Pre-Raffaelitism: Or, A Popular Enquiry into Some Newly-Asserted Principles Connected with the Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, and Revolution of Art review. Athenaeum 1.1531 (2 Feb. 1857), 282-283.

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Pre-Raffaelitism: Or, A Popular Enquiry into some Newly-Asserted Principles connected with the Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, and Revolution of Art. By the Rev. Edward Young, M. A. Longman & Co.

Mr. Young is all for the old. He is a warm defender of Raphael and the great men (Greek and Italian) against Mr. Ruskin and the modern revolutionists. His creed is fully comprised in the fine sentence of Bacon’s which he brandishes on his title-page:–

"The world being inferior to the soul: by reason whereof, there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety than can be found in the nature of things."

The motives of Mr. Young’s book are easily shown. Some time since he published a lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Art,’–in which he fell tooth-and-nail, in a grave gentlemanly way, on Pre-Raphaelitism. To his astonishment, his whisper, "hinting a fault," is bellowed forth, far and wide, from Rumour’s brazen trumpet. In a few weeks, Mr. Ruskin mentions the offending clergyman in his Edinburgh Lectures. In all great literary and political excitement there is ample room for two men–the leader of the majority and the leader of the opposition. A great theorist implies room for a great critic to answer and rebut. "There are two sides to everything," says the proverb. To point out the fact that every black has a white, and every sweet a sour, Mr. Young comes forward; for want of a better, he stands by this book–the acknowledged leader of the anti-Ruskin party.

On the wide question of the new Art schism, we need scarcely enter. The Athenaeum was one of the earliest papers to point out the dangers of this heresy, and yet acknowledge its value as a protest and reform. We allowed and showed, that it was a proof of want, of a deadness and a defect, as all heresies have been. Luther’s, for instance, and Wesley’s, for example. We showed that these young men were earnest, fanatical, determined, able, and self-denying. We knew that they were rash, wild, insolent, contemptuous–lovers of the new, the eccentric, the antiquated,–treaders down of old hedges and venerable landmarks:–wild boars we saw they were in academic visages, breakers of snubbed and obsolete images,–contemners of West and his type,–cosmopolitan, revolutionary, insolent, fanatical;–but we had (and we are proud to remember it) the courage to confess that these young men had something in them, that they had far-reaching and swift imaginations, much academic learning, a religious and self-denying spirit–the spider’s patience, and the industry of the ant. We eulogize honestly their love of fresh, vigorous, natural colour, their passion for Wordsworthian nature, their dramatic force, their genial sympathies, their wide and poetic reading,–in a word, can we go further when we sum up all that in Art makes error bearable and novelty attractive–their power!

As for their leader and apostle, Mr. Ruskin, we have nothing to repent of. We were the first, also, in this instance, to point out his origin from Rio and Lord Lindsey,–we traced him to the Lake School of Poets, showed him a necessary consequence of that great poetical Revolution–a product of our metaphysical exhaustion and worn-out naturalism with all its good, and all its bad, effects. We have burst our lungs (almost) times out of mind at his rainbow-bubble theories and logical air castles, the wall cloud, the foundation quicksand, his comet progress, brilliant, lofty, perhaps ephemeral as a Bengal light–not a new light. His wild declamation, his rhetorical diapasons, his swelling choruses of language, his organ depth and richness, we have loaded with praise,–we delight to hail him as a prose poet:–sometimes we have split a pen in vexation that he should be of all poets the least equal. Cleverly, scholarly, laboriously, patiently, but with rather too commentating a manner, Mr. Young goes into the argument of this Satan of the Academy, points out his errors and his blunders with novelty and with vigour, and in bursts of eloquence not unworthy of the enemy against whose orb of shield he hurls his spear. He admires all the old masters, and all they did, and has a pat of the back and a shake of the hand for them all. To his eye, Claude has dream-like views never monotonous, Salvator paints the soul of landscapes, never false and vulgar, Poussin is never "shady," and Spagnoletti never brutal. In all these defences and replies, however, Mr. Young confines himself to Pre-Raphaelitism and to those remarks of Mr. Ruskin which bear on that question.

Our writer laughs at the moral purpose often attributed to painters, thinks landscapes "wholesome refreshments," and proves that Turner, like all painters, had his convention. The mere question in Art being, which convention is best–high or low tone,–a preponderance of light or a preponderance of dark? On this all the question turns. Old happy ages and Gothic stomachs liked dark. We, more vexed about taxes and means of living, prefer light. Both are good,–God made day and night, and he who pleases may choose the best. The spirit, and not the letter, of Nature is what we all stand up for; but the difficulty is, which is the letter.

