From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter XLVIII.

THE accounts of the state of St. George’s Fund, given without any inconvenience in crowding type, on the last leaf of this number of Fors, will, I hope, be as satisfactory to my subscribers as they are to me. In these days of financial operation, the subscribers to any thing may surely be content when they find that all their talents have been laid up in the softest of napkins; and even farther, that, though they are getting no interest themselves, that lichenous growth of vegetable gold, or mould, is duly developing itself on their capital.

The amount of subscriptions received, during the four years of my mendicancy, might have disappointed me, if, in my own mind, I had made any appointments on the subject, or had benevolence pungent enough to make me fret at the delay in the commencement of the national felicity which I propose to bestow. On the contrary, I am only too happy to continue amusing myself in my study, with stones and pictures; and find, as I grow old, that I remain resigned to the consciousness of any quantity of surrounding vice, distress, and disease, provided only the sun shine in at my window over Corpus Garden, and there are no whistles from the luggage trains passing the Waterworks.

I understand this state of even temper to be what most people call ‘rational;’ and, indeed, it has been the result of very steady effort on my own part to keep myself, if it might be, out of Hanwell, or that other Hospital which makes the name of Christ’s native village dreadful in the ear of London. For, having long observed that the most perilous beginning of trustworthy qualification for either of those establishments consisted in an exaggerated sense of self-importance; and being daily compelled, of late, to value my own person and opinions at a higher and higher rate, in proportion to my extending experience of the rarity of any similar creatures or ideas among mankind, it seemed to me expedient to correct this increasing conviction of my superior wisdom, by companionship with pictures I could not copy, and stones I could not understand:— while, that this wholesome seclusion may remain only self-imposed, I think it not a little fortunate for me that the few relations I have left are generally rather fond of me;— don’t know clearly which is the next of kin,— and perceive that the administration of my inconsiderable effects * would be rather troublesome than profitable to them. Not in the least, therefore, wondering at the shyness of my readers to trust me with money of theirs, I have made, during these four years past, some few experiments with money of my own,— in hopes of being able to give such account of them as might justify a more extended confidence. I am bound to state that the results, for the present, are not altogether encouraging. On my own little piece of mountain ground at Collision, I grow a large quantity of wood-hyacinths and heather, without any expense worth mentioning; but my only industrious agricultural operations have been the getting three pounds ten worth of hay, off a field for which I pay six pounds rent; and the surrounding, with a costly wall six feet high, to keep out rabbits, a kitchen garden, which, being terraced and trim, my neighbours say is pretty; and which will probably, every third year, when the weather is not wet, supply me with a dish of strawberries.

At Carshalton, in Surrey, I have indeed had the satisfaction of cleaning out one of the springs of the Wandel, and making it pleasantly habitable by trout: but find that the fountain, instead of taking care of itself when once pure, as I expected it to do, requires continual looking after, like a child getting into a mess; and involves me besides in continual debate with surveyors of the parish, who insist on letting all the road washings run into it. For the present, however, I persevere, at Carshalton, against the wilfulness of the spring and the carelessness of the parish; and hope to conquer both: but I have been obliged entirely to abandon a notion I had of exhibiting ideally clean street pavement in the centre of London,— in the pleasant environs of Church Lane, St. Giles’s. There I had every help and encouragement from the authorities; and hoped, with the staff of two men and a young rogue of a crossing-sweeper, added to the regular force of the parish, to keep a quarter of a mile square of the narrow streets without leaving so much as a bit of orange-peel on the footway, or an eggshell in the gutters. I failed partly because I chose too difficult a district to begin with, (the contributions of transitional mud being constant, and the inhabitants passive,) but chiefly because I could no more be on the spot myself, to give spirit to the men, when I left Denmark Hill for Collision.

I next set up a tea-shop at 29, Paddington Street, W., (an establishment which my Fors readers may as well know of,) to supply the poor in that neighbourhood with pure tea, in packets as small as they chose to buy, without making a profit on the subdivision,— larger orders being of course equally acceptable from anybody who cares to promote honest dealing. The result of this experiment has been my ascertaining that the poor only like to buy their tea where it is brilliantly lighted and eloquently ticketed; and as I resolutely refuse to compete with my neighbouring tradesmen either in gas or rhetoric, the patient subdivision of my parcels by the two old servants of my mother’s, who manage the business for me, hitherto passes little recognized as an advantage by my uncalculating public. Also, steady increase in the consumption of spirits throughout the neighbourhood faster and faster slackens the demand for tea; but I believe none of these circumstances have checked my trade so much as my own procrastination in painting my sign. Owing to that total want of imagination and invention which makes me so impartial and so accurate a writer on subjects of political economy, I could not for months determine whether the said sign should be of a Chinese character, black upon gold; or of a Japanese, blue upon white; or of pleasant English, rose-colour on green; and still less how far legible scale of letters could be compatible, on a board only a foot broad, with lengthy enough elucidation of the peculiar offices of ‘Mr. Ruskin’s tea-shop.’ Meanwhile the business languishes, and the rent and taxes absorb the profits, and something more, after the salary of my good servants has been paid.

