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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 two in poetry, to the temperament they at once reveal and conceal. Pater was interested in Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo as types or emblems of human feeling rather than as individuals. He was even more interested in the impingement of these types upon his own structure of feeling, in the quality of gesture and sentiment he associated with each or, to a high degree, projected upon each. Some reviewers felt that Pater had foisted his exquisite anxieties upon Renaissance artists who would not have recognized themselves in his account of them, but the book was acknowledged as formidable, perceptive, and handsomely written.

Within a few months readers who had forgotten the several chapters remembered the Conclusion. George Eliot thought the book “quite poisonous in its false principles of criticism and false conceptions of life.” W.J. Courthope said that it was not criticism but “pure romance,” not fine but an exhibition of Pater’s finery. The Bishop of Oxford quoted part of the Conclusion in a sermon and warned undergraduates against such skepticism. John Wordsworth, a colleague of Pater’s at Brasenose, protested that the philosophy of the Conclusion was “an assertion that no fixed principles either of religion or morality can be regarded as certain, that the only thing worth living for is momentary enjoyment and that probably or certainly the soul dissolves at death into elements that are destined never to reunite.” He called upon Pater to give up examining students in divinity. The scholar W.H. Mallock in his book The New Republic: or Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in an English Country House (1876) parodied Pater as Mr. Rose, who speaks in an undertone and has only two topics, self-indulgence and art:

I rather look upon life as a chamber, which we decorate as we would decorate the chamber of the woman or the youth that we love, tinting the walls of it with symphonies of subdued color…. We have learned the weariness of creeds; and know that for us the grave has no secrets.

It was clear in 1873 that Pater’s Renaissance disavowed, in its elegant fashion, such socially minded critics as Arnold and Ruskin. In many important respects Pater was indebted to both men, but his advocacy of “aesthetic criticism,” and his cultivation of the values hovering about such words as impression, sensation, beauty, pleasure, and consciousness were incompatible with the social emphasis paramount, however differently worded, in his elders. It is now clearer than ever, from the evidence gathered in Donald Hill’s superlative edition of the 1893 text, that Pater’s affiliations are mainly with Hegel, Shelley, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Swinburne. Many of his themes are common to Arnold, Ruskin, and Newman, but his sense of them draws subversive force from sources mainly German and French. Like Arnold, he thought English culture at best incomplete, at worst crude, an uncomely choice among satisfactions. But he went much further than Arnold in resorting to the more daringly exotic thoughts and sensations he found in Greek, French, and German sources. Arnold was restrained by what he construed as native good sense. Pater, never insistently English, was stimulated by a whiff of European corruption. It is the subversive Pater who appealed so strongly to Wilde, Yeats, Beardsley, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Dowson, and other writers of Yeats’s “Tragic Generation.”

The crucial term is consciousness. The desperate quality in the cult of consciousness in Pater and other late nineteenth-century writers is explained not only by Romanticism and the attempt to hold some personal force secure from the aggression of science and technology but by the sense that freedom of action, in any public form, was illusory. The only remaining field of action was within the psyche; consciousness was its sign and mode. If you add, in Pater, an acute sense of mortality, of death as the mother of beauty, and of beauty as the fulfillment of desire, you have some indication of the desperateness with which consciousness is cultivated.

Pater was taken aback by the reception of his Renaissance. Accepting Emilia Pattison’s criticism that the several chapters “are not history, nor are they even to be relied on for accurate statement,” he changed the title, when the second edition was published in 1877, to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. More important, he suppressed the offensive Conclusion lest “it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall.” He also toned down some phrases hostile to religious belief or too emphatic in their subjectivity. Pater’s later writings were more prudent, but they did not recant or withdraw the hedonism he took greater care to define. In Marius the Epicurean (1885) he repeated the gist of the Conclusion to The Renaissance, mostly in the chapter called “New Cyrenaicism.”

In any case, Pater was safer with Marius, a work of fiction, than with The Renaissance, which purported to deal with matters of fact and therefore revealed immediately Pater’s own interventions. Marius is a novel of ideas, in the sense that it replaces fictional characters by ideas, and offers as events chiefly transitions from one sentiment to another.

Marius, like Pater, considers religion and philosophy as fine arts, and values the first for its ritual, the second for its charm. But his Cyrenaicism or Epicureanism is not a definitive creed but a moment of transition. The book tries to reconcile the apparent hedonism of The Renaissance with Christianity, “the old morality,” by showing it as “an exaggeration of one special motive” in that morality. Marius’s chief quality is the mobility of his feelings, as if perfection meant the capacity of frequent change. “Be perfect in regard to what is here and now” was suited to one moment, later becoming another for which the motto was “not pleasure, but fulness of life, and insight as conducting to that fulness.” Perfection was Unity of Being, in Yeats’s Paterian phrase for it, a state in which body is not bruised to pleasure soul. In an essay on D.G. Rossetti, published in 1883, Pater praised the poet for knowing “no region of spirit which shall not be sensuous also, or material.”

