“The Needless Alarm”
“The Needless Alarm”.
MS I (pp. 102–3), a Red Book devoted primarily to “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1. “The Needless Alarm” is the fourth poem in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology]. Since this anthology was compiled in late 1826 or early 1827, the MS I witness may represent a revision or copy of a witness, now lost, that was composed in or around January 1826: see Date.
Facsimiles by permission of John Ruskin Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Transcriptions of texts and commentary © David C. Hanson.
January 1826–January 1827.
Evidence for dating this poem turns on Margaret Ruskinʼs Gloss on the Dating of MS I. In the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology]—at the end of “The Needless Alarm”, the fourth poem in the anthology, and before “On Papaʼs Leaving Home”, the fifth poem—Margaret Ruskin wrote “Jany 1826”. Immediately below this, she drew a horizontal rule, followed by “this book begun about Sept or Oct 1826 / finished about Jany 1827.” Since the latter comment clearly refers to the whole of MS I, W. G. Collingwood took the preceding date, January 1826, as applying to “The Needless Alarm” in particular and thus as identifying Ruskinʼs earliest dated verse known to that editor (Poems [4o, 1891], 1:xxii; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:viii).
If Margaretʼs intention was to apply the date to “The Needless Alarm”, the date may point to a more elementary stage of Ruskinʼs reading, one year earlier than the scientific readings reflected elsewhere in the contents of MS I—evidence of a graduated program of reading recommended by educationalists such as the Edgeworths (see Discussion).
In the Library Edition, E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn disagreed with Collingwoodʼs interpretation, ascribing the status of earliest dated verse possibly to “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”], which is “poem I” in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology]: “there is nothing to show”, they write, “that [Margaretʼs date] does not apply equally to all four pieces, composed presumably in the order in which they are placed in the book”. Moreover, along with “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”], they point to another contender for earliest poem—“Ragland Castle”, which is the first poem in another anthology, “Poetry Discriptive”, in MS III, and which they date “as early as these” poems in MS I (Ruskin, Works, 2:255 n. 1; see “Wales”: Date).
“Ragland Castle”, however, more likely belongs to the second half of 1827, when the family visited Raglan and other sites in Wales. The earlier date ascribed by Cook and Wedderburn to “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”] turns, moreover, on reasoning that elaborately interprets and even changes what Margaret wrote. That argument assumes, first, that Margaretʼs note “Jany 1826” refers to all four poems preceding the note, not just to “The Needless Alarm”; second, that the first poem of this group to be fair‐copied—“When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”], or “poem I”—must necessarily have been the first composed; and, third, that Margaretʼs date, “Jany 1826”, “seems to be the date of the note”, according to the editors, “and not of any one of the verses in particular”. That is, in this view, “Jany 1826” applies to the note that follows, “this book begun about Sept or Oct 1826 / finished about Jany 1827”. The obvious discrepancy in this argument is explained by the editors as the writerʼs mistake: “perhaps, writing at the beginning of a new year, Mrs. Ruskin made the common error of not altering the old yearʼs date”—writing, that is, “Jany 1826”, but intending “Jany 1827” (Ruskin, Works, 2:255 n. 1).
Since Cook and Wedderburnʼs reasoning depends on overruling what Margaret actually wrote, Collingwoodʼs interpretation seems certainly more straightforward and surely at least as convincing—namely, that the date applies to “The Needless Alarm” but not necessarily to all four of the poems preceding the note. While “The Needless Alarm” must have been fair‐copied “about Jany 1827” along with the other verse at the end of MS I, Margaret would have known if Ruskin had composed the poem a year earlier than the others (and if that was the case, she may have remembered the date because “The Needless Alarm” was possibly the first—or first surviving—of Ruskinʼs New Yearʼs Poems; see Discussion). Moreover, there is another instance of Margaretʼs glossing a poem with a date earlier than surrounding poems—“Glen of Glenfarg” (“Glen of Glenfarg thy beauteous rill”), in MS III—and, in that case, Cook and Wedderburn accept Margaretʼs authority at face value. Finally, it seems implausible that Margaret would have written 1826 for 1827 without noticing the error, since her note about the date of the whole of MS I (which is unquestioned) is placed immediately below.
Without following Cook and Wedderburn in their argument for dating “The Needless Alarm” some time after “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”], one might, however, accept their suggestion that Margaret intends “Jany 1826” to refer to all four poems preceding her note. This possibility is admitted in dating the other three poems— “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”], “On Scotland”, and “The Defiance of War”—but, again, the interpretation supplants a more obvious and convincing explanation. Collingwood associated one poem in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], “On Scotland”, along with another, “Glen of Glenfarg” (“Glen of Glenfarg thy beauteous rill”), with the familyʼs visit to Scotland in 1826, which he assumed to have started “about the middle of May” (Poems [4o, 1891], 1:xxiii; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:ix). We now know that this journey was taken, if at all, later in that year—a fact consistent with the placement of “On Scotland” toward the end of MS I, which was “finished about Jany 1827” (see also Tours of 1826–27). All the evidence, even the evidence of which Collingwood was unaware, falls into place if Collingwoodʼs original interpretation is accepted—namely, that “The Needless Alarm” existed (in some form, now lost) a year earlier than the surrounding poems. This conclusion also seems corroborated by internal evidence of the poemʼs sources (see Discussion).