Of the question that vexed Pilate, "What is Truth?" and for the answer to which, Bacon tells us, he would not wait, Mr. Young says, boldly, m the best manner of the Anti- Ruskinites,–

"I take my stand on the palpable diversity, to say the least, of the two orders of impressions: and affirm that the nice discriminative articulation of geological facts, however essential to a lecture, is not the essential function, whether of landscape poetry or landscape painting: that to have very much overlooked such things is not the ‘crimen læsæ majestatis,’ especially in those who lived before ‘the marvelous stupidity of this age of lecturers:’ that they cannot be what Mr. Ruskin would make them in our landscape criticisms, since they are of no such significancy in our landscape feelings: that majesty, mystery, might, greatness, grace, beauty–the tear and the smile and the frown of mother earth, her rejoicings, her witherings, her solitudes, her pensive gloom, all that the indestructible poetic instinct has been used to call expressiveness, are also ‘truths’–truths immeasurably more precious to all earth’s true loving children–truths which, though they co-exist in actual nature with those lower ones we have been speaking of, yet everywhere subordinate, subdue, and keep them virtually out of mind, like the anatomy of a friend’s face, or the organization of a mother’s heart."

True to his clever, quiet, reasoned-out conservatism, Mr. Young thrusts some thirty choke pears into his enemy’s mouth when he sums up the merits of the age Mr. Ruskin belongs to yet diffames. He says–

"We are money-making people: I read on the frontispiece of our Royal Exchange that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.’ We reared, the other day, a Temple to Commerce, poetically called a ‘Crystal Palace,’ but which might have been called with prosaic truth the eighth ‘wonder of the world.’ Our monarch inaugurated it with prayer and benison; and whilst the wide world was making pilgrimage to it, its sacred solitude, each returning seventh day, made undisguisable confession of the ‘Lord of the Sabbath.’ There is another fad I would dare to match with all the upholstery confession of the middle ages. Show me the equivalent to a money-loving people putting its hand into its own pocket, not to build proud towers, but to emancipate degraded savages; giving twenty millions, not at the bidding of an imperious monarch, or a tyrannical priesthood, but at the spontaneous call of the national conscience, and by the immediate instrumentality of the national will. There is a moral grandeur in this ‘money grant,’ that sinks the Pyramids into littleness. As for Christian Heroism, what can history chronicle or poetry invent, of Godfrey, Richard, or St. Louis, that does not pale before the simple details of that poor despised Patagonian mission of the other day? I will not content myself with even the names of ‘Nightingale’ and her noble sisters."

Equally quietly he laughs at Mediæval vulgarity and licentiousness, or its tyranny and violence:–only men ashamed of the Reformation can talk of the freedom of mediæval workmen, who drew and chipped with fingers still stiff from the thumbscrew. About Greek and Goth the two champions again fall out. The religious principle, when earnest and sincere, led to great works in all lands, in Pyramid, Parthenon and Minster; none first, but each excellent in its degree. Mr. Young says eloquently:–

"The Greek planted his majestic columns, as I have already observed, so as to bear the unmistakable stamp of service; the Goth placed his so as only the most licentious fancy could have dreamt of placing them, scooped out the wall to make room for them, and gave them, in most cases, the fantastic semblance of supporting masses, of which the slightest actual pressure would have crushed them to atoms. What shall we say of other braveries? No doubt there was the profoundest science,–architectural contrivance the Greek never allowed himself,–but, the scope for fancy, and the indulgence of it! the bold, unfettered, ever inventive discursiveness! the play of architectural revelry! the flinging to the winds of rule and precedent, save only as they gave occasion for further flight,–each successive age, each successive building, shewing some wilder master stroke of these true ‘freemasons!’ above all, that most remarkable abhorrence of the ‘two and two make four principle that makes the classic style so impracticable, save when Italianized and melted down! the committing everything to that curious, fitful, wonder-loving faculty, that hates utilitarianism, eschews numbers, shrinks from vulgar symmetry; and, whilst it has its own sense of proportion, delights everywhere in disguising it! This, then, as I take it, is the essential distinction between the styles. Will any be bold enough to call all this ‘Pagan and Christian’? Is it not, on the face of it, a pure psychological affair from first to last?"

