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Alive in the Grave: Walter Pater's Renaissance

From: ELH
Volume 66, Number 4, Winter 1999
pp. 1033-1051 | 10.1353/elh.1999.0038

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ELH 66.4 (1999) 1033-1051

The historical training of our critics prevents their having an influence in the true sense -- an influence on life and action.

--Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

In 1873, when Walter Pater's first book was published, it bore the title Studies in the History of the Renaissance. When the second edition was published four years later, the title was changed to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. It is not surprising that the word "History" drops out, since there is so little conventional history in this book. One of the book's earliest reviewers, a friend of Pater's, Mrs. Pattison (Emilia Frances Strong), remarked:

The title is misleading. The historical element is precisely that which is most wanting, and its absence makes the weak place of the whole book. . . . the work is in no wise a contribution to the history of the Renaissance. For instead of approaching the subject, whether Art or Literature, by the true scientific method, through the life of the time of which it was an outcome, Mr. Pater prefers in each instance to detach it wholly from its surroundings, to suspend it isolated before him, as if it were a kind of air-plant independent of ordinary sources of nourishment. The consequence is that he loses a great deal of the meaning of the very objects which he regards most intently. This is especially noticeable when he passes from the examination of fragments to deal with the period as a whole. . . . Mr. Pater writes of the Renaissance as if it were a kind of sentimental revolution having no relation to the conditions of the actual world.

I have quoted this passage at length in order to raise the question of what we learn about the history of the Renaissance -- or about history or the Renaissance -- from Pater's book. Why has Pater chosen to write about Renaissance artists? Do his critical views really have much to do with the Renaissance at all? Most discussions of Pater's work attend to its aesthetic rather than its historical implications, and one might well read this book as a manifesto of aesthetic criticism. Moreover, Pater published his first essay in 1866, on Coleridge, and his next two essays, published in yearly intervals, were on Winckelmann (which he used as the last chapter of The Renaissance) and on the poems of William Morris (the last half of that essay was employed almost without change as the "Conclusion" to The Renaissance). Only in 1869, after laying down the gauntlet for a new mode of criticism in these essays, which, in contrast to his later ones, were published anonymously, did he begin to publish the essays on Leonardo, Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, and Michelangelo that form the kernel of The Renaissance.

In order to answer these questions, I want to start by laying out Pater's critical preoccupations and aims, to see how they influence and connect with his interpretation of the Renaissance. One approach would be to contrast Pater's views on art and his use of the Renaissance with that of Matthew Arnold, and especially with that of John Ruskin, the two major critics of the era. In the first sentence of the "Preface" to The Renaissance Pater rejects Ruskin's attempts to "define beauty in the abstract, to express it in the most general terms, to find some universal formula for it," and a few sentences later he ironically quotes Arnold's dictum "to see the object as in itself it really is" in order to disparage it with his own twist: "in aesthetic criticism 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 realise it distinctly." Against these concerns with properly defining and knowing the artwork, Pater shifts his attention to the impressions and pleasures of the critic. Yet rather than using as a point of departure what Pater is not doing -- not adhering to conventional Victorian notions of history, not engaging in the moral and cultural criticism of Arnold and Ruskin -- I want instead to...

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