decorated initial  'P'ater placed the seal upon his extraordinary effort at critical self-definition (all done before the age of thirty) in a review of not in print version Morris' poems in October 1868, the final paragraphs of which became the notorious Conclusion to the Renaissance. The central intention of the review is a further attempt to suggest the exact place of classical and medieval motifs in "modern" literature. The romantic reaction against the neoclassicism of the eighteenth century was for Pater as much "a return to true Hellenism" as a "pre-occupation with things mediaeval." Pater distinguishes various elements in medieval poetry. The superficial kinds-used by Scott and Goethe-are simply "adventure, romance in the poorest sense, grotesque individualism." The [222/223] "stricter, imaginative mediaevalism"-found in Hugo and Heinedrew in two other elements of the medieval spirit: "its mystic religion at its apex in Dante and St. Louis, and its mystic passion, passing here and there into the great romantic loves of rebellious flesh, of Lancelot and Abelard." This distinction leads Pater into a discussion of "the strange suggestion of a deliberate choice between Christ and a rival lover": "religion shades into sensuous love, and sensuous love into religion." Daringly, he suggests that only because the Latin hymn writers had a "beautiful idol," presumably Christ, did medieval Christianity make its way "among a people whose loss was in the life of the senses."1 Provençal poetry creates a rival religion, deeply colored by Christian sentiment; the mood of the cloister takes a new direction and wins an unlooked-for new life. In fact, may not our "most cherished sacred writings," once belief in them has gone, "exercise their highest influence as the most delicate amorous poetry in the world"? Provençal poetry learned from religion "the art of directing towards an imaginary object sentiments whose natural direction is towards objects of sense." Religion gave to that poetry "reverie, illusion, delirium," for after all, "That whole religion of the middle age was but a beautiful disease or disorder of the senses" (p. 302). The "wild, convulsed sensuousness" of medieval poetry is attributable to a "tension of nerve" created by sealing up all the outlets of passion (p. 303). Pater is interested in the change of manner from Morris' The Defence of Guenevere (1858) to that of The Life and Death of Jason (1867) as explaining the difference between the Hellenic and the medieval spirit. The later work has no medieval delirium or illusion, no experiences of mere soul while the body and bodily senses sleep or wake with convulsed intensity at the prompting of imaginative love"; instead, there are "the great primary passions under broad daylight." This simplification explains "a transition which, under many [223/224] forms, is one law of the life of the human spirit, and of which the Renaissance is only a supreme instance." Even the monk in his cloister, his vision open only to the spirit, "divined, aspired to and at last apprehended a better daylight, but earthly, open only to the senses" (p.305) It is reasonable to conclude that the Hellenic tradition has a central, if not exclusive, claim to the title "the life of the human spirit." Thus the Renaissance remains a movement from "the overwrought spiritualities of the middle age to the earlier, more ancient life of the senses," and the classical tales of a late medieval like Chaucer are interesting because they communicate a sense of escape from the somber cloister to "that true light," while at the same time their mood will add to the story of Cupid and Psyche "that passionate stress of spirit which the world owes to Christianity." Art, at certain times and in special moods, can, it seems, combine the "grace of Hellenism" and "the sorrow of the middle age" (pp. 307-308).2

The setting of the famous Conclusion seems never to have been explained. Pater notes that part of the pagan spirit of Morris' poetry is the sharp contrast between "the sense of death and the desire of beauty." A Philistine observer is made to protest: " 'The modern world is in possession of truth; what but a passing smile can it have for a kind of poetry which, assuming artistic beauty of form to be an end in itself, passes by those truths and the living interests which are connected with them, to spend a thousand cares in telling once more these pagan fables as if it had but to choose between a more and a less beautiful shadow?' " Pater accepts the assumed challenge: "let us see what modern philosophy, when it is sincere, really does say about human life and the truth we can attain in it, and the relation of this to the desire [224/225] for beauty" (p. 309). The relation of the attainment of truth to the desire for beauty: this is the express subject of Pater's immensely influential paragraphs. His first sentence, "To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought," is the prejudicial and skeptical summary of modern epistemology which is illustrated in three paragraphs of images of flux, first in our physical life, then in "the inward world of thought and feeling." "Such thoughts," Pater comments in a paragraph that was never reprinted, "seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them"; clearly the point of the last three paragraphs of the Conclusion is to show that a life attuned to modern "solipsism" need not be desolating.