In all these cases, however, I can see that I am defeated only because I have too many things on hand: and that neither rabbits at Collision, road-surveyors at Croydon, or mud in St. Giles’s would get the better of me, if I could give exclusive attention to any one business: meantime, I learn the difficulties which are to be met, and shall make the fewer mistakes when I venture on any work with other people’s money.

I may as well, together with these confessions, print a piece written for the end of a Fors letter at Assisi, a month or two back, but for which I had then no room, referring to the increase of commercial, religious, and egotistic insanity,** in modern society, and delicacy of the distinction implied by that long wall at Hanwell, between the persons inside it, and out.

‘Does it never occur to me,’ (thus the letter went on) ‘that I may be mad myself?’

Well, I am so alone now in my thoughts and ways, that if I am not mad, I should soon become so, from mere solitude, but for my work. But it must be manual work. Whenever I succeed in a drawing, I am happy, in spite of all that surrounds me of sorrow. It is a strange feeling;— not gratified vanity: I can have any quantity of praise I like from some sorts of people; but that does me no vital good, (though dispraise does me mortal harm); whereas to succeed to my own satisfaction in a manual piece of work, is life,— to me, as to all men; and it is only the peace which comes necessarily from manual labour which in all time has kept the honest country people patient in their task of maintaining the rascals who live in towns. But we are in hard times, now, for all men’s wits; for men who know the truth are like to go mad from isolation; and the fools are all going mad in ‘Schwarmerei,’— only that is much the pleasanter way. Mr. Lecky, for instance, quoted in last Fors; how pleasant for him to think he is ever so much wiser than Aristotle; and that, as a body, the men of his generation are the wisest that ever were born giants of intellect, according to Lord Mucaulay, compared to the pigmies of Bacon’s time, and the minor pigmies of Christ’s time, and the minutest of all, the microscopic pigmies of Solomon’s time, and, finally, the vermicular and infusorial pigmies twenty-three millions to the cube inch of Mr. Darwin’s time, whatever that may be. How pleasant for Mr. Lecky to live in these days of the Anakim,— ”his spear, to equal which, the tallest pine,” etc., etc., which no man Stratford-born could have lifted, much less shaken.

But for us of the old race few of us now left,— children who reverence our fathers, and are ashamed of ourselves; comfortless enough in that shame, and yearning for one word or glance from the graves of old, yet knowing ourselves to be of the same blood, and recognizing in our hearts the same passions, with the ancient masters of humanity;— we, who feel as men, and not as carnivorous worms; we, who are every day recognizing some inaccessible height of thought and power, and are miserable in our shortcomings,— the few of us now standing here and there, alone, in the midst of this yelping, carnivorous crowd, mad for money and lust, tearing each other to pieces, and starving each other to death, and leaving heaps of their dung and ponds of their spittle on every palace floor and altar stone,— it is impossible for us, except in the labour of our hands, not to go mad.

And the danger is tenfold greater for a man in my own position, concerned with the arts which develope the more subtle brain sensations; and, through them, tormented all day long. Mr. Leslie Stephen rightly says how much better it is to have a thick skin and a good digestion. Yes, assuredly; but what is the use of knowing that, if one hasn’t? In one of my saddest moods, only a week or two ago, because I had failed twice over in drawing the lifted hand of Giotto’s ‘Poverty;’ utterly beaten and comfortless, at Assisi, I got some wholesome peace and refreshment by mere sympathy with a Bewickian little pig in the roundest and conceitedest burst of pig-blossom. His servant,— a grave old woman, with much sorrow and toil in the wrinkles of her skin, while his was only dimpled in its divine thickness,— was leading him, with magnanimous length of rope, down a grassy path behind the convent; stopping, of course, where he chose. Stray stalks and leaves of eatable things, in various stages of ambrosial rottenness, lay here and there; the convent walls made more savoury by their fumigation, as Mr. Leslie Stephen says the Alpine pines are by his cigar. And the little joyful darling of Demeter shook his curly tail, and munched; and grunted the goodnaturedest of grunts, and snuffled the approvingest of snuffles, and was a balm and beatification to behold; and I would fain have changed places with him for a little while, or with Mr. Leslie Stephen for a little while,— at luncheon, suppose,— anywhere but among the Alps. But it can’t be.

