In the first of his five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-60), the great Victorian polymath John Ruskin (1819-1900) interestingly distinguishes between two ways of acquiring knowledge – of any kind.
Using “plants” as the object of enquiry, he contrasts a mere botanist’s method with that of a poet or painter.
The botanist, writes Ruskin, notes the distinctions of plants for the sake of swelling his herbarium. He counts stamens, affixes names and is content. His work is over.
The poet or painter, on the other hand, studies the varieties and attributes of plants closely so that he may render them vehicles of expression and emotion. He observes colour and form, seizes on lines of grace or energy, rigidity or repose. Captures feebleness or vigour. Serenity or tremulousness of hues. Perceives local habits, a plant’s love or fear of peculiar places, its nourishment or destruction by particular influences. He associates it in his mind with all the features of the situations it inhabits, and the ministering agencies necessary to its support.
To the botanist, the flower may be a cadaver which he can arrogantly possess and on which he can violently experiment but to a poet/painter it is a living creature, with histories written on its leaves, and passions breathing on its motion. If it appears in his poem/painting, it is not a mere point or colour or a meaningless spark of light. It is a voice rising from the earth, a new chord of the mind’s music, a necessary note in the harmony of his picture, contributing alike to its tenderness and its dignity, nor less to its loveliness than its truth.
The botanist’s conception of plants, sought from ignoble motives and for ignoble ends, remains ignoble knowledge. But the poet or painter’s idea of the very same plants becomes an attainment of the highest dignity and conveys the greatest blessing.
Featured: Study of Wild Rose by Ruskin, 1871, Wikimedia Commons