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Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance

Bénédicte Coste
p. 245-246
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Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. Matthew Beaumont, Oxford: OUP, Oxford World’s Classics, 2010. 193 p.+xxxviii. ISBN: 978-0-1995-3507-1.

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1As M. Beaumont points out, few books had the importance and effect of Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance, first published in 1873. Its first effect was on Oxford undergraduates, including Wilde, who took it as “the holy writ of beauty,” and quoted its most flaming paragraphs. Another effect was more long-lasting and explains why in 2010 Oxford University Press made the decision of reprinting the 1873 version, among the four versions Pater gave of his epoch-making book (respectively in 1877, 1888 and 1893, the last one being considered final and having been reissued at various times under distinguished or scholarly patronage). The decision is commendable as, except for university libraries and collectors, the edition was almost unavailable. However, the meaning and function of this replacement may be questioned as regards its intended readership.

2In his Introduction Beaumont situates Pater as an academic without private means, that is to say, as someone obliged to avoid controversy in order to retain his position in Victorian Oxford. Such a position entailed a certain turn of expression, and Beaumont emphasizes (overemphasizes?) the cryptic vein that runs throughout Pater’s history of the Renaissance, which, as he rightly points out, should be seen as “an ontological rather than a historical phenomenon” (xiii). This homoerotic vein was present as early as “Diaphaneitè” (1864), which has been read as a paean to masculine beauty (namely Shadwell’s). It recurred in “Winckelmann” which subsumes Pater’s “secret history of European culture” (xiv) as founded upon homoeroticism embodied by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Winckelmann, to each of whom Pater devoted a book’s chapter.

3The “anti-antiquarian” stance adopted by Pater led to a history of the Renaissance and two central texts, the “Preface” and the “Conclusion”. Beaumont reminds that the first one was primarily directed against Ruskin (proponent of a moral vision of art) and Arnold (too hasty in his willingness to correct his philistine peers). Pater formulated an impressionist and subjective aesthetic critique based on a novel theory of the subject. The “Conclusion” was more controversial and it may be said that Beaumont is perhaps too succinct in his presentation of the different arguments (stylistic, institutional, philosophical) against Pater’s theses. He reminds us however, that the best apology for the “Conclusion” came in 1885 with Marius the Epicurean. In the meantime Pater had been dealt a personal blow from Jowett over his correspondence to W. Money Hardinge, an Oxford undergraduate, which explains why his remaining letters are so devoid of any personal feeling or opinion.

4The figure of Mr Rose in W. H. Mallock’s New Republic (1877) should not blind contemporary readers to the fact that, as Beaumont rightly underlines, Pater entertained no nostalgia for the past but was a redeemer of the urban experience after Baudelaire. He was a writer who, in Benjaminian terms, was confronted with the “disintegration of the aura” affecting (art) objets, something our commodity-laden times may not equip us for fully grasping.

5In his “Note on the text,” Beaumont argues for reissuing the 1873 version (with modernized spelling) because “it is this work that had the most controversial impact on contemporary debates about aesthetics and ethics” (xxxi). Arguably the other editions had an impact too, and Pater’s corrections in 1877, 1888 and 1893 should not be ignored. However, readers are provided with explanatory notes and Beaumont rightfully mentions some important changes between Pater’s editions. His edition does not replace Hill’s 1980 scholarly edition (The Renaissance. The 1893 Text, ed. G. Hill [Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1980]) yet it may be more useful for the average reader and more easily available. Another reason for the notes is the need to explain Pater’s “allusions and intertextual resonances that are inaccessible to all but specialist readers today” (xxxi). We can appreciate the work that has been done to unravel some tangled skeins of Paterian allusions and quotations. The bibliography is up-to-date and, so as to make the book—insofar as possible—representative of the 1893 edition. It contains two appendices, including “The School of Giorgione” and the still misspelt “Diaphaneitè”. A chronology of Pater and a ten-page glossary of names will be of help to readers who have less time than Pater to devote to acquiring scholarship. If this edition cannot be said to replace the 1893 one, it has an undeniable function, it allows not only scholars but anyone willing to read it to discover the original text of Pater. And that is in itself very Paterian, if we keep in mind that not the fruit but experience itself is to be pursued.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 245-246.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2780

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Bénédicte Coste

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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