Thursday, May 17, 2018

`I Wonder Often at What They Lose'

Published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Hudson Review is “Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles,” a poem by Charlotte Innes. The title is both literal and amusing, and is preceded by a dedicatory note: “For my grandfather, Bernhard Einzig (1874-1945), who died in a German concentration camp at Theresienstadt. His books, a three-volume set of the 1902 edition of The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, are my only tangible inheritance.” Those two sentences stand as a finished work of art. Here are the final four of the poem’s seven stanzas:

“Lamp, windowpane, and tree,
made things, all, by God or man,
or woman, pulled together by the sun,
my eye, my place. This accidental harmony
of mismatched elements, what story's
told here? ‘There is no subject

“of thought more melancholy,
more wonderful than the way in which
God permits so often His best gifts
to be trodden under foot of men, His
richest treasures to be wasted by the moth.’
So John Ruskin said. ‘The fruit struck

“to the earth before its ripeness.’ Oxford don,
who in the 1800s walked the streets
of Venice, read its stones as if they lived,
pondered natural beauty in translation--how
to tell an Englishman who’s never seen an olive tree
of tracing ‘line by line’ its ‘gnarled writhing’—

“who held that art’s a universal tongue,
hated human cruelty, ugliness, and saw
the truth of poor Italian peasants
lounging jobless in old Venetian squares,
John, you’d understand the awful beauty,
the despair, of windows, lamps, trees.”

Innes interpolates a passage from the second volume of The Stones of Venice, in which Ruskin has been describing the damage suffered by the city’s “Byzantine Palaces,” including the Fondaco dei Turchi, or Turkish Warehouse:

“There is no subject of thought more melancholy, more wonderful than the way in which God permits so often His best gifts to be trodden under foot of men, His richest treasures to be wasted by the moth, and the mightiest influences of His Spirit, given but once in the world’s history, to be quenched and shortened by miseries of chance and guilt. I do not wonder at what men Suffer, but I wonder often at what they Lose. We may see how good rises out of pain and evil; but the dead, naked, eyeless loss, what good comes of that? The fruit struck to the earth before its ripeness; the glowing life and goodly purpose dissolved away in sudden death; the words, half spoken, choked upon the lip with clay for ever; or, stranger than all, the whole majesty of humanity raised to its fullness, and every gift and power necessary for a given purpose, at a given moment, centred in one man, and all this perfected blessing permitted to be refused, perverted, crushed, cast aside by those who need it most,—the city which is Not set on a hill, the candle that giveth light to None that are in the house;—these are the heaviest mysteries of this strange world, and, it seems to me, those which mark its curse the most.”

The convergence of Berhard Einzig’s killing by the Nazis and Ruskin’s “miseries of chance and guilt” brings to mind another murder. In 2015, the Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad, age eighty-three, was captured by Isis in Palmyra. He would not reveal the location of the antiquities he had helped hide in the city and was beheaded.

1 comment:

Ambrose Gilson said...

Very good to see some of Ruskin's eloquent Wisdom highlighted