“When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”]

Title
“When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”]
In MS I, the poem is identified only as “poem I”, the first poem in the MS I Poetry Anthology. Other poems in the anthology carry a substantive title along with the numbered designation “poem II”, “poem III”, and so on.
Between the heading “poem I” and the text of the poem, however, there is visible the letter o, followed by an erased line that is centered on the page like a title—“The hunt by dar” or the last three letters may be “day”. If the last three letters are dar, they probably refer to Ruskinʼs source, a poem by Erasmus Darwin (see Discussion). The erased title, if that is what it is, perhaps belonged to the draft: other partial erasures beneath the text reveal apparently that Ruskin copied a draft or semi‐final version here, in MS I, and then erased the draft as he printed the fair copy over top (see Ruskinʼs Handwriting).
The title “The Steam Engine” was invented by W. G. Collingwood for his edited version of the poem in Poems (1891). Collingwood perhaps based his title on Ruskinʼs commentary on the poem in Praeterita (Ruskin, Works 35:56).
Genre
Poem.
See Discussion for sources.
Manuscripts
MS I (pp. 97–100), a Red Book devoted primarily to “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1; first poem in the MS I Poetry Anthology.
Facsimile and transcript by permission of John Ruskin Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Date
September 1826–January 1827, most likely toward the end of that period. There is a possibility of the poem dating from as early as January 1826.
Favoring early 1826, E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn argue for “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”] as “the authorʼs first piece”—or first surviving poem, at least—on the grounds that Ruskin names it “poem I” in the MS I Poetry Anthology (Ruskin, Works, 2:254 n. 3, 255 n. 1). As discussed in “The Needless Alarm”: Date, however, this argument requires one to override the most straightforward interpretation of Margaret Ruskinʼs having assigned the date of January 1826 specifically to “The Needless Alarm” and thereby singling out that work, possibly, as Ruskinʼs first poem.
On internal evidence, “When furious up from mines the water pours” [“The Steam Engine”] is more logically placed in late 1826 or early 1827, since during that period, according to another annotation by his mother, Ruskin completed the entirety of this Red Book (see “The Needless Alarm”: Date; MS I: Date). In keeping with this interpretation, the content of the poem is consistent with the kinds of sources pervading the concluding chapters of “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1, which precedes the anthology. Both the prose lesson and the poem reflect the preoccupations of Enlightenment educationists, and it is logical that, compositionally, Ruskin maintained the theme of scientific and industrial optimism as he completed the prose lesson and started the poetry anthology.
Composition and Publication
Printed in full in Ruskin, Works, 2:254–55 n. 3; and Emerson, Genesis of Invention, 24–25. Quoted by Ruskin in Ruskin, Works, 35:56; and by W. G. Collingwood in Poems (4o, 1891), 1:xxi, and Poems (8o, 1891), 1:vii.
Hand is pencil, print; see Ruskinʼs Handwriting.
Discussion
Ruskin based his poem on lines on the steam engine by Erasmus Darwin in the “Economy of Vegetation” (1791), which appeared in 1791–92 as part 1 of The Botanic Garden (Darwin, Poetical Works, 1:30–35). The relevant passage in Darwinʼs poem begins with a description of how the engine developed by James Watt (1736–1819) and Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) drains mines to free the ore that, by the end of passage, is minted into coin by Boultonʼs steam‐powered coin press.
The Giant‐Power from earthʼs remotest caves
Lifts with strong arm her dark reluctant waves;
Each cavernʼd rock, and hidden den explores,
Drags her dark coals, and digs her shining ores.—
Next in close cells of ribbed oak confinʼd,
Gale after gale, He crowds the struggling wind;
The imprisonʼd storms through brazen nostrils roar,
Fan the white flame, and fuse the sparkling ore.
Here high in air the rising stream He pours
To clay‐built cisterns, or to lead‐lined towers;
Fresh through a thousand pipes the wave distils,
And thirsty cities drink the exuberant rills.
There the vast mill‐stone with inebriate whirl
On trembling floors his forceful fingers twirl,
Whose flinty teeth the golden harvests grind,
Feast without blood! and nourish human‐kind.
Now his hard hands on Monaʼs rifted crest,
Bosomʼd in rock, her azure ores arrest;
With iron lips his rapid rollers seize
The lengthening bars, in thin expansion squeeze;
Descending screws with ponderous fly‐wheels wound
The tawny plates, the new medallions round;
Hard dyes of steel the cupreous circles cramp,
And with quick fall his massy hammers stamp.
The Harp, the Lily, and the Lion join,
And George and Britain guard the sterling coin.
Soon shall thy arm, Unconquerʼd Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide‐waving wings expanded bear
The flying‐chariot through the fields of air.
—Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior‐bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.
The Ruskins would have taken pride in the achievement by the Scotsman, Watt of Glasgow. That they looked to the poetry of Erasmus Darwin to celebrate Wattʼs name indicates that the Ruskins were rooted in the optimism of the British Enlightenment, which Darwinʼs poetry and polymathic interests represented, as well as being steeped in the Romanticism of Walter Scott (1771–1832). Darwin and Boulton were among the founding members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham; and Darwinʼs extended circle included the other writers whose progressive educational dialogues and poetry and stories for children that Ruskin imitated in MS I—the Rousseauvians, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817), Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849), and Thomas Day (1748–89); and the Unitarians and members of the publisher Joseph Johnsonʼs (1738–1809) circle, Anna Letitia Barbauld and Jeremiah Joyce (1763–1816) (see Priestman, Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, 10–20). At the same time, as Early Victorians, the Ruskins were able to absorb these influences seemingly safely immune to the political radicalism of this earlier generation.
Besides the popularity of Darwinʼs works that would have made him known to the Ruskin family (and his sometimes notoriety for freethinking), Ruskin would have encountered his poetry in quotations by the educational writers who formed part of Darwinʼs large acquaintance and whose books filled Ruskinʼs boyhood. For example, Darwinʼs lines on the steam engine are quoted in Conversation 40, “Of the Steam‐Engine, and Papinʼs Digester” in Joyce, Scientific Dialogues, 2:232–33), which also provides a summary of the poem. (Helen Gill Viljoen suggested that Ruskinʼs source lay solely in Joyceʼs summary, rather than in Darwinʼs original poem [“Helen Gill Viljoen Papers”, box D.V]; however, Ruskinʼs poem engages with numerous specific details of diction in Darwinʼs poem, which he could not have derived indirectly through Joyce.)
The Ruskins might have been interested, too, that Boultonʼs coin press, its workings placed at the climax of Darwinʼs description, was operated by four boys of Ruskinʼs age. As critics have argued, however, the conditions of the laborers who operated such machinery are ignored in Darwinʼs poetry, in which he causes the machines either to be driven by a dainty mythological crew or to seem to run themselves owing to intransitive verbs that allow for no other agency (Priestman, Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, 93–98). The operation of Boultonʼs coin press is an exception to this obfuscation, in that the four boys are acknowledged in one of Darwinʼs characteristically expansive prose notes to the poem; however, Darwinʼs purpose in highlighting the boysʼ industry in “striking thirty thousand guineas in an hour” in their Soho workplace, near Birmingham, is to award a “civic crown” to Boulton for having achieved “such superior excellence and cheapness of workmanship, . . . as must totally prevent clandestine imitation, and in consequence save many lives from the hand of the executioner” (Darwin, Poetical Works, 1:33–34n).
In MS I, Ruskin appropriately positioned his poem at the head of the MS I Poetry Anthology, which immediately follows “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1. The latter text draws verbatim on Joyceʼs Scientific Dialogues in order to supply Harry and Lucy with experiments. In fact, in chapters 8–9 of “Harry and Lucy”, Ruskin hurries Harry through a series of experiments in pneumatics drawn from Joyce, stopping just short of Conversation 40 on the steam engine, which Ruskin effectively replaces with his adaptation of Darwinʼs poem on that topic. Thus, in terms both of structure and genre, the contents of MS I can be viewed as Ruskinʼs extended version of an Edgeworthian, Joycean, and Barbauldian lesson, which culminates in an ode to the industrial sublime (see also “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1: Discussion). In its rhetoric, this structure appears related to Joyceʼs tendency in the Scientific Dialogues to embellish his prose text with quotations from Darwin and other poets of the British Enlightenment and scientific revolution.
