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"APOLLO IN PICARDY": PATER'S MONK AND RUSKIN'S MADNESS By Robert Keefe (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) "Apollo in Picardy" is the last imaginary portrait that Walter Pater completed, and it is also quite possibly his finest piece of fiction. It was written in the summer of 1893, a little more than a year before its author died. Pater was a tired man, who may well have believed that he was close to death. His grandfather, his father, his uncle, and his brother had all died in their forties, and he was over fifty, the last male in his family, a bachelor in precarious health, living out the remnant of his life with his spinster sisters. There is a valedictory air about "Apollo in Picardy," a sense that Pater is taking leave of the intellectual concerns of a lifetime. One of those concerns seems to me to be his complex intellectual relationship to John Ruskin. Ruskin had been insane for five years by 1893, and I would suggest that that insanity, the mental overthrow of the great Victorian visionary, informs Pater's final work of fiction. The tale of the confrontation of a monk named John and a vision of divine anarchy is a satire with a strangely elegiac undercurrent, and its greatness depends on that combination of satine judgment and elegiac compassion. In telling the story of Prior Saint-Jean's conversion, the author gives his protagonist an outline which might well reflect a sardonic view of Ruskin's intense moralism, his rigidity, and his compulsive writing, but he seems also to recognize a fundamental similarity between John Ruskin, the expounder of Hebraic law, and Walter Pater, the pagan adherent of Hellenic beauty. Pater's reticence and the resulting blandness of his few surviving letters make it impossible to prove what he thought of any of his contemporaries, but we can infer from his published works a good deal about his sense of Ruskin. Most importantly, it was, as Harold Bloom points out, essentially Oedipal (Bloom xxv ). Like Wordsworth for Keats, or Pater himself for Wilde, Ruskin was a nearly overwhelming psychological presence for Pater throughout his career. He was not the only one, of course. Perhaps because he had lost his own father early in life, Pater tended to find paternal literary presences, exciting and oppressive, wherever he looked. At a very minimum, we would want to include Winckelmann, Wordsworth, Lamb, Newman, and Arnold in that category along with Ruskin. But certainly the great art critic loomed large in Pater's life. He was a huge figure straddling the road, and Pater killed him off time and again in his wntings, only to have him reappear, vital and grandiose, filled with an energy which Pater never possessed, a fluency beyond anything which the painstaking younger writer could ever command. "I cannot believe that Ruskin saw more in the Church of St. Mark than I do," Pater once remarked (Levey 116). At bottom it was an issue of vision. As Bloom points out, Pater learned the art of seeing from Ruskin (Bloom xi). As early as the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin had begun to transform an essentially Wordsworthian eye for nature into an instrument for contemplating the artifacts of culture. No matter how far Pater moved away from Ruskin's 361 notions about art, the starting point of his criticism remained that Ruskinian act of seeing. The Renaissance seems in part a declaration of independence from Ruskin as well as from Arnold. Where Modern Painters had functioned as a vast sermonEvangelical in the early volumes, Christian humanist in the later--77ze Renaissance is informed throughout with a sort of High-Church paganism. Ritual observance has replaced moral homiletics. Reviewing the book in the United States, William Dean Howells noted that Pater was "as far from thinking with Mr. Ruskin as from writing like him" (quoted in Hill 289). But Ruskin himself took no notice whatever of the challenge to his authority which The Renaissance was meant to represent. He ignored the work completely. With monumental unconcern, he could announce as Tate as 1883, that he, rather than Pater, had introduced Botticelli to English art lovers (see Hill...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 361-370
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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