Friday, April 30, 2010

Wittgenstein and "Progress"

I admire Ludwig Wittgenstein.  I do not admire the pack of academic philosophers, theorists, and other hyenas who have systematically misunderstood and misrepresented what he actually said.  Wittgenstein noticed the initial stages of this phenomenon, and he was angered and appalled.

Given the intellectual temper of our times, things have only gotten worse.  However -- have no fear! -- I do not intend to wade into that particular morass.  For a succinct discussion of the subject, I recommend Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher (1998), which contains a chapter recounting Magee's dismay and shock at the manner in which supposedly intelligent people ignored what was staring them in the face.

All that I wish to do is to suggest that we read Wittgenstein -- and listen to what he says.  Ignore the intermediaries.  And, as background, bear in mind stray facts like these: Tolstoy and Samuel Johnson (particularly the Prayers and Meditations) were important to him; he loved to watch American movies; he avidly read American detective stories.

This passage is from a draft of Wittgenstein's foreword to Philosophical Remarks (1930):

"This book is written for those who are in sympathy with the spirit in which it is written.  This is not, I believe, the spirit of the main current of European and American civilization.  The spirit of this civilization makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author.  This is not a value judgment.  It is not, it is true, as though he accepted what nowadays passes for architecture as architecture, or did not approach what is called modern music with the greatest suspicion (though without understanding its language), but still, the disappearance of the arts does not justify judging disparagingly the human beings who make up this civilization.
. . . . .
I realize then that the disappearance of a culture does not signify the disappearance of human value, but simply of certain means of expressing this value, yet the fact remains that I have no sympathy for the current of European civilization and do not understand its goals, if it has any.  So I am really writing for friends who are scattered throughout the corners of the globe.

It is all one to me whether or not the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work, since he will not in any case understand the spirit in which I write.  Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress'.  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure.  And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself.  For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves.

I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.

So, I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists and my way of thinking is different from theirs."

Again, my hope is that we read Wittgenstein, and forget about his interpreters.  And, always remember: clarity and perspicuity are very important words in his thought and writing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"The Only Brother I Ever Had": Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

It is generally recognized that but for his friendship with Robert Frost (they met in October of 1913, when Frost was living in England) -- and his decision in 1914 to enlist -- Edward Thomas would not have begun writing poetry.  That story has been told many times elsewhere (see, for example, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (1988) by John Walsh), so I will not repeat it here.

What I find remarkable is the strength of the connection between Frost and Thomas.  In a letter to Edward Garnett (who was also a friend of Thomas) after Thomas's death, Frost wrote:

"Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had.  I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life.  I hadn't a plan for the future that didn't include him."

Frost, Selected Letters (1964), quoted in Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life (1999), page 179.  Regarding the final sentence above, it should be noted that, prior to his enlistment, Thomas was seriously considering emigrating to America with his family in order to live near Frost and his family in New Hampshire.  In another letter, Frost wrote:  "We were together to the exclusion of every other person and interest all through 1914 -- 1914 was our year.  I never had, never shall have another year of such friendship."  Walsh, Into My Own, pages 180-181.

Even more touching is Frost's letter to Thomas's wife Helen after Frost learned of Thomas's death (Frost had since moved back to America):

"I knew from the moment when I first met him at his unhappiest that he would some day clear his mind and save his life. . . . I have had four wonderful years with him.  I know he has done this all for you:  he is all yours.  But you must let me cry my cry for him as if he were almost all mine too."

Robert Frost: A Life, pages 178-179.  But the last words should be from Frost's poetry.  He published this poem in 1920:

                     To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast,
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained --
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you -- the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lake Superior: Janet Lewis and the Group Of Seven

My recent visit to Lake Superior put me in mind of the following poem by Janet Lewis, as well as of paintings of Lake Superior by artists in the Group of Seven.


Remember for me the river,
Flowing wide and cold, from beyond Sugar Island,
Still and smooth, breathing sweetness
Into still air, moving under its surface
With all the power of creation.

Remember for me the scent of sweet-grass
In Ojibway baskets,
Of meadow turf, alive with insects.

Remember for me
Who will not be able to remember.
Remember the river.

The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, edited by R. L. Barth (2000).  According to Mr. Barth, the river of the poem is the St. Mary's River, which "flows generally from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, for a space forming the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada."  

