“Poetry Discriptive”

Ruskin gave this title, written with a misspelling as “poetry discriptive”, to an anthology of nine poems in MS III. The group is the first of three poetry anthologies in MS III, the other two following chronologically (but not in physical placement) as “POETRY” [MS III Second Poetry Anthology] and the MS III Third Poetry Anthology. Ruskin entitled the second anthology Poetry, just as he had entitled an earlier anthology in MS I, MS I Poetry Anthology, as “Poetry”. The arrangement of poems in “Poetry Discriptive” suggests that Ruskin was conscious of this group meriting the distinction of a more thematically grouped, less miscellaneous anthology.
Other than harkening to the picturesque tradition, a source for Ruskinʼs title is unidentified. While not providing an exact match, a possible inspiration may have been prompted by the titles that William Wordsworth assigned to groups of his poems, as he first categorized them for Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), but as became known to the Ruskins in the five‐volume Poetical Works (1827). Since John James Ruskin acquired “Wordsworth” in 1827, during or before June of that year—an acquisition that has been assumed to consist at least in part of this five‐volume set—the purchase was timely for Ruskinʼs naming of his small anthology. While none of Wordsworthʼs titles for his subdivisions reflect the inverted noun‐modifier of Ruskinʼs title, or even contain the term descriptive, it is suggestive that Wordsworth categorized his early picturesque excursion poem, “Descriptive Sketches”, among his “Juvenile Pieces”—a group that might have caught Ruskinʼs eye.
In John Jamesʼs account ledger, his purchase of “Wordsworth 62/6” or “67/6”—the figures are overwritten and difficult to untangle—is included among a group of books for “June”, which he added belatedly to the bottom of the list of “Sundries” for 1827, already completed and totaled up for the year. The group may or may not be related to an entry above it for “Paid for Books to Smith E” (i.e., the firm of Smith, Elder, which operated as a bookseller and stationer as well as a publisher; see Smith, Elder, & Company; and see John James Ruskin, Account Book [1827–45], 2r; Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 168 n. 1). For the supposition that this purchase refers to the five‐volume Poetical Works, see Dearden, The Library of John Ruskin, 366 (no. 2917). In a slip, Dearden ascribes the year of purchase to 1828, rather than 1827.
For dating Ruskinʼs fair‐copying of the anthology, a lower limit is supplied by “Wales” and “Spring: Blank Verse”, which Ruskin copied into a May 1827 letter to his father, presumably to show off the poems as recent compositions. The fair copies in the letter are in ink, as is the anthology. Ruskin first used ink in April 1827 (see also “Wales”: Date).
Ruskin composed “Wales” and “Spring: Blank Verse” in May to express his longing to set out on the familyʼs spring journey to Wales and Scotland, a trip delayed by John James Ruskinʼs protracted business travel, and not undertaken until sometime in August and continuing through sometime in November (see Tours of 1826–27). Only these two poems fit W. G. Collingwoodʼs characterization of “Poetry Discriptive” as “a collection of previously written verses” (although “Glen of Glenfarg” [“Glen of Glenfarg thy beauteous rill”] may be a year older than the other poems; see Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263). Most of the remainder must have derived from the experience of the tour itself, composed either during the tour in September–October 1827 or following the return in November–December 1827.
The first poem in the anthology, “Ragland Castle”, refers to a picturesque site near the Wye Valley, complementing the travel account in “Harry and Lucy, Vol. 2” of Tintern Abbey and other tourist sites in southern Wales, with which MS III begins. Other poems in the anthology pertain to the Scottish tour that followed the Wye tour“Lochleven”, “Glen of Glenfarg” (“Glen of Glenfarg thy beauteous rill”), and “The Hill of Kinnoul”, which describe topographical sites in or near Perth, where Ruskinʼs aunt, Jessie Richardson, and his cousins lived. The latest time when Ruskin is likely to have worked on the anthology is January 1828, when he may have readied MS III for New Yearʼs presentation.
As the earliest of the poetry anthologies in MS III, “Poetry Discriptive” is perhaps more closely associated with “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], in terms both of theme and of Ruskinʼs bookmaking, than with the later two anthologies in MS III. The sequence of forming the anthologies explains why Ruskin placed “Poetry Discriptive” many pages into the Red Book, surrounded by what would at that point have been blank pages, since he thereby left room at the start of the notebook for ongoing composition of “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2, and he possibly allowed space following “Poetry Discriptive” for expansion of the anthology itself. Had Ruskin extended “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2, to fill the intervening pages up to the start of the poetry anthology—and there survive artifacts of this intention in the drawings scattered throughout these pages, which appear related to the prose lesson, and which Ruskin probably meant originally to surround with this text—and had he extended the poetry anthology to the end of the notebook, the overall arrangement would have closely resembled the contents of MS I. (As it turned out, in MS III, Ruskin did not extend either “Harry and Lucy” or “Poetry Discriptive” to such a length, and over time he made the contents of MS III more miscellaneous by adding, among other things, the other two poetry anthologies in remaining blank pages. See MS III: Discussion.)
Although the sequence of the poems does not conform strictly to a travel itinerary—“Wales” is out of place, considered as a destination—the arrangement might generally describe a journey from southern Wales to Perthshire, and the return from Perth through Glenfarg (for a more detailed itinerary, see Tours of 1826–27). A more salient organization of this poetic picturesque tour is a move from specifically architectural and historical interest in the first two poems to the topographical observations in the remaining poems. In this view of the collection, a poem as seemingly minor (if also clever) as “Nature” works as a hinge between the two groups, while “The Sea” and “The Storm” together form a concluding peroration that rises to the sublime.
A thematic shift in the anthology from history to nature may correspond, moreover, to a topographical move from the west to the north. As the travel writer, poet, and physician, William Beattie (1793–1875) wrote in 1838, Perthshire was “proverbial as the favoured province in which Nature has been prodigal of her gifts” (Beattie, Scotland Illustrated, 2:1). Whereas for Beattie Perthshire opens up nature in the form of the sublime, however, Ruskinʼs Perthshire is domestic and accessible. Beattie ascends from the tropes of “the magnificence of Nature and the primitive simplicity of the inhabitants” to the trope of the Highlandersʼ unconquered liberty (Beattie, Scotland Illustrated, 2:1–2; and see Grenier, Tourism and Identity in Scotland, 20). Ruskin, however, ignores the grandeur of the Grampians in favor of the more homely Ochils (e.g., “Glen of Glenfarg” [“Glen of Glenfarg thy beauteous rill”]).
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