Pater's treatise is a response to the limitations of Arnoldian classicism and Victorian medievalism, as expressed by Carlyle and Ruskin, in which he seeks a more modern aesthetic and rejects orthodoxy in religion.
The early Victorians were preoccupied with history and tended to construct ideal medieval pasts, but as the century progressed an increasing number of Victorians turned to the Renaissance for a more pluralistic, less orthodox model of an age of ideal human consciousness. Nineteenth century historiography tended toward grand characterizations of "the spirit of an age," the zeitgeist; this tendency is exemplified in Auguste Comte, Saint-Simon and the later Hegelians, among them Marx and Engels, Carlyle, Arnold (who believed the nineteenth century was one of aridity and skepticism, "between two faiths, one dead, the other waiting to be born"), and to a lesser extent Ruskin and Morris. At its most abstract this could lead to obliviousness to the social complexities and pluralistic beliefs of past ages (Carlyle, Arnold), to the actual mechanisms of social change (Carlyle, Engels and Marx, Arnold), and to simplistic overgeneralizations about faith, faithlessness, and inevitable progress. The creation of an ideal past was used to argue that its imputed qualities should be reenacted in the present or, alternately, that its defects served as an exemplary warning.
Ruskin had disliked the sensual Renaissance, and chose 1000 A. D. Venice as the peak of civilization (compare Yeats' Byzantium poems). Several authors of the period had idealized the Middle Ages--among them Tennyson, Rossetti and Morris--viewing them as a period of social unity and/or faith. Ruskin was Christian (at least for most of his life) and Arnold a skeptic who believed in guiding principles and eschewed sensuality, and in The Renaissance Pater responds to both. Yet his definition of "sensuality" is a very cautious and rarified version of the sensuous.
Pater had studied Plato at Queen's College, Oxford under Benjamin Jowett, visited Germany twice, while a student, and studied German idealist (Hegelian) philosophy; in 1865 he toured Ravenna, Pisa and Florence with a student. Thus he formed bases for his aestheticism in Platonic and Hegelian thought united with admiration for what he conceived to be humanist, Renasisance art; these form a kind of Arnoldian "culture" which substituted for the religion his skepticism had made impossible. At this time the controversies over "art for art's sake" and the writings of Theophile Gautier and Algernon Swinburne were at their height, and although he never directly engaged in this controversy he clearly adopted some of the views of the aesthetic faction.
Pater desired each of his essays in The Renaissance to be a distinct meditation, hence its slightly variant "flavour"; since his criticisms are subjective it's necessary to work at separating different shades and evocations as he intended them. Pater's style pervaded the rhetoric of some of his chief fin-de-siecle admirers, such as Arthur Symons, his aesthetic, impressionist approach influenced early twentieth-century essayists such as Alice Meynell and Virginia Woolf, and his preference for Renaissance over other forms of art influenced the tastes of early 20th century art critics such as Bernard Berenson, author of The Art of the Italian Renaissance.
Like other great Victorian critics, Pater often presents his conclusions without the scaffolding of the facts, sources and arguments on which they are based. For Pater life consists not of character or action but the meditative contemplation of surfaces or "traces." Human identity consists of a series of sensations and forces rather than a fixed personality; we are unable to connect directly with the outer world through cognition although we may mingle or exist within it.
Pater's view of consciousness as a series of emotively charged sensations is reflected to some degree in the poetry of two near-contemporaries, Swinburne and Hopkins. Both writers embody a Heraclitian sense of disembodied elements (fire, air, earth, water) in flux. Pater's style embodied the traits he admired--allusiveness, strangeness, liminality and uncertainty, and his later style became increasingly self-qualifying and convoluted, as in Marius the Epicurean.
Dates of Essays in The Renaissance
1868 "Conclusion" (review of The Earthly Paradise); a defense of the pagan spirit against dour orthodoxy
1869 "Leonardo da Vinci"
1871 "The Poetry of Michelangelo"
1872 "Two Early French Stories"
1872 "Della Robbia"
first edition 1873, Studies in the History of the Renaissance; second edition 1877, Studies in Art and Poetry (a more accurate title).
1885 Marius the Epicurean, revised 1888 and 1892
1887 Imaginary Portraits
1888 Gaston de Latour, incipient novel abandoned after several chapters
1893 Plato and Platonism
1894 Pater's death
"Conclusion," 1868 (from Westminster Review article on Morris's poetry)
The most famous portion of The Renaissance, this was not originally written as a conclusion to the book but excerpted from an appreciative review of William Morris's then somewhat controversial "pagan" narratives, The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise, and is therefore a defense of art for its own sake, as opposed to orthodox Christianity. His statements have drawn much commentary, but they are not completely representative of his views even during this early period, and even more so of his later ones. Marius the Epicurean (1885) may be seen as an expanded defense of himself and qualification of these views.
What is the message of the "Conclusion"? How in Pater's view are persons related to one another?
--man an incarnation of natural forces, 156; objects are not solid but composed of unstable, flickering impressions, 157
--"observation dwarfed to narrow chamber of individual mind," 157. This is an extreme expression of nineteenth century individualism and subjectivism. Impressions and sensations are of ultimate importance because nothing else can be perceived.
--human personality cannot be communicated except in physical form, 158
--must seek "finest, purest" experiences (this begs question of what these are), 158
--should seek exactness, precision, sudden intensity of perception
What is the goal of life/success?
