The organic impulse: Ruskin, trees, architecture, and society (1843-60)

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Fifty years ago, and with typical acuity, Raymond Williams argued that it was ‘one of the most important facts about English social thinking in the nineteenth century that there grew up, in opposition to a laissez-faire society, [an] organic conception, stressing interrelation and interdependence’. Placing Ruskin at the heart of this movement, Williams contended that Ruskin’s organicist view, inimical to socialism in its belief in hierarchy and obedience, and less clearly defined than other political discourses, was amenable to all critics of liberalism (Williams 1982, 140). Martin Warnke notes that ‘involving the landscape in human affairs and feelings, and representing these by means of internal contrasts’ had already become ‘a familiar dialectic technique’ long before Ruskin, because ‘landscape could be treated in such a way as to impart a political message’ (Warnke, 1994, 80). The tendency to turn, as Ruskin did, to mediaeval societies as models of organic culture was hardly new. Ruskin’s own immersion in this idealistic atavism began with his love of Romantic poetry, but it did not end there. His own form of organicism developed out of Romanticism’s preoccupation with this subject, but it was also profoundly influenced by his own discoveries in the fields of architecture and natural history. Ruskin’s employment of organic analogies was not new, but was nonetheless wide-ranging and worthy of closer inspection
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Eighth Lamp: Ruskin Studies Today
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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