By 1888, when the third edition of The Renaissance was published, Pater had decided that he had done enough to clarify what the Conclusion to the first edition meant, and to defend himself against misinterpretation. So he restored it, with minor changes, and it was accepted without much comment. In the same year he wrote an essay on “Style,” invoking the criterion of truth along with that of beauty, and pointing to Flaubert for success in both. It is easy to say that he became prudent in later years and took precautions against offending anyone. He would claim that what he had always proposed was not pleasure but perfection, the highest possible organization of one’s faculties; unity of feeling in the person and—though he had less to say of this—unity of culture in the society. Reviewing the second version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891, he distinguished Wilde’s allegedly false Epicureanism from his own true Epicureanism, which “aims at a complete though harmonious development of man’s entire organism.” And he had the cheek to rebuke Wilde for ignoring the moral issue, although it was Pater who showed Wilde, in the first Renaissance, how it could be transcended or subsumed in an aesthetic state. The review scolds Wilde:

To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde’s heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is to lose, or lower, organization, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.

Perfection as an available state of being is also invoked in Pater’s last and finest book, Plato and Platonism (1893), especially in the chapter on the doctrine of number, where he insists that “the essence, the active principle of the Pythagorean doctrine, resides, not as with the ancient Eleatics, nor as with our modern selves too often, in the ‘infinite,’ those eternities, infinitudes, abysses, Carlyle invokes for us so often—in no cultus of the infinite, but in the finite.”

Pater died in Oxford on July 28, 1894. Of his life, one might say, as he said of Leonardo’s years at Florence, that his history is the history of his art, “he is lost in the bright cloud of it.” He had lived mostly in his rooms at Brasenose. In 1869 he took a house in Bradmore Road, Oxford, and lived there with his sisters Hester and Clara. Vacations he spent mainly in France and Italy. In 1885 the Paters moved to a modest house in London, and he took up a mild social life. But in 1893 they went back to Oxford, as if to fulfill the logic of his life by dying there.

A few months after his death, Henry James said that Pater had had “the most exquisite literary fortune: to have taken it all out, wholly, exclusively, with the pen (the style, the genius) and absolutely not at all with the person.” He is, James said, “the mask without the face, and there isn’t in his total superficies a tiny point of vantage for the newspaper to flap his wings on.” Perhaps not; and certainly not, by dramatic contrast with Ruskin, Wilde, Swinburne, and nearly everyone else. James thought of Pater as having one form of success, that of the artist in triumph, of whom we see only “the back he turns to us as he bends over his work.” The phrase comes from James’s preface to The Tragic Muse (1889), a novel about such artists, wonderfully lost in their work, though the particular example of Pater comes into it only when we bring it in.

After Pater’s death, his styles and procedures, invited or not, went into the work of other writers; not only Yeats (“that extravagant style he had learnt from Pater”) but Proust, Pound, Joyce’s “epiphanies,” Eliot, Forster, Stevens, and Virginia Woolf.* His books were regularly reprinted until about 1925, when the wind started turning against him. Eliot was influentially hostile, especially in the essay “Arnold and Pater” (1930) where he asserted that Pater had merely extended the secularizing damage Arnold had already done. Public taste, in any case, was moving away from Pater. In an England where, according to Auden, nobody was well, the illness seemed to call for social and political treatment, not for aesthetic refinement.

Why, then, has Pater emerged? Why for more than a few critics does he seem central rather than marginal to the definition of modernism, cousin to Mallarmé rather than to Arnold?

Some reasons are obvious. He is now seen as a crucial figure in the reconsideration of Romanticism which has been going on for the past ten or fifteen years; especially in its bearing upon the question of self and consciousness. But the question is obscure. Some critics have turned against the notion of consciousness because it seems to claim a high degree of spontaneity and originality: they want to see the Jamesian figure of the artist as hero eclipsed by the notion of the text—and not the personal and social experience with which the text is concerned—as the principal reality to be solicited. Pater gives them comfort in the Conclusion to The Renaissance:

Analysis goes a step further still, and assures us that those impressions of the individual mind to which, for each one of us, experience dwindles down, are in perpetual flight; that each of them is limited by time, and that as time is infinitely divisible, each of them is infinitely divisible also; all that is actual in it being a single moment, gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is.

So the freedom of consciousness is even more desperate, because more spasmodic, than we have allowed. The notion of self as known only by the momentary appearances and disappearances of every evidence in its favor is congenial to some critics; though it is hard to square with the fact that Pater forces every object of attention into complicity with his highly distinctive style. Objects assume his mystery. What Byron said of Keats applies with better reason to Pater: “not indecent, but constantly soliciting his own ideas into a state.” Yet it is Pater who speaks of “that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves,” a phrase dear to many critics who write of him.

