Reading Pater for his ideas is like reading Wordsworth for his philosophy; what ideas he does have he took from others who expressed them better.1 His principal merit is style. His prose effectively impersonates the emotional center of his thought: the ecstasy to be felt before certain works of art, which then presents a model for the experience of life.

The lesson is conducted by passages of description that take up much of the material of his essays. The statues of Michelangelo, for instance, he describes in terms that not only substitute for objective description the psychedelic musicality of ecstatic response, but also make unclear where contemplation of the art slides into contemplation of the man:

He gives us indeed no lovely natural objects like Leonardo or Titian, but only the coldest, most elementary shadowing of rock or tree; no lovely draperies and comely gestures of life, but only the austere truths of human nature . . . but he penetrates us with a feeling of that power which we associate with all the warmth and fullness of the world, the sense of which brings into one's thoughts a swarm of birds and flowers and insects. The brooding spirit of life itself is there; and the summer may burst out in a moment. 2

Such passages lend unity in their aesthetic direction to what is otherwise a patchwork affair: eight essays on various problems and personalities related to the Italian Renaissance (text on this site) — the relevance varies; the essays show their origin as articles for The Fortnightly Review — plus a conclusion in which he argues that the highest ethic is what draws us to beauty for its own sake. This section he later removed — some readers complained that its tendencies might corrupt the young — and still later put back with emendations. But its sentiment is apparent enough in the essays themselves. Pater's biographical passages are miracles of mixed metaphor. He applies to life the vocabulary of taste and texture and music, along with the suggestion that these qualities mandate an attitude of connoisseurship:

But his genius is in harmony with itself; and just as in the products of his art we find resources of sweetness within their exceeding strength, so in his own story also, bitter as in the ordinary sense it may be, there are select pages shut in among the rest — pages one might easily turn over too lightly, but which yet sweeten the whole volume. [Renaissance, 52]

As a scholar, Pater considers himself less a historian than a mythographer and critic. Dates and events are thin on the ground, and his judgments are too squishy and idiosyncratic to yield general rules. But his distaste for facts and abstractions does not mean that he is not in love with reality. Pater is capable of writing with pleasure and romance about the physical world. He describes the workshop of Verrocchio thus: "Beautiful objects lay about there — reliquaries, pyxes, silver images for the pope's chapel at Rome, strange fancy-work of the middle age, keeping odd company with fragments of antiquity, then but lately discovered" (Renaissance, 64). This is a list that takes the idea of sensuousness itself — that these objects are beautiful and strange — as a source of pleasure. The items acquire focus, mystery, romantic sheen.

His romantic inclination gives Pater a certain hypnotic force as a writer about education. He depicts education not as a dry schedule of books — he studied Cennini, he studied Alberti — but as a luxurious catalogue of consciousness. Of Leonardo he writes:

He plunged, then, into the study of nature. And in doing this he followed the manner of the older students; he brooded over the hidden virtues of plants and crystals, the lines traced by the stars as they moved in the sky, over the correspondences which exist between the different orders of living things, through which, to eyes opened, they interpret each other; and for years he seemed to those about him as one listening to a voice, silent for other men. [Renaissance, 66]

The subject is the education of a naturalist, but the prose reads as the education of a sensualist. The style paganizes the subject. "What an odd man Mr. Rose is!" a character exclaims of Pater in a contemporary satire. "He always seems to talk about everybody as if they had no clothes on."3

Pater makes a minor theme of the habit of many artists, as though they were engaged to work out the terms of a particularly knotty problem, to draw repeatedly a single face or formula — as he says of Botticelli, "a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he had painted it over and over again, sometimes one might think almost mechanically" (Renaissance, 36). The suggestion is that beauty — not a quality that we can abstract, Pater said, but rather something we feel — is too fine for the earth to sustain, and must be invented or perpetually hunted, as with Leonardo and the graceful, heavy-lidded, androgynous face that peeps from many of his sketches:

An image that might be seen and touched, in the mind of that gracious youth, so fixed that for the rest of his life it never left him. As if catching glimpses of it in the strange eyes or hair of chance people, he would follow such about the streets of Florence till the sun went down, of whom many of his sketches remain. (Renaissance, 67)

Pater finds a certain lonely resonance in these instances of disconnection between beauty and its place of habitation. The citizens of Florence are unaware that their faces shadow forth intimations of a spiritual expression to which Leonardo is attuned. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde finds another way of giving form to the idea of such a disconnection. His instance involves the idea of someone who looks like an angel but who is himself cruel. There is a sense, in both cases, in which the beauty itself is alone; and under such circumstances, to live as one consecrated to beauty is perhaps to be prepared to accept martyrdom.4

