Selections from

The Renaissance: 
Studies in Art and Poetry

By Walter Pater

In his first signed publication, Walter Pater (1839-94) identified himself with aestheticism and decadence by defending the "religion of art"(1866).

Pater is now remembered primarily as Oscar Wilde's tutor at Oxford, and for one or two famous paragraphs.

One is from the conclusion of The Renaissance. These words originally appeared in Pater's October 1868 review of William Morris's poetry:

How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? 

To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. 

The implication that everything is permitted, that all that matters is the intensity of the experience, seemed to many Victorians to give blanket license to all sorts of debaucheries. Pater removed the controversial Conclusion from the book's second edition. It was returned to later printings with Pater's clarification that it should be interpreted in light of his book Marius the Epicurean (1885). 

Here is his oft-quoted description of Leonardo's Mona Lisa:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea. 

In 1936, the poet W. B. Yeats recast the first sentence of this description as a piece of free verse, which Yeats attributed to Pater.

 

The border on this page was created using a cover decoration from a Victorian publication of writings by William Morris. The graphic is a publisher's mark of Thomas Bird Mosher.

All text on this page copyright Theodore Gracyk 2002

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Last updated July 21, 2007