“FORS” RESUMED (1880-1881)
Retirement at Brantwood was only partial. Ruskin’s habits of life made it impossible for him to be idle, much as he acknowledged the need of thorough rest. He could not be wholly ignorant of the world outside Coniston; though sometimes for weeks together he tried to ignore it, and refused to read a newspaper. The time when General Gordon went out to Khartoum was one of these periods of abstraction, devoted to mediaeval study. Somebody talked one morning at breakfast about the Soudan. “And who is the Soudan?” he earnestly inquired, connecting the name, as it seemed, with the Soldan of Babylon, in crusading romance.
“Don’t you know,” he wrote to a friend (January 8th, 1880):
“That I am entirely with you in this Irish misery, and have been these thirty years?—only one can’t speak plain without distinctly becoming a leader of Revolution? I know that Revolution must come in all the world—but I can’t act with Dan ton or Robespierre, nor with the modern French Republican or Italian one. I could with you and your Irish, but you are only at the beginning of the end. I have spoken,—and plainly too,—for all who have ears, and hear.”
The author of “Fors” had tried to show that the nineteenth-century commercialist spirit was not new; that the tyranny of capital was the old sin of usury over again; and he asked why preachers of religion did not denounce it—why, for example, the Bishop of Manchester did not, on simply religious grounds, oppose the teaching of the “Manchester School,” who were the chief supporters of the commercialist economy. Not until the end of 1879 had Dr. Fraser been aware of the challenge; but at length he wrote, justifying his attitude. The popular and able bishop had much to say on the expediency of the commercial system and the error of taking the Bible literally; but he seemed unaware of the revolution in economical thought which “Unto this Last” and “Fors” had been pioneering.
“I’m not gone to Venice yet,” wrote Ruskin to Miss Beever, “but thinking of it hourly. I’m very nearly done with toasting my bishop; he just wants another turn or two, and then a little butter.” The toasting and the buttering appeared in the Contemporary Review for February 1880; and this incident led him to feel that the mission of “Fors” was not finished. If bishops were still unenlightened, there was yet work to do. He gave up Venice, and resumed his crusade.
Brantwood life was occasionally interrupted by short excursions to London or elsewhere. In the autumn he had heard Professor Huxley on the evolution of reptiles; and this suggested another treatment of the subject, from his own artistic and ethical point of view, in a lecture oddly called “A Caution to Snakes,” given at the London Institution, March 17th, 1880 (repeated March 23rd, and printed in “Deucalion").