                             Lawren Harris, Above Lake Superior

                            Lawren Harris, Lake Superior, Sketch III

                               A. J. Casson, October, Lake Superior

                             Lawren Harris, Clouds, Lake Superior

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Neglected Poets: C. H. Sisson

Even though he worked in government until the age of 58, C. H. Sisson (1914-2003) wrote a prodigious amount of poetry (both his own and translations) and prose.  He certainly was not unknown or unrecognized during his lifetime, but I believe that his work does not receive the attention it deserves.

          Good-day, Citizen

My life is given over to follies
More than I can exaggerate:
If I told you half you would imagine
That I am a very respectable person.

First, there is the folly of earning money
In order to have what is called independence:
You can admire that quality if you will,
I know what it is and do not admire it.

Secondly, there is the folly of spending it wisely,
So much for insurance, so much for the house,
Suitable provision for the children's education
Which for the most part they would rather not have.

Thirdly there would be, if that were not in fact all,
The supervening graces of domestic virtue
Everything paid up, honest as the day
But I am nearest to my own language in sleep.

A wonderful poem, and perhaps something of a surprise coming from a man who was described in the Daily Telegraph's obituary as "a doughty defender of traditional Anglicanism," whose "unfashionable high Tory views and . . . deeply-felt patriotism meant that he never found favour with the Left-liberal establishment, whose follies were a frequent theme of both his poetry and prose writings."  (A man after my own heart!)  Another fine poem in the same vein is "Money."

However, I do not wish to misrepresent Sisson's breadth and depth by citing these two somewhat acerbic poems (not that Sisson ever failed to call things as he saw them) -- they just happen to be long-time favorites of mine.  I could easily have begun with poems that have as their subjects the natural world, the classical world, theology, philosophy, or history.  (Throughout, he has a wicked sense of humor.)   There are more than 300 poems in his Collected Poems (published by Carcanet in 1998), so where does one begin?


Exactly: where the winter was
The spring has come:  I see her now
In the fields, and as she goes
The flowers spring, nobody knows how.
       The Mind of Man

The mind of man is nothing but
A repertoire of what is not,
Never was, and can never be:
So, at least, it is with me.

           The Media

The world is fabricated by
A gang of entertainers who
Have replaced God Almighty.

The universe, made in six days,
Is re-made every day by those
Who hear all that the newsman says,
For whom fact is replaced by gloze.

The air is full of noise,
The screen of caper:
Reality enjoys
No inch of paper.

The most expensive lies
Flourish in every home:
Great gulps of froth and foam
Win the first prize.

Go to the quiet wood
To hear the beating heart:
Leaf fall and breaking bud
Will play their part.

And so the truth is out
Which only quiet tells,
And as it does, its voice
Sounds like a peal of bells.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Edmund Blunden and Thomas Hardy

Edmund Blunden first met Thomas Hardy in July of 1922 at Max Gate.  The meeting was arranged by Siegfried Sassoon.  Sassoon noticed similarities between Blunden and Hardy:

He has a good deal in common with old Hardy.  A simplicity and honesty beyond praise, and a quality of being one with his work to which he has such a noble devotion.
. . .
Seeing T. H. soon after my visit to Blunden makes me aware of certain similarities in them.  B. of course is sensitive in the same way as T. H.  They share a sort of old-fashioned seriousness about everything connected with authorship.  Both are fundamentally countrified and homely.  Even in outward appearance they have a similarly bird-like quality.  Both enjoy talking about simple things.  It is a sublime freedom from sophistication.  My own spontaneously affectionate feeling for them both is identical.  With each of them I feel unembarrassed and able to chatter about commonplace matters in a commonplace way.  Two little 'men of genius.'  One is eighty-two and the other barely twenty-five.  Yet the difference in their ages seems a mere tiresome accident (as it is).  . . .  This affinity of B. and H. is one of the strangest things I have experienced.  Also both are essentially modest and unassuming.

Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries (edited by Rupert Hart-Davis).

Sassoon was correct about the "affinity" between Blunden and Hardy: the first visit went well, and Blunden and Hardy became friends.  (According to Barry Webb, Blunden's biographer, Hardy's sheep-dog Wessex "took an instant liking to Edmund -- an unusual reaction to strangers on Wessex's part."  Edmund Blunden: A Biography (1990), page 134.)  A year later, Blunden and Sassoon spent a week near Max Gate, visiting Hardy daily.

