Open main menu

Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 132.djvu/68

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
62
MR. RUSKIN'S LETTER TO YOUNG GIRLS.

ley gave in their adherence to the new school, and strengthened the determination of Dryden. These were Davenant in his stilted, Gallicized dramas, Denham in his correct, hut cold and measured descriptive poem of "Cooper's Hill," and Waller in his smooth, emasculated lyrics. Neither of these had Cowley's genius or power, but they all had the tact to seize the turn of the tide to put out into new seas. To Cowley, and to Cowley alone, belongs the doubtful honor of inaugurating the reign of didactic and rhetorical poetry in England.

It may be asked, why restore a memory so justly dishonored, why recall to our attention a writer whose verses were but galvanized at the outset, and now are long past all hope of revival? In the first place, if the judgment of a whole generation has unanimously set an unambitious man on a pedestal of supreme reputation, I am more ready to doubt my own perception than to stigmatize so many cultivated persons with folly. No poet universally admired in his own age can be wholly without lasting merit. In the second place, Cowley in particular, whether judged as a man or as a littérateur, or even as a poet more or less malformed, has qualities of positive and intrinsic merit. I trust that my citations have at least proved so much. For the rest, I confess that I find a particular fascination in the study of these maimed and broken poets, these well-strung instruments upon whose throbbing strings destiny has laid the pressure of her silencing fingers. The masters of song instil me with a sort of awe. I feel embarrassed when I write of Milton. But Cowley has surely grown humble in the long years of his exile, and he will not exact too much homage from the last of his admirers. E. W. G.




From The Spectator.

MR. RUSKIN'S LETTER TO YOUNG GIRLS.

Mr. Ruskin has reprinted from a recent number of his curious Fors Clavigera a very striking little letter to young girls, which deserves attention on many accounts. In the first place, it is full of that delicately mixed playfulness and sæva indignatio against the world as it is, which has always characterized those who have tried to combine the gospel of righteousness with an attempt to interpret the claims of beauty on the human heart. It characterized Socrates. There never was a more delicate mixture of playful irony with a passionate sense of the interior clingingness of moral evil, than in the Socrates of Plato. Mr. Matthew Arnold, who, in our day, has been the great spokesman of the duty of combining the Greek teaching as to perfection and wholeness of purpose and action, with the Hebrew teaching as to righteousness of life, has shown precisely the same tendency to combine playfulness of manner with a deep belief in the value of self-renunciation or, as he calls it, "the secret of Jesus;" and here we have Mr. Ruskin inculcating in the same breath on young girls the duty of accepting even joyfully their disappointments and troubles, as trials coming straight from the hand of Christ, — teaching them that they must be literally ready to forsake all they have to be Christ's disciples, — and yet enjoining upon them to open their minds to the fullest degree to all the play and humor in life, "to cherish without straining the natural powers of jest in others and yourselves;" and even inculcating on them that if their parents permit it, they are to dress in bright colors (if becoming), though in plain materials. His style, too, is full of irony. Irony, indeed, appears, in its higher sense, to be of the very soul of Christianity, if only because the teaching that this world is ruled in its minutest details by the divine will, implies in itself so many ulterior and covert meanings for human destiny, — meanings of which the human instruments cannot possibly be conscious. There was assuredly a strange and mystic irony in Christ's words to James and John, when they asked to sit on his right hand and his left in his kingdom, and assured him that they could drink of the cup that he would drink of, and be baptized with the baptism with which be was baptized, and when he, in reply, declared to them that they would indeed drink of that cup and be baptized with that baptism, though in a sense and with results of which they had then no dream. But the irony of prophets of the beautiful has necessarily more of playfulness in it than the irony of the prophets of the good taken alone. The little incongruities of life strike the former as keenly as the greater incongruities of moral paradox. Mr. Ruskin, for instance, not perhaps in the best taste, calls his young friends "little monkeys" when he bids them, whatever they do, not dream of preaching to the poor, of whom, he says, the chances are that they are, without knowing it, infinitely truer Christians than their young-lady patrons; and he evidently