Ruskin, Morris, and Intrinsic Values

English art critic and social essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote that the beauty of agrarian forms like grain sheaves and flower arrangements—objects of both natural and human dimension, represented true intrinsic value. To Ruskin, money and other types of modern capital have but ascribed “documentary claim to wealth.” Nineteenth century Romantic art and ideas, heavily influenced by medieval thinking and design, promoted use of natural forms in rural handicrafts, decorative arts, and furniture styles. Offering commentary on biblical agrarian metaphors, Ruskin offered new insights into ancient texts, as in Mark 4:28— “…first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”

Traditionally understood to mean the three principal growth stages of the same leaf, to Ruskin the physiology of plant development represented “deeper” changes that bring forth “useful and fruitful” purpose. “We thought the green was good—but it passes; we thought the gold was good—but the winds carry it away and it is gone. We thought at least the grain was good—but even that must be crushed under the millstone—and only at last the white is good.” He further reflected on agrarian sources of happiness: “To watch the grain grow, or the blossoms to set, to draw hard breath over the plough or spade; to read, to think, to love, to pray, are the things that make men happy.”

Hendrick Danckerts (c. 1625-1680), after Artus Quellijn (1609-1668), Untitled Cornucopia
Jacob van Campen, Afbeelding van’t Stadt Huys van Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1661)
Franklin County Museum Collection

Ruskin lamented the spiritual and psychological consequences of Western civilization’s drift from connectedness to earth evident in Enlightenment rationalist tendencies to dominate nature and indications of moral and spiritual decay. The Arcadian vision of Romantics like Ruskin and his devoted disciple William Morris (1834-1896) extolled agrarian experience through landscape and decorative arts not just to satisfy nostalgic appreciation for a threatened lifeway. To be sure, works by Romantic authors and artists can evoke a sense of melancholy distance and isolation. But rather than retreat to some mystical golden past, they wrote and painted as reactionary discourse to raise awareness of threats from industrial destruction and social dislocation, and to preserve authentic rural traditions from a perceived mechanized maw of modernity. “When the flowers and grass were regarded as means of life,” Ruskin wrote, “and therefore (as the thoughtful labourer of the soil must always regard them) with the reverence due to those gifts of God which were most necessary to existence,” the agrarian “solemnly connected in the heart with reverence” for Grecian Demeter and Roman Pomona.

The gentle manners and peaceful instruction of these elemental forces “to share and teach” contrasted with the classical warrior and exploitive spirit. Yet this primordial conflict earned Demeter the Olympians’ respect as well as that of mortals. “The Greek could hardly have trodden the formal furrow,” wrote Ruskin, “without reverent thoughts of the deities of the field and leaf, who gave the seed to fructify, and the bloom to darken….” Ruskin was also deeply influenced by the ideas and poetry of Britain’s foremost poet laureate of the era, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), whose most enduring poems, likeUlysses” and “Locksley Hall” (“the kindly earth”), were based on classical and medieval themes. Both of these works were written in the 1840s following publication a decade earlier of “The Lady of Shalott” (1833), which brought harsh criticism from moralizing Victorians for its unsettling rhetorical fatalism.

The melancholy Lady defies a curse in the land of Camelot and leaves her splendid isolation to momentarily know human experience though the decision will bring her death. The poem’s opening scene is set among “Long fields of barley and rye, that clothe the world and meet the sky” where those who know her lament are— 

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly,

Down to tower’d Camelot:

And by the moon the reaper weary,

Piling sheaves in uplands airy,

Listening, whispers, “Tis the fairy

Lady of Shalott.

The road that winds through the fields of barley and rye adjacent to the Shalott castle offer reflections of the real world seen by the Lady in her mirror during her solitary weaving. Grain is the radiant nexus between worlds imagined and experienced, and also suggests the noble if mortal nature of humanity.