The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin
In the eyes of twentieth century readers, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin share the reputation of Victorian sage. Hidden behind their beards, they seem to dominate the nineteenth century, prophets in tandem. They were, in fact, separated by a generation, and Ruskin came to look up to Carlyle as a father figure. Indeed, in later years, after his own father died, Ruskin actually addressed Carlyle as “Papa.” Ruskin first read Carlyle in 1841, became interested in him between 1843 and 1847 after correcting his initial bias against what he felt was the older man’s “bombast,” and met him sometime between 1847 and 1850. Carlyle’s fierce moralism stood in contrast to Ruskin’s aestheticism; Carlyle’s tracts urged moral and social reform, while Ruskin’s Modern Painters (Vol. I, 1843; Vol. II, 1846) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) dealt exclusively with art and theories of beauty. At the same time, however, Ruskin was still under the religious influence of his parents and very much the Evangelical sectarian; Carlyle was liberal, broad, the preacher of a secular faith.
Thus, from the start, they shared a deep concern for humanity. Ruskin’s aesthetics and Carlyle’s morality were the two sides of one face: modern humanism. Carlyle was excited by Ruskin’s “expression,” his intrinsic “poetry.” The author of “The Hero as Prophet” recognized in the younger man a vehicle for the corrective voice of inspired “Nature,” one more revelation of spirit in the world. Carlyle perceived and encouraged the moral bent of Ruskin’s mind. Gradually, the philosopher of beauty became a social critic and moral reformer. The movement from Modern Painters through The Stones of Venice (1851) to Unto This Last (1860) is clear to the most cursory reader; one sees a believer in art turning into a believer in the absolute necessity of a morally inspired social reform. Carlyle’s attack on the selfishness of the merchant class in Past and Present (1843) is repeated with vigorous sublimity in Ruskin’s challenge to the merchant in Unto This Last: Give your life, as the soldier would his, in order to “provide” for the common welfare. One can trace in the correspondence between the two men precisely this development in Ruskin—so much so that one could argue that Ruskin may very well be Carlyle’s greatest achievement. In his “infinite variety”—as art historian, aesthetic philosopher, social reformer, and more—Ruskin stands as an embodiment of all the heroes Carlyle had celebrated in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).
Yet, it was precisely Ruskin’s...
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