n his conclusion to The Renaissance: Studies in Art & Poetry Walter Pater contrasts one’s “inward world of thought and feeling” with one’s “physical life.” Pater stresses the negative ramifications of excessive introspection, claiming such practices cause “the whole scope of observation [to be] dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind.” One ceases to experience — a crucial entity of life championed by the author — when one ceases to consciously observe his surroundings. Pater attributes this shortcoming to man’s tendency to form habits: “for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.” An individual with “rough” eyes cannot perceive the relative beauty in his environment, a concept Pater develops in his “Preface” to The Renaissance; subsequently, life lacks intrigue and remains flat, stagnant. Typical of Victorian sage-writers, Pater proffers a solution to his readers: “What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impression.” In the closing paragraph of his conclusion, Pater emphasizes the brevity of life, thus emphasizing the importance of taking his advice to heart:

We are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve — les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among "the children of this world," in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion — that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake. [238/239]

Upon articulating the short, indefinite quality of life, Pater reflects upon the various ways one can spend this “interval”: “in listlessness,” “in high passions,” and “in art and song.” A worthwhile life is one injected with passion — passion that “yields you [the] fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Though he acknowledges the existence of other stimulating activities, Pater particularly endorses art and song as the most effective means of arousing passion in one’s life. The sincerity and beauty one can find in art all but guarantee to fulfill what Pater believes to be the most vital goal in life: “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Questions

1. Previous authors we have studied — Swift, Beerbohm, Wilde — are stylistically characterized by their biting satire (some more biting than others!). Does the lack of satire in Pater’s writing render his theme any less obvious or significant to his reader? What mechanisms, then, does the author employ to convey his message?

2. In his preface to The Renaissance, Pater articulates the qualities that the aesthetic critic should possess:

What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautifully objects. He will remember always that beauty exists in many forms. To him all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal.

Based upon Pater’s assertions in his preface, must one possess the qualities of an aesthetic critic in order to consciously observe his surroundings and, thus, “experience” life as he dictates it should be experienced?

3. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” the speaker, Vivian, references Pater’s focus on Aestheticism:

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of [44/45] the new ūsthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

Knowing that Wilde writes satirically in “The Decay of Lying,” would you say he accurately portrays Pater’s opinions regarding aestheticism? In other words, does Pater champion the concept that “Art never expresses anything but itself”? Why would Wilde have chosen to refer to Pater in his argument?


Victorian Web Overview Walter Pater

Last modified 7 March 2011