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"The Queen of the Air": Transformation of Myth in Ruskin and Hopkins Author(s): Judith H.

Fox Reviewed work(s): Source: Victorian Poetry, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter, 1974), pp. 335-342 Published by: West Virginia University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 14/03/2012 23:31
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The Ruskin





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JUDITHH. FOX Abstract. Gerard Manley Hopkins' most successful Marian poem, "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe" (1883), contains and extensive debts to John Ruskin, many of whose works unacknowledgedHopkins admittedly studied and admired. In his Queen of the Air (1869), Ruskin compares the goddess Athena to the air, describingat length the physicaland spiritualpowersby which the air, personifiedand worshippedby the ancient Greeks, enlivens, protects, and inspires man to virtue. While Hopkins relies upon The Queen of the Air for his structuralsimile and for many thematic and verbal details, he skillfully combines with his Ruskinian material the doctrine of St. Bernardthat all grace comes to men through Mary, and he infuses throughout the poem his own joyful devotion to and praise of the Virgin. Both Ruskin and Hopkinsseem to be motivated in their idealization of womanhood by a need for comfort in time of mental distress. Though neither man feels he has treated his subject with the nobility it deserves, each seeks in his restructuringof ancient myth the promise of renewedcreativity.

THE influence of John Ruskin upon GerardManley Hopkins gradually gains wider recognition, an interesting source remains neglected: The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the GreekMyths of Cloud and Storm (1869).1 A series of three lectures, only partsof which were ever delivered,Ruskin'sQueenof the Air is importantto Hopkinsscholarsbecause it contains the simile Hopkins adapted for his poem "The Blessed Virgin comparedto the Air we Breathe"(1883). AlthoughHopkinsnever specifically mentions The Queen of the Air, it is reasonableto assumethat he readit.
In The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn(London, 1905), XIX, 219423. Subsequentreferences to this edition appearin the text.


336 / VICTORIAN POETRY His admirationfor Ruskin, the careful study of ModernPainters which gave rise to his concept of inscape, his sketching in a Ruskinian manner, his adaptation of Ruskin's aesthetic norms, and his interest in mythology are well-establishedfacts.2 Internalevidencefrom "The BlessedVirgincompared to the Air we Breathe"supportsthe probabilitythat he also knew The Queen of the Air. Critics generally trace the simile in Hopkins' poem to comments on a brief phrasefrom St. Bernardmentioned in his sermon notes for October5, 1879. Elaboratingupon St. Bernard'sbelief that Maryis the mediatrixof all grace,Hopkinswrites:
St Bernard's saying,All gracegiven throughMary:this a mystery.Likeblue sky, which for all its richnessof colour does not stain the sunlight,thoughsmokeandred clouds do, she gladdensthe $0 God's gracescome to us unchangedbut all throughher. Moreover, Catholic'sheaven and when she is brightestso is the sun her son: he that sees no blue 3 sees no sun either,so with Protestants.

While the phrase from St. Bernard-"A11 "-provides gracegiventhroughMary the doctrinal content of Hopkins' poem, the simile "like blue sky" is Hopkins' personal attempt to elucidate the mystery. Trying to determine whether the simile is original, Paul J. Barry mentions four Latin sources dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centurieswhich associate Mary with aer. Since the comparisons are based solely upon luminosity and tranquility, Barry concludes: "The sustaining, nourishing, and protective qualities which bear the burdenof Hopkins'metaphorare entirely lacking."4 These are, however, the very qualities Ruskin stressesin praisingAthena as Queenof the Air. Among the Greek myths of cloud and storm which Ruskin considersin his lectures, the myth of Athena is central. His Victorian goddess, however, bears so little resemblance to the Greek Athena that Frederick Clarke Prescott remarks: "Ruskin expands the myth of Athene with a fancy so exuberant that his readingoften seems untrue to the originalor farfetched. But he at least shows how ancient myth may be re-createdin the mind of a modernpoet."5 Accordingto Ruskin,Athena

