Friday, April 5, 2013


I am easy to please.  All seems right with the world when, on a sunny spring day, I can hear the hum of lawnmowers from various points in the distance, and the scent of freshly-cut grass arrives on a soft breeze.  Who says that there is no such thing as Paradise on Earth?

Here is John Ruskin (in one of those extravagant, wide-ranging apostrophes of his that make reading his books such a delight):

"The Greek, we have seen, delighted in the grass for its usefulness; the medieval, as also we moderns, for its colour and beauty.  But both dwell on it as the first element of the lovely landscape; we saw its use in Homer, we see also that Dante thinks the righteous spirits of the heathen enough comforted in Hades by having even the image of green grass put beneath their feet; the happy resting-place in Purgatory has no other delight than its grass and flowers; and, finally, in the terrestrial paradise, the feet of Matilda pause where the Lethe stream first bends the blades of grass.

Consider a little what a depth there is in this great instinct of the human race.  Gather a single blade of grass, and examine for a minute, quietly, its narrow sword-shaped strip of fluted green.  Nothing, as it seems there, of notable goodness or beauty.  A very little strength, and a very little tallness, and a few delicate long lines meeting in a point, -- not a perfect point either, but blunt and unfinished, by no means a creditable or apparently much cared-for example of Nature's workmanship; made, as it seems, only to be trodden on to-day, and to-morrow to be cast into the oven; and a little pale and hollow stalk, feeble and flaccid, leading down to the dull brown fibres of roots.  And yet, think of it well, and judge whether of all the gorgeous flowers that beam in summer air,  and of all strong and goodly trees, pleasant to the eyes or good for food, -- stately palm and pine, strong ash and oak, scented citron, burdened vine, -- there be any by man so deeply loved, by God so highly graced, as that narrow point of feeble green."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume III (1856), Part IV, Chapter XIV, Section 51 (italics in original).

Stanley Spencer, "Landscape, Cookham Dean" (c. 1939)

Wordsworth considers the subject in the following untitled poem.

This Lawn, a carpet all alive
With shadows flung from leaves -- to strive
     In dance, amid a press
Of sunshine, an apt emblem yields
Of Worldlings revelling in the fields
     Of strenuous idleness;

Less quick the stir when tide and breeze
Encounter, and to narrow seas
     Forbid a moment's rest;
The medley less when boreal Lights
Glance to and fro, like aery Sprites
     To feats of arms addrest!

Yet, spite of all this eager strife,
This ceaseless play, the genuine life
     That serves the stedfast hours,
Is in the grass beneath, that grows
Unheeded, and the mute repose
     Of sweetly-breathing flowers.

William Wordsworth, Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems (1835).

James Torrington Bell, "Carnoustie House" (1962)

Wordsworth's poem fits well with some further remarks by Ruskin:

"Observe, the peculiar characters of the grass, which adapt it especially for the service of man, are its apparent humility, and cheerfulness.  Its humility, in that it seems created only for lowest service, -- appointed to be trodden on, and fed upon.  Its cheerfulness, in that it seems to exult under all kinds of violence and suffering.  You roll it, and it is stronger the next day; you mow it, and it multiplies its shoots, as if it were grateful; you tread upon it, and it only sends up richer perfume.  Spring comes, and it rejoices with all the earth, -- glowing with variegated flame of flowers, -- waving in soft depth of fruitful strength.  Winter comes, and though it will not mock its fellow plants by growing then, it will not pine and mourn, and turn colourless and leafless as they.  It is always green; and is only the brighter and gayer for the hoar-frost."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XIV, Section 52 (italics in original).

A side-note:  given Ruskin's invention of the term "pathetic fallacy," it is interesting to find him describing the "humility" and "cheerfulness" of grass.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, how delightful to see some of John Ruskin's words here, another writer far too neglected today. I particularly like the second of the Ruskin passages " Spring comes, and it rejoices with all the earth....
It brought back to my mind some words by Richard Jefferies:

"Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope. Consider the grasses and the oaks, the swallows, the sweet blue butterfly—they are one and all a sign and token showing before our eyes earth made into life.

“There is a hill to which I used to resort ...
The labour of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home.
On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continual effort, which carried away the sense of oppression.
The familiar everyday scene was soon out of sight; I came to other trees, meadows, and fields; I began to breathe a new air and to have a fresher aspiration... moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire.
The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here.
By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence.
I felt myself, myself.”

The first quote is from one of his natural history essays, The pageant of summer, and the second from his autobiography; The story of my heart.

Something entirely separate. Last week,on Good Friday in fact we had on BBC Radio 4 a wonderful production of R.S Thomas's verse play, The Minister, followed by a reading of his long poem The airy tomb. I know you have posted poems by Thomas in the past. I am not sure if it may be possible for you to listen via the internet in some way. Sorry I'm not very technically minded. If you are able to access the BBC , they are worth listening to.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you very much for the passages from Richard Jefferies. I confess that I am not as familiar with his work as I would like to be: I have only read portions of Edward Thomas's biography of him, and parts of The Hills and the Vales (which Thomas wrote an introduction to in a 1909 edition). I need to explore him further.

As to Ruskin, I don't read him as often as I ought to. Whenever I do, I am always exhilarated by his flights across any and all areas of knowledge that spring to his mind as he addresses a topic. His movements from minute particulars to universal truths (and back) never cease to amaze (and educate) me. Recently, I have been reading his detailed discussion of all aspects of trees in Modern Painters, and I have been left shaking my head in wonder at his energy.

Thank you for mentioning the R. S. Thomas programs on BBC4. I will see if I can access them. BBC radio is usually accessible over here, but television less so.

It is good to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by.

John Ashton said...

I suspect I am rather like you, Mr Pentz, when it come to Ruskin. He wrote such a vast amount, covering such an amazing range. When I read him I find it is often fairly short passages and then I have to stop, to take a breath almost to try and digest what I've been reading. His ideas seem to bounce one off another and with such detail. I have recently read a very good biography of him by Tim Hilton, which was in two volumes and a long read itself.
I've only just come back to Richard Jefferies myself. I read him a lot when I was younger and rather forget about him for a long time, so it was delightful to rediscover.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I know exactly what you mean about reading Ruskin. I mentioned that I was now reading a section on trees (leaves actually) by him in Modern Painters (Volume 5, Part VI: "Of Leaf Beauty"). I have never before been so thoroughly educated about everything (and I mean everything) to do with leaves: aesthetic, scientific, artistic, literary, philosophical, theological, et cetera.

It is astounding: he moves methodically from "the bud," "the stem," "the branch" and then on to "The Leaf Shadows" and "Leaves Motionless." Next up: clouds. As you say, it can be overwhelming. But, although it is a cliche to say so, there really is nobody quite like him.

Yes, Tim Hilton's biography is excellent, isn't it? It is very entertainingly written, and, despite the fact that he has obviously immersed himself in Ruskin, it is not a hagiography. Nor is it an exercise in tearing-down, as is often the case these days.

Thank you again for mentioning Jefferies: I need to delve into his work at greater length.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for the follow-up comments.