Greek sculpture is equally well defended.–

"The chiselled marble is itself the echo of poetic thought. Of some of these utterances,–these bodiless emanations, that hang, rainbow-like, about the marble, or breathe, like Memnon’s voice, at solemn minglings of light and darkness, to ears that listen,–these kardifvnai, heartspeakings, that make us feel, through the waste of years, how God has indeed ‘made of one blood all nations of the earth,’–I could have adventured a few words. But it is needless. It is the grossest possible mistake to call these things mere exhibitions of material beauty."

Again,

"It is too true that the Greek knew nothing of our Christian heaven, nor of the narrow way of self-renouncing faith that leads to it: Does it follow that we are to renounce, for the above incongruities, his marvellous grasp of all that Art can give us of grandeur, grace, power, and energy?–of serene enjoyment, silent grief, lightning vigour, or majestic thought?"

Mr. Ruskin’s fantasies are laughed down with much good sense. Parallelisms and analogies we all know are no arguments. What Art-scripture tells us, that because an animal has not a horn on his tail, a building should have no fore and aft pinnacle? Mr. Young says, wittily enough, reducing the ad absurdum in the severest elenchus.–

"Away, also, with all windows, civil, military, or ecclesiastical, on the ground floor. Where was ever a decent beast with eye in its sides, or its basement story? Put your door also in the upper regions. The door is the mouth: Was it not the very condemnation of the serpent that it should have its mouth on the ground and lick the dust? But what mean you by that straight roof? Beasts have dorsal ridges. Yes; but what beast did you ever see,–horse, ass, ox, camel, dromedary, crocodile, porpoise,–with such a ridge as men called architects have contrived to hit on? Away also with all those straight columns. Show me a straight leg in comparative anatomy. Stag, stork, dog, hog, dragon-fly,–all have joints more or less visible, even ‘The elephant hath joints, though not for courtesy.’ And, touching columns,–remember that all your noblest buildings have but two. Man is the first of animals, and he is biped. The ignoble are centipedes, caterpillars, and such like."

Again, in the same tack,

"If to require the inferior workman to do the same thing twice is the bitter bondage, you are bound to carry out the practical inference. The inferior mason belongs to the common lump, and can plead no specialty, whether of mind, body, or estate. Carry out, then, the great principle. Write your Magna Charta in becoming language,–no two columns alike, no two hats, no two shoes, no two shirts, no two stockings, no two buttons, no two button-holes. Don’t say stockings and shoes must match; that touches at best but a single pair."

Of self-contradictions, of course, our shrewd author points out a legion. In one place Mr. Ruskin laughs at men preaching mere belief, and in others, avows it as his own principle. In one place, architectural decoration must be purely conventional, and in another, it must be purely imitative; he laughs at Flemish hair painting, and yet laments its absence in Hunt; he praises the Parthenon without its friezes, and then says, without them, it is a body without eyes. But patience wearies of this police court task when everyone knows the prisoner is guilty. Away with him as a lawgiver of Art!

Mr. Ruskin’s faults are well sketched in Mr. Young’s conclusions.–

"If he prefer the course he has hitherto chosen–if he will continue to generalise on casual impressions, and build up irrefragable systems on partial views and fleeting humours–if, confident of conclusions he has given himself scarce the time to clothe in language, he will rush, comet-like, not only against other people’s facts and principles, but against his own–if, whilst he has the right to shine as a star, he will first assume the sun, and then do the office of a satellite–he must not be surprised at the very philosophical consequences: he must not take offence if, whilst the careless are awhile amazed, and the undiscriminating are held in thrall, the prudent pause, the wise lament, and, one after another, admitting the chaotic truths struck out, and the power and beauty of the performance, utter words of caution, point the reluctant moral, and pronounce even that glittering and seductive eloquence to be but "The gilded halo hovering round decay."

The English Art-world is young in Art, and is something like a prodigal not come of age, who lavishes his money on bubble picture-dealers, and is led by any quack who can gabble pleasantly of "the grace of Guido and the Corregiosity of Correggio." A man of brilliancy like Mr. Ruskin arises, and leads us away into the wilderness like the Egyptian who beguiled the Jews in the Acts. He can spin and weave logic; he can blow glass till it looks as strong and fine as silk; he can dye and colour sand like an Eastern juggler; he can draw flowers, bushels of them, from a hat; he can pour wine from an empty bottle; he can call names and scold; he can chop and sting; he can do all a clever fellow can do, and though he deceive, still amuse. He is sincere and honest,–so was Mohammed, and so was Muggleton, the mad tailor, that predicted the immediate Millennium; so was, perhaps, Joe Smith, and so certainly was the foolish King of Kent.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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