| In “Of Queen’s Gardens,” Ruskin proposes that man’s power is active, progressive, defensive; his intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure and war (Ruskin “S&L” 107). Man in the rough world must encounter peril and is often wounded, subdued, misled, but always hardened (Ruskin “S&L” 108).
These manly attitudes are not usually identified with art criticism, but they relate directly to poems that Ruskin wrote from his studies of Herodotus concerning Greco-Roman ideals of manhood. Athenian women murder the sole survivor of a battle that killed his comrades, their husbands in “The Recreant.” Spartan war and honor are questioned in “Aristodemus at Plataea.” In “The Tears of Psammenitus,” a defeated king is humbled by pride. Finally, in “The Last Song of Arion,” the protagonist cleverly escapes his captors. These poems unquestionably show that Ruskin was absorbing the stoic and heroic attitudes of Greco-Roman gender definition that pervaded the classical studies found in the curriculum of all British male students.
Ruskin's chances for academic distinction were lost because he had a physical breakdown in 1840, and he left Oxford for reasons of his health. The breakdown appears to have been related to the combined effects of a recurrent throat infection, Adele’s marriage to another man, the pressure of studying for his final exams, his mother’s disappointment that he had no strong inclination to become a clergyman, and his father’s dismay that Ruskin had no absolute conviction to be a poet. He left Oxford, and went to Italy with his parents to recuperate (Abse 50).
At that time, Ruskin realized that his poetic career would be second rate compared with the prose success of Modern Painters. E. T. Cook, his biographer says, “Ruskin was lacking in the gift of constructive imagination and the magic of concentrated expression” (98). Ruskin never again published poems. Not only were literary annuals passing out of fashion, but also Ruskin no longer needed poetry as an escape from emotional overload. As anticipated, Ruskin’s recognition that his future was in prose was a grievous disappointment to his father. Ruskin’s father requested Harrison to get all of his son’s best poems selected and printed in good type, to be entitled Poems, etc. They were printed, but not published by “J. R.” Only fifty copies were printed, and Ruskin destroyed those he could obtain. The volume was reprinted several years later in America where it had considerable sales (Cook 105). In 1953, A. Bose made the following comment concerning Ruskin’s poetry in “The Verse of the Annuals.”
In “The Broken Chain,” his longest and most sustained poem, Ruskin remembers not only the “supernatural” magic of Coleridge but imitates as well that great poet’s tricks of versification such as occasional trimeter and aceephalous lines and hypermetric syllables.... Images and descriptions evoke no medieval associations; the fable is too thin while the descriptions are too overloaded to bear a concentrated effect. (Bose 47)
Ruskin‘s assessment that his poetic career would be less successful than in prose was correct. His weaknesses as a poet became his strengths as an interpreter and writer about art. Eventually, he became regarded as a Victorian sage.
In 1865, John Ruskin published Sesame and Lilies, which contained two lectures, “Of King’s Treasuries” and “Of Queen’s Gardens.” In the latter lecture, Ruskin advocates male and female characteristics and roles in separately equal social spheres which feminists, both then and now, find oppressively unequal. Dinah Birch, in her essay, “Ruskin’s Womanly Mind,” recognizes that in defining the moral agenda for a perfect Victorian woman, Ruskin is describing his own calling as an art critic “while apparently speaking from an emphatically male platform” (Birch 315). Ruskin’s family life and collegiate studies were instrumental in forming the characterizations Ruskin proposed for males and females in Sesame and Lilies. Evidence of the sources of Ruskin’s developing gender attitudes is shown in his poems published in the literary annuals a quarter of a century before he enunciated them in Sesame and Lilies.