John Ruskin was an English art critic, draughtsman, social thinker, watercolorist, and philanthropist. He was a leading figure in the Victorian period. He wrote on various topics and subjects that include literature, education, geology, myth, architecture, botany, ornithology, and political economy.

The way his subject matters were diverse; his literary forms and writing styles were diverse. He wrote poetry, essays, treatises, lectures, manuals, a traveling guide, a fairy tale, and letters. He was also a painter and made sketches and paintings of plants, rocks, landscapes, and architectural structures.

Writing Prompts on Mark Twain Quotes
Writing Prompts on Mark Twain Quotes

Ruskin elaborated style in his earlier works of art and then gradually changed to a more understandable language. He used everyday language to communicate his ideas effectively. He focuses on the connection between art, nature, and society. 

In the later part of the 19th-century, Ruskin was a highly influential figure, and he remained an aspiring figure until the First World War. From WW I to the 1950s, there was a relative decline in his reputation. However, in the 1960s, his recognition and reputation started to climb the mountain with the publication of critical studies of his work. In the modern world, he has been recognized for his concerns and ideas, and his anticipated interest in craft, sustainability, and environmentalism.

A Short Biography of John Ruskin

John Ruskin was born on 8th February 1819 in south London to John James Ruskin and Margaret Ruskin. His father was a wine merchant, and his mother was a daughter of a pub proprietor. Ruskin spent his early childhood in the Scottish countryside. At the age of 4, he shifted to South London’s Herne Hill. His early life in rural areas made him a lifelong lover of nature.

 He received his early education at home. He got influenced by the watercolor collection of his father, and Protestantism. He started writing poems at the age of seven. He would read and interpret the Bible on a daily basis. This interpretation made his basis for the criticism.

He traveled all across the world by his family wealth. Ruskin was highly inspired by the scenic landscape of the Lake District. He wrote the poem “On Skiddaw and Derwent Water” after the beautiful scenery of the Lake District. He had been influenced by Romantic poets such as Byron, Wordsworth, and Scoot. He also collected a mineral’s dictionary. 

He also published articles (three in number) on geology when he was only 15 years old. He attended Oxford University and studied classics and mathematics. Though he was a brilliant student, he left university in 1844 after a period of illness with a double fourth degree.

 Ruskin was a great and talented artist. His drawing skills were as instinctual as his eating and drinking skills. From 1840 to 1870, he was a very prolific painter, and his watercolors imitated the expressive style of J.M.W. Turner.

In 1843, at the age of 24, Ruskin wrote his first volume of Modern Painter – Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters. This book was highly influential and hurled an attack on the artistic establishment. In this book, Ruskin criticized the painters of the 17th century. He promoted the precise documentation of nature.

In 1849, Ruskin wrote The Seven Lamps of Architecture. The ideas Ruskin had in the book is expanded in The Stones of Venice published in 1851. The book is a three-volume treatise on the art and architecture of Venice.

In 1862, he published Unto This Last. The book is considered as one of the best books of Ruskin even though it is not concerned with the criticism of art. The book is about the issues of capitalist economics. He also talks about the dehumanization resulting from the industrial revolution.

In 1848, Ruskin married a beautiful lady Euphemia Gray (nickname: Effie). She was a family friend and ten years younger than him. The marriage was not a happy one because of many reasons. In 1852, Effie fell in love with John Everett Millais, for whom she has modeled a painting. In 1954, the marriage between Effie and Ruskin was annulled after a lot of public scandals.

In 1865, Ruskin fell in love with a young pupil Rosa La Touche. However, the two could not marry. In 1875, Rosa died at the age of 27. The death of Rosa made Ruskin turn to spiritualism. It was during this time that Ruskin started showing his first signs of severe psychological distress. He was haunted by mental illness throughout his life.

In 1869, Ruskin was appointed at Oxford University as Slade Professor of Fine Arts. In 1871, he established his own school, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. In 1879, Ruskin resigned from Oxford University; however, in 1883, he resumed his Professorship. In the following year, he resigned again.

During that time, his health started deteriorating. He put his political thoughts into practice and started writing for the monthly magazine Fors Clavigera. In 1975- 1977, he wrote a traveling guide Morning in Florence. From 1880 to 1885, he wrote another travel guide, The Bible of Amiens.

In 1871, Ruskin purchased a house Brantwood, in Lake District. The house is now standing as a museum for the works of Ruskin. He lived for the rest of his life in Brentwood.  He suffered from depression in the late 1870s that continued till his death. Ruskin also underwent critical episodes, which could be a bipolar disorder. On 8th January 1900, he died of influenza at the age of 80.

John Ruskin’s Writing Style

In the history of English Prose, Ruskin occupies a prominent position. Certainly, Ruskin is the utmost mastery of the style of English prose. In the Victorian era, grand style and grand language in prose and poetry were widely used. However, Ruskin contributed to the English prose without employing the grand style or the antithesis and similes of Lylyan and the balance and parallelism of Johnson.

Ruskin employed a flexible language and bent it according to his use. He used simple language in the eulogy, picture description, argument, personal appeal, and persuasion. Even though he had carefully read Dr. Johnson, Alexander Pope, and Hooker, Ruskin sustained the uniqueness and individuality in his style. Now, he is regarded as the master of the English language.

