"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, July 26, 2019

[Walter Pater]

From Gaunt's Aesthetic Adventure:

....At this stage he appeared to suffer almost from an excess of Christianity. He was considered 'a tremendous Ritualist'. He never ate meat in Lent and every night he murmured a Latin prayer. Anxiety was expressed lest Ritualism should lead this young Thomas a Kempis to Rome. The fact was far different. By the time he went up to Oxford, with an Exhibition from King's School in 1858, he had already lost all religious faith. A reading of the doctrines of Christian Socialism as expounded by Maurice and Kingsley which have brought others to belief caused him to doubt. He seemed now to take a malicious delight in shocking his devout friends and in saying sneering and disturbing things out of character. 'Be boy-like boys', said Pater in a parting monitorial address at the school, looking fixedly at Dombrain Pater who had rejoiced in being the most unboy-like of boys. 'Mephistophelian sneers', said the puzzled Rainier McQueen of his attacks on the Bible in the manner of Voltaire. It was horrifying to him to think that one of their holy 'triumvirate' could suggest: 'What fun it would be to be ordained and not to believe a single word of what you are saying.' Nothing could be more disconcerting than this demure devilment. It was not as if Pater had revealed serious doubts which could be wrestled with in communion with staunch friends such wrestlings might in themselves be called a religious exercise and perfectly proper. No, it was as if a demon had quite suddenly asserted itself in his mind. 'An enemy', said this demon, in Pater's own voice, 'to all Gothic darkness' and 'full of a better taste.' McQueen was horrified, heartbroken. 'Please desist from that kind of talk', he implored. To which Pater with quiet savagery replied, 'When I was at Canterbury I was a contemptible hypocrite'. His heresy was 'the cause of a rupture which could have come to pass by nothing else'.

Religious experience, shades of religious belief, were then the main preoccupation of Oxford. There were various religious sets like so many political parties the High Church set who wore their hair plastered very sleekly and close to the head, and went in for incense at seven shillings and sixpence a pound, the puritan Anglicans who liked the interior of St. Mary's because it was bare, the Broad Churchmen, prominent among whom were the Rev. Mark Pattison and Benjamin Jowett, the Regius Professor of Greek, who with five collaborators in the Essays and Reviews of 1860 had earned the title of the 'Seven Against Jesus'. Occasionally and to the sound of tears and sobs, someone would go over to Rome, with the effect of a wilful child who, reaching too far for a flower, had tumbled over a cliff.

And about none of these things did the new Pater, the Mr. Hyde Pater, now care in the least. He was indifferent. As to the painful case of one who had gone over to Rome he remarked dispassionately: 'In fact, as far as mere comfort of mind is concerned, I consider conscientious Roman catholics quite enviable'. As for himself he even went to the length of giving away or selling all his religious books, including a copy of The Christian Year. Robert McQueen wrote to his brother: 'Pater must be in a very bad state. What particular religion does he profess to belong to?' No one knew, though it seemed that philosophy had replaced religion in his mind from the fact that his favourite reading was Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Plato, the Germans Schelling and Hegel, and the story was told that he sat up all night reflecting on the absolute.

He profited or at least was affected by certain contemporary influences. He attended Mathew Arnold's lectures on Poetry. He was impressed by his attacks on the Philistine, his crusade for 'sweetness and light', his cosmopolitan attitude to letters. He read the books of John Ruskin. The decorative fluent prose of Modern Painters, the insistence on art as the supreme business of life, the reiteration of great names, Titian, Angelico and Tintoretto, with as much reverence as if they were Prophets of the Old Testament, all this undoubtedly turned him to the thought if not to the actual study of art.

So too must those authors whom he cared for enough to translate. He translated Plato and Aristotle. He read passages of Goethe and from him he derived a serene, a meditative approach to the classical perfection of Greece. He imitated Goethe in destroying his own early poems because of their Christian sentiment. By 1860 he was regularly translating a page from Flaubert whose great first book Madame Bovary had appeared three years before. The deliberate choice of words, the detachment from the bourgeois world, in which Flaubert is so much akin to his contemporary Baudelaire could not fail to strike the translator. His view of art, his sense of style, was built on this study of ancient Greeks, modern Germans and modern French.