--to maintain this ecstasy, to avoid habits, 158
What is the value of philosophy? (158)
What is the best mode of spending one's life? (159) The purpose of art?
--"For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time . . . 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, proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."
What kinds of human perceptions are omitted from his system?
--unpleasant, sordid, hostile reality? (These do enter obliquely, in their effects.)
--psychological, historical, logical, metaphysical complexity? The world of idea and argument?
--altruism? What are his alternate grounds of moral choice? (159)
--the world of social need and change?
Are emotions implicit in his descriptions, and if so, what kinds of emotions? (sense of evanescence of consciousness; unexplained passion and friendship)
Can one say that he promotes the appreciation not the creation of art? He gives an apologia for the critic, 159.
An elegiac sense runs through the essay, a fine statement of the Romantic ideal of momentary fullness. Pater uses highly metaphorical language (flame, web).
How has Pater organized his comments throughout the book?
--omits documentation, transitions, gives a series of conclusions, not arguments
Pater assumes that the most intense experiences are artistic and vicarious. Why should this be? Others have been attracted to other portions of life--even ideas, psychological reality, and the structures of physical objects.
Also, there could be a relationship between the highest moments, not ultimate randomness. In Pater's interpretation, the world of memory loses much of its significance of reintegration, and sequence becomes impossible.
"Winckelmann," published 1867, when Pater was 27
Page numbers from University of California edition, ed. Donald Hill, 1980.
"Winckelmann" contains more of Pater's spiritual autobiography than the other essays. He writes on a fellow art critic, one who was certainly not a figure of the Renaissance.
141-One of the essay's first statements mirrors Pater's aim in criticism, "That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort." (notice images of sense, the physical)
How is Pater a Romantic critic? (Criticism must be new and original.)
142-"Passing out of that into the happy light of the antique, he has a sense of exhilaration (almost) physical." Pater emphasizes the happiness of art, a freedom from repression. Exhilaration is not overtly physical, but is almost so, a characteristic Paterian obliquity.
The essay implies that the artist is frequently driven by a sense of melancholy in the real world.
143-He conveys a sense of something lost, a Romantic sensation which is also Victorian. Like Pater Winckelmann ultimately rejects theology.
For Pater, Winckelmann unites Greek and Romantic spirits; his attitude toward the classics is romantic, and he feels "a longing desire to attain to the knowledge of beauty" (144). Classicism constitutes a buried fire in an icy world to Winckelmann (146), a release of repressed happiness in the sensual--cmp. repressive Victorian cultural norms against which this book likewise attempts to be a cheerful, passionate statement.
145-Plato's influence is represented by "that group of brilliant youths in the Lysis," whose goal is human form and comely human life.
Compare Blake's Los, in whom the happy energies of the body and of the imagination are conjoined: "On a sudden the imagination feels itself free. How facile and direct, it seems to say, is this life of the senses and the understanding" (146). Thus both are emphasized; the intellect is not denied. Winckelmann embodies a single-minded concentration on one interest (149), another comparison with Pater. The author gives a fine distanced characterization of emotion: "Within its severe limits his enthusiasm burns like lava" (147).
On Winckelmann's conversion: "The insincerity of his religious profession was only one incident of a culture in which the moral instinct, like the religious or political, was merged in the artistic" (149). Pater approves; he believes in the separation of the aesthetic from other elements of a culture, and that other beliefs should be subordinate to the "artistic." [Yet inevitably one's ideology will shape one's senses of what is beautiful and vice versa. How can one compartmentalize life?]
151-He makes constant references to light, with echoes of Arnoldian wording and concepts. Pater subverts both Arnold's "sweetness" and "light," however, through rendering them expressions of a sensuous reality. Arnoldian classicism had been expressly asexual, remote from the world's multitudinousness.
152-Winckelmann's affinity for Greece is seen as partially a reflection of his latent homosexuality--compare Victorian literary and artistic classicism with a similar motive. Winckelmann feels the beauty of Greek art is rather male than female.
154-Pater himself feels these friendships are the most intellectual, in contrast to the merely physical excitement of viewing outer surface, as in viewing art.
What is Winckelmann's importance to Pater?
--exemplar of cultured spirit
--union of Greek and romantic spirits
--suggests rejection of Arnold's views on Christian and classical culture
--tries to define elements of modern life, to discern whether Hellenism is possible in the modern world
Where is sculpture in the hierarchy of the arts?
--character is emphasized over situation to create an ideal type
--conveys repose and breadth, the characterization of the Hellenic ideal
The life of culture is one of artistic dispassion, aloof from constrictions, 154. One must leave behind single gifts, sensuous nature, and "commonplace metaphysical instinct," for philosophy cannot give an abstract knowledge, 154.
155-Winckelmann's intelligence is a form of recognition, a common late-century motif of deja vu (155, compare Rossetti's "The House of Life").
Can the classical spirit can be joined to the modern one? What is needed by the modern world? (sense of freedom, 155; compare Ruskin's views on modern painting)
Which arts have flourished in different time periods?
--sculpture, in the Hellenic period
--painting, in the Middle Ages
--music and poetry, in the modern world. In modern works, noble natures watch and brood on the fate of natural laws, 155.