Those paragraphs (pp. 311-312), among the best known in the language, are simply a summary of the doctrine of the Coleridge and Winckelmann essays. Pater's ideal is still his observer-culture: "The service of philosophy, and of religion and culture as well, to the human spirit, is to startle it into a sharp and eager observation."3 To those who correctly argue that "Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the end" is a doctrine of life and not of art, I would further discriminate by pointing out that that "life" is precisely the shadowlife of the detached aesthetic observer of ordinary life. For the invitation "to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us and in the brilliance of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways" recalls the demand for a "tragic" vision in modern art at the end of "Winckelmann." The idea that "Theories, religious or philosophical ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us" had appeared almost verbatim in "Winckelmann"; and "The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot [225/226] enter, or some abstract morality we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us," recalls both of the earlier essays.4 Is this, then, a philosophy of "life"? Pater's criterion of success in life is "getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time" allotted us. He explicitly warns those who choose the path of "high passions"-"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."

"A quickened, multiplied consciousness" remains the immobile and rather parasitical Paterian ideal. This is not "art for art's sake "that is an ideal for the artist only; nor is it life for the living's sake: it is intense self-stimulation through visual perception, for the moment's sake. Geoffrey Tillotson has remarked that Pater's "languor" is matched by a certain intensity and energy, "strongly" experiencing: "Pater's power of modifying impressions was a power like that of lust."(Criticism, p. 140) The precise kind, and object of that experience is evident in Pater's key words. He uses a swarm of words suggesting refined, passive, sensuous, largely visual experience-observation, mood, insight, variegated, dramatic, see, senses, eye, lifted horizon, strange dyes and flowers, curious odors, art works, the face of one's friend, discriminate, splendor of experience, see and touch, curiously test new opinions, new impressions, regard-which beget a second swarm of terms suggesting intense momentary thrills, frissons: delicious recoil, race, drift, flight, tremulous, dissolution, pulsations, rouse, startle, ecstasy, exquisite [226/227] passion, excitement, irresistibly real and attractive, the focus of "Vital forces," melts, grasp, stirring, desperate effort, "courting" impressions. Pater's impressions were those of "an individual in his isolation," a mind "keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world"; that world is one of fugitive, solitary self-gratifications, almost voyeuristic in tone and intensity.

All of this seems sufficiently distant from Matthew Arnold, whose critical career was designed to free the individual from the caprice and isolation of his "ordinary self," and restore him to an objective order--socially, politically, religiously--where men are "united, impersonal, at harmony" (CPW, V, 134). But Professor Tillotson is right in noting that Arnold had already to some extent sanctioned much of Pater's Conclusion.(Ibid, p. 140) He cites Arnold's detailed analysis of Maurice de Guérin's special gift for interpreting the natural world, a faculty based on "a peculiar temperament, an extraordinary delicacy of organisation and susceptibility to impressions." Such a poet is largely "passive and ineffectual": "he resists being riveted and held stationary by any single impression, but would be borne on for ever down an enchanted stream. He goes into religion and out of religion, into society and out of society, not from motives which impel men in general, but to feel what it is all like; he is thus hardly a moral agent....He hovers over the tumult of life, but does not really put his hand to it" (CPW, III, 30-31). "Assuredly," Arnold adds, "it is not in this temperament that the active virtues have their rise" (CPW, III, 32). This description of a special temperament-with its emphasis on passivity-is strikingly close to the attempt at character description which unifies Pater's emerging view of the perfected life from "Diaphanéitè," in 1864 to the Morris review in 1868.7 [227/228]