See, for example,Alison G. Sulloway,Gerard ManleyHopkinsand the Victorian Temper (ColumbiaUniv. Press, 1972), pp. 64-114; Norman H. MacKenzie, Hopkins 1968), pp. 6-8; and FrancisFike, "The Influenceof John Ruskinupon the (Edinburgh, Aesthetic Theory and Practiceof GerardManley Hopkins,"Diss. Stanford 1963, and "GerardManley Hopkins'Interest in Paintingafter 1868: Two Notes," VP, 1 (1970), 315-333. o The SermonsandDevotionalWritings of Gerard ManleyHopkins,ed. Christopher Devlin(OxfordUniv.Press,1959), p. 29. andLife (Rome, 1970), pp. 31-32. 4Maryin Hopkins'Writings N. Y., 1967), p. 92. ^PoetryandMyth (1927; rpt. Port Washington,


is, physically,the queen of the air;havingsupremepowerboth overits blessingof calm, and wrath of storm;and spiritually,she is the queen of the breathof man, first of the which is life to his blood, and strengthto his armin battle;and then of bodily breathing the mental breathing,or inspiration,which is his moral health and habitual wisdom; wisdom of conduct and of the heart, as opposed to the wisdom of imagination and the brain; moral, as distinct from intellectual; inspired, as distinct from illuminated. (XIX, 305-306)

Elaboratingfurtherupon the two kinds of power exercised by the great goddess,Ruskinfirst enumeratesher physicalagencies:
I. II. III. IV. She is the airgivinglife andhealthto all animals. She is the airgivingvegetativepowerto the earth. She is the air givingmotion to the sea, andrendering possible. navigation She is the air nourishing artificiallight, torch or lamplight; as opposedto that of the on one and of fire on the other. sun, hand, consuming V. She is the air conveyingvibrationof sound. (XIX, 328)

Associated with the physical powers of Athena are two kinds of spiritual influence:
not strengthin the blood only, but first, she is the Spirit of Life in materialorganism; formativeenergy in the clay: and, secondly, she is inspiredand impulsivewisdom in humanconduct and humanart, givingthe instinct of infallibledecision,and of faultless invention. (XIX, 346)

Ruskin's description of Athena as goddess of the air (she is usually consideredpatronessof militaryarts, civilization,handicraft,and agriculture) probably arisesfrom his readingof Max Miiller,the noted mythologist, who was an admiredcolleagueand personalfriend.6Miillersuggestedetymological links between the classical gods and naturalphenomena.The name of Zeus originally referred to the sun, for example, while Athena, who sprangfully armedfrom his brow, personifiedthe dawn. Hopkins, like Ruskin,admiredMiillerand studied his works. A Fellow of All Souls College, Muller held the Taylorian Chair of Modern European in Oxford while Hopkins was an undergraduate there. Whilethere Languages Miiller's it is is no record of Hopkins'attending lectures, probablethat he did of the so, for Mullerwas a friend Manley Hopkins, poet's father, and his In his undergraduate father of interested both and son. knowledge philology the first volume of from notebooks, the younger Hopkins copied passages German a and Miiller's Chips from Workshop (1867), shortly after the on of of Lectures the Science of Language publication Miiller'ssecond series (1864), he includedMulleron his list of books to read.Hopkinsdid study the book, for his essay "The Connectionof Mythology and Philosophy"explains

6Ruskin refers to Muller as a fellow professor{Works,XXII, 125; XXV, 153; XXXIII,463) and calls him one of the leadingscholarsof Europe(XXVIII,244). He not lectures(XVIII, 69), but he also quotes only recommendsa thoroughstudy of Muller's the Lectureson the Science of Language (XVIII,288; XXV, 242).

