From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter LVII.

In furtherance of which contempt of the only vital question in religions matters, I find, in the preface to this pamphlet, the man, who was so long a favourite Prime Minister of England, speaking of the “indifferentism, scepticism, materialism, and pantheism, which for the moment are so fashionable” only as “negative systems.” He himself being, in fact, nothing else than a negative system, hundred-tongued to his own confusion; the ‘fashionable’ hairdresser, as it were, and Minister of extreme unction in the manner of pomade, to the scald and moribund English pates that still wear their religion decoratively, as a bob-wig with a pigtail, (carefully also anointing and powdering the remains of its native growth on the heads of their flunkies,) and from under such contracted and loose-sitting substitute for the Cavalier locks of their forefathers, look upon the round heads of the European cropped populace, only as “for the moment so fashionable,”— little thinking in what prison discipline the Newgate cut has its origin with the most of them, or in what hardship of war, and pressure of helmet on weary brows, for others. The fact being that I am, at this central time of my life’s work, at pause because I cannot set down any form of religious creed so simple, but that the requirement of its faithful signature by persons desiring to become Companions of St. George, would exclude some of the noblest champions of justice and charity now labouring for men; while, on the other hand, I cannot set down the first principles of children’s noble education without finding myself in collision with an almost resistless infidel mob; which, (I know not whether, in Mr. Gladstone’s estimate, fashionably or vulgarly,) is incapable of conceiving,— how much less of obeying,— the first laws of human decency, order, and honour. So that indeed I am fain to ask, with my Leeds correspondent, in last Fors, page 148, what is to be done for young folks to whom “music has little attraction, except in the form of dance, and pictures are nothing”?

With her pardon, pictures are much, to this class of young people. The woodcuts of halfpenny novels representing scenes of fashionable life,— those representing men murdering their wives, in the ‘Police News,’— and, finally, those which are to be bought only in the back-shop,— have enormous educational influence on the young British public: which its clergymen, alike ignorant of human nature and human art, think to counteract by decorating their own churches, forsooth,— and by coloured prints of the story of Joseph; while the lower tribes of them Moodys and Sankeys think to turn modern musical taste to account by fitting negro melodies to hymns.

And yet, my correspondent may be thankful that some remnant of delight is still taken in dance-music. It is the last protest of the human spirit, in the poor fallen creatures, against the reign of the absolute Devil, Pandemonium with Mammon on the throne, instead of Lucifer,— the Son of the Earth, Lord of Hell, instead of the Son of the Morning.

Let her stand in the midst of the main railroad station at Birmingham; and think what music, or dancing, or other entertainment fit for prodigal sons, could be possible in that pious and little prodigal locality. Let her read the account of our modern pastoral music, at page 90 of my fifth Letter,— of modern Venetian “Barcarolle,” page 245 of Letter 19, and 257 of Letter 20,— and of our modern Campanile, and Muezzin call to prayer, at page 165 of this Fors.

“Work is prayer”— thinks your Wakefield Mahometan;— his vociferous minaret, in the name, and by the name, of the Devil, shall summon English votaries to such worship for five miles round; that is to say, over one hundred square miles of English land, the Pandemoniacal voice of the Archangel-trumpet thus arouses men out of their sleep; and Wakefield becomes Wakeful-field, over that blessed space of acre-age.

Yes; my correspondent may be thankful that still some feeble lust for dancing on the green;— still some dim acknowledgment, by besotted and stupified brains, of the laws of tune and time known to their fathers and mothers remains possible to the poor wretches discharged by the excursion trains for a gasp of breath, and a gleam of light, amidst what is left to them and us, of English earth and heaven. Waltzing, drunk, in the country roads by our villages; yet innocently drunk, and sleepy at sunset; not, like their born masters and teachers, dancing, wilfully, the cancan of hell, with harlots, at seven in the morning.

