Home  »  Harvard Classics, Vol. 28 Essays  »  Introductory Note

Essays: English and American. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

John Ruskin

Introductory Note

JOHN RUSKIN (1819–1900), the greatest master of ornate prose in the English language, was born in London and educated at Oxford. He studied painting, and became a graceful and accurate draftsman, but he early transferred his main energies from the production to the criticism and teaching of art. In 1843 appeared the first volume of “Modern Painters,” and succeeding volumes continued to be published till it was completed by the fifth in 1860. The startling originality of this work, both in style and in the nature of its esthetic theories, brought the author at once into prominence, though for some time he was more attacked than followed. Meanwhile he extended his scope to include other fields. In “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849) and “The Stones of Venice” (1851–53) he applied his theories to architecture; in “Pre-Raphaelitism” (1851) he came to the defense of the new school of art then beginning to agitate England; in “Unto this Last” (1861) and many other writings he attacked the current political economy.

In spite of the great variety of the themes of Ruskin’s numerous volumes, there are to be found, underlying the eloquent argument, exposition, and exhortation of all, a few persistent principles. The application of these principles in one place is often inconsistent with that in another, and Ruskin frankly reversed his opinion with great frequency in successive editions of the same work; yet he continued to use a dogmatic tone which is at once his strength and his weakness.

The two lectures which constitute “Sesame and Lilies” deal ostensibly with the reading of books; but in characteristic fashion the author brings into the discussion his favorite ideas on ethics, esthetics, economics, and many other subjects. It thus gives a fairly comprehensive idea of the nature of the widespread influence which he exerted on English life and thought during the whole of the second half of the nineteenth century. Its style also, in its earnestness, its richness, and its lofty eloquence, exemplifies the pitch to which he brought the tradition of the highly decorated prose cultivated by De Quincey in the previous generation, a pitch of gorgeousness in color and cadence which has been surpassed by none.