Sesame and Lillies – John Ruskin

Sesame and Lillies, a transcription of two lectures given by John Ruskin in the town halls of Rusholme and Manchester in 1864, is a wonderful example of Ruskin’s skills as a social philosopher and educator. As soon as I began reading, I noticed the style of speech reflecting several characteristics that I have come to associate with John Ruskin: arrogant, convoluted and exceptionally talented. For example, the lectures are written and delivered in a conversational and friendly tone; Ruskin speaks to us as friends, but undeniably friends which he eternally patronises. I will admit that at times it is a little difficult to get past his haughty and presumptuous style, but if you can, then he is worth it. He is incredibly eloquent and a fantastic critic, and his musings demonstrate his unusual ability to simultaneously seem the epitome of his time, and far from the consensus of the Nineteenth Century at all.

There are many good qualities that can be ascribed to Ruskin’s rhetoric: his metaphors are rather brilliant, his interrogative techniques are highly amusing and effective and his points are notably persuasive. One of the things which I was most pleasantly surprised about was how astute his social commentary is, even though what I primarily knew about him before was his revere as an art critic. Ruskin is particularly refreshing and shocking in his opinions on gender equality. I was not prepared for how progressive his ideas were, or how much of an advocate he was for equal rights. He is confident in his assertions and brutally honest which is so nice to read. The other main element that I highly enjoyed is his opinions on literature and writing. I was aware that Ruskin was relatively well-read but I did not expect his literary criticism to be so thorough. I was a big fan of some of his opinions on Shakespeare and I adored how truly he captured the complexities of language.

However, despite really enjoying his lectures, no writing is perfect. My main issue is his constant lack of full stops. I was led to wonder just how he had delivered these lectures aloud with so few pauses for breath! Also, in my addition (though no fault of his own, of course), I was intensely aggravated by one of the footnotes which stretched over three or four pages. By the time that I had completed my reading of that aside, I had almost forgotten the original point that he had been making. But that is probably a little beside the point, seeing as that is a mere formatting issue. I did, however, find Ruskin’s frequent switching of pronouns to be quite off putting. The relationship between himself and the audience was continually confused by his switching between ‘we’, ‘they’, and ‘you’ when he was making his points. I could not help but wonder if his choices were deliberate, or if he simply used them interchangeably, because at times the use of pronoun quite affected his meaning.

I found that towards the end of the second lecture, that was when I came across the most problems with his writing. He seemed to be selecting arguments that would suit his argument, and ignoring those that opposed it. It also appears as if he starts to argue against himself, and his rhetoric becomes noticeably weaker. Perhaps that is the reason that the ending feels so abrupt?

Either way, I would certainly recommend reading Sesame and Lillies. There are so many angles that it is interesting from: historical, sociological, literary, and many more. Even just comparing Ruskin’s views of contemporary society to those of today is fascinating in itself. There are many merits to John Ruskin’s thoughts and writings, even if it takes a while to get past his manner.


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