| Until his father died in 1864 and his mother died in 1871, his parents dominated Ruskin’s life. As soon as he was able to read (age four) until he entered Oxford in 1836, he and his mother read alternately verses of two or three chapters of the Bible daily. His mother also supervised his early study of the classic languages, but he was, in large part, self-educated. In his childhood, Ruskin was essentially shut off from the outside world. Ruskin said that his mother showed her affection to his father, “chiefly in steady endeavor to cultivate her powers of mind and form her manners, so as to fit herself to be the undespised companion of a man whom she considered much her superior” (Kirchoff 2). This may be the basis for Ruskin’s contention in “Of Queen’s Gardens” that woman’s great function is Praise (Ruskin “S&L” 107). Ruskin also held that “the true nature of the Home is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division” (Ruskin “S&L” 108). In his autobiography, Ruskin said:
I had never heard my father’s or mother’s voice once raised in any question with each other; nor seen an angry, or even slightly hurt or offended glance in the eyes of either. I had never heard a servant scolded; nor even suddenly passionately, or in any severe manner, blamed. I had never seen a moment’s trouble or disorder in any household matter. Next to this quite priceless gift of Peace, I had received the perfect understanding of the natures of Obedience and Faith. I obeyed word, or lifted finger of father or mother, simply as a ship her helm. (Ruskin “CW” 27)
The more formal part of Ruskin’s education was at a private school in Camberwell with Rev. Thomas Dale. He was only a day-boy for two years and mixed little with the life of the school (Cook 45). Ruskin’s mother, a strict Evangelical Protestant, expected her son to become a clergyman. His mother followed him when he entered Christ College, Oxford, establishing herself in nearby lodging. She expected her son to take tea with her every afternoon, and he did. Ruskin was probably the only gentleman-commoner who was ever attended by his mother throughout his Oxford career, and whose father came down to join the family circle at the end of every week (Cook 53). His parents were unable to believe that their son would be safe without their continual attention. Ruskin was encouraged to think of himself as set apart from the common mold. His life was sheltered from conflict, and no effort was required of him to accommodate himself to other people or situations without the enveloping protection of his mother or father.
Ruskin’s father used to carry about with him favorite poems by his son. The father had been denied intellectual achievement himself and expected his son to become the successful poet he might have been. Both Ruskin and his father were determined that he should win the Newdigate Prize given annually for the best poem written by a student. His first two attempts failed; however, his third attempt won the Newdigate Prize in 1839 with a poem about India, “Salsette and Elephanta.”
There were flashes of resentment towards his parents as Ruskin recalled certain areas of activities that were denied him because of their overweening care (Abse 25). It is no wonder that the highly sequestered Ruskin was attracted to morbid tales of violence and conquest in his collegiate studies of Herodotus as relief from unrequited love and parental control. The gruesome realism of the resulting poems is in marked contrast to his developing theory and practice of visual art. Herodotean history inspired many of his poems and served to illustrate many passages in his lectures and books. Ruskin wrote three Sythian poems partly, as he said, to capture the picturesque lying neglected in the works of the historian, Herodotus. They are: “The Sythian Grave,” “The Sythian Banquet Song,” and “The Sythian Guest.” These pagan poems depict the barbaric behavior and customs of this nomadic race of warriors from the barren plains of Asia. They may also possibly have provided an emotional pressure relief from constant parental control. Thirty years later in “Of King’s Treasuries,” Ruskin asks his audience to recall the Sythian custom of feasting the deceased guest, and asks them if they would accept a death-angel’s offer to be so honored if their soul could remain to enjoy what honors they receive. Ruskin’s point is that “every man, who desires to advance in life, to get material things, public honor, and not more personal soul in effect accepts the death-angel’s offer” (Ruskin “S&L” 73). That was probably not young Ruskin’s point when he wrote the Sythian poems. The morbid strain in these poems came from the depths of his young wounded passion.