Pater makes consecration to a world apart integral to his profile of the visionary. "The genius of which Botticelli is the type," he explains, "usurps the data before it as the exponent of moods, ideas, visions of its own; in this interest it plays fast and loose with those data, rejecting some and isolating others, and always combining them anew" (Renaissance, 35). The trouble with praise of this kind is that it can be read as Pater preparing his own audience; that is, his esteem for the ambition to be true to oneself, not to external facts, coordinates not only his praise of artists but also his practice as a critic. For the sake of the unity of his vision, Pater, too, is willing to play fast and loose with data. Several times he assigns to artists works that aren't theirs — that scholarship now attributes to others — and that he possibly knows aren't theirs. His descriptions of certain paintings are evidently from memory and preferentially embellished. And his accounts of the personalities of his subjects have only a loose connection with biographical data. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli: as Richard Jenkyns notes, everyone who passes through Pater's biographical processor emerges as dreamy, withdrawn, brooding.5 The life of every artist is a mirror from which Pater's reflection looks back. These are qualities that would find disapproval in any good contemporary ethics of criticism, as comfortably as we wear our liberation from the Victorian regime that distrusted as immoral his formula of art for art's sake.

Inspired misreading also supplied the color of his most famous passage. It is his description of the Mona Lisa, which makes the subject an emblem of the eternal feminine:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary... [Renaissance, 80]

This is less a translation than a competitive work of fancy. There is something cool about the Mona Lisa, but the painting has no real correlative to the syphilitic vampirism he describes. She sits in modest irony, hands folded. To experience the painting free of its publicity is impossible, but we can make a few observations about its formal effects. The sense of monumentality gets help from her relation to the landscape below. The face owes some of its resonance to the living quality of the skin, an achievement of delicate underlayers; to the painter's knowledge of musculature and skeletal structure, so that the smile seems to come from within; to the drops of light curving in the irises; and to the androgyny of the features, which gains accidental enhancement from a later retouch that removed the eyebrows.

But Pater isn't giving us a formalist reading. He's giving us an experience, a demonstration of how it feels for a work of art to so overwhelm the senses that its power seems supernatural. The passage overdetermines the problem of the painting's power, almost as if to say that it can only be accounted for by reference to every possible tradition. Leda, the vampire, Saint Anne — they all contribute to Pandora a few gifts. The universality that some alchemy of fame and androgyny suggests means that there can be no limits on the human capacity to respond: if she has allure, it must be the allure of the grace that redeems in equal measure with the allure of the dangers of sexuality.

But there is also doctrine lurking in the background of Pater's image. The inexhaustible suggestiveness of the Mona Lisa — Pater thought — allows it felicitously to illustrate an important insight about man's relation to mankind: that human consciousness partakes of collective human memory.

The background here is Pater's sensationalism: his sentiment that, if our knowledge comes from the senses, then the further we move from abstraction toward sensation the closer we are to the real.6 This assertion is not to deny the imagination its own reality, only to understand on what grounds we can recognize its claim on us. The imagination is the sediment of sensation, a depository of the experiences we pass through.7 Pater believed that parents pass to their children certain phonemes of memory, certain mental lineaments and bits of color, that gradually accumulate in a group as racial imagination. "The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one," he says; "and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea" (Renaissance, 99).

For Pater, the endurance in the body of history and its determining force gives to individual existence the air of tragedy, as though ancient conflicts were determined to play out their final convulsions in individual lives. But one can at least recognize the relative freedom to be found in abandoning too strong a faith in control through action in favor of progress on the higher stream of sensation, as free and as brilliant as a star. "To burn always with this hard gem-like flame," he says, "to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" (Renaissance, 152).

The passage on the Mona Lisa had the success of a hit song. It burned itself into the imagination of a generation of students. Yeats set it into free verse. Imitations abounded. In "The Critic as Artist" (1890), Wilde makes the passage part of a joke in which the creation of the Mona Lisa required two artists: Leonardo to paint the portrait, and Pater to write our response to it: The painter may have been merely the slave of an archaic smile, as some have fancied, but whenever I pass into the cool galleries of the Palace of the Louvre, and stand before that strange figure "set in its marble chair in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under." . . . I say to my friend, "The presence that thus so strangely rose beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire"; and he answers me, "Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come,' and the eyelids are a little weary."7

That Pater's aesthetic is more generative than his philosophy is suggested by how little attention people paid to changes in his thought. The eighteen-nineties, arguably the period of his greatest cultural prominence, was a period of popularization of ideas that he had long since left behind. Pater's 1888 essay on "Style" declares that great art devotes itself not to perfecting moments as they pass, but to "the increase of man's happiness, to the redemption of the oppressed, or the enlargement of our sympathy with each other," or even "the glory of God."9 His students declined, however, to follow his lead, as John Pick observes: "nearly all of them fastened upon the Pater of the 'Conclusion' to the Renaissance, and . . . in so far as they read Pater's later works they simply read into him his earlier ideals."10