Music, and dancing! They are quite the two primal instruments of education. Make them licentious; let Mr. John Stuart Mill have the dis-ordering of them, so that (see page 113 of Letter 12)— ” no one shall be guided, or governed, or directed in the way they should go,”— and they sink to lower and lower depth till the dance becomes Death’s; and the music a shriek of death by strychnine. But let Miriam and David, and the Virgins of Israel, have the ordering of them, and the music becomes at last the Eternal choir; and the Dance, the Karol-dance of Christinas, evermore.

Virgins of Israel, or of England, richly clad by your kings, and “rejoicing in the dance,” how is it you do not divide this sacred,— if sacred,— joy of yours with the poor? If it can ever be said of you, as birds of God,

“Oh beauteous birds, methinks ye measure
Your movements to some heavenly tune,”

can you not show wherein the heavenliness of it consists, to suppose your Sunday-school classes? At present, you keep the dancing to yourselves, and graciously teach them the catechism. Suppose you were to try, for a little while, learning the catechism yourselves; and teaching them to dance?

Howbeit, in St. George’s schools, this, the most ‘decorous,’ rightly taught, of all exercises, shall not fail of its due discipline to any class whatsoever: reading, writing, and accounts may all be spared where pupils show no turn to any of those scholarships, but music and dancing, never. Generally, however, it will be the best singers and dancers who ask for teaching also in literature and art; for all, there shall at least be the way open to these; and for none, danger or corruption possible in these. For in their libraries there shall be none but noble books, and in their sight none but noble art.

There is no real difficulty or occasion for dispute in choosing these. Admit the principle of selection, and the practice is easy enough; only, like all practical matters, the work must be done by one man, sufficiently qualified for it; and not by a council. If he err, the error may be represented by any one cognizant of it, and by council corrected. But the main work must be done single-handed.

Thus, for the use of the St. George’s Company, I shall myself, if my life is spared, write out a list of books which without any question will be found serviceable in their libraries;— a system of art instruction which will be secure so far as it reaches; and a list of purchaseable works of art, which it will be desirable to place in the national schools and museums of the company. With this list of purchaseable works, I shall name, as I have time, those in the museums of Europe which ought to be studied, to the exclusion of those on which time would be wasted.

I have no doubt that this work, though done at first for the St. George’s Company, will be found generally useful, and especially that the system of drawing arranged for them will in many respects supersede that of Kensington. I had intended to write it separately, for the use of schools; but after repeated endeavours to arrange it in a popular form, find that it will not so shape itself availably, but must consist of such broad statements of principle as my now enlarged experience enables me to make; with references to the parts of my other books in which they are defended or illustrated: and of directions for practice given as I can get illustrations of them prepared; leaving the systematization of them to be made by the master of each drawing school, according to the requirements of his scholars. (See page 54 of Letter 9th.)

For example of the impossibility of publishing on a system. It happens to be now fine weather here in Lancashire;— I am able, therefore, to draw out of doors; and am painting a piece of foreground vegetation, which I don’t want to be used by students till after at least fifty other exercises have been gone through. But I must do this one while light and life serve; and not wait till I am sixty, to do work which my eyes are not good enough for at fifty-five.

And if the readers of Fors think my letters too desultory, let them consider what this chief work, specified in page 55 of Letter 9th, involves. No one has the least notion of the quantity of manual labour I have to go through, to discharge my duty as a teacher of Art. Look at the frontispiece to Letter 20th which is photographed from one of my architectural sketches; and if you can draw, copy a bit of it;— try merely the bead moulding with its dentils, in the flat arch over the three small ones, lowest on the left. Then examine those three small ones themselves. You think I have drawn them distorted, carelessly, I suppose. No. That distortion is essential to the Gothic of the Pisan school; and I measured every one of the curves of those cusps on the spot, to the tenth of an inch; and I ought to be engraving and publishing those drawings, by rights; but, meantime, your Pisan Republicans dash the chapel down, for a job in rebuilding it;— and the French Emperor dashes every cathedral in France to pieces, to find his masons work,— and gets, for result, Reuter’s telegram, (page 119 of Letter 6th); and I, with my eyes full of dust and driven smoke, am obliged to leave my own work, and write Fors, more and more necessarily becoming principal, as I find all my other work rendered vain.