to be merely automatic arrangements of lively viscera.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XLV, an impassioned rant against squires who have turned their back on their rightful duties to England:

Judases with the big bag–game-bag to wit!–to think how many of your dull Sunday mornings have been spent, for propriety’s sake, looking chiefly at those carved angels blowing trumpets above your family’s vaults; and never one of you has had Christianity enough in him to think that he might as easily have his moors full of angels as of grouse. And now, if ever you did see a real angel before the Day of Judgment, your first thought would be,–to shoot it.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XXXIV, restating things from his book Sesame and Lilies, part V. of Ruskin’s outline of women’s work:

Teach–yourself first–to read with attention, and to remember with affection, what deserves both, and nothing else.  Never read borrowed books.  To be without books of your own is the abyss of penury.  Don’t endure it.  And when you buy them, you’ll think whether they’re worth reading; which you had better, on all accounts.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XXVI, a lovely digression:

I don’t know if children generally have strong associative fancy about words; but when I was a child, that word “Crocodile” always seemed to me very terrific, and I would even hastily, in any book, turn a leaf in which it was printed with a capital C.  If anybody had told me the meaning of it — “a creature that is afraid of crocuses”!  That, at least, is all I can make of it, now; though I can’t understand how this weakness of the lizard mind was ever discovered, for lizards never see crocuses, that I know of.

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XVII, following a discussion of people who want to do away with wildlife:

Indeed, there is some difficulty in understanding why some of them were made.  I lost a great part of my last hour for reading, yesterday evening, in keeping my kitten’s tail out of the candles, — a useless beast, and still more  useless tail — astonishing and inexplicable even to herself.  Inexplicable, to me, all of them — heads and tails alike.  “Tiger – tiger – burning bright” — is this then all you were made for — this ribbed hearthrug, tawny and black?

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XXXII, annoyed that people want him to enlarge his brief sketch of Sir Walter Scott’s childhood into a biography:

They must please to remember that I am only examining the conditions of the life of this wise man, that they may learn how to rule their own lives, or their children’s, or their servants’; and, for the present, with this particular object, that they may be able to determine, for themselves, whether ancient sentiment, or modern common sense, is to be the rule of life, and of service. [. . .]

No sentiment, you observe, is to brought into your doing, or your whistling, according to Mr. Applegarth.

And the main purpose of Fors is to show you that there is, sometimes, in weak natural whistling quite as much virtue as in vigorous steam whistling.  But it cannot show you this without explaining what your darg, or ‘doing,’ is; which cannot be shown merely by writing pleasant biographies.  You are always willing enough to read lives, but never willing to lead them.

From Arrows of the Chace, a compilation of different letters he had published in British newspapers about art and other topics. It’s made me rethink my own responses to art:

People continually forget that there is a separate public for every picture and for every book. Appealed to with reference to any particular work, the public is the class of persons who possess the knowledge which it presupposes, and the faculties to which it is addressed. [. . .] We will listen to no comments on Newton from people who have no mathematical knowledge; to none on Wordsworth from those who have no hearts; to none on Giotto from those who have no religion.