“The Ship” and “Look at that Ship” [1827]

Title
“The Ship” and “Look at That Ship” [1827]
Ruskin entitled the poem THE SHIP in MS III and he entitled it “look at that ship” in MS XI.
Genre
Poem.
Manuscripts
MS III (pp. 31–32), a Red Book devoted initially to “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 2. “The Ship” and “Look at That Ship” [1827] is the fifth poem in the MS III Second Poetry Anthology. Another copy—a 20 by 13 cm single sheet, pencil manuscript—is bound in MS XI.
Facsimiles and transcripts by permission of John Ruskin Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The inclusion of the latter manuscript in MS XI suggests that someone interpreted the sheet as originally having been enclosed in a letter or as having formed a kind of epistolary communication in itself—such as the New Yearʼs Poem presentation copies, which are bound in MS XI. The only evidence qualifying this manuscript as a communication of this kind are two horizontal folds of the sheet; nothing on the reverse, in Ruskinʼs own hand, indicates such an intention, although an annotation on the reverse in the hand of Margaret Ruskin may supply a clue (see Discussion).
Date
February or March 1827. Ruskin dated the MS XI witness as “febuary [sic] or march 1827”. On the reverse, another hand, probably Margaret Ruskinʼs, wrote “16 Feby 1827”. Immediately above this date, the same hand wrote an obscure notation, “No [or possibly Mo] 6817”.
Ruskinʼs two‐month scope for dating his own manuscript suggests uncertainty, whether about a date of composition prior to this fair copy or about the date of the fair copy itself. The latter possibility, as if Ruskin returned later to add the date to the manuscript, seems eliminated by the fact that he wrote this date in the same hand and medium as that used for the manuscript as a whole: he wrote this date in pencil, rather than with pen and ink, which he had learned to use by the time he fair‐copied the poem in the MS III Second Poetry Anthology (see Ruskinʼs Handwriting).
As more evidence that the annotation “febuary [sic] or march 1827” is contemporaneous with the MS XI version, someone appears to have erased material in this copy, probably in order to make it accord with a change that Ruskin made in the MS III fair copy (see gloss to line 4 of the poem). While the changes to the two manuscripts could have occurred in either sequence, it seems likelier that Ruskin made the change while fair‐copying the poem in MS III, using the MS XI version as his copytext, but making the erasure in MS XI when he discovered an error in verb tense.
If the MS XI version is the earlier one, therefore, why did Ruskin so carefully add the conjectural date? An attractive hypothesis is that he was imitating his motherʼs similarly tentative manner of dating in her notation of MS I, “this book begun about Sept or Oct 1826 / finished about Jany 1827”. If the date “16 Feby 1827” is correct, which was written, probably by Margaret, on the reverse of the MS XI witness, the original text was composed only a few weeks after Margaret made that annotation to MS I.
If this hypothesis is correct, and Ruskin was imitating his motherʼs dating of MS I, then the MS XI witness of “The Ship” and “Look at That Ship” [1827] may be roughly contemporaneous with the final items that Ruskin inserted in MS I—that is, those items that may have chronologically followed Margaretʼs inscription. This convergence is especially notable respecting the drawing on the inside of the back endboard of MS I, “Heights of Wisdom, Depth of Fools”, which Ruskin dated 21 March (provided that date refers to 1827, and not 1826). The convergence may also apply to the poems that are physically situated following Margaretʼs dating notation amid the items making up “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology]—namely, “On Papaʼs Leaving Home” and “On the Rainbow: In Blank Verse”.
Composition and Publication
Previously unpublished.
Discussion
While the MS XI witness apparently served as a presentation copy, no inscription indicates the occasion. A clue is provided by the docketing, probably by Margaret Ruskin, dated “16 Feby 1827” (a Friday), which would have been about the date when John James Ruskin departed home to collect sherry orders in Biggleswade, Huntingdon, Kingʼs Lynn, Norwich, and Colchester, returning home on 1 March 1827 (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 153 n. 1). It is tempting to think of Ruskin composing a poem about a ship in mid‐February because he anticipated his father traveling to the seaport town of Kingʼs Lynn. The presentation copy may have been made then or at a somewhat later time, explaining the uncertain dating in Johnʼs hand of February or March, the period spanning John James Ruskinʼs travels.
It is tempting, too, to think of John James Ruskinʼs journey in East Anglia as prompting composition of “On Papaʼs Leaving Home” in “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], since February 1827 falls within this anthologyʼs possible dating range. These poems responding to John James Ruskinʼs absence could therefore be viewed as Johnʼs side of a father/son dynamic that produced the immediate context leading to the fatherʼs accolade the boy as “the most intellectual creature of his age that ever appeared in any age” (letter of 21 February 1827 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 152–53]).
The MS III witness, entitled “THE SHIP” and with “Look at that ship” forming its first line, must belong to activities almost a year later, since it immediately follows poems dated 1 January 1828.
Another poem, “The Ship” [1828–29], which is likewise contained in MS III (as part of the MS III Third Poetry Anthology), might also be included here as a later witness of the 1827 poem. Beyond the first three lines, however, the 1828–29 poem differs so substantially that it should be treated as a distinct work. In the later poem, Ruskinʼs intentions have shifted toward expressing a patriotism that is wholly absent from the earlier work, and that considerably expands the length and rhetorical range of the poem. At the same time, some rhetorical features of the earlier poem remain present in the later one, if not identically expressed, such as Ruskinʼs interest in relevant sizes and distances. The 1827 and 1828–29 pieces raise an interesting case for probing the distinction between work and witness, and it is quite possible to see 1828–29 as part of the unfolding intentions of one witness to another, in a very open‐ended conception of a single work called “The Ship”.
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