Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Review: Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a prolific English art critic and historian, poet, and writer. His theories were taken up by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and his acquaintances included Dante Rossetti, William Hunt, Lewis Carroll, and Thomas Carlyle. Many homeschool Moms would simply recognize him as the author of the children's fantasy, King of the Golden River.

The small book, Sesame and Lilies is only one of his 250 works and is a written transcript of 3 lectures that Mr. Ruskin delivered to the Royal College of Science, Dublin 1868.

Book lovers will appreciate the first lecture, in which Ruskin urges his audience to read the best books. He makes a distinction between "books of the hour" and books for all time. In his own words:

"life is short....have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that; that what you lose today you cannot gain tomorrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid or your stable-boy, when you may talk with queens and kings?"

There are lots of bloggers mapping out their reading lists this week! Take a look at Carol's list here, the winter reading challenge at Seasonal Soundings, and Semicolons huge array of tempting reads.

Ruskin speaks also of developing the habit of "looking intensely at words" and advocates learning the "true descent and ancient blood" of the words we handle. Keep a good dictionary handy and patiently track the evolution and meanings of words you are not absolutely clear on. Illustrating with an excerpt from Milton's Lycidas, which he classifies a "true book", Ruskin is at his best. He does a masterful job dissecting the reading.

At the close of the lecture, the well-to-do audience is challenged to use their influence to promote the buying of books and the building of libraries rather than investing in weapons of war. Ruskin's passion is unmistakable; he seems to be pleading for the soul of the nation.

The "Lilies" portion of the book deals with the education of young ladies. His approach is aimed at nailing the pride of those born into luxury and privilege. He urges practical domestic skills to be taught and used so that the poor are fed, clothed, and sheltered.

It is an interesting paradox that, while taking aim at the pride of the elite, Mr. Ruskin himself comes across as bombastic. I was fascinated by his genius and spice, but felt as though he was seeking to right the wrongs of society by bearing down hard with fire and brimstone.

His words are used elegantly and intelligently, yet I felt no warmth or lingering glow upon closing the book. I share the desire to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor. I share in his observation that young "lilies"should be taught domestic arts so that they may be of service to others. But my motivation is different. For me, service is internally motivated by love. Ruskin uses his great gift with words to motivate people to action externally; more as an act of duty. At times I sensed he was seeking even to shame people into action.

I am not sorry I read the book. Many wonderful quotes I have gleaned from its pages. The verbal fireworks were enjoyable. But I find myself unchanged inwardly by Ruskin's passion.

I have referred to Ruskin a couple of times in my previous posts, here and here.

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