Ruskin's Childhood

by Edwin Watts Chubb

We are fortunate in having Ruskin's own account of how he passed his childhood days. In Præterita we have his autobiography. His description of his early days runs as follows:

"I am and my father was before me a violent Tory of the old school (Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's); I name these two out of the numberless great Tory writers, because they were my own two masters. I had Walter Scott's novels and the Iliad (Pope's translation), for my only reading when I was a child, on weekdays; on Sunday their effect was tempered by Robinson Crusoe and the Pilgrim's Progress, my mother having it deeply in her heart to make an evangelical clergyman of me. Fortunately, I had an aunt more evangelical than her mother, and my aunt gave me cold mutton for Sunday's dinner, which, as I much preferred it hot, greatly diminished the influence of the Pilgrim's Progress, and the end of the matter was, that I got all of the imaginative teachings of De Foe and Bunyan, and yet—am not an evangelical clergyman.

"I had, however, still better teaching than theirs, and that compulsorily, and every day of the week.

"Walter Scott and Pope's Homer were reading of my own election, but my mother forced me, by steady daily toil, to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart, as well as to read it every syllable through, aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis, to the Apocalypse, about once a year: and to that discipline—patient, accurate, and resolute—I owe, not only a knowledge of the book, which I find occasionally serviceable, but much of my general power of taking pains, and the best part of my taste in literature. From Walter Scott's novels I might easily, as I grew older, have fallen to other people's novels; and Pope might, perhaps, have led me to take Johnson's English, or Gibbon's, as types of language; but once knowing the 32d of Deuteronomy, or the 119th Psalm, the 15th of 1st Corinthians, the Sermon on the Mount, and most of the Apocalypse, every syllable by heart, and having always a way of thinking with; myself what words meant, it was not possible for me, even in the foolishest times of youth, to write entirely superficial or formal English, and the affectation of trying to write like Hooker or George Herbert was the most innocent I could have fallen into."

"As years went on, and I came to be four or five years old he (the father) could command a post-chaise and pair for two months in the summer, by help of which, with my mother and me, he went the round of his country customers (who liked to see the principal of the house, his own traveler); so that, at a jog-trot pace, and through the panoramic opening of the four windows of a post-chaise, made more panoramic still to me because my seat was a little bracket in front (for we used to hire the chaise regularly for the two months out of Long Acre, and so could have it bracketed and pocketed as we liked), I saw all the highroads, and most of the cross ones, of England and Wales, and great part of lowland Scotland, as far as Perth, where every other year we spent the whole summer; and I used to read the Abbot at Kinross, and the Monastery at Glen Farg, which I used to confuse with 'Glendearg,' and thought that the White Lady had as certainly lived by the streamlet in the glen of the Ochlis, as the Queen of Scots in the island of Loch Leven.

"To my farther benefit, as I grew older, I thus saw nearly all the noblemen's houses in England, in reverent and healthy delight of uncovetous admiration,—perceiving, as soon as I could perceive any political truth at all, that it was probably much happier to live in a small house, and have Warwick castle to be astonished at, than to live in Warwick castle and have nothing to be astonished at; but that, at all events, it would not make Brunswick Square in the least more pleasantly habitable, to pull Warwick castle down."

"Contented, by reason of these occasional glimpses of the rivers of Paradise, I lived until I was more than four years old in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, the greater part of the year; for a few weeks in the summer breathing country air, by taking lodgings in small cottages (real cottages, not villas, so-called) either about Hampstead, or at Dulwich, at 'Mrs. Ridley's,' the last of a row in a lane which led out into the Dulwich fields on one side, and was itself full of buttercups in spring, and blackberries in autumn. But my chief remaining impressions of those days are attached to Hunter Street. My mother's general principles of first treatment were, to guard me with steady watchfulness from all avoidable pain or danger, and, for the rest, to let me amuse myself as I liked, provided I was neither fretful or troublesome. But the law was, that I should find my own amusement. No toys of any kind were at first allowed, and the pity of my Croydon aunt for my monastic poverty in this respect was boundless. On one of my birthdays, thinking to overcome my mother's resolution by splendor of temptation, she bought the most radiant Punch and Judy she could find in the Soho bazaar, as big as a real Punch and Judy, all dressed in scarlet and gold, and that would dance, tied to the leg of a chair. I must have been greatly impressed, for I remember well the look of the two figures, as my aunt herself exhibited their virtues. My mother was obliged to accept them, but afterward quietly told me it was not right that I should have them, and I never saw them again.

"Nor did I painfully wish, what I was never permitted for an instant to hope, or even imagine, the possession of such things as one saw in toyshops. I had a bunch of keys to play with, as long as I was capable only of pleasure in what glittered and jingled, as I grew older I had a cart and a ball, and when I was five or six years old, two boxes of well-cut wooden bricks. With these modest, but I still think, entirely sufficient possessions, and being always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs, I soon attained serene and secure methods of life and motion, and could pass my days contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colors of my carpet; examining the knots in the wood of the floor or counting the bricks in the opposite houses; with rapturous intervals of excitement during the filling of the water-cart, through its leathern pipe, from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge; or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock, when he turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street. But the carpet, and what patterns I could find in bed-covers, dresses, or wall papers to be examined, were my chief resources, and my attention to the particulars in these was soon so accurate, that when at three and a half I was taken to have my portrait painted by Mr. Northcote, I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet."