. The Poetry of John Ruskin in the Annuals
If the annuals have been criticized because middle-class daughters could rhapsodize over the poems and engravings, displaying their tastes and sensibilities, then young John Ruskin, as a poet in the literary annuals, was one of those who satisfied these tastes. There are many connections between Ruskin’s contributions to literary annuals that show early evidence of the convictions and imagery that he later expressed publicly in his 1865 lectures in Sesame and Lilies.
Ruskin began publishing in annuals when he was fifteen years old, and he continued to contribute to them for the next ten years. Thomas Pringle, a Scottish poet and editor of Friendship’s Offering, printed Ruskin’s first two poems in the annual for 1835. They were fragmentary impressions from a tour on the continent with his parents. The first was entitled “Saltzburg,” with the first line, “On Salza’s quiet tide the westering sun,” and the other was entitled “Fragments,” with the opening line, “Twilight’s mists are gathering grey.”
William Henry Harrison, who succeeded Pringle as editor, was an admirer of Ruskin’s talent. Harrison had first call on Ruskin’s poems during his editorship of Friendship’s Offering (1837-41). Ruskin published a total of thirty-three contributions in literary annuals through 1846. His works were initially identified simply as “J. R.” but he later added “Christ Church, Oxford,” when he was at college. Reviewers praised his verses as: of “real merit,” “from the true mint,” “all the force and spirit of a Byron,” and “a new fountain for the old poetic waters.” These same critics were later to ignore or savagely deride Ruskin’s prose in Modern Painters (Cook 91).
Ruskin was drawn to poetry by his precocious ability, by the chance of having met Pringle, by hitting the taste of the time, and by the inspiration of first love. At age seventeen, Ruskin felt the pangs of first love; Adele Clothilde Domecq, a daughter of his father’s business partner, invaded his cloistered existence. Everyone else called her Clothilde; however, Ruskin insisted on calling her Adele “because it rhymed to shell, spell, and knell” (Ruskin “CW” 148). Ruskin recalled with respect to his impressing Adele, that he had not a single athletic skill or pleasure to check his dreaming or chastise his conceit. Since he could not be a romantic hero, he projected his own “sanguinary and adventurous disposition” into a prose tale about Neapolitan bandits in Adele’s honor entitled “Leoni: a Legend of Italy” which was published in the Friendship’s Offering of 1837. Ruskin said that on reading his story Adele “laughed over it in rippling ecstasies of derision” (Ruskin “CW” 149). In fact, Adele’s feelings for Ruskin were apparently never more than tolerant amusement.
Although they came into contact only intermittently over the next seven years, when their families exchanged visits, Ruskin’s unchecked romantic imagination developed a vision of Adele that had nothing to do with her actual person. Ruskin’s biographers have suggested that his infatuation with the young Adele provided a female pattern that permanently obsessed him. She became an unfailing subject of his verse for ten years, incidentally thrilling young women readers of Friendship’s Offering (Abse 38). Among these published poems about Adele Domecq are: “The Last Smile” written the day after he met her; “Remembrance” and “To Adele,” in the flush of love; and “Agonia,” and “Farewell” near the end. These poems do not appear typical of an evolving love affair, because they become successively more distraught and obsessive. Adele remained an idealized figure and the subject of Ruskin’s verse until she married a French nobleman in 1841. Ruskin’s parents withheld the news of Adele’s betrothal and marriage from him, and when he found out, he was devastated. He not only lost Adele, but he lost his confidence in his parents because, for the first time, they had failed to protect him from his disappointment. Ruskin’s continued pining for an unattainable Adele is reflected in the five-part poem that was published over a four-year period entitled “The Broken Chain.” This long, somber, and reflective poem indicates Ruskin’s inability to accept the loss of his imagined Adele. Ruskin recalled that he was fourteen when he first met Adele. At eighteen he fell in love, and at twenty-one he lost her to marriage (Cook 6). He could remember his love for Adele when she was a child, but not for her as a woman. From this trauma, a pattern emerged in which he seemed able to love only young girls.