Gradually Pater became more inscrutable. It was about this time (1860) that he grew that moustache which completed the mask-like nature of his expressionless features. He was a 'Caliban of letters', was very sensitive about his looks, had been heard to say, 'I would give ten years of my life to be handsome*. Meetings were held among his friends to discuss 'the External Improvement of Pater'. Various suggestions were made. It was agreed that a moustache was the thing if anyone dared try to persuade him. To their surprise Pater took kindly to the idea and shortly there burgeoned on his upper lip that formidable luxuriance which provided him with a distinct character not his own.

This sensitiveness about his own appearance helped to make him interested in ideal beauty. He could not bear ugly people. His friends were good-looking. He admired his brother Willie Pater, a tall, handsome guardsman type, with Dundreary whiskers and a fascination for women, because of his physical well being and comeliness. Walter Horatio had been known to speak of a boy at school who was uglier even than he in terms of the most utter contempt and with unrelenting sarcasm.

Perhaps through diffidence, a sense of his unattractiveness, or through a naturally sluggish habit he was no lover. Apart from a mild, a vague, a passing warmth for a cousin he was able to dispense with the tender passion and even his friendships were restrained and tepid. He abstained from love as he had abstained from cricket the better to enjoy contemplation. Any kind of violence became alien to the rhythm of his life and it was almost a sign of his avoidance of the spectacular, of energetic outward display and vulgar excess that he took only Second Class Honours in the Final Classical Schools in 1862. His visits to Heidelberg (to see his sisters who had gone to live there) were, however, supposed to have given him a special equipment in philosophy: he was reputed to have special knowledge of the systems of Schelling and Hegel. Because of this or some perception ofan inner and latent merit concealed by his reserve, his abstention from being brilliant, he was fortunate enough to be elected Fellow of Brasenose in 1864.

It is interesting that he should have tried to persist in his diabolical plan of becoming ordained. His friends 6pposed him (as Rainier McQueen said) for his own sake. Dombrain, the most bigoted of the young triumvirate, shut Pater completely out of mind. McQueen, more sensitive and affectionate but equally religious, sorrowfully 'spoke with him for the last time in this world'. He found it difficult to reconcile the 'ascetic and saintly boy' of his earlier acquaintance with this cold stranger. He wondered 'what the real Pater was'. But a clergyman, surely he must not be. 'If you make the attempt I shall do all I can to prevent it/ said his former master the Rev. J. B. Kearney. 'And I shall do so, too/ said McQueen. Both wrote to the Bishop of London imploring him in the best interests of their infidel friend to prevent his taking orders. The veto was upheld.

Aunty Betty was deeply grieved but he showed only a passing annoyance and instead settled quietly down to being a writer, in his academic haven.

His mental isolation was singularly complete. He presented to the world an imposing array of negatives. He was no administrator his attitude to undergraduate manliness being expressed in the remark that they were 'like young tigers at play'. He was no scholar, in the Oxford sense, and got rather quickly at sea in construing Virgil's Georgics. He had neither the capacity nor the energy for research and he had extremely few points of contact with his colleagues or with contemporary life at all. He conceived himself as a 'crystal man', a man of taste, that is to say with a mind adorned by 'the reminiscence of a forgotten culture', but entirely himself, unaffected by the age in which he lived, and cherishing his isolation from it.

His was an inward existence. He was content with the most frugal and monkish of surroundings and equipment. His rooms at Brasenose were small, simple, austere. The little chintz curtains, the stained floorboards that bordered the matting and the Turkey carpet, the few line engravings after Michelangelo, Correggio and Ingres, in themselves a frugal choice from among the riches of art, spoke of plain and very threadbare living. A bust of Hercules, somewhat out of place in these prim quarters, bore witness to an entirely abstract approval of the force its owner did not possess. 'Hercules, Discobolus, Samson/ apostrophized an admirer, 'these be thy gods, O Pater/ The only touch of adornment was the bowl of dried rose leaves which stood on the table. Even his books were few. A few small shelves held some battered paper-backed and cheap editions. When Pater wanted to read he went to the Bodleian or else borrowed a book from a friend. The adjoining bedroom, which lay along a narrow passage approached by a low Gothic doorway, was only a few feet wide and was in fact so cramped that the head of the bed had to rest, without legs, on a projection in the wall.