POETRY 338 / VICTORIAN the origins of myth in Muller'sterms, and he later admitted "a considerable belief in the solarmyth" expoundedby Milllerin his eleventhlecture.7 In this same lecture, Muller,after demonstratingthe etymological links between the GreekAthene and the Sanskritword meaningdawn,writes:
birth of Athene. . .seems no more than the Greekrenderingof the The extraordinary Sanskritphrasethat Ushas, the Dawn, sprangfrom the head of Dyu, . . . the East, the foreheadof the sky. . . .How Athene, being the dawn, should have become the goddess of wisdom, we can best learn from the Veda. In Sanskrit,budh means to wake and to conceivedas the know; hence the goddesswho causedpeople to wakewas involuntarily goddesswho causedpeople to know.8

It seems unlikely, however, that Muller'slectures directly inspired Hopkins' comparison of the Blessed Virgin to the air, for Hopkins' language is strikinglysimilarto passagesin Ruskin'sQueenof the Air. If indeed Hopkins knew Ruskin'swork, his transferenceof the attributes of Athene to the Virgin Mary was not without precedent, for there was a of tendency amongVictorians to interpretthe classicalgods as prefigurations Christ and the saints. Douglas Bush says that "everyone learned to play variations on the contrasts between Christian and pagan ideals," and he mentions the manner in which Augusta Webster "contrasted Zeus with 'a greater God' and Athene with the Virgin Mary."9 Barry remarkson the attitude of many non-Catholic Victorians who considered "the cult of Mary.. .simply a vestige of the worship of pagan goddesses."10Ruskin,too, commenting upon the faith of the ancient Greeks, writes: "The common people's [creed] was quite literal, simple, and happy: their idea of Athena was as clear as a good RomanCatholicpeasant'sidea of the Madonna"(XIX, 347). In his poem, Hopkins,like Ruskin, dwells upon the physicaland spiritual qualities of air which remind him not of Athena, but of the Mother of all grace:
Merelya woman,yet Whosepresence,poweris Greatas no goddess's Wasdeemed,dreamed.11 The Journalsand Papers of GerardManley Hopkins, ed. HumphryHouse and GrahamStorey (Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 530 (AppendixIV), and p. 36; the essay andPoetry on mythology was first publishedin JamesCotter's Inscape:The Christology Press, 1972), AppendixI, pp. 307-309; of Gerard ManleyHopkins (Univ. of Pittsburgh the referenceto the solar myth: FurtherLetters of Gerard ManleyHopkins,ed. Claude ColleerAbbott, 2nd ed. (OxfordUniv.Press,1956), p. 263. 2nd series(London,1864), pp. 503-504. Lectureson the Scienceof Language, Mythologyand the Romantic Traditionin EnglishPoetry (1937; rpt. New York, 1963), p. 272, n. 18. andLife, p. 36. Maryin Hopkins'Writings The Blessed Virgin comparedto the Air we Breathe,"The Poems of Gerard 4th ed. (OxfordUniv.Press, and N. H. MacKenzie, ManleyHopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner referencesto this edition appearin the text. 1967), 11. 25-28. Subsequent

JUDITHH. FOX I 339 Again like Ruskin, he begins by stressingthe dependence of all living things upon the air, which is "fairlymixed / With,riddles,and is rife / In every least thing'slife" (11. 6-8). Naturallaw requiresthe poet to rely upon air simply "to breatheits praise"(1. 15). Both Ruskin and Hopkins see in their respective idealizations of womanhood three essential and related qualities: formative and creative energy; physical protection; and moral inspiration. Consideringthe first quality, Hopkins describes God's creativity as man now experiences it, throughthe formativeinfluence of the BlessedVirgin:
A mothercame to mould Thoselimbslike ourswhich are Whatmust make our daystar Muchdearerto mankind.

104-107) (11.

Mary's formative influence is analogous to that of Athena, whom Ruskin describesas "formativeenergy in the clay" (XIX, 346). Hopkins'phrase"to mould / Those limbs" echoes Ruskin's beautiful passage on the creative power of air:
It entersinto the surfaceof the earth, subduesit, andfalls togetherwith it into fruitful dust, from which can be moulded flesh; ... it enters into the separatedshapesof the earthit has tempered,commandsthe ebb and flow of the currentof their life, fills their limbs with its own lightness, measurestheir existence by its indwellingpulse, moulds upon their lips the words by which one soul can be known to another;is to them the hearingof the ear, and the beating of the heart;and, passingaway, leaves them to the peacethat hearsandmovesno more. (XIX, 386; emphasis added)

