Unto this Last
Perhaps this was his last endeavour and he gave himself to it with the same fierce love of all his previous ones, assisted, this time, by his failing faculties; for it was not without some relish that he watched himself decline.
Despite his advancing years, and his decision to "lay down his arms", he toiled incessantly in the thicket and scrub of his garden, trying to make some sense. Nothing could ever be done, by this man, simply for itself - nor even himself - but had to be part of some great plan or campaign: for mankind, for nature, for posterity. This was both his greatness and his limitation. He might have suspected it, and now he tried to rectify matters with his final testament. And there was a tinge of mission here, too.
It is almost impossible to find any historical figure, so exceedingly and diversely productive, so innovative and prophetic, who influenced so many influential people … Tolstoy, Proust, Gandhi, Turner….. who was acclaimed as the brightest star of his time, but who suffered such a shocking eclipse, in the space of just a few years.
Already now, Ruskin was losing faith that any of his ideas might survive or prevail; ideas which he had dearly paid for, out of his own pocket, with his flesh and blood and almost with his sanity.
He had been born a rich man. Now he was left but with but two possessions. The first being this Brantwood estate, upon which he was intent on demonstrating the good of the "bad lands". The second being the recollections of his own impossible life.
It was with this second property, on the pathways of the first, that Ruskin undertook a kind of reconciliation during this last season of silence. It was a labour, seemingly more laborious than any undertaken so far, because this could not be effected laboriously. It was his dilemma.
Four generations later, it is quite hard to understand this man. The author, the social innovator and the moral revolutionary, of the early years, is hard to interpret, without understanding the pompous convictions of the Victorian era. But the painter, the visionary, the mystic and the naturalist of his latter years can so easily be understood, simply by following his footsteps in his moorland garden.
They begin on the edge of Coniston waters and rise to the top of the first range of hills, the first section of which, was conceived by him as “Dante’s Purgatory” as if to materialize the gradual lightening of the “forest dark” of so much thinking, so many tortured cogitations, into a sphere of clear hearing and fair sight, glimpsing another country – his ‘paradises of terraces’.
Only his footsteps, in the gorse and fern from reservoir to cascade, or his view from his slate seat, reveal this impossible life and its zero re-setting.
Only the stations of his verdant, peripatetic trails ask those questions for which John Ruskin no longer expected replies.