Note the absence of a sense of great action--his is an ethic of interiority--life consists of an intense observation, perhaps without commitments, simply existence and consciousness, a sum of great experiences. Merely to view life is sufficient, his final message, 155.
If you were to attempt to live life on Pater's principles, how would you do so? "Winckelmann" seems a call to a state of mind, but perhaps not to the creation of art itself.
What is Pater's definition of poetry? (155, all literary production which attains the power of giving pleasure by its form) What is unusual about this definition? (purely stylistic, formal definition)
156-The essay provides a well-told narration of Winkelmann's death, with its element of interest in violence which surfaces occasionally in Pater, if not so much here (156).
157-The ideal of friendship stimulates culture.
David DeLaura, For Pater "Art no longer exists even to enhance 'life' in any ordinary sense of the term. It may be said that Pater's early aestheticism is in effect a program addressed to a special class of souls for transcending the human condition."
Pater begins to discuss Greek art and culture. Art is derived from religion, a pagan sentiment associated with ritual, an expression of human melancholy, 160, for which classical art provides an antidote or form of control (162, 163). The Victorian age was a great age of elegy. To elegy is added the promises of myth, 162. The highest form of Greek religion is Greek art.
It was a common Victorian view that romanticism privileged a form of melancholy or sense of pain, which they believed must only be indulged at certain moments; Arnold's moral disgust at the Romantic poets is an extreme form of this; Pater's view of religion as a form of weak romanticism which must be overcome by Hellenic optimism and light may be a kindred view.
For Pater, what is unique about Greek art? The Greeks see art not as symbol but the fusion of the physical and spiritual, the unity of spirit and flesh, 164, a central nineteenth century tenet. (Compare Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi") Winckelmann has intuited the classical love of physical beauty. The Greek mind had not yet become too inward, as it was in the medieval period, 164.
Why were the Greeks interested in sculpture? (167)
--presents human form, less subjective, less sensuous
--contrasts with architecture, which seems to Pater more indistinct, less reflective of an unseen intellectual world (168)
What are the arts of the modern ages?
Painting, music, poetry, which possess an endless power of complexity, 163
--convey consciousness brooding with delight over itself, 168
Sculpture emphasizes man in his [sic] unchanging characteristics:
--the godlike in man, pure form, 170
--the type, the general character of the subject, godlike, as opposed to the restless accidents of life, 170
What are the Hellenic ideals of heiterkeit and allgemeinheit? (144, repose, generality, or breadth; compare Arnold's "sweetness" and "light," Wordworth's emotion recollected in tranquility)
What is the function of art?
--"putting a happy world of its own creation in place of the meaner world of common days," 170 (compare Morris in The Earthly Paradise)
Why does Greek sculpture stress character over situation?
--seeks depth and repose of expression, 172
--"that indifference which is beyond all that is relative or partial," 174, emotion subjected to a controlling order. Early Victorians would not have used the term "indifference."
Why is Greek sculpture hermaphroditic? (shows a "moral sexlessness," 176) In modern terminology, is it androgynous or sexless? To Pater these seem the same.
Winckelmann is exemplary in his childlike spirit, 149, his eschewal of formal principles, 176, and his lack of a sense of shame and guilt, 176, orthodox Christian doctrines which Pater opposes. Winckelmann's love of art is spontaneous and innocent, that of man before the fall, 179.
Is anything lacking in the Greek ideal?
--lacks sense of tragedy, conflict, 178--compare the discussion of the lance of Athena in Ruskin's Modern Painters.
--lacks the grotesque, cruel, 178-79--note Ruskin had placed these in the Renaissance in Stones of Venice
What are features of the modern world? (179) In the modern world it is also necessary to find a centrality and unity within oneself, to impose an order of detachment, 182.
Pater reverses Arnold, who imposes a classical order on a romantic past; instead projects a neo-romanticism, a passionate response to life, on the classical heiterkeit and allgemeinheit.
What should be a person's final response to fate after reading Pater's "Winckelmann"? Our own response of brooding upon life makes us noble, and thus our lives are worthwhile, however tragic outer existence.
"Leonardo da Vinci," 1869
Line numbers are from the NAL Signet Classics edition, first published 1959.
In this essay Pater moves from sculpture to painting, toward "art for art" and the relationship between mysterious reclusion and art.
What are some ways this essay is different from that on Winckelmann? Does Leonardo resemble Winckelmann?
What is the nature of Leonardo da Vinci's art?
--strange, mysterious, fascinating, 74; not a dogmatic atheist (would be too extreme for Pater)
--even half-repellent, 74
--highly individual, ultimately subjective, 74; bearer of "unsanctified and secret wisdom," 74.
--detached from life (compare Winckelmann), 74, reflective of outer alienation--Pater's ideal a strange fusion of attachment (passion) and alienation.
What are some important/allegorically significant elements of Leonardo's life?
--illegitimate child, 75
--beautiful, 75, a bright, changeable spirit
--raised in workshop of many crafts, 75, familiar with the decorative arts, 76, and aware of the multiplicity and interrelatedness of art (compare Morris)
--turned to study of nature, 77, a feature of Romantic and Victorian art
--listens to an inner voice, concerned with the intimate, curious, and impossible, 77, dreams of "the smiling of women and the motion of great waters"
--Pater denies the scientific nature of his motivation, 77 essentially a psychological evocation; Pater a precursor of the fin de siecle symbolists
--interfusion of beauty and terror, 77, as in the aesthetic tradition of the sublime. Leonardo sees this in the "strange eyes or hair of chance people," 78.