Another reason for Pater’s emergence is that his writing, blurring the supposed distinction between criticism and creation, encourages those critics (Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Ihab Hassan, and others) who want to practice criticism as a fine art.

But the most telling reason is that Pater’s understanding of language anticipated many of the axioms current again today. A passage from The Renaissance ascribes to language whatever impression of solidity is attached to objects: “of objects in the solidity with which language invests them.” And there is a passage in Plato and Platonism which is virtually an anthology of currently received ideas:

For in truth we come into the world, each one of us, “not in nakedness,” but by the natural course of organic development clothed far more completely than even Pythagoras supposed in a vesture of the past, nay, fatally shrouded, it might seem, in those laws or tricks of heredity which we mistake for our volitions; in the language which is more than one half of our thoughts; in the moral and mental habits, the customs, the literature, the very houses, which we did not make for ourselves; in the vesture of a past, which is (so science would assure us) not ours, but of the race, the species: that Zeit-geist, or abstract secular process, in which, as we could have had no direct consciousness of it, so we can pretend to no future personal interest.

Pater’s dash from “clothes” to “vesture” to “shroud” should be questioned, but the passage is bound to please those critics who regard as delusion every claim to spontaneity or creativity.

Gerald Monsman is such a critic. Or rather, he has become one during the years in which he has written three books on Pater. His first, Pater’s Portraits (1967), was concerned with a conflict in Pater’s fiction between two principles: Dionysian and Apollonian, to use Nietzschean terms which Pater does not use. Monsman argues that he sought a dynamic relation between them rather than a war in which one of them would win. My own view is that what he sought was a term or a style capable of accommodating both. Monsman’s second book, Walter Pater (1977), had a fairly innocent readership in view, and held to the immediate requirement of elucidation.

The new book has three tasks in hand. First: it seeks to show that Pater’s entire work is disguised autobiography, the main disguise being the “imaginary portrait,” part factual, part fictive. Second: it interprets Pater’s works in psychoanalytical terms. Pater’s father died when the boy was two and a half years old, his mother when he was four and a half. If you add to these misfortunes an elder brother, William, rival for his mother’s affection, you have the makings of a story of guilt and expiation. Third: the book attempts to transpose the study of Pater’s work into a discourse congenial to contemporary criticism.

Monsman’s first book is still his most useful. It is far clearer than his second or third on Pater’s desire to reconcile paganism and Christianity by providing a sentiment capable of holding them together or suffusing them with a glow of feeling in which their sharp edges are smoothed. Mostly, what emerges from the new book is a sense of some inner psychic drama working itself out in Pater’s writings. I am not persuaded by Monsman’s argument, mainly because it is heavily reductive.

That something odd is going on in Pater’s work is clear enough, but I have never seen it explained. He often writes as if he had something at once to hide and to reveal, some crime or sin not quite committed, the guilt of which he needs to prolong by the expression of it. Eliot accused him of confusing life with art, but the charge may itself be confused, since art is part of life or a quality of life. Eliot was scandalized by anyone who practiced life as a fine art or proposed to replace moral criteria by aesthetic criteria.

But it is hard to blame Pater for the “untidy lives” lived by Wilde, Dowson, Symons, and Johnson. They did not need his encouragement to see themselves as tragic heroes, fallen into dissipation and despair. It is not true that they practiced what Pater preached. If they translated his style into a way of life, the translation was premature and inaccurate. Yeats, after all, was one of Pater’s disciples, but he did not translate his style or his rhetoric directly into daily life.

Monsman’s way of dealing with the issue is evasive. He wants to associate Pater’s entire work with “those ultra-reflexive writers whose fictional worlds invariably lead back to the generative activity of art itself: Borges, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Leiris, Nabokov, Fowles, Barth, Barthelme, to name several.” It is to name too many. If Pater is to be added to that list, we might as well forget him: no writer has come unscathed from such an association. It is far more to the point to see Pater where he mainly saw himself, in relation not only to Hegel, Goethe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, but to the wilder manifestations of Romanticism in its English, French, and German forms. The unity he sought was not available to him in any world his observation could confirm. His dream of a better world than the real one is what we mostly sense in his style, but it is still a problem and a worry what the constituents of that better world might be, and what would happen to our own constituents, were Pater’s to prevail.

  1. *

    Perry Meisel’s The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (Yale, 1980) is an essay in the “anxiety of influence”: it argues that Pater was Virginia Woolf’s chief precursor, and that her work embodies her struggle to overcome his authority. Meisel has convincingly established Pater’s influence on Woolf, but I am not persuaded that it was, to the extent he maintains, a source of great creative anxiety.

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