And, finally, there is this:  "On Hardy's death in 1928 his widow presented Edmund with Hardy's treasured copy of Edward Thomas's Poems as a memento of these visits."  Ibid, page 135.  This touching incident is included by Michael Longley in his wonderful poem "Poetry" (from The Weather in Japan), which brings together Blunden, Thomas, and Hardy.  The poem is centered upon another incident that appears in Webb's biography of Blunden (an incident that would be a fit subject for a poem by Hardy, come to think of it):

One find late in 1918 caused [Blunden] particular pleasure.  Billeted in a ruined house in Arras, he found a hole in the wall by the side of his bed.  Feeling inside, his hand rested on a copy of Edward Thomas's study of John Keats.  Thomas had been killed at the battle of Arras, and Edmund never gave up hope that it was the author's own copy:  "I fancied that I could see the tall, Shelley-like figure of the poet gathering together his equipment for the last time, hastening out of this ruined building to join his men and march into battle, and forgetting his copy of John Keats."

Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography, page 56; the quotation from Blunden is from an "autobiographical reminiscence" found in Blunden's papers.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wind. Leaves.

A benefit and bane of growing older: certain items of experience become yoked together, whether you want them to be or not.  A happy example: whenever I read one of these poems, it reminds me of the other two.

     Kayenta, Arizona, May 1977

I fall asleep to the sound of rain,
But there is no rain in the desert.
The leaves of the trader's little cottonwoods
Turn, turn in the wind.

Janet Lewis, The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, edited by R. L. Barth (2000).

        The Wind in the Tree

She has decided that she no longer loves me.
There is nothing to be done.  I long ago
As a child thought the tree sighed 'Do I know
Whether my motion makes the wind that moves me?'

F. T. Prince, Poems (1938).

And, finally, the last stanza of "The Trees" by Philip Larkin:

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

High Windows (1974).

                 George Mackley (1900-1983), The House by the Lake

Sunday, April 18, 2010

For Edward Thomas: "Ransoms"

This poem is by Leslie Norris (1921-2006).

      (for Edward Thomas)

What the white ransoms did was to wipe away
The dry irritation of a journey half across
England.  In the warm tiredness of dusk they lay
Like moonlight fallen clean onto the grass,

And I could not pass them.  I wound
Down the window for them and for the still
Falling dark to come in as they would,
And then remembered that this was your hill,

Your precipitous beeches, your wild garlic.
I thought of you walking up from your house
And your heartbreaking garden, melancholy
Anger sending you into this kinder darkness,

And the shining ransoms bathing the path
With pure moonlight.  I have my small despair
And would not want your sadness; your truth,
Your tragic honesty, are what I know you for.

I think of a low house upon a hill,
Its door closed now even to the hushing wind
The tall grass bends to, and all the while
The far-off salmon river without sound

Runs on below; but if this vision should
Be yours or mine I do not know.  Pungent
And clean the smell of ransoms from the wood,
And I am refreshed.  It was not my intent

To stop on a solitary road, the night colder,
Talking to a dead man, fifty years dead,
But as I flick the key, hear the engine purr,
Drive slowly down the hill, I'm comforted.

Norris appends this note to the poem:  "The white, star-shaped flowers of the Wood Garlic, Allium ursinum Liliaceae, are usually known as 'Ramsons'; but W. Keble Martin, in The Concise British Flora in Colour, (Ebury Press and Michael Joseph, 1965), calls them Ransoms.  They grow profusely from April to June in the beech hangers above Edward Thomas's house outside Petersfield.  Obviously, in the context of the poem, Ransoms means much more than the usual name."  Norris wrote a second poem about Thomas: "A Glass Window, In Memory of Edward Thomas, At Eastbury Church."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy

Siegfried Sassoon first met Thomas Hardy in November of 1918, just a few days before the Armistice of November 11.  Sassoon travelled to Max Gate, Hardy's home in Dorchester.  A friendship developed, and they met often during the final 10 years of Hardy's life.  (Sassoon later introduced Edmund Blunden to Hardy -- but that is a story for another time.)