Just as the goddessAthena, accordingto Ruskin, "represents the ambient air" so the Blessed becomes for (XIX, 327), Virgin Hopkins "my atmosphere;/ My happierworld" (11.115-116) which he finds above and aroundhim. Both Ruskin and Hopkins elaborate upon the protective qualitiesof air. As Athena shields the warriorfrom his enemies,Maryprotects man from the blindingpresenceof God:
Whoseglory barewould blind Orless would win man'smind. her we may see him Through Madesweeter,not made dim, And her handleaveshis light Sifted to suit our sight.


This section of the poem (11. 72-102) contains numerous Ruskinian echoes. Recallingthe Alps as he once knew them, Ruskin describesthe "air which once inlaid the clefts of all their golden cragswith azure"(XIX, 293). Later he rhapsodizesover air creatingthe "sapphire"dome of heaven (XIX, 386). Hopkinswrites:
Again,look overhead How airis azured; O how! Nay do but stand Where you can lift your hand Skywards: rich,richit laps Roundthe four fingergaps. Yet such a sapphire-shot, steepedsky will not Charged, Stainlight.

(11. 73-81)

340 / VICTORIAN POETRY While the colors are the same and Hopkins' fingergapsresemble Ruskin's mountain clefts, the notion that the blue of the sky will not stain or alter the sunlight is related to Ruskin's idea that the blue of the atmosphere is "reflected from the divided air itself (XIX, 292) and is not a quality of sunlight. Another image common to both writersis the sun's blinding and chaotic fire, being slakedin a "bath of blue":
the sun would shake, A blearand blindingball Withblacknessbound, and all The thick starsroundhim roll like flecks of coal, Flashing or sparksof salt, Quartz-fret, In grimyvasty vault.

96-102) (11.

Ruskin not only explains how the airwarmsand shadesat once, "stayingthe heat of the sun's rays in its own body, but warding their force with its clouds" (XIX, 385); he also has a passagewhich suggestsHopkins' image of the "thick stars . . . / Flashing like flecks of coal, / Quartz-fret." Ruskin writes:
The practically importantfact for us is the existence of a power which creates that calcareousearth itself;-whichcreatesthat, separately,and quartz,separately,and gold, and then so directsthe relationsof these elements separately,and charcoal,separately; that the gold may destroy the souls of men by being yellow; and the charcoaldestroy their souls by being hard and bright;and the quartzrepresentto them an ideal purity. (XIX, 359)

While one cannot be certain that Hopkins' thick starsare related to Ruskin's gold, his flecks of coal to charcoal,and his quartz-fretto quartz, it is clear that both writers are concerned with the destructive potential of these elements and with the creativepower operatingthroughthem. Finally, both Ruskin and Hopkins dwell upon their respectivequeens of the air as the source of patience and moralinspiration.Like Ruskin'sAthena, who fosters "wisdomof conduct and of the heart,"Mary
holds highmotherhood all our ghostlygood Towards And playsin graceher part About man'sbeatingheart.

(11. 47-50)

Yet her power exceeds Athena's,for she now bringsChristto birth spiritually in man'sheart. The poet's concluding prayer for virtuous inspiration, particularlyfor patience, compareswith Ruskin'snotion of Athena as source of patience and "all glowingvirtue."Hopkinswrites:
Aboveme, roundme lie Frontingmy frowardeye Withsweet and scarlesssky; Stirin my ears,speakthere Of God'slove, O live air, Of patience,penance,prayer.

118-123) (11.

