Blog Post

Walter Pater's Renaissance

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I, II 

In the used bookstores of Boston in the late 1980s, the Renaissance section always had multiple cheap copies of two books: E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture and Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. What this fact suggests to me is that these two books were standard fare for undergraduate courses in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and shaping influences on what “the Renaissance” was taken to mean. I know that Tillyard was: his book (I might as well admit that I find it not very good) subsequently became subject to many attacks, particularly in Britain, for the (allegedly) static, comforting picture of the Renaissance it offered innocent young minds. But Tillyard was a subject of debate, because he felt influential enough to merit rebuttal.

What about Pater? I don’t know if he appeared on syllabi, but he probably did. All those used copies had to have come from somewhere. Yet I can’t think of a single thing written in the last thirty years that felt the need either to denounce or to celebrate Pater’s account of the Renaissance: one reason I am writing this post is to see if anyone out there knows of one, and I will make a more explicit cry for your help at the end. Perhaps Pater seemed so unthreatening or so bland that he just slipped out of Renaissance scholarly time. The one exception I can think of is studies of sexuality. In examinations of, say, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Pater’s book, especially the Conclusion, might be invoked (though not as often as Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W.H.) as code for male-male sexual desire, and hence as part of a broad Victorian shift in sexuality. Yet this invocation is itself a sign: Pater is about the nineteenth century, about its conceptions of art and sex, and readings of his book would get filed under the heading “Pater criticism,” firmly entrenched in the nineteenth-century section of the MLA convention program.

But I have a question: does Pater tell you anything about the Renaissance? Does his account of aestheticism help understand the period? There are a lot of subtle stakes in those questions, of course. I could be wrong about this, but my guess is that one reason Pater is never invoked to describe the Renaissance anymore is that the entire question of art, or at least aestheticism, for a lot of people seems to be inextricably tied to the nineteenth century, and in particular to some vague sense of “universal human values.” And such ideas obscure the Renaissance rather than reveal it. But anyone who has ever used the OED to show how a meaning of a word is anachronistic must realize that relations between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century are…complicated. The OED too is itself a nineteenth-century invention, focused on nineteenth-century questions, and dripping with its own elitism, sexism, colonialism, nationalism…and yet it is indispensible for study of the Renaissance.  

And this paradox leads me back to Pater. It seems to me Pater must have thought he was trying to describe something about the Renaissance, and he thought that the period’s most important characteristic was its art. Of course he was also describing his own time. But was that all he was doing? I’m not sure. So this fall I am teaching a graduate course about Renaissance conceptions of art. The course’s main tour guide will be Rancière’s Aisthesis, itself a dexterous rejigging of Kant, Hegel, and Auerbach that presents some periodizing challenges (Rancière’s thesis: there is no art before Winckelmann). But I wonder if Pater and a few of his contemporaries might not have something to say about current readings of the Renaissance. There has, for example, been a small debate over the last few years in the study of Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare imagine his plays as literature (to be read later) or as performances driven by a combination of economic necessity, political delicacies, and the fickle taste of theater-goers? Could reading Pater help reconfigure that debate? Is “aesthetic” a term that might help sort out the stakes of the argument?

In this spirit, Rancière has a particularly brilliant account of John Ruskin’s love of Gothic (the precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement, and, most surprising to me anyway, twentieth-century German industrial design). But Rancière does not mention that in The Stones of Venice Ruskin’s Gothic is set up against Ruskin’s Renaissance, the period when, as far as Ruskin was concerned, everything that is bad in the world began to happen. Ruskin is a little crazy, but he certainly isn’t stupid. What about his account of the Renaissance-as-evil? Does it tell us something about the sixteenth century, or is it only an expression of Victorian sentiment to be bracketed off? 

Here is another example. Emerson too was a little odd, but he was also a very canny reader. This is what he wrote about Renaissance poetry in his journal in 1828:

Is it not true, what we so reluctantly hear, that men are but the mouthpiece of a great progressive Destiny, in as much as regards literature? I had rather asked, is not the age gone by of the great splendor of English poetry, and will it not be impossible for any age soon to vie with the pervading ethereal poesy of Herbert, Shakespeare, Marvell, Herrick, Milton, Ben Jonson; at least to represent anything like their peculiar form of ravishing verse? It is the head of human poetry. Homer and Virgil and Dante and Tasso and Byron and Wordsworth have powerful genius whose amplest claims I cheerfully acknowledge. But ‘t’ is a pale ineffectual fire when theirs shine. They would lie on my shelf in undisturbed honour for years, if these Saxon lays stole on my ear. I have for them an affectionate admiration I have for nothing else. They set me on the speculations. They move my wonder at myself. 

What does it mean for Renaissance poetry to set you on “speculations?” How do you your wonder at yourself? Does it have something to do with “a great progressive Destiny?” Those are nineteenth century questions, no doubt, but Emerson himself locates one origin for them in Renaissance poetry. Should his love of this “pervading ethereal poesy” be taken seriously as an account of Herbert, Shakespeare, Marvell, Herrick, Milton, Ben Jonson? At the very least, why is Renaissance art so important for him?

So here is my question: if anyone knows of anything—a book, an article, a lecture, a syllabus, whatever—that invokes Pater (or Ruskin or Emerson!) as a guide to the Renaissance, or really anything that insists Pater (or Ruskin or Emerson) be dismissed or bracketed, I would like to see it so I can show it to the graduate students.  They can then make their own decisions. Post a response here or email me, and I promise to let everyone know if this course succeeds or turns out to be a well-intentioned disaster.

Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.