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CHAPTER ONE The Renaissance To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known except relatively under conditions. Pater, "Coleridge's Writings" This page intentionally left blank YEATs's SELECTION AS the first modem poem of Walter Pater's passage describing the Mona Lisa has far-reaching esthetic implications.1 Yeats notes that the Mona Lisa in her assimilated experience foreshadows "a philosophy, where the individual is nothing, the flux of The Cantos of Ezra Pound, objects without contour as in Le Chef-d'oeuvre Inconnu) human experience no longer shut into brief lives, cut off into this place and that place...."2 Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner-each assimilates experience beyond the individual identity. The human figure in art, transcending its individuality, becomes for them an image summing up a full range of historical experience. The time scheme of modem literature defined by Yeats in his introduction echoes Pater's Mona Lisa passage: "Time cannot be divided." All events become as one for modern man, as they are for Pater's La Gioconda. Yeats recognizes the symbolic nature of the Mona Lisa in Pater's description. The painting as Pater describes it synthesizes classical and Christian elements, conveying strong suggestions of meaning not easily defined . The musical analogy in the passage-La Gioconda 's experience is "but the sound of lyres and flutes" -evokes the suggestiveness of the painting and effectively denies the possibility of any specific philosophical content. In Pater's description, the painting presents itself as an example of the modem and it has no explicit "meaning." "Lady Lisa" as symbol represents the modem because she combines in herself the intellectual forces for which Pater values the Renaissance. Her assimilation of these forces and the reader's response to Walter Pater them exemplify in microcosm the theme of Studies in the History of the Renaissance} Pater's first important collection of essays and still his most famous book.3 Reader's often accept Pater's injunction "to know one's own impression of the object of art as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly" as the principal message of the "Preface" to The Renaissance.4 But they sometimes pay insufficient attention to the succeeding explanation of the uniqueness of the individual impression, which is far more essential to an understanding of the volume's structure and Pater's critical purpose. The individual impression is important to Pater because the greatest works of art are so varied in their content and appeal that no one response will suffice. Each individual brings his own experience, his own criteria, to the work of art-even though, as Yeats says, the individual has ceased to be important as a subject for art. But the work of art, by its very variety, justifies the highly individual (or relativistic) approach. The objects with which aesthetic criticism dealsmusic , poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life-are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces; they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me?5 In the second half of the twentieth century, Pater's insistence on the necessity of the unique individual experience of art would seem a trite and obvious criterion of esthetic judgment. One reason Pater's position seems so obvious, however, is that he did such a good job of proselytizing for it. Through Wilde's 4 The Renaissance inversion of the usual cliches about the relationship of art to life, through Yeats's insistence on a recondite and highly artificial stance by the artist himself, and through Joyce's epiphanies, Pater's viewpoint has come to be the common one. Not that Pater was alone in holding this view of the relationship of the apprehender and the work of art. Goethe, Gautier, and the PreRaphaelites come to mind, all of whom either influenced Pater or expressed similar esthetic standards independently . But Pater stands as the consistent and consecrated prophet of the egocentric approach to art. His whole body of critical and creative work devotes itself to trying to find how the individual, so restricted by his own peculiar limitations of perception, can use and understand and identify with the vast and multifaceted body of creative work, and, indeed, of experience , around him. The structure of The Renaissance has a certain inner logic: the volume begins and ends with a focus on the apprehender. The...


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