In Siegfried's Journey (1945), Sassoon writes of an evening spent by the fire with Hardy:

Here was the real Hardy, unmeasurable by intellectual standards, who will haunt the civilized consciousness of our race when the age he lived in has become as remote as the Roman occupation of Britain.  He was sitting with one arm round his old friend 'Wessex' -- that unruly and vociferous sheep-dog whom he has enshrined in a poem.  But when he gazed at 'Wessie' he ceased to be Merlin.  The face of the wizard became suffused with gentle compassion for all living creatures whom he longed to defend against the chanceful injustice and calamity of earthly existence.

It is interesting to see Sassoon revisit this same evening in a poem that appears in Common Chords (1950):

            At Max Gate

Old Mr Hardy, upright in his chair,
Courteous to visiting acquaintance chatted
With unaloof alertness while he patted
The sheep dog whose society he preferred.
He wore an air of never having heard
That there was much that needed putting right.
Hardy, the Wessex wizard, wasn't there.
Good care was taken to keep him out of sight.

Head propped on hand, he sat with me alone,
Silent, the log fire flickering on his face.
Here was the seer whose words the world had known.
Someone had taken Mr Hardy's place.

In Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Jean Moorcroft Wilson tells this anecdote of Sassoon:  "[He] told his uncle Hamo, who knew Hardy personally, that after some gruelling experience in the trenches he would sit down calmly to read Hardy's Selected Poems, which he carried in his pocket."


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sea At Night

I recently visited the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.  The ice was gone, and the weather was cool and clear -- a wide open, brilliant blue world.  If you travel far enough north, you lose sight of the south (Wisconsin) shore.  It becomes easy to imagine that you are at the edge of a sea.  One night, the following two poems came to mind. 

The first is by John Freeman (1880-1929):

          The Hounds

Far off a lonely hound
Telling his loneliness all round
To the dark woods, dark hills, and darker sea;

And, answering, the sound
Of that yet lonelier sea-hound
Telling his loneliness to the solitary stars.

Hearing, the kennelled hound
Some neighbourhood and comfort found,
And slept beneath the comfortless high stars.

But that wild sea-hound
Unkennelled, called all night all round --
The unneighboured and uncomforted cold sea.

The second is by R. S. Thomas:

          The Other

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away.  It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless.  And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

       Caspar David Friedrich, "Northern Sea in the Moonlight" (1824)

Monday, April 12, 2010

In Praise Of "Blockhead"

There was a time -- a time more dignified than our own -- when commonly-used epithets were not invariably vulgar.  And thus I come in praise of "blockhead."

As is the case with most things under the sun, one can do no better than to start with Samuel Johnson.  And, sure enough, he is (in my humble opinion) the place to start when it comes to the use of "blockhead" as an insult.  First, The Great Cham's definition:  "A stupid fellow; a dolt; a man without parts."  "Part" is in turn defined by him as follows:  "[In the plural.]  Qualities; powers; faculties; or accomplishments."  Clear enough.

Now, let us (briefly) see Johnson in action.  In Boswell's Life, he is reported to have said of the poet Charles Churchill:  "No, Sir, I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still."  (Boswell, Life of Johnson (edited by George Birkbeck Hill), Volume I, page 35.)  In an amusing footnote to Johnson's comment, Birkbeck Hill states:  "See post, ii, 173, where Johnson called Fielding a blockhead."  (It is at times like this when one realizes what a treasure George Birkbeck Hill is: did anything about Johnson escape his notice?)

But please note this interesting observation by "Miss Reynolds":  "his dislike of any one seldom prompted him to say much more than that the fellow is a blockhead, a poor creature, or some such epithet."  (Birkbeck Hill, Johnsonian Miscellanies, Volume II, page 270, footnote 6, emphases in original text.)   This suggests that Johnson did not often resort to vulgar insults.

As a worthy successor to Johnson in the nineteenth century, I give you John Ruskin:  "When, in the close of my lecture on landscape last year at Oxford, I spoke of stationary clouds as distinguished from passing ones, some blockheads wrote to the papers to say that clouds never were stationary."  The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXIV, page 11.  Needless to say, Ruskin then went on to prove those "blockheads" wrong.  (I will save that story for another time.  Interestingly, George Birkbeck Hill and a passage from Homer figure in Ruskin's successful rebuttal of the "blockheads.")