--Leonardo moves towards the grotesque, dreamlike, towards mockery, the "legions of grotesque," 78, as in a grotesque skeleton. [Well, perhaps. But he deemphasizes the sane Leonardo, his scientific pursuits.]
--fascination of corruption, response to beautiful corpse; exquisitely finished beauty, 78
--seeks occult, 79, notes fascination of his "voice and aspect", 79
--likes life of brilliant sins and exquisite amusements, 80, plays harp, 80
What are the elemental forces in Leonardo's personality?
--curiosity and the desire of beauty conjoin, 80; these alternately conflict and join
--sees nature through a strange veil and sight, 82, note delicate cadences to description, 81-82
--returns to nature, 81, love of strange flowers
In addition to rural nature, what does Leonardo study?
--human personality, 82, paints portraits, but only at moments of inspiration; compare Rossetti. Pater enunciates the theory of significant moments, "Every moment is a crisis."
--sometimes inappropriately passes beyond surface, strains beyond art, 82, rises above mere science, 83, seizes the moment of invention
At last, the essay moves to a description of his pictures. What are features of his paintings?
--general description of his faces, 84, "of doubtful sex"; compare the hermaphroditism Pater ascribes to Greek art, but voluptuous in eyelids and lips. The hermaphrodite is a turn-of-the-century image.
--they reveal elements of nature, are transparent, 84
--emphasizes their discrete and particularized qualities, 85
--painting of young man suggests "strange blossoms and fruits," 85; art for its own sake, completely enclosed, suggests that the highest art is without an audience.
To what does the author compare Leonardo's "St. John the Baptist"?
--"strange" likeness to Bacchus
--secularization of religious themes; religious and other subject matter blent to "purely artistic ends"
What do his comments on "The Last Supper" reveal about Pater's religious views? ("The Last Supper" is remade as a scene of male homosociality.)
What is Pater's opinion of "La Gioconda"? This is his masterpiece, 89. An earlier description of such a face had appeared in De Quincy and Swinburne (in the former associated with dreams); Pater attaches it to a specific phenomenon in art. Pater's views influenced art criticism of Renaissance to a higher estimation of Leonardo.
How does Pater use questions? (89)
What are features of his description of the Mona Lisa? (90)
What is his evaluation of "La Gioconda"?
What does he believe about Leonardo's political views? (91, indifferent; compare Winckelmann and Pater himself)
What is the effect of the essay's conclusion? (92) Evokes the uncertainty and mystery of death. He was not orthodox in his conception of the afterlife, and like his art, his death was a penetration into the unfathomable. The artist carries his mystery with him to death.
Why does Pater choose to write of Botticelli? What in his view are some of the latter’s unique characteristics? In contrast to Arnold, Pater is concerned with individual features of an artist’s style, of the sentiment of line and color. Victorian art, of course, emphasized sentiment and color, 47.
--He was a poetical painter, characterized by “charm” (47) and “meditative subtlety,” 46.
--He led a quiet life, 47 (as had Pater), and suffered religious melancholy in later life and a sad and lingering age. His character manifests a sense of displacement or loss, a wistfulness of exile, “conscious of a passion and energy greater than any known issue of them explains,” 49, and permeated by an ineffable melancholy.
--More than a naturalist, Botticelli was a visionary, but he avoided the extremes of heaven and hell as portrayed by Giotto and Dante). He had illustrated Dante (beloved of Victorians), his age’s greatest poet, but whereas Dante’s poetry was rendered “prose” by its use of the easy formula of a contrasted heaven and hell (49), Botticelli accepts the middle world of earth (49-50).
Notice that Pater also prefers Botticelli to Lippo Lippi, whom he considers a mere naturalist. Pater/Botticelli is a romantic in believing that the artist should give individual sensuous form to outer actions, which awaken the artist’s inner mood. Pater also resembles Ruskin in stressing the vivid particularity of images, 48-49, but with more emphasis on inner mood or subjectivity
--Botticelli takes no side in great causes and conflicts (49-50). He had been suspected of heresy, though in fact he was basically detached from religious debates, and according to Pater, “Artists so entire as Botticelli are usually careless about philosophical theories.” He eschews complete devotion (50); “art, undisturbed by any moral ambition, does its most sincere and surest work.”
What instead is Botticelli’s definition of morality, according to Pater?
--sympathy, combined with visionary realism, 50
This notion of apolitical, non-ideological art was to become virtually the reigning proscription of art criticism for the next 50+ years. Of course any value system can be viewed as a “morality,” and Pater writes with a “moral ambition,” but one which opposes the orthodoxies of his day.
Even though he cannot describe, he does allude to the individual traits of each artist; e. g. he speaks of Botticelli’s “distinct and peculiar type” of Madonna, p. 50. What is Pater’s method of analyzing the pictures of the Madonna?
--projects emotions onto the character/figure
Does his response depend on an accurate knowledge of the images he is analyzing? (to some degree, though not entirely)
According to Pater, why is Botticelli closer to the Greek temper than the writings of the Greeks themselves? 51 (!) For him “the Greek” is a distinct region of his own imagination, 51.
What are its properties?
