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The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (The 1893 Text)

by Walter Pater, edited by Donald L. Hill
University of California Press, 489 pp., $25.00

In 1965 the Yale scholar René Wellek remarked that “today Pater is under a cloud; he is no longer widely read, and he is dismissed as an ‘impressionistic’ critic.” The cloud has lifted. Most of Pater’s books are still out of print, it is nearly impossible to find a set of the standard edition of his works, the Library Edition in ten volumes first issued in 1910; he is not yet widely read. But he is more vividly present today than at any time in the past fifty years.

Walter Horatio Pater (1839-1894) was a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, when he published his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). The book consisted of a Preface, a Conclusion, and eight chapters on Pico della Mirandola, Botticelli, Luca della Robbia, the poetry of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Joachim du Bellay, Winckelmann, and two early French stories. Several chapters had already been published as essays. Part of the Conclusion had appeared as a review of William Morris’s poetry, without stirring much interest. But when these disparate materials were brought together to make Studies in the History of the Renaissance, they caused a fuss.

Not the chapters, but mainly the Preface and the Conclusion, where Pater was understood as offering in high-minded sentences a blatant invitation to hedonism, if not to something unnamably worse. “Art for art’s sake first of all,” a phrase from Swinburne’s William Blake (1868), was not scandalous in itself, but something in Pater’s tone seemed to propose a particular temptation to the young men an Oxford bachelor don might be supposed to address. His style corresponded to an extremely pronounced self-consciousness, consistent with a man whose rooms at Brasenose had none of the usual Victorian clutter but, as a student remembered, “were panelled in a pale green tint, the floor was matted…and a dwarf orange tree, with real oranges on it, adorned the table.” Pater’s book ended with these sentences:

We have an interval, and then we cease to be. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest in art and song. For our one chance is in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. High passions give one this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, political or religious enthusiasm, or the “enthusiasm of humanity.” Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

The book was widely reviewed and, on the whole, much praised, though few understood that Pater’s criticism aimed to reveal the continuity between a temperament and its manifestations; to go back from the manifestations, a painting, a sculpture, a phrase or…

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