Friday, April 2, 2010

John Ruskin: "Fret"

Sometimes John Ruskin the crank and curmudgeon wears me out.  However, he always redeems himself.  Here is one example of why patience is often rewarded.

In 1878, Frederick James Furnivall (one of the founders of the Oxford English Dictionary) was asked what the word "fret" meant in the following lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:  "And you grey lines/That fret the clouds are messengers of day."  Furnivall "referred the point to Ruskin." In a letter dated September 29, 1878, Ruskin responded:

"You say not one man in 150 knows what the line means:  my dear Furnivall, not one man in 15,000, in the nineteenth century, knows, or ever can know, what any line - or any word means, used by a great writer.  For most words stand for things that are seen, or things that are thought of; and in the nineteenth century there is certainly not one man in 15,000 who ever looks at anything, and not one in 15,000,000 capable of a thought.  Take the intelligence of this word in this line for example -- the root of the whole matter is, first, that the reader should have seen, what he has often heard of, but probably not seen twice in his life -- 'Daybreak.'  Next, it is needful he should think, what 'break' means in that word -- what is broken, namely, and by what.  That is to say, the cloud of night is Broken up, as a city is broken up (Jerusalem, when Zedekiah fled), as a school breaks up, as a constitution, or a ship, is broken up; in every case with a not inconsiderable change of idea, and addition to the central word."

Ruskin then proceeds from "break" to "rent," to "torn," back to "fret," to "fringe," to "friction," to "breakers" (quoting Tennyson's line "Break, break, break on its cold gray stones").  From there he moves on to the Etruscans, then to Florence, to "dew on a cabbage-leaf -- or better, on a grey lichen, in early sunshine" (I love that qualifier: "in early sunshine"!), thence further back to "the Temple of the Dew of Athens, and gold of Mycenae, anyhow; and in Etruria to the Deluge, I suppose."

But he is not yet done: "Well, then, the notion of the music of morning comes in -- with strings of lyre (or frets of Katharine's instrument, whatever it was) and stops of various quills; which gets us into another group . . ."  And onward we proceed to "plectrum," "plico," "plight," a line from Milton, "the fretful porcupine," and "the plight of folded drapery."

At last we are finished:  "I think that's enough to sketch out the compass of the word.  Of course the real power of it in any place depends on the writer's grasp of it, and use of the facet he wants to cut with."

John Ruskin, Arrows of the Chace, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXIV (1908), pp. 535-537.

This is the kind of round-the-universe voyage that one looks for (and waits for) in Ruskin.  You are beginning to lose faith in him -- he is getting tiresome -- and then one of these voyages comes out of nowhere. What carries you along is the passion of the whole thing:  here is a man (with all his faults) who loved the world -- down to its smallest details.  Entering into this whirlwind of perception can be trying, but -- if you are lucky -- exhilaration, and a different way of looking at the world, may follow.

                                  John Ruskin, Trees in a Lane.

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