--a cold melancholy light of dawn, the freshness of the early Renaissance, the subdued colors of flesh tones
--the sadness of his conception of the goddess of pleasure, 52, portrayed in minor tones, a human goddess, not fully saintly and thus more interesting than portrayals of the Christ child.
In Botticelli’s alleged preference for the melancholy and subdued, he resembles Pater’s Leonardo.
Pater qualifies his statements carefully, 52. He uses the word “charm” frequently, a trait especially noticeable here. The last paragraph is virtually an apology for considering any but great artists—“great men”—a response to the nineteenth-century preoccupation with great heroes, 53; Pater demurs from such rigid canon formation.
For Pater Botticelli’s work is characterized by “freshness, the uncertain and diffident promise” of the early Renaissance, “perhaps the most interesting period in the history of the mind.”
“The Poetry of Michelangelo,” 1871
Why do you think Pater chose as his topic the poetry of Michelangelo rather than his sculpture or paintings?
What kind of poetry did he write? Why would this have appealed to an “aesthetic” sensibility?
What earlier view of Michelangelo does Pater wish to qualify? What qualities of his work does he find most marked?
What does Pater mean by “sweetness” in this context? Is it a useful critical term?
How does Pater respond to the fact that Michelangelo doesn’t seem to have been much concerned with landscape or non-human nature? What does Pater find to be the motive and theme behind his works?
What is the means by which he creates the “ideality of expression” of his subjects? What symbolism does this entail? How, for example, does he explain the alleged bit of uncut stone on the head of Michelangelo’s David?
What does Pater chose to tell us about Michelangelo’s early life? What prompted his career as an artist, and how is this consistent with Pater’s views about the origins of art?
According to this account, what seems to have been Michelangelo’s temperament? How does Pater reconcile this with his claim for the essential “sweetness” of Michelangelo’s art?
How does Pater describe Michelangelo’s poetry (which had been recently published)? What seems the relationship between his poetry and his life?
How does Pater characterize the relationship between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna? As described, do his sonnets resemble those of “The House of Life”?
In old age, what was Michelangelo’s relationship to the intellectual currents of his age?
What is the relationship of his greatest art to traditional tales? What does he believe are the proper subjects of art?
According to Pater, what are some characteristics of Michelangelo’s view of death, as expressed in his art?
What are characteristics of Pater’s prose in this essay--for example, in passages such as “a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.”
What does Pater believe are the qualities of Michelangelo which provide a “standard or measure” for future art? Which modern artists does he feel resemble Michelangelo? Do his comparisons seem reasonable?
Are there similar themes in this essay and those on Leonardo or Giorgione?
“The Poetry of Michelangelo” is among other things a meditation on death. Michelangelo’s poetry is the art of an artist in his least known mode, and thus enables us to explore the “traces” of personality. (Compare the Pre-Raphaelite idea of competence in several arts, or Robert Browning’s “One Word More.” )
Pater’s Michelangelo is characterized by the union of sweetness and strength—cmp. Hopkins’ “as a stallion stalwart, very violet sweet.” The emphasis on “sweetness” occurs repeatedly—pp. 57, 58, 60, 61, 62, 64, 67, 70, 71, 76. His work also exhibits incompleteness (59); he loves the qualities and potential forms inherent in stone (60). Other traits include:
--the “penetrative suggestion of life,” 60;
--preservation of the “secret of that sweetness”; the spirit of creation and recovery, “the brooding spirit of life is there,” 60.
--characterized by a fierce temperament. A blow in adolescence disfigured his face (61).
--concerned with sleep and dreams, 61; perceives Bacchus as a profound dreamer, 62. His work gives an autobiographical sense of a disappointed visionary.
--in his work sweetness is combined with sadness (63), “some secret spring of indignation or sorrow.”
--moves into the region of ideal sentiment, 67. That he doesn’t really love Vittoria Colonna (to whom he had written love poetry) adds suavity to his verses (67) [!]; his is a sublimated love for art’s or experience’s sake.
--his poetry moves toward a greater sweetness [than his painting or sculpture], 67.
The essay moves toward the end-of-century doctrine of the melancholy isolation of the artist, who is characterized by intense but mysterious passions, incomprehensible from without. For Pater Michelangelo’s poetry catches the idea of the moment as it passed (64)—compare the “Conclusion.” His spirit is almost clairvoyant through the frail flesh (69--compare the transparency ascribed to La Giaconda.
Pater is interested in the period of Michelangelo’s life when his vehement energies become more tranquil—i. e., he becomes more Paterian. As in his essay on Winckelmann, Pater prefers art which expresses melancholy and complex emotions, but only under a calm surface.
Instead of a specific religion, Pater’s Michelangelo had accepted a generalized divine ideal, “the possession of noble souls” (70). Pater seems attracted to every manifestation of Platonism, approaching the views of a philosophic idealist. Pater’s writings in fact influenced F. H. Bradley, the most influential English neo-idealist philosopher.
Michelangelo is associated with the dreaming and the primitive (71): “So, he lingers on; a revenant, as the French say, a ghost out of another age, in a world too coarse to touch his faint sensibilities too closely; dreaming, in a worn-out society, theatrical in its life, theatrical in its art, theatrical even in its devotion, on the morning of the world’s history, on the primitive form of man, on the images under which that primitive world had conceived of spiritual forces.” (compare Morris’s narrative poems based on legends). Michelangelo has been born later than his proper time, as had Winkelmann (71) and of course Pater himself. One trait of Michelangelo’s artistic sensibility is a nostalgic yearning for the past.