20th October, 1874.

I interrupt myself, for an instant or two, to take notice of two little things that happen to me here arriving to breakfast by night train from Geneva.

Expecting to be cold, I had ordered fire, and sat down by it to read my letters as soon as I arrived, not noticing that the little parlour was getting much too hot. Presently, in comes the chambermaid, to put the bedroom in order, which one enters through the parlour. Perceiving that I am mismanaging myself, in the way of fresh air, as she passes through, “II fait bien chaud, monsieur, ici,” says she reprovingly, and with entire self-possession. Now that is French servant-character of the right old school. She knows her own position perfectly, and means to stay in it, and wear her little white radiant frill of a cap all her days. She knows my position also; and has not the least fear of my thinking her impertinent because she tells me what it is right that I should know. Presently afterwards, an evidently German-importation of waiter brings me up my breakfast, which has been longer in appearing than it would have been in old times. It looks all right at first,— the napkin, china, and solid silver sugar basin, all of the old regime. Bread, butter,— yes, of the best still. Coffee, milk,— all right too. But, at last, here is a bit of the new regime. There are no sugar-tongs; and the sugar is of beetroot, and ill methodically similar cakes, which I must break with my finger and thumb if I want a small piece, and put back what I don’t want for my neighbour, to-morrow.

‘Civilization,’ this, you observe, according to Professor Liebig and Mr. John Stuart Mill, Not according to old French manners, however.

Now, my readers are continually complaining that I don’t go on telling them my plan of life, under the rule of St. George’s Company.

I have told it them, again and again, in broad terms: agricultural life, with as much refinement as I can enforce in it. But it is impossible to describe what I mean by ‘refinement,’ except in details which can only be suggested by practical need; and which cannot at all be set down at once.

Here, however, to-day, is one instance. At the best hotel in what has been supposed the most luxurious city of modern Europe,— because people are now always in a hurry to catch the train, they haven’t time to use the sugar-tongs, or look for a little piece among differently-sized lumps, and therefore they use their fingers; have bad sugar instead of good, and waste the ground that would grow blessed cherry trees, currant bushes, or wheat, in growing a miserable root as a substitute for the sugar-cane, which God has appointed to grow where cherries and wheat won’t, and to give juice which will freeze into sweet snow as pure as hoar-frost.

Now, on the poorest farm of the St. George’s Company, the servants shall have white and brown sugar of the best or none. If we are too poor to buy sugar, we will drink our tea without; and have suet-dumpling instead of pudding. But among the earliest school lessons, and home lessons, decent behaviour at table will be primarily essential; and of such decency, one little exact point will be the neat, patient, and scrupulous use of sugar-tongs instead of fingers. If we are too poor to have silver basins, we will have delf ones; if not silver tongs, we will have wooden ones; and the boys of the house shall be challenged to cut, and fit together, the prettiest and handiest machines of the sort they can contrive. In six months yon would find more real art fancy brought out in the wooden handles and claws, than there is now in all the plate in London.

. . .

Now, there’s the cuckoo-clock striking seven, just as I sit down to correct the press of this sheet, in my nursery at Herne Hill; and though I don’t remember, as the murderer does in Mr. Crummles’ play, having heard a cuckoo-clock strike seven in my infancy, I do remember, in my favourite ‘Frank,’ much talk of the housekeeper’s cuckoo-clock, and of the boy’s ingenuity in mending it. Yet to this hour of seven in the morning, ninth December of my fifty-fifth year, I haven’t the least notion how any such clock says ‘Cuckoo,’ nor a clear one even of the making of the commonest barking toy of a child’s Noah’s ark. I don’t know how a barrel organ produces music by being ground; nor what real function the pea has in a whistle. Physical science all this of a kind which would have been boundlessly interesting to me, as to all boys of mellifluous disposition, if only I had been taught it with due immediate practice, and enforcement of true manufacture, or, in pleasant Saxon, ‘handiwork.’ But there shall not be on St. George’s estate a single thing in the house which the boys don’t know how to make, nor a single dish on the table which the girls will not know how to cook.