Composition and Publication
Published, in edited form, in Poems (4o, 1891), 1:xxii; Poems (8o, 1891), 1:viii–ix; and Ruskin, Works, 2:255–56.
Hand is pencil, print. See Ruskinʼs Hand.
Rob Breton suggests that Ruskin took the title of his poem from William Cowper (1731–1800), “The Needless Alarm: A Tale” (1792), while he modeled the subject of the poem on the poetry of Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825), particularly “The Mouseʼs Petition” (1792) (Breton, “John Ruskinʼs Juvenilia”, 23; Breton, From Seven to Seventeen, 3). With Cowperʼs poem, Ruskinʼs tale shares a theme of animals being frightened by noises. While wandering in a field, Cowperʼs solitary observer is surprised by the bray of hounds coursing a fox in a distant hunt. Sheep are panicked by the noise, but they only run in circles and come near to leaping into a pit. In an imagined exchange between a ram and an ewe, the ewe cautions the ram against leading the flock into such “despʼrate steps”, for the “darkest day . . . will have passʼd away”, if one but “live ʼtill tomorrow” (Cowper, Poems, ed. Baird and Ryskamp, 3:45–49).
In the Barbauld poem (first published in Poems ), which many Victorians recalled memorizing in childhood, a petition for the eponymous mouseʼs reprieve is “found in a trap where he had been confined all night by Dr. [Joseph] Priestley [1733–1804], for the sake of making experiments”, according to the poetʼs note (Barbauld, Poems, ed. McCarthy and Kraft, 36–37, 244–45; and see Murch, Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries, 72). The mouseʼs appeal for liberty and compassion differs from the moral of prudence taught by Cowperʼs poem, but the ideas are linked both in the observations of Cowperʼs solitary, who is contemptuous of the fox hunting that “rural gentlmen call sport divine”, and in the contributions by Mrs. Barbauld to Evenings at Home (1792–96), compiled by her brother, John Aikin (1747–1822). For example, in the prose tale, “The Young Mouse: A Fable”, the reader learns about the pleasant life of a young mouse in a house where “nobody had ever hurt her”, although the mouse fears the cat. One day the young mouse joyfully informs her mother that “the good people of this family have built me a house to live in”, where the mouse and her mother could be safe from the cat; however, her mother explains that the house her daughter is describing is a trap, and that she must beware of “man [who] has not so fierce a look as a cat”, but “he is as much our enemy, and has still more cunning” (Aikin and Barbauld, Evenings at Home, 1:19–20). In Ruskinʼs poem, the prudent mouse believes its “house” of high rushes keeps it safe from its “foe”, and perhaps it is the wariness of the hen whose scratching scares off the dog—or perhaps the escape is only good fortune. Likewise concerned with the safety of houses is another poem in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], “The Defiance of War”.
Barbauld and Aikinʼs tales were in keeping with Ruskinʼs other reading and imitative writing of 1826–27, their work having been recommended for younger children by Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth. If the Ruskins followed the Edgeworthsʼ advice that children advance by stages through reading of increasing difficulty, “The Needless Alarm” represents his response to an earlier stage of reading—as compared, for example, with the more advanced scientific interests represented in MS I by the poem “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”] and by the “lessons” in “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1, copied from dialogues by Jeremiah Joyce.
While Cowperʼs “The Needless Alarm: A Tale” was available by 1826 in later editions of his collected two‐volume Poems, it is worth noting that the poem was first published in 1792 in James Enfieldʼs anthology for instructing elocution, The Speaker; or, Miscellaneous Pieces, Selected from the Best English Writers, and Disposed under Proper Heads, with a View to Facilitate the Improvement of Youth in Reading and Speaking, and the poem remained listed in subsequent editions under the head, “Narrative Pieces” (Enfield, Speaker, 62–66). It is possible, therefore, that this book was part of the Ruskinsʼ library, as an aid to their rituals of reading aloud.
For another use of the trope of a mouseʼs house reflecting a human scale of awareness of and provision against danger, see “Ragland Castle”.
If the “Jany 1826” notation does refer specifically to “The Needless Alarm”, it is possible that Ruskin presented the poem (in another witness, whereabouts unknown) as a New Yearʼs Poem for his parents—an occasion Margaret would surely have remembered. Poems, presented specifically to his father, did unquestionably become a New Yearʼs tradition starting the following year, in 1827, with “Time: Blank Verse”. This interpretation is supported, albeit weakly, by the placement of “The Needless Alarm” in the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology], which is similar to the position of “Time: Blank Verse” in the “Poetry” [MS III Second Poetry Anthology]. In the latter case—that is, in the Red Book containing “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2—Ruskin positions a poetry anthology immediately following the prose lessons, just as he does in MS I; and he includes in that anthology the previous yearʼs New Yearʼs poem, “Time: Blank Verse”, along with the most recent one, “The Constellations: Northern, Some of the Zodiac, and Some of the Southern”. Perhaps the “Poetry” [MS I Poetry Anthology] likewise includes the previous yearʼs New Yearʼs poem, although nothing apart from Margaretʼs date indicates that “The Needless Alarm” may have served as this kind of presentation, and none of the other poems in the anthology contains a greeting for the new year.