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.