Crown of Wild Olive

Having spent much time discussing fiction and poetry, I thought to branch out from such confines, to embrace literature as a whole. My first attempt, I decided, should be on Ruskin’s Crown of Wild Olives. John Ruskin, if you don’t know him, was a 19th century art critic, social critic, and Great Liberal. From him arose the popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites; inspirer of the new Gothic with his work The Stones of Venice, a discussion of the great architecture of Venice, and all around a fairly impressive man. So, what is Crown of Wild Olives? It is a collection of three lectures which Ruskin gave, entitled WorkTraffic, and War. The first one is a discussion on industriousness, and what is good and noble work for a man to do, which brings one closer to God, and makes one better for it. The second, given at the opening of a new Exchange, critiques their capitalism, and argues that a pointless quest for money and comfort brings neither, and ruin for others. The last one, perhaps the strangest of the three, being as it is something which could only be produced in the 19th century, argues that peace and comfort bring vice, for the nation grows lazy. War, true war of the heroic warrior, not the total bloody war of power-seeking nations, engenders virtue, greatness, and great literature.


A Pre-Raphaelite painting of John Ruskin; I forget who painted it…

But first, before I exam these, I want to discuss the introduction. It is a short enough one, and brings up a discussion of the industrial revolution’s waste; Ruskin describes how there was once a beautiful pond near where he grew up, and describes its beauty in equally beautiful words:

‘No clearer or diviner waters ever sang with constant lips of the hand which ‘giveth rain from heaven;’ no pastures ever lightened in spring time with more passionate blossoming; no sweeter homes ever hallowed the heart of the passer-by with their pride of peaceful gladness—fain-hidden—yet full-confessed.’

This is why I love Ruskin; beyond any of his art theories, his social critiques; Ruskin could write, and he could inspire, and paint images like few writers can. For me, this is one of his best descriptions, a beautiful rendition of a pond, arousing one’s own desire for the sublime peace and beauty. Yet Ruskin then describes its waste, how it is filled with refuse and rubbish, left there for ease. Sad. From then, the introduction describes how pubs of his day would compete with one another with ridiculous looking ornaments, all of which profited only the greedy man who made and sold them to the pubs. Another well done description emerges, as he says that, in olden days, a robber would force himself into a pub with sword, and make off with the man’s money. Nowadays, he convinces the poor man that he needs whatever rubbish is being sold. Either way, the poor man is no better off, only tricked.

Now for Work. In this lecture, Ruskin discusses how time spent making money, away from family, friends, and working away at that which is neither necessary nor inspires the soul, is but a waste of life. I simplify, but I don’t have room for detail. Essentially, he encourages us to do work which is good, and exhorts the classes to work together doing their independent work, and not rail against each other. It is interesting, and has some well turned phrases, but nothing too remarkable.

Traffic, however, is my favourite. Here, Ruskin first argues against a the Exchange having beautiful architecture, as it cannot, for Ruskin’s theory of art, in essence, was that art reflected the national pride and morality; the Renaissance produced great art, because they had pride and morality; so too did the Mediaeval age, so too did the ancients. But, most importantly, art also had religious fervour. What point art without this? It is naught but shallow imitation, and there is no true invention or beauty in it. I don’t say it is necessarily right, but it is an interesting theory. I don’t do it justice here, so you should read it yourself.

The next part of Traffic is truly where it shines. Ruskin describes how the Exchange cannot have the same beauty, as it has no pride, morality; no religion to maintain it. He examines how he could build a beautiful exchange, if they were honest to themselves, and established the Exchange to their true god: the Goddes of Getting On With It; the Britannia of the Market-Place, the Agora Goddess. It may sound trivial, and childish, but Ruskin describes it with such beauty and honesty, it shakes one to the core, and drives home his point: they act without compassion, as they attempt to gain money and comfort in this life. He argues that, granted there should be those who do the work and captains of the work, to lead the workers; yet it does not follow that the captain gains the wealth, and lords it over the worker tyrannically:

‘But I beg you to observe that there is a wide difference between being captains or governors of work, and taking the profits of it. It does not follow, because you are general of an army, that you are to take all the treasure, or land, it wins (if it fight for treasure or land); neither, because you are king of a nation, that you are to consume all the profits of the nation’s work. Real kings, on the contrary, are known invariably by their doing quite the reverse of this,—by their taking the least possible quantity of the nation’s work for themselves. There is no test of real kinghood so infallible as that. Does the crowned creature live simply, bravely, unostentatiously? probably he is a King. Does he cover his body with jewels, and his table with delicates? in all probability he is not a King. It is possible he may be, as Solomon was; but that is when the nation shares his splendour with him. Solomon made gold, not only to be in his own palace as stones, but to be in Jerusalem as stones. But even so, for the most part, these splendid kinghoods expire in ruin, and only the true kinghoods live, which are of royal labourers governing loyal labourers; who, both leading rough lives, establish the true dynasties. Conclusively you will find that because you are king of a nation, it does not follow that you are to gather for yourself all the wealth of that nation; neither, because you are king of a small part of the nation, and lord over the means of its maintenance—over field, or mill, or mine, are you to take all the produce of that piece of the foundation of national existence for yourself.’ 

My apologies for the overly-long quote – but Ruskin, in this instance, is hard to quote piecemeal. From there, he finishes by reminding the audience of their Christian faith, and exhorting them to be better than what they are. I simplify again, yet it is also sublime; it truly inspires one, Christian or not, to strive so much harder, and become a better person than one is today.

War is also interesting. Seeing how long I have discussed Traffic, I shall summarise briefly. Essentially, Ruskin, in keeping with his theory of art, argues that peace inspires laziness and immorality, leading to a decline of art and care. War, true, noble war, and not slaughter and mayhem, fought by a truly warrior race (which he considers the English and the Ancient Greeks to be) inspires morality and greatness. From great warriors, who have been tried and tested, have shown their courage and honour, comes great art. It is interesting to read, not least because it is such an alien viewpoint for today’s readers.

So, Crown of Wild Olive. I have only shown it in part, but Ruskin wrote beautifully, and his writings truly inspire the reader to strive so much harder; inspires one to look honestly at oneself, and, finding oneself lacking, become the better for it. His theory of art, which he only briefly touches upon, is fascinating to read and think about it; again, a very 19th century theory, but interesting nevertheless. The lectures are well written, and inspirational; I doubt anyone could read it without being inspired to go and make the world a better place, and force a copy of the book into everyone else’s hands.


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