So, the next time that you are provoked by someone, may I respectfully suggest that you consider the use of "blockhead."  You shall be in good company.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Edmund Blunden: "Things Quiet And Unconcerned"

Edmund Blunden is buried in the Holy Trinity churchyard in the village of Long Melford, Suffolk.

In addition to the phrase "Beloved Poet," these lines (from his poem "The Seers") are carved on his gravestone:
          I live still
          to love still
          things quiet
          & unconcerned.

The words bring to mind this poem by Ivor Gurney:

                 The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life: whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles,
Real, beautiful, is good; and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight, nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom -- revealed,
Fulfilled, used (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight:
Trefoil -- hedge sparrow -- the stars on the edge at night.

Considering what these two gentle souls endured (something which we can never come near to grasping), perhaps we can learn a thing or two from them about the value of "things quiet and unconcerned" and of "small trifles."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

No Escape, Part Four: A. S. J. Tessimond

We have previously heard from Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Cavafy on the "wherever you go, there you are" problem.  A. S.  J. Tessimond (1902-1962) (who I intend to write about as a neglected poet) has spoken on this subject as well.  That Tessimond at times worked in the advertising business (and wrote at least three poems on the business -- "Advertising," "The Ad-Man," and "Defence of the Ad-Man") may (or may not) be something to bear in mind as you think about the poem. 


You are in love with a country
Where people laugh in the sun
And the people are warm as the sunshine and live and move easily
And women with honey-coloured skins and men with no frowns on
     their faces
Sit on white terraces drinking red wine
While the sea spreads peacock feathers on cinnamon sands
And palms weave sunlight into sheaves of gold
And at night the shadows are indigo velvet
And there is dancing to soft, soft, soft guitars
Played by copper fingers under a froth of stars.

Perhaps your country is where you think you will find it.
Or perhaps it has not yet come or perhaps it has gone.
Perhaps it is east of the sun and west of the moon.
Perhaps it is a country called the Hesperides
And Avalon and Atlantis and Eldorado:
A country which Gaugin looked for in Tahiti and Lawrence in Mexico,
And whether they found it only they can say, and they not now.
Perhaps you will find it where you alone can see it,
But if you see it, though no one else can, it will be there,
It will be yours.

                 Caspar David Friedrich, "The Life Stages" (1835)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Neglected Poets: Norman Nicholson

Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) spent nearly his entire life in Millom, Cumbria.  He used these lines from W. H. Auden's Epistle to a Godson as the epigraph to his collection Sea to the West (1981):
     A poet's hope: to be,
     like some valley cheese,
     local, but prized elsewhere.
This is Millom:

            Five Minutes

'I'm having five minutes,' he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
'Just five minutes,' he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

"Five Minutes" appeared in The Pot Geranium (1954).  His 1972 collection, A Local Habitation, takes its name from these lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream: ". . . and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name."  Here is "Old Man at a Cricket Match":

             'It's mending worse,' he said,
             Bending west his head,
Strands of anxiety ravelled like old rope,
     Skitter of rain on the scorer's shed
                 His only hope.

             Seven down for forty-five,
             Catches like stings from a hive,
And every man on the boundary appealing --
     An evening when it's bad to be alive,
                 And the swifts squealing.

             Yet without boo or curse
             He waits leg-break or hearse,
Obedient in each to law and letter --
     Life and the weather mending worse,
                 Or worsening better.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Edward Thomas: A Beginning

It is difficult for me to decide where to begin when it comes to Edward Thomas.  So I shall begin where I began: with "Adlestrop."


Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

No doubt many of us first encountered Edward Thomas by discovering "Adlestrop" in an anthology.  And many of us recognized upon reading it that something had changed for us.  How so?  This is the best that I can come up with:  "At last.  This is the real thing."  Inadequate, I know.  But consider this: how many times have you had that thought and then, later, come to be disappointed? 

Perhaps I am merely repeating what Kingsley Amis has already said: 

"How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."

The Amis Anthology (1988), page 339.

Of course, this sounds like a silly (and unsophisticated) truism:  don't all poets speak honestly?  Well, yes.  And I shall not attempt to convince you that what Amis says about Edward Thomas is precisely correct and -- in the end -- all one needs to say.  But it is. 


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.