By the way, I have been greatly surprised by receiving some letters of puzzled inquiry as to the meaning of my recipe, given last year, for Yorkshire Pie. Do not my readers yet at all understand that the whole gist of this book is to make people build their own houses, provide and cook their own dinners, and enjoy both? Something else besides, perhaps; but at least, and at first, those. St. Michael’s mass, and Christ’s mass, may eventually be associated in your minds with other things than goose and pudding; but Fors demands at first no more chivalry nor Christianity from you than that you build your houses bravely, and earn your dinners honestly, and enjoy them both, and be content with them both. The contentment is the main matter; you may enjoy to any extent, but if you are discontented, your life will be poisoned. The little pig was so comforting to me because he was wholly content to be a little pig; and Mr. Leslie Stephen is in a certain degree exemplary and comforting to me, because he is wholly content to be Mr. Leslie Stephen; while I am miserable because I am always wanting tb be something else than I am. I want to be Turner; I want to be Gainsborough; I want to be Samuel Prout; I want to be Doge of Venice; I want to be Pope; I want to be Lord of the Sun and Moon. The other day, when I read that story in the papers about the dog-fight,*** I wanted to be able to fight a bulldog.

Truly, that was the only effect of the story upon me, though I heard everybody else screaming out how horrible it was. What’s horrible in it? Of course it is in bad taste, and the sign of a declining era of national honour as all brutal gladiatorial exhibitions are; and the stakes and rings of the tethered combat meant precisely, for England, what the stakes and rings of the Theatre of Taorrnina,— where I saw the holes left for them among the turf, blue with Sicilian lilies, in this last April,— meant, for Greece, and Rome. There might be something loathsome, or something ominous, in such a story, to the old Greeks of the school of Heracles; who used to fight with the Nemean lion, or with Cerberus, when it was needful only, and not for money; and whom their Argus remembered through all Trojan exile. There might be something loathsome in it, or ominous, to an Englishman of the school of Shakespeare or Scott; who would fight with men only, and loved his hound. But for you you carnivorous cheats what, in dog’s or devil’s name, is there horrible in it for you? Do you suppose it isn’t more manly and virtuous to fight a bulldog, than to poison a child, or cheat a fellow who trusts you or leave a girl to go wild in the streets? And don’t you live, and profess to live and even insolently proclaim that there’s no other way of living than by poisoning and cheating? And isn’t every woman of fashion’s dress, in Europe, now set the pattern of to her by its prostitutes?

What’s horrible in it? I ask you, the third time. I hate, myself, seeing a bulldog ill-treated; for they are the gentlest and faithfullest of living creatures if you use them well. And the best dog I ever had was a bull-terrier, whose whole object in life was to please me, and nothing else; though, if he found he could please me by holding on with his teeth to an inch-thick stick, and being swung round in the air as fast as I could turn, that was his own idea of entirely felicitous existence. I don’t like, therefore, hearing of a bulldog’s being ill-treated; but I can tell you a little thing that chanced to me at Coniston the other day, more horrible, in the deep elements of it, than all the dog, bulldog, or bull fights, or baitings, of England, Spain, and California. A fine boy, the son of an amiable English clergyman, had come on the coach-box round the Water-head to see me, and was telling me of the delightful drive he had had. “Oh,” he said, in the triumph of his enthusiasm, “and just at the corner of the wood, there was such a big squirrel! and the coachman threw a stone at it, and nearly hit it!”

‘Thoughtlessness only thoughtlessness’— say you proud father? Well, perhaps not much worse than that. But how could it be much worse? Thoughtlessness is precisely the chief public calamity of our day; and when it comes to the pitch, in a clergyman’s child, of not thinking that a stone hurts what it hits of living things, and not caring for the daintiest, dextrousest, innocentest living thing in the northern forests of God’s earth, except as a brown excrescence to be knocked off their branches,— nay, good pastor of Christ’s lambs, believe me, your boy had better have been employed in thoughtfully and resolutely stoning St. Stephen if any St. Stephen is to be found in these days, when men not only can’t see heaven opened, but don’t so much as care to see it, shut.

For they, at least, meant neither to give pain nor death without cause,— that unanimous company who stopped their ears,— they, and the consenting bystander who afterwards was sorry for his mistake.

But, on the whole, the time has now come when we must cease throwing of stones either at saints or squirrels; and, as I say, build our own houses with them, honestly set: and similarly content ourselves in peaceable use of iron and lead, and other such things which we have been in the habit of throwing at each other dangerously, in thoughtlessness; and defending ourselves against as thoughtlessly, though in what we suppose to be an ingenious manner. Ingenious or not, will the fabric of our new ship of the Line, ‘Devastation,’ think you, follow its fabricator in heavenly places, when he dies in the Lord? In such representations as I have chanced to see of probable Paradise, Noah is never without his ark;— holding that up for judgment as the main work of his life. Shall we hope at the Advent to see the builder of the ‘Devastation’ invite St. Michael’s judgment on his better style of naval architecture, and four-foot-six-thick ‘armour of light’?

* See statement at close of accounts.

** See second letter in Notes and Correspondence.

*** I don’t know how far it turned out to be true,— a fight between a dwarf and a bulldog (both chained to stakes as in Roman days), described at length in some journals.