In Ruskinʼs adaptation of Darwinʼs lines, he somewhat reorders the sequence of topics in the original, using less figurative language but also elaborating Darwinʼs pictures in his own way (see the 1 to the MS I witness). Like Darwin, Ruskin begins with the engine draining water from mines to expose the ore. Next, appearing to have misunderstood Darwinʼs figurative account of a bellows that imprisons “gales” of forceful wind, Ruskin substitutes a literal storm in lines 2–3 of his poem, but in fact he has separated the figurative from its object, recurring to the bellows later in his list of useful applications of steam. Meanwhile, Ruskin intervenes in Darwinʼs sequence with steamboats, which rescue the victims of exploding steamboats—an ironic anecdote that seems to bemuse Ruskin, and that effectively deflates the optimism of Darwinʼs futuristic peroration, which predicts the wonders of steam transport. Three decades on, Ruskin seems to know better than Darwin whose aeronauts beckon from fanciful flying chariots. Ruskin corrects Darwinʼs anticipation of a time when steam shall “drag the slow barge”, remarking that the “smokey barge [is] called by us steam boat”.
Nonetheless, Ruskin admits that steam is “the most useful engine brought to man”, and he returns to Darwinʼs list of wonders, if only to scramble its order again. Saving for later Darwinʼs pumps that fill cisterns and that pipe water to “thirsty cities”, Ruskin presses on to Darwinʼs steam‐powered millstones, which enchant him for Darwinʼs rhyme of whirl and twirl (thrice repeated by Ruskin). He has no use for Darwinʼs pitch for grain‐based vegetarianism, preferring to keep up the “twirling” by introducing instead Arkwrightʼs cotton spinning machine. The action of revolving seems to take over Ruskinʼs poem, as he continues with Darwin to describe the round coins minted by Boultonʼs machine (here he is taken by another of Darwinʼs rhymes, squeeze and seize); and he comes back to Darwinʼs water pumped to thirsty cities in order to send the water “round the town” and back again. Finally, Ruskin clenches these revolutions with an original contribution—the picture of a chain that an engine has forged “link to link” and impressed with a floral design like a bracelet.
Formally, Ruskin borrows Darwinʼs heroic couplets without the pomposity of what Wordsworth condemns in the preface to Lyrical Ballads as the artifice of poetic diction. Ruskin catches Darwinʼs livelier rhyme words, and the poetʼs energy and exuberance. Of course, Ruskin may simply have avoided a learnedness of diction that he did not understand at his young age; he shows a similar preference for poetic over pedantic terms in his adaptation of Joyce, Scientific Dialogues, in “Harry and Lucy”, Vol. 1. But Ruskin liked unusual words that could energize his writing; and perhaps the appeal for him of Darwinʼs poetry lay in the extraordinary fertility with which the poet invented words—a major factor in the success of The Botanic Garden, as suggested by D. G. King‐Hele in “Darwin, Man of Ideas and Inventor of Words” (pp. 165–68). Ruskin may even have appreciated Darwin for a quality that, in the poetʼs own time, was a target for criticism—his tendency to make “every word picturesque”, as Robert Southey characterized his diction, or “a succession of Landscapes or Paintings”, as S. T. Coleridge noted, to the extent that temporal connection and development seemed to suffer. Darwinʼs friend in the town where he practiced medicine, the poet Anna Seward, the “Swan of Lichfield”, agreed with this appraisal, but she read Darwinʼs spatial, rather than temporal, imagination and his sacrifice of “intersticial space” between pictures as a virtue (Priestman, Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, 34). Darwin may have helped form the taste on which Ruskin would later base his critique of the pathetic fallacy.
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