Michelangelo is the artist of death—death softens the lines and forms of faces oin a kind of abstraction, cmp. Greek art (or his remarks on Leonardo), and represents the artist’s pity for mortality (74). (From Ruskin through the end of the century, Victorian critics showed a preoccupation with the beauty of dead faces.) Pater is attracted to Michelangelo as a fellow idealist and skeptic, as his sculptures “concentrate and express, less by way of definite conception than by the touches, the promptings of a piece of music, all those vague fancies, misgivings, presentiments, which shift and mix and are defined and fade again, whenever the thoughts try to fix themselves with sincerity on the conditions and surroundings of the disembodied spirit” (75). One sees in such passages what prompted W. B. Yeats to print some of Pater’s lines as poetry in his edition of the Oxford Anthology of English Poetry.
“Pico della Mirandola,” 1872
According to Pater, it was the task of 15th century scholars to reconcile Greek religion with Christianity. Pater seems here to attempt to qualify his former disrespect for Christian art and metaphysics (36): “each has contributed something to the development of the religious sense and, ranging them as so many stages in the gradual education of the human mind, [may] justify the existence of each.”
An allusion to Robert Browning occurs on p. 37, “madhouse cell.” Humanism consists less of thought than emotion (44), according to Pater, and he concludes with a description of the essence of humanism (46), “that belief of which [Pico della Mirandola] seems never to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality—no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal.” (signed 1871)
“Lucca della Robbia,” 1872
Why are the bas relief works of Lucca della Robbia interesting to Pater?
--he found a compromise between the stereotypic qualities of sculpture and the expressiveness of poetry or painting.
--characterized by charm and expression (59); achieves an intermediate point of tranquility (57, 59)
"Two Early French Stories," 1872
How would you characterize this essay's structure? (like a sandwich?) What is the sequence of examples given?
For Pater, the early Renaissance is defined as a freshness within the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Actually, of course, these are medieval elements. The Renaissance is thus not strictly a chronological category, but rather a desire for a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life.
What three instances of this more liberal view does he offer? (Abelard's poetry, the story "Amis and Amile," and the Tannhauser myth)
--First deals with poetry, 17, especially the profane poetry of Provence "In that poetry, earthly passion, in its intimacy, its freedom, its variety--the liberty of the heart--makes itself felt; and the name of Abelard, the great clerk and the great lover . . ." (18). A wider conception of life causes one to seek new sources of the imagination, 17.
What are characteristics of Abelard's writings, whom Pater sees as the expression of the early French Renaissance?
--emphasis on earthly love-- Love is characterized by "its intimacy, its languid sweetness, its rebellion, its subtle skill in dividing the elements of human passion, its care for physical beauty, its worship of the body. . ." (19).
Who was Heloise? She was a learned woman and a sorceress! (19) Their love inhabits a realm not subject to moral judgment (compare Swinburne). Pater notes that Dante fails to place them in The Divine Comedy.
Art is again allied with novelty and originality (20).
What is the meaning of the Tannhauser myth? Divine forces confirm a secular love (compare Morris's "The Hill of Venus"). The Renaissance asserts a realm "not opposed to, but only beyond" reigning orthodoxies (20).
Why does Pater include his third example, the prose romance of Amis and Amile? In his view, what does this tale of the love of two men embody?
--the "free play of human affection"
--"a friendship pure and generous"
--exemplifies "curious strength" (22, 25)
The Renaissance links "sweetness" (Arnoldian word) and "strength," "of which there are great resources in the true Middle Ages."
Do you think he reads Chaucer correctly (21)?
Do you agree with Pater's allusion to the tale's "racy Teutonic flavor" (25)?
He refers again to "sweetness," an excess of which will cause the reader to desire an antidote, a southern prose romance--and this tale again is the result of an indirect and uncertain transmission, 26.
What are its features?
--embodies the music of rhymed poetry, chiefly of interest for its manner, 27
--sense of languid deliciousness, 28
--overwrought delicacy, almost of wantonness, " a "languid Eastern deliciousness"
--less unified poems, 28-29
--proclaims a rival pagan religion of love, 31, yet its antinomianism is limited
--saints of House Beautiful more flexible than those of Reformation, 32, 33
--its critic eschews intellectual and social controversies, 32; the student of the Renaissance need not deal with them.
Even beyond this a harmony of interests is desirable, in which there are "no fixed parties, no exclusions; all breathes of that unity of culture in which whatsoever things are comely are reconciled." This new spirit permits a fusion with institutions in a new guise. The tale of Amis and Amile exemplifies this union of strength and harmony, his final ideal, and is a trope of the postponement of early desire and social codification.
The essay concludes with the words of an old romance. Do you find this a satisfactory ending?
Pater's choice of subject is in contrast to several earlier Victorian writers, Morris, Rossetti, Tennyson, and Ruskin, who had emphasized the medieval.
In his preface Pater attacks the formulation of abstract definitions of beauty and art; beauty is relative.
Does he himself have any guiding metaphysical assumptions? (His views are influenced by philosophical idealism, a belief in determinism, and in the insignificance of "ideas.")
