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Penguin Persons
by [?]

After all, one knows so little about a man from his printed works! They are the gleanings of his thoughts and investigations, the pick of his mind and heart; and they are at best but an impersonal and partial record of the writer. Even autobiography has something unsatisfactory about it; one feels the narrator is on guard always, as it were, and, aware of an audience cold and of strangers, keeps this back and trims up that to make himself more what he should be (or, in some perverse cases, what he should not be). But probably no man who is worthy of attention sits down to write a letter to a good friend with one eye on posterity and the public. In his intimate correspondence he is off guard. Hence, some day, when he has died, the world comes to know him by fleeting glimpses as he was,–which is almost as near, is it not, as we ever get to knowing one another?–knows him under his little private moods, in the spell of his personal joys and sorrows, sees his flashes of unexpected humor,–even, it may be, his unexpected pettinesses Thus dangerous and thus delightful is it to publish a great man’s letters.

Such letters were Ruskin’s to Charles Eliot Norton, which Professor Norton has given to the world. No one can fail from those letters to get a more intimate picture of the author of Modern Painters than could ever be imagined out of that work itself, and out of the rest of his works besides, not excepting the wonderful Fors Clavigera; and not only a more intimate, but a different picture, touched with greater whimsicality, and with infinite sadness, too. Not his hard-wrung thoughts and theories, but his moods of the moment–and he was a man rich in the moods of the moment–tell most prominently here. And with how many of these moods can the Ordinary Reader sympathize! Again and again as the Ordinary Reader turns the pages he finds the great man under the thralldom of the same insect cares and annoyances which rule us all, until he realizes as perhaps never before that poet and peasant, genius and scribe, are indeed one in a common humanity, and sighs, with a lurking smile of satisfaction, “So nigh is grandeur to our dust!”

One of the points of convergence between Ruskin and the Ordinary Reader which has appealed to me with peculiar force occurs in a letter from London dated in 1860. “When I begin to think at all,” Ruskin writes, “I get into states of disgust and fury at the way the mob is going on (meaning by the mob, chiefly Dukes, crown-princes, and such like persons) that I choke; and have to go to the British Museum and look at Penguins till I get cool. I find Penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.”

Why, of course one can’t! It is absurdly true, when one comes to think of it, this beneficent influence of penguins, stuffed penguins, at that, which cannot even waddle. I dare say few readers ever thought of this peculiar bird (if it is a bird) in just that light before Mr. Ruskin’s letter came to view; I’m sure I never did. But few readers will fail to recall at a first reading of the words that picture of a penguin which used to adorn the school geographies, and presently will come to them the old sensation of amusement at the waddly fellow propped up on his impossible feet, the smile will break over their lips, and they will be one in mood with Mr. Ruskin. They may affirm that of course the author was only indulging in a little whimsicality, and they may two thirds believe it, as it is no doubt two thirds true; but just the same, unless I am much mistaken, the image of a penguin will persist in their minds, as it persisted in Ruskin’s mind–else how did he come to write of it in this letter?–and they will be the better and the happier for the smile it evokes, as Ruskin was the better and the happier. Indeed, that letter was his cheeriest for months.