Pater's elaboration of a picturesque theory of Rossettian poetics culminates in his celebrated analysis of the nature of the Rossettian epiphany in which he says that Rossetti's

sense of lifeless nature . . . is translated to a higher service in which it does but incorporate itself with some phase of strong emotion. Every one understands how this may happen at critical moments of life; what weirdly expressive soul may have crept . . . into "the white-flower'd elder thicket," when Godiva saw it "gleam through the Gothic archways in the wall," at the end of her terrible ride. To Rossetti it is so always, because to him life is a crisis at every moment (DGR 202-3)

This appreciative analysis of the Rossettian "critical moment" is perhaps the closest Pater comes to admitting explicitly the nature of his affinity with Rossetti, an affinity implicit in Pater's allusions to, and echoes of, the Rossettian epiphany which were discussed earlier. With his quotation from Tennyson's "Godiva," Pater at last introduces a decadent, "weirdly expressive," concept into his essay. Pater is not the first Victorian critic to regard Tennyson as a prototype Pre-Raphaelite: in 1871 Robert Buchanan classified the Pre-Raphaelites as being "merely one of the many sub-Tennysonian schools expanded to supernatural dimensions" and cited "Vivien" and "Maud" as precedents for the "epicene" quality of their poetry. While Pater concurs with Buchanan's view that Tennyson is the model for Pre-Raphaelite decadence, he does not lament the fact, and he selects a different poem as his example, one published in 1842. It may be coincidental but "Godiva" was published a year before Modern Painters 1, the text from which, in his 1851 pamphlet entitled Pre-Raphaelitism, Ruskin claimed that the Pre-Raphaelite painters had taken their original inspiration from him, writing:

in the close of the first volume of Modern Painters I ventured to give the following advice to the young artists of England. They should go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." Advice which . . . involved infinite labour and humiliation in the following it, and was therefore, for the most part, rejected. It has however, at last been carried out to the very letter.... (CW 12:309)

Instead of subscribing to this account of the Pre-Raphaelite artists' commitment to the painstaking observation of nature, Pater offers the alternative view that the repressed eroticism of Tennyson's "Godiva" is a prior, poetic model for Rossetti's intense response to "lifeless nature." Indeed Pater may well be capitalising upon the fear Ruskin expressed in 1856 in Modern Painters 4 that the Pre-Raphaelites become "culpably negligent . . . of Nature" because they found "their fancies caught by a bit of an oak hedge, or the weeds at the side of a duckpond, because perhaps, they remind them of a stanza of Tennyson" (CW 6:30).

Having assimilated and adapted Ruskin's idea of sincerity, the grotesque, Dantean art, personification and myth Pater reverts to the more decadent idiom of "Aesthetic Poetry" with his discussion of the Rossettian "critical moment," his notion that Rossetti and Dante are both exponents of medieval "aesthetic worship," and his subsequent emphasis on Rossetti's morbidity and "painter's sensuous clearness of conception" (DGR 205). However, it is not the purpose of this study to follow Pater down this more familiar, aesthetic path, but to draw attention to the tenacity and dexterity with which he first comes to terms with Ruskin's complex, extensive and frequently contradictory pronouncements on Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelite painting.

For while a genuine affinity with Rossetti's work and especially his conception of the "critical moment" is a significant aspect of Pater's essay, ultimately it seems fair to say that the main subject, or target, of "Dante Gabriel Rosetti" is John Ruskin. Accordingly, Pater's achievement in this essay is not only to align Rossetti with Morris, which he does eventually, but to appropriate him from Ruskin and in the process to transform him from a failed Pre-Raphaelite realist into a successful Dantean aesthetic poet.


Victorian Web Overview Walter Pater

Last modified May 2003