JUDITHH. FOX I 341 Ruskin's Athena is queen of the "heart-virtue,"which has four aspects correspondingto the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. According to Ruskin, fortitude and temperance are forms of patience, the former being "patience under trial by pain," the latter, "patience under trial by pleasure"(XIX, 306). While Hopkins begs Maryto speak to him of patience and penance, Ruskinfinds similarvirtuesin Athena:
or patience,that is the centralsign of spirit;a constancyagainstthe cold and Endurance, powerof the air that the heat of agony of death;and as, physically,it is by the burning the flesh is sustained,so this Athena, spiritually,is the queen of all glowingvirtue, the fire andinnerlamp of life. (XIX, 352) unconsuming

Even the notion that the Blessed Virgin,as atmosphere,can "Stir in my ears, speakthere" is relatedto Athena'srole, for she is the "airconveyingvibration of sound." She is man's inspiration,"his moral health and habitualwisdom" (XIX, 328, 305). The number of verbal and thematic parallelsbetween Ruskin's study of Athena and Hopkins' poem can hardly be a matter of coincidence. Hopkins, however, was no slavish imitator. He recognized in the myth of Athena elements which are more true of Mary,who actually exists and can therefore be taken in earnest, than they are of Athena, who after all is neither historically nor religiously authentic, in Hopkins' view of the matter.12 He sincerely believed that Mary ranks above every other creature. Elevatedby God's Providenceand her own virtue above the human condition of sin, she sharesin the godhead in such a way that God is manifested to man through her, while all of natureascendsthroughher to God. If one agrees,on the basis of extensive internal evidence, that Hopkins' poem was influenced by his reading of The Queen of the Air, a further question arises:what attraction did the comparisonof an ideal woman to air hold for the two men? The answer is necessarily conjectural, but it seems significant that both Ruskin and Hopkins took up the subject at a time of extreme mental distress. The myth may have appealed to them simply because of its hopefulness. In the opening lines of his Preface, Ruskin confesses: "My days and strength have lately been much broken;and I nevermore felt the insufficiency of both than in preparingfor the pressthe following desultorymemorandaon a most noble subject" (XIX, 291). Hopkins' feelings of depressionand inadequacy during the months immediately precedingthe composition of "The Blessed

Bridges'treatment of Athena in the play Ulyssespromptedone of the harshest passagesin Hopkins'criticism.Bridgeshad presentedthe goddessas a characterto be taken "in earnest,not allegorically,"and Hopkins explainedat length how "it revolts me" (The Letters of GerardManley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, 2nd ed. [OxfordUniv.Press,1955] , p. 217).


342 / VICTORIAN POETRY Virgin. . ." are well documentedby his letters. The poem was written in May, 1883. The previous January, Hopkins had complained to Robert Bridges: "Since our holidays began I have been in a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can't tell why, always drowzy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect" {Letters, p. 168). Again in Marchhe wrote: "I am always jaded, I cannot tell why, and my vein shews no signs of ever flowing again" (Letters, p. 178). Like Ruskin, his general state of depression was deepened by the suspicion that he had not done justice to his topic: "It is partly a compromise with popular taste, and it is too true that the highest subjects are not those on which it is easy to reachone's highest"(Letters,p. 179). The comparisonof air or sky to maternalembracesand even to spiritual influences that protect man was not new in Hopkins'poetry. "The Wreckof the Deutschland," "God's Grandeur,""The Starlight Night," and "In the Valley of the Elwy" all contain enveloping images of the air, revealinga yearning even more fundamentalto Hopkins than the perhapsunconscious urge to return to the womb. He desires a more realistic, a more spiritual security, the envelopingand protective security of graceand mercy which he considers as necessaryto spirituallife as air is to physical life and which he believeswill come to him only throughMary'sintercessionwith her Son. The prayerwith which Hopkinsconcludeshis poem is a poignantplea for the maternal embrace and for words of encouragement. It reveals his emotional unrest and his very real desire for a "happierworld, wherein/ To wend and meet no sin" (11.116-117). He looks to Maryfor comfort:
air, airwild, World-mothering Woundwith thee, in thee isled, Fold home, fast fold thy child. 124-126) (11.

To Hopkins then, as to Ruskin,the comparisonof perfect womanhood to the air offered welcome promiseof vitality and renewedinspiration.Both men of exceptionally keen sensibility, they were easily appalled by physical and moral ugliness.In a time of personaldiscouragement and weakness,each drew from the myth a messagemeaningfuland consoling.