Walter Pater's Heroic Nostos: The Underworld Journey in the Renaissance

By Malley, Shawn | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview
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Walter Pater's Heroic Nostos: The Underworld Journey in the Renaissance

Malley, Shawn, Nineteenth-Century Prose

   See, they return; ah, see the tentative
      Movements and the slow feet,
      The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

   See, they return, one, and by one,
   With fear, as half-awakened;
   As if the snow should hesitate
   And murmur in the wind,
           and half turn back;
   These were the "Wing'd-with-Awe,"

   Gods of the winged shod
   With them the silver hounds,
            sniffing the trace of air

   Haie! Haie!
             These were the swift to harry;
   These the keen-scented;
   These were the souls of blood.

   Slow on the leash,
   pallid the leash-men!

   --"The Return," Ezra Pound

As Walter Pater relates in the "Preface," his inspiration for composing The Renaissance is in part his fascination with the compelling "outbreak of the human spirit" (xxii), the "re-nascence" of Hellenic vitality that distinguishes the work and lives of his subjects. While his emphasis naturally lies in the "solemn fifteenth century" (xxiii), his study of the poetry of thirteenth-century Provence troubadours and the writings of eighteenth-century German art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, demonstrates that this Renaissance ideal ranges far beyond the frontiers of quattrocento Italy. Pater's Renaissance, this "complex many-sided movement" (xxii), is therefore both a historical phenomenon--the "revival of classical antiquity in the fifteenth century" (xxii)--and an aesthetic ideal--"a spirit of general elevation and enlightenment in which all alike communicate" (xxiv). He gives form to his abstract Renaissance continuum by gathering together (Raphael-like) a veritable "School of Athens," a cult of personalities who embody the "unity of this spirit" (xxiv), and who, in turn, are set in relief against the background of cultural forces that give them shape, the "favourable conditions, in which the thoughts of men draw nearer together than is their wont, and the many interests of the intellectual world combine in one complete type of general culture" (xxiv). Hence, "cult" and "culture" are distinctly interrelated in the general refinement--the "cultivating"--of both individuals and society as a whole, for this Renaissance ideal, Pater argues, radiates outward from this enlightened centre, such that "those whom the action of the world has elevated and made keen, do not live in isolation, but breathe a common air, and catch light and heat from each other's thoughts" (xxiv).

Though the Hellenic spirit of the Renaissance remains a preeminent gauge of individual and social excellence and morale, Pater asserts that as a source of inspiration it has rather more subliminal attributes. Buried but latent within the psyche and cultural consciousness, it is an underground spring that can be tapped to stimulate minds and to rejuvenate a parched and withered culture. This is a central metaphor of Pater's Renaissance: The resurrection of the Greek spirit from its shadowy netherworld. I liken this to Odysseus's evocation of the spirits of Hades (Ezra Pound's "souls of blood") from whom he gathers information necessary to carry on his homeward journey, his nostos (Odyssey, XI). Odysseus's sacrifice of the ram figuratively gives sensuous experience to the spirit of the past, for the prophet Teiresias's drinking the sacrificial blood represents the soul's desire to speak, to impart the wisdom of the buried past to the living. Likewise, Pater's Renaissance men have infused the vanquished dead with their own life-blood, have ventured forth into the realms of the dead, as it were, and returned to give material form to this Greek spirit through their art. Carolyn Williams, in Pater's Aesthetic Historicism, explains how Pater lends such mythological emphasis to his historical criticism:

   Pater historicizes past and present systems of thought and belief
   as "mythologies," treating them no longer as forms of knowledge but
   as aesthetic forms. 

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