Above all, it is hard to resist the impression that Pater's "diaphanous" temperament is in fact the moral equivalent of Arnold's ideal of "disinterested" criticism. In "Diaphanéitè," this special character I 'crosses ... the main current of the world's life" and has no "service" to perform for the world (MS, p. 248); and the Coleridge essay shows a full awareness of the "disinterested" ideal.("Coleridge's Writings," pp. 108, 126-127, 131.) It is in "Winckelmann," however, that Pater especially shares with the Arnold of "The Function of Criticism" (CPW, III, 258-285) an emphasis on renunciation, detachment, and indifference. Arnold's criticism values knowledge and thought "without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever." "Disinterestedness" means "keeping aloof from what is called 'the practical view of things' "; it must resolutely follow "the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects." It steadily refuses to lend itself to "ulterior, political, practical considerations." It must keep in "the pure intellectual sphere," "detached ... from practice." Criticism is a "subtle and indirect action," embracing "detachment" and "abandoning the sphere of practical life," and will inevitably be the work of "a very small circle." The secret of this "disinterested endeavour" is "never to let oneself become abstract." "Winckelmann" likewise speaks centrally of the "archaic immobility" of the Greek statues, what motion they have being "a motion ever kept in reserve, which is very seldom committed to any definite action." When Pater speaks of an "indifference which is beyond what is relative and partial," he repeats Arnold's direction that criticism must refuse to remain in the sphere of "narrow and relative conceptions." Winckelmann was undisturbed by "interests not his, nor meant for him, political, moral, religious." High Hellenic form exhibits an "indifference to the outward," an "impassivity." Forbidding any "one-sided development," the supreme artistic view of life, held by the few, with its "passionate coldness," forbids "abandonment to one special gift." Finally, Goethe's culture requires that "we must renounce" the [228/229] actual activities of the world. Again, what is in Arnold confined to the literary and critical sphere, Pater eagerly applied directly to morals and to his special version of "life." If Pater has not yet suggested (as he will in 1874) that by "moulding our lives to artistic perfection" he means us to shape our lives almost as if they were actual art objects, he is suggesting that the detachment of the ideal critical intellect is indeed the paradigm for the higher life available for the "few" of extraordinary receptivity.

The dissimilarity of their thought goes beyond a confusion of categories; even in "The Function of Criticism" the ultimate goal of Arnold's indifference and detachment was to provide a climate for creative activity, by giving currency to "adequate ideas." By the time of Culture and Anarchy the "social" motive had changed the entire ethical complexion of Arnold's ideal. Professor Tillotson's notion that Pater's twice-used phrase about rendering a "service to culture"-Once in "Winckelmann" and once in the Conclusion to the Renaissance- somehow aligns him with Arnold's goal of "making the middle-class mind more lovely"(Criticism, p. 140.) obscures the inward-turning character of Pater's "self-culture" in these early essays. Even the final paragraph of "Winckelmann" concerned with "the practical functions of art.... actual production," deals not with the energetic encouragement of a dimate favorable to creation but with the "high experience" of tragic involvement which certain modern artists-Goethe and, by 1888, Hugo -could provide for the isolated, febrile sensibility. To the correct observation that Pater extended a friendlier welcome to contemporary literature than did Arnold(Ibid, p. 146.) must be added the fact that Pater--caught in the "web" of science, industrialism, and democracy a generation later than Arnold-at bottom despaired of changing society as the mature Arnold never did. Both were possessed of "the desire of beauty" (Ren-1, p. 213; CPW, V, 107), but Arnold's "desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes" (CPW, V, 91) is finally a world away from Pater's "art for art's sake" (Ren-1, p. 213). For Arnold's disinterestedness envisaged nothing less than the reshaping [229/230] and elevating of the Victorian mind, whereas Pater's renunciation and indifference seek to retain an inherited fullness of "experience," in detachment from the vulgar actualities of Victorian life, for a small band of elite -Oxonian" souls. These men will be "artists," too, though with a diminished vitality or closeness to the raw materials of art; but they will above all seek to make their own the supreme, artistic view of life. If there is a "moment" when the Keatsian artist announces an ultimate severance from the hope of affecting nineteenth-century life, it may be in Pater's first essays of the late sixties, as Matthew Arnold's great "critical effort" is systematically reshaped into the catchwords of the new aestheticism. Aestheticism, with roots in the Romantics, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Swinburne, found an adequate rhetoric only in Pater: the terms were in Arnold, but where they reappear, they are "the same yet different." Arnold is a father of Aestheticism but only in an oblique and problematical way.


Victorian Website Overview Matthew Arnold Walter Pater OV Next Contents

Last modified 29 August 2007