Thus Pater at the end of his career met the fate that he changed theoretical direction in part to avoid: censure for the corruption of the young. T.S. Eliot explained in 1930 what he felt to be the extent of Pater's influence: "His view of art, as expressed in The Renaissance, impressed itself upon a number of writers in the 'nineties, and propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives." 11

There is a sense in which Eliot was right. Pater's most penetrating effect on poetry was to be one of those creators of a category of artistic personality into which others learn to sort themselves and by whose rules they learn to exist. In London, the young men of the Rhymers' Club modeled themselves after philosophies that found their most intense expression in the writings of early Pater. William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, John Davidson, Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, and occasionally Oscar Wilde shared drinks, read poetry, and discussed the possibility of achieving the experience of pure beauty independent of the banalities of life. Distilling and conveying such moments of experience was to be the office of art. Later Yeats became troubled by how much of life this attitude left out: "It taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air," he wrote of Marcus the Epicurean in 1922, "and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm."12

For the religion of beauty can be either a connoisseurship of the world or a rejection of it. "It was in his own way escape from life," Symons later admitted of Dowson, who died at the age of thirty-two. The difficulty is that setting experience against the standards of art is asking too much. Failure in the realm of sensation can turn the seeker to success in oblivion: Seeing himself moving to the sound of lutes, in some courtly disguise, down an alley of Watteau's Versailles, while he touched finger-tips with a divine creature in rose-leaf silks, what was there left for him, as the dream obstinately refused to realize itself, but a blind flight into some Teniers kitchen, where boors are making merry, without thought of yesterday or tomorrow?13 Davidson committed suicide at the age of fifty-two. Johnson took a fatal fall from a bar stool at the age of thirty-five. His final poem was a tribute to Pater.

For prose writers of the next generation, much of Pater's value lay in the contrast of his impressionistic style to what they felt to be the analytical fallacy of nineteenth-century poetry. His language of color and sensation presented a suggestive alternative repertoire to what Eliot, in reference to Browning and Tennyson, called "ruminating" (Eliot, 245). When Pound declared his intent to "bring poetry up to the level of prose," as Gerald Monsman notes, his statement had as its background not only the French grand stylists but also the school of Pater.14

More than poets, prose writers used Pater as a well of technique. Like Ruskin, Pater creates an implied sensibility that gives to impressions the reality of events or landscapes; in which the evocation of consciousness has the aesthetic density of poetry; and in which, when criticism turns toward biography, plot fades behind psychological development and point of view. Monsman places these innovations in context: "Writers such as James, Conrad, Ford, and Woolf, translating into fictional technique the concepts of self and time explored by William James and Henri Bergson, were anticipated in Pater's preoccupations by nearly a quarter-century" (Monsman, 5).

"He is a learned man," Woolf wrote of Pater's essay on Leonardo in 1925; "but it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision, such as we get in a good novel where everything contributes to bring the writer's conception as a whole before us." By this time she could refer to his passage on the Mona Lisa as "once famous."15 But his influence on what the younger generation considered "a good novel" would persist in their works, an influence whose intensity was marked by the number of parodies of his style that they produced.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce uses Pater's as the language that nets Stephen as he enters his phase as an aesthete: "Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreathes that withered at the touch?"16

And in the episode "Oxen of the Sun," to choose one of many engagements with Pater in Ulysses, Joyce fancifully joins Pater's passage on the Mona Lisa with his own tendency to render personality after mythic archetype by apostrophizing Molly as "Our Lady of the Cherries, a comely brace of them pendent from an ear, bringing out the foreign warmth of the skin daintily against the cool ardent fruit" (U 14: 1369-1371).

Max Beerbohm is the author of the most loving parody, if we can identify such by marking the cruelest. Beerbohm had read Pater since his school days and described the desire that works like Marius the Epicurean stirred for intellectual adventure, for education as something with the intensity of romance and the sublimity of religious ritual — even if he found the rhythms of ritual too pronounced in the prose:

Not even in those more decadent days of my childhood did I admire the man as a stylist. Even then I was angry that he should treat English as a dead language, bored by the sedulous ritual wherewith he laid out every sentence as a shroud — hanging, like a widower, long over its marmoreal beauty or ever he could lay it at length in his book, its sepulcher. From that laden air, the so cavernous murmur of that sanctuary, I would hook it at the beck of any jade.17


Victorian Overview Walter Pater

Last modified 20 December 2008