In his sitting-room he would settle down in the morning to wring a few reluctant, anxiously weighed words from his pen. The table would be covered with small lozenges of white paper each bearing a phrase or a word, with here and there a blue lozenge, this representing a key point. Such were his 'notes'. There is something in this neat and precise plan that reminds us of Pater's Dutch ancestry.

Having cast off religion and being without interest either in scholarship or in practical affairs Pater began to concentrate on the subject of Art. That he was much impressed by Swinburne is certain, though he knew him only slightly. It may have been partly through him that he imbibed the doctrine of Art for Art's Sake in the emphatic form which the French writers had given it. He became one of a circle of young poets and painters whose watchword it was. There was John Payne, the poet who had set forth Gautier's doctrine of aesthetic perfection in an essay on The Poets of the Neo-Romantic School in France: Arthur O'Shaughnessy of the British Museum, and the painters J. T. Nettleship and Simeon Solomon, in whose studios they often met. There is no question but that an essay on Leonardo which Swinburne wrote in 1864 inspired the style and a celebrated passage of Pater's own later essay on the artist. Here is Swinburne:

Of Leonardo the samples are choice and few: full of that indefinable grace and grave mystery which belongs to his slightest and wildest work. Fair strange faces of women full of dim doubt and faint scorn, touched by the shadows of an obscure fate; eager and weary as it seems at once, pale and fervent with patience and passion, allure and perplex the thoughts and eyes of men.

The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come' and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, a little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.

It was a very vague and dreamy conception of ideal beauty, yet with its own tension and quiet ruthlessness. One pursued beauty as Johann Joachim Winckelmann had pursued it with 'a feverish nursing of the one motive of his life'. In that Prussian archaeologist a 'religious profession was only one incident of a culture' in which the moral instinct like the religious or political was merged in the artistic. And great pains had gone into the fashioning of the sentences which set forth this superlative aim. The reserved and cautious man thought it necessary to weigh every word, to restrain the violent and importunate epithet so prone to appear, to bring into the 'passion' which so much coloured the theme that sort of frugality manifest in his own surroundings.

This spartan care for form was something new in English literature. English writers wrote to say something, to serve a moral end; but the series of essays contributed by Pater to the Fortnightly Review and published in 1873 as 'The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry' served no such end and seemed to many people very insubstantial in consequence. They seemed to Mrs. Mark Pattison an 'air-plant independent of the ordinary sources of nourishment a sentimental revolution having no relation to the conditions of the actual 'world'. They were not, as the writings of Ruskin were, an incentive to production, a call to contemporaries to emulate the past. They took no account of the kind of society in which art flourished. They established an attitude, of one attempting to put in words certain tenuous sensations, representing the 'sharp apex of the present moment between two hypothetical eternities'. Pater's writings were concerned with great artists, though the author knew nothing of visual art and as technical criticism his account of their work has little value. Pater sought, following Goethe, for the relation in which a work of art stood to the inner nature of the person contemplating it. To obtain flrom art as many pulsations as possible, 'to burn always with this hard gem-like flame', was 'success in life'.

In this egoistic vision of ideal beauty there lurked a poison the same poison as in the poems of Baudelaire, from the study of whom Pater may have imbibed it direct. It was the sense that something vaguely evil was to be found at the very centre of beauty, an evil not to be avoided but to be embraced and enjoyed (intellectually and imaginatively) by the writer. An excitement was given to the quest 'for the perfection of the gods by the idea that it held some corrupt and diabolic secret. There is a curious passage in Pater's early study of Aesthetic Poetry (omitted from the final version of the Appreciations) in which he was writing of William Morris, and grafted on to the poetry of Pre-Raphaelitism a sentiment of his own, with little relation to the subject. 'The colouring is intricate and delirious as of "scarlet lilies". The influence of summer is like a poison in the blood', he wrote. He envisaged' a strange complex of conditions where as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand, among people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, andro- gynous, the light almost shining through them'. Here is the spirit of the Fleurs du Mai, the sentiment of decay. In later essays, in the Imaginary Portraits, Pater elaborated in various ways the idea of some horror or demoniac element haunting peaceful lives and pleasant places, itself concealed beneath some outward fairness of aspect.