--xii, "To define beauty, not in the most abstract, but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not a universal formula for it, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics." He has some tendency toward abstraction himself, and comments on the human condition.
What should one ask oneself about a work of art--i. e., what is the task of criticism?
--xii, "the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly. . . . " (His own responses might not seem distinct to all readers.) "What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?"
--necessity of knowing oneself--artistic or literary criticism becomes an impressionistic psychological study, delicately neurological.
--Critic should possess the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects, xiii.
--Taste should be eclectic, xiii.
Do you feel attracted toward this method of study? Does Pater himself practice it?
What are the chief features of the Renaissance, according to Pater? What are his reasons for chosing it as the object of study?
--xv, "the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the Middle Ages imposed on the heart and the imagination." The function of art is to experience "fairer forms"--compare Keats' claim, "Beauty is truth," but Pater places the emphasis on beauty rather than truth.
Pater agrees with Arnold that we should choose the best from each age, in separating the "poetic" from the merely historical, and in choosing the more attractive portions of reality for analysis. He disagrees with Arnold, however, in accepting the personal nature of reality, in discussing an entire culture, not just "touchstones," and in choosing aesthetic rather than moral criteria of values.
--xv-xvi, an era in which various forms of intellectual activity unite (interdisciplinary, union of arts), many interests of the intellectual would combine
--emphasis on spirit of novelty, the search for new sources of inspiration, 17
--seeks definition for the Renaissance based on its spirit, rather than chronology
Can you think of ways in which The Renaissance would have shocked and annoyed many readers of Pater's generation?
--xiii "as in the study of light, of morals, of number, one must realize such primary data for oneself, or not at all." The emphasis on the human body, sensations above thought, religious aestheticism devoid of belief, denial of the need for action and progress, homoeroticism, and pleasure in the thought of pain and death are all traits antithetical to Victorian morality.
Does Pater himself have a metaphysics or theory behind his statements on poetry?
"Joachim du Bellay"
Who was he, and what qualities does he represent for Pater?
--niceness and delicacy superimposed on Gothic heaviness
--need for softening and purifying of French literature
--brings only surface change (109)
Pater is the critic of an aristocratic art.
Du Bellay wrote treatise on the use of the French vernacular.
Pater mentions in passing that the Renaissance was not a unified phenomenon (111)--what he himself seems often to ignore. To speak in one's own tongue emphasizes freedom, impulse, passion (112-113). Pleiade eager for a musical poetry, 116. Ronsard's art seems weary, a little jaded, 117.
Pater repeats his key words, 109, a technique derived from Arnold and Ruskin.
DuBellay writes an intimate, modern poetry (119). He is a poet of nostalgia for his French home--a good description of the alterations of remembrance (120), for he desired all things to pass away (119); compare Pater's own sense of flux in the "Conclusion." The poetry of Du Bellay is one of form, not matter (in accord with Pater's canon of art, 120, 121), a slight thing dexterously handled" (compare the essay on Giorgione), "A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing" (121).
"The School of Giorgione," 1877
This is a very influential essay in art criticism. It attacks the idea that art can be "understood" through its subject matter, in contrast to Ruskin, who had believed art presented "great ideas."
Why might this essay have seemed controversial in its day?
What is the role of the sensuous form of each art in creating its effect? Is this a view held by modern art critics?
--The sensuous form of each art gives it a peculiar, untranslatable quality (93). This view has origins in Ruskin's advocacy of truth to materials, and the Arts and Crafts emphasis on different media, and is compatible with some later critical approaches.
--a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor (95).
Can artifice improve on nature? (94) Is this a view which would have been shared by Spenser? By Wordsworth? (never, except perhaps at the end of The Prelude)
What is meant by the doctrine that each art strives to become some other? (95) What does it mean to say that all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music? (95-96)
How would the choice of painting or sculpture as the final art have altered his claim? Why is art not striving to become history or politics or psychology or sociology? Why isn't music struggling to become painting or poetry?
Why do you think music may be the form most respected here? (In music one cannot distinguish matter from form, 95.)
What kind of subjects are best for a picture? (light with tranquil landscape, 96) What schools of paintings does this suggest? Which painters would most have agreed with him? (those who eschew "subjects"; seems a justification for abstract or formalist art)
Why does he believe that lyric poetry is the highest form of poetry? (poetry without moral or political aspirations, 97) What forms of poetry would this eliminate? (long narratives, epic, dramatic monologue; much of the works of Tennyson and much of the best work of his age!)
Do you think Hopkins would qualify as a lyric poet according to this definition?
Do you agree with Pater's definition of poetry? His views are those which have since limited appreciation of the long Victorian poem.
In fact, the subjects of the paintings to which Pater alludes may be very precise. His criticism may be seen as a way of looking at them rather than an actual description.
What he describes anticipates art nouveau--gesture, grace, suavity--and moves toward symbolism, 97.
Do you agree that music is the perfect art? Why does an art critic choose music as the ideal art?
What features does he attribute to the "School of Giorgione"?
--unperplexed by naturalism and philosophy, 98
--genre painting, expressive of form. Yet others have found the content not quite so empty. Often they follow conventions for recreation and sexuality, and it is the critic who decides these have no content or interest (compare impressionist scenes of boating or eating, for example)
--sees Giorgione as a predecessor to Titian as Winckelmann had been of Goethe.