The earlier prose writing of Ruskin is ornamental and gorgeous. He employed outstanding descriptive passages. These passages demonstrate his tendency and feeling for the beauty of color and form and use of superlatives. Ruskin started his literary career as art-critic. In literary expressions, he could not avoid employing picturesque.

For example, in his book Modern Painters, he employed a rhetorical and poetic touch. He used phrases such as “flashing fullness of dazzling light,” “waves drink, and the clouds breathe,” and “bounding and burning in the intensity of Joy” for ornamentation. Ruskin illustrates his mastery of motion, sound, and color of words. He illustrates his richness and power in the illustration of scenic beauty.

However, in the later prose works, particularly his works on socio-economic writings, he employed simpler sentences. He did not overload his works ornaments. Ruskin gives clear arguments in his later works to convince the readers. He expressed his standpoint in clear-cut and plain style. In his later works, there is no obscurity or vagueness. Hu puts facts forwards in a more convincing and dynamic manner. In his book Work, Ruskin writes:

“You knock a man into a ditch, and then you tell him to remain content in the position in which providence has placed him. That is modern Christianity.”                                                                 

The principle style Ruskin employed in his works in rhythm. The rhythmic quality of Ruskin is admired by Saintsbury by saying that his works often cross the boundary between meter and rhythm, thus creating willful lawlessness and want of self-criticism. Therefore, his work turns out to be blank verse. The rhythmic flow of his sentences is influenced by the Bible. Rhythm is created in his works because of his choice of words and imagery. For example, in his book Unto This Last, Ruskin writes:

 “Ye sheep without a shepherd, it is not the posture that has been shut from you, but the presence.”

The length of sentences is another distinguishing quality of Ruskin’s style. Since the seventeenth century, Ruskin is the first writer who wrote sentences of almost twenty or thirty lines, even of one page. His sentences contain 200, 250, or 280 words with a single pause. Each sentence contains more than 50 commas, semi-colons, and colon. Despite the long sentences, his sentences have a symphonious flow, blended images, and harmony of tone. The words are simple and complete and the passage is read without any difficulty in comprehension. His book Work is filled with examples of long sentences.

In his works, Ruskin shows biases towards the scriptural allusions and phrases and the language of the Bible. His style and diction are made through this biasedness. His works are saturated with the phrases from the Bible, and he employed them with any effort. The reading and interpreting the Bible in his childhood influenced his writing style greatly. He had remembered verses of the Bible and relates those verses with everyday life. 

For example, the notion of rich and poor for Ruskin was not separable from the Dives and Lazarus.  The plentiful use of references and phrases from the Bible made him a morally earnest writer and contributed to his prophetic passion. When addressing the common people, who deeply believe in the Bible, the references from the Bible proved to be very useful. For example, in his lecture on Work, Ruskin employed almost sixty references from the Bible and text of scriptures.

Ruskin employed an extraordinary descriptive power. His style of description is not equal to any English prose writer. The employment of such a description is only possible for the landscape artist, a painter. His description of landscape and nature is the result of his poetic imagination.

The writing style of Ruskin also contains sarcasm and irony. Though Ruskin employed keen irony, it is not as harsh as swifts’. He employed sweet, gentle, and tolerant irony like Addison and Chaucer. In his lecture on the book Work, Ruskin shows his discontent with wealthy British citizens to carry their well-dressed children to church. He asserts that these people should also have sympathy for the poor little children on the streets. Ruskin employed the irony of the Christian Justice to say that it is blind and mute; if it is not blind, it is dilapidated; at day time, she does not perform her job but does it at night.

Satire is another powerful element in prose writing. He time and again criticizes London in his works by calling it a cricket ground of Lord without turf, clothless billiard table, and it has deep pockets without a pit at the bottom. He also satirizes by saying that the foul city of London is pouring out the poison from every pore.

The writing style of Ruskin is, therefore, incisive, effective, and imaginative. According to Harrison, it is a type of wit, clearness, wit, versatility, passion, and eloquence. His writing is simple but sublime, grand, and complex. His writing is sarcastic, persuasive, expository, and ironic. Sometimes, his tone is prophetic; at the same time, it is like a professor of economics. His writing has rhythmic and sonorous qualities. His writing style is the combination of passion and faith, and it also reconciles faithfulness with simplicity.

Shortcomings of Ruskin’s Style

Though there are certain shortcomings of Ruskin’s style, it is self-revelatory, like Montaigne and Charles Lamb. Unlike Cowper and Charles Lamb, it lacks laughter, good humor, and agreeable nonsense. His style is didactic. He writes as if he is delivering a sermon. His construction of style is quite often complicated. His works become ambiguous and boring by employing a lot of references from the Bible.

Ruskin’s thoughts do not appear to be in steady order, which makes his writing style inherently diffused. To achieve perfect style, Dr. Johnson suggested readers and writers spend their days and nights studying the style of Addison. Though Ruskin has studied Addison quite in detail, his works do not seem to hold his style. The style of Ruskin is the bow of Ulysses, which cannot be bent by anyone.

Ruskin’s style has been commented by Harrison by saying that indeed his style is not perfect; it is a model style that can be studied, followed, and cultivated.  Regardless of many defects, Ruskin is regarded as the master of English prose style, of simplicity, and of faultless ease. By adding harmony, animation, coloring, and resources of rich imagination, Ruskin extended the range of English Prose.

Works Of John Ruskin

Essays