Jowett scented danger, The sturdy little Broad Churchman with immense forehead, the cherubic face and the barrel-bodied great-coat, was a practical man and as such he had little patience with gush about beauty, which was no concern of a scholar and a gentleman. Anyone going in 'for poetry and all that nonsense' aroused his irritation. But here was something more. He could not put a finger on it 'quite but there was a pernicious feeling in it. Undergraduates might get hold of the wrong idea and be led astray by this over-heated, artificial style of thing. The classics should be approached as a straightforward exercise in knowledge and not as a romantic excuse for self-indulgence. He was frankly alarmed at 'the mental and moral attitude' with which Pater was credited, none the less because he had once said to Pater, 'You have a mind that will attain eminence'. He tried by every means to keep him away from Swinburne, on whom he thought Pater would be a most dangerous influence. Seeing that Algernon openly professed to be 'dangerous', and that he and Pater had visited the same source for their inspiration, this seems rather ironical.

Pater went imperturbably on. It was one of his characteristics not to care in the least what was said or thought of him. "To burn always with this hard gem-like flame is success in life'. It is to be assumed that this illumination burnt in his mind as he bent his head with every mark of the reverence he did not feel in prayers in the college chapel which he so punctiliously attended; or as he waved a hand to a friend when limping along the High Street with a famous gesture, indeterminate, yet indicating in a delicate way that, while he was sensitively and even gratefully aware of the friend's presence, on this occasion he begged that it should be, without the exchange of words, understood, that it was quite impossible for him to pause, even for a moment, for the exchange of mundane courtesies. Life became, increasingly, a system of aestKetics. 'But why should we be good, Mr. Pater?' an undergraduate is supposed to have asked.

'Because it is so beautiful/ was the reply. Religion, like virtue, was an aesthetic subdivision. He liked to visit St. Alban's, in Holborn, the polychrome creation of the Gothic revivalist, William Butterfield, which was particularly 'High'; and also the principal Roman Catholic chapels, to admire the flowers, arum, jonquil and narcissus, banked before the altar, the clouds of incense, the splendid robes, the elaborate .ceremonies.' On the other hand the 'starveling ceremonies of the Low Church are not worth witnessing'.

'It does not matter what is said provided it is said beautifully.'

A languor of manner seemed the necessary accompaniment of this continued and exalted preoccupation with Beauty. In the withdrawal from the stirring and the bustling contacts of the ordinary world, it was desirable to explain that the sensations still retained their acuteness/ that they might even be exhausted by their own refinement. Thus Pater, walking one summer evening in Christ Church meadow with a friend, remarked to him, 'Certain flowers affect my imagination so that I cannot smell them with pleasure. The white jonquil, the gardenia and the syringa actually give me pain. I am partial to the meadow-sweet but on an evening like this there is too much of it. It is the fault of nature in England that she runs too much to excess/ There are few who suffer to any extent from the smell of meadowsweet. This is not to say that Pater was not altogether serious. At the same time the attitude appeared uncommonly close to a pose; and the 'flute-like modulations of voice' which he adopted had to some listeners the sound of affectation.

For Oxford it was an entirely new style of behaviour. The remnants of its eighteenth-century tradition, bluff and jovial, mighty eaters and drinkers, had no nonsense of this sort about them, nor had the typical men of the nineteenth century, grave, earnest, wrapped up in questions of religion. Pater opposed to the materialism of the one and the spirituality of the other a new form of self-indulgence.

....he met with opposition. Jowett took good care that he was not given the disciplinary office of Proctor (worth some 300 a year) and others beside Jowett were heartily contemptuous. Once at a dinner party in the Bradmore Road he began to discourse 'with spring flower sickliness' on the beauty of the Reserved Sacrament in the Roman Church. 'As though', snorted the Rev. Mandell Creighton, ofMerton (who was present), 'he was describing a house in which lay a dead friend/ A sturdy Protestant made a sarcastic remark and a closure had to be applied to the heated discussion which followed. There was a lack of understanding in Oxford which made Pater dislike the place.

His pupils were more impressionable than his fellow dons. Some of them sat at his feet in adoration, but his enemies were careful to point out that these worshippers were not usually very good in their examinations. The burning of the hard gem-like flame did not ensure success in the Final Schools and one young man, it is recorded, who excelled in aesthetic ecstasy 'got only a Fourth'....

by William Gaunt


26 July 2019

No comments:

Post a Comment