Pater places a growing emphasis on the obscure--compare Carlyle, Morris, Ruskin--and like them confirms the difficulties of tracing history (100). This is a shift from viewing the artist as public prophet, as did Tennyson--to the artist as unknown isolate (100).
Also a single work seems authenticated (101), the trace. Such ideas were to influence future assumptions about the nature of the artist, whom we can only know indirectly, through traces (100). Pater is concerned with the residue of individual identity, not collective culture--a fine line. Like Winckelman's, Giorgione's death is tragic, and his memory becomes the object of a cult and legend, 103.
Genre painting and its selection of a subject arrests a passing expression--as does dramatic poetry (compare Hopkins, Yeats and the image of the dancer at the turn of century). Art presents stylized motion, the still life of the passionate gesture. Its subject should be poetry which lacks an articulated story (104, as in the poetry of Swinburne; its own form of bigotry).
He emphasizes music and musical instruments as subjects (compare Rossetti's many paintings in which a woman plays music; this is also a motif in early twentieth century poetry, as in Wallace Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier"). Music becomes the best metaphor for poetic art. The Victorians saw a close relation between poetry and music (Browning, "Apt Vogler"), often setting poetry to music.
Also art proceeds by randomness and mysterious evocation, 105, "as one passes through an unfamiliar room, in a chance company." (suggests the unlocking of an unconscious). Life is a form of listening for the elusive, suggestions at the edge of perception, 105, also observing, listening to time as it flies (i. e., silence), not acting or thinking or speaking (much less the animal acts of eating, sleeping, etc.). As in poetry, profundity merges into silence, 105.
Art is sudden, a happy gift (105), a romantic notion. He emphasizes the importance of moments of play, 105, "the happier powers in things without are permitted free passage, and have their way with us," a Wordsworthian wise passiveness, borne on the sudden breeze. He adduces significant images of the subconscious, music, light, still water, clarity of light and air, imagery of elements, 106. Giorgione's art shows a balance of landscape and personage, 106.
Pater believes that a great sensibility can make itself felt indirectly through its influence, 107. In fact the entire essay is a defense of personality, the quality of which he felt art criticism had recently defrauded Giorgione (since then even more of Giorgione's putative pictures have been attributed to others). He argues that the most interesting persons are those whose identities can only be known indirectly (e. g. Rossetti).
What is the effect of the reiterated word "really"? (107)
Pater, Appreciations, "Rossetti"
For better and worse, Pater's essay established some of the essential features of D. G. Rossetti criticism:
Pater's defects are still with us--
--generalizations without textual analysis
--refusal to consider development--see "The Blessed Damozel" and "The House of Life" as manifesting similarly characteristic imagery, 199.
--criticism by kindred feeling--speaks to a special audience which will "really know" Rossetti
--judgment by identificatory suppression
Why do you think Pater is drawn to Rossetti's sensibility? Which features of it does he under-represent or ignore?
--poetry of unrelieved tension, 203
--loves love more than a beloved, 203
--unites spiritual and material, 203-204
--not interested in sexual themes--this may explain why he prefers "The King's Tragedy," "The White Ship" and other later ballads
What are some important characteristics of Pater's style?
--lucid, graceful, identificatory, emotional, concise
--biblicalisms, repetition of key words (a technique derived from Arnold and Ruskin)
--metaphors of natural cycle of earth as well as of other elements
Pater's cadences are distinctive, "catching"; more than other nineteenth-century British essayists he is perennially described as "poetic." He has two styles, an earlier sharper one and an oblique, verbose style in Marius; his prose became increasingly self-qualified and convoluted. One constantly has the urge to remove extra little words out of Paterian sentences, but of course they would lose their carefully suspended, merely suggestive cadences.
Paterian nouns: charm, strength, grace, refreshment, lightness, wantonness, delicacy, odor, morsels, intensity, dreamers, ecstasy, fame, sweetness, sentiment, pity.
adjectives: variegated, dramatic, purest, finest, exquisite, curious, profound, intense, flowery, peculiar,delicious, delicate, sharp, eager, subtle, strange, sweet, languid, quaint, mysterious aesthetic, real, true.
Pater is a reflective philosopher, meditative, oblique, concerned with the liminal, the vague, the strange, the barely perceptible, the uncertain. His style is the embodiment of his view of life: there exists no character or action, only the meditative contemplation of surfaces--people are a series of sensations and forces; human personality has no direct contact with the outer world except through mingling with it.
Heavily influenced by Rossetti and Swinburne, Pater was a great influence on symbolist poets and a congenial mind for most writers of the fin de siecle. Oscar Wilde and the decadents cited him frequently, and he influenced prose styles for two or three decades.
Marius the Epicurean and Imaginary Portraits have some faint approaches to plot and movement, although they are chiefly ruminative essays. Marius is a kind of self-portrait of Pater transferred to the Rome of Marcus Aurelius; influenced by the stoicism of Aurelius, he comes to see Christianity as the nearest approximation to his desire for comeliness, orderliness, and piety of sensibility. Of course Pater himself must accept the spirit of his own age; it would no longer be appropriate for him to become a primitive Christian, especially as part of Christianity's attraction as presented by Pater had been its newness. However he is clearly nostalgic. In this respect Marius constitutes a shift in position from his earlier "Conclusion." In Marius, at least, one cannot imagine one of life's intensest moments as a murder.