Walter Pater and Neville Cardus

By Daniels, Robin | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Walter Pater and Neville Cardus


Daniels, Robin, Contemporary Review


A few years ago I felt a faint wary wish to read Pater again. He will teach me many things. On my way to the bookcase, I learn - not just from a book - much more about cognitive dissonance, the attempt to hold two contrasting (or conflicting) emotions. To find a few rare plants, I know - from previous muddy experience - that I will have to squelch my way through a jungle of relative clauses. And some passages I will have to reread several times before I even begin to follow his line of intent. I may have to negotiate (or wade through) a sentence for as long as half a page before - like the triumphant feel of coming to the very end of a long German sentence - I discover the main verb.

The presence of paradox is not a guaranteed sign of stature, but greatness will be full of paradox: greatness is made (or composed) of many moods, many colours, many strands all entwined. This is true of an event, a work of art, or a person (especially a highly creative one). For two lovers, a precious moment of intimacy is short but will be a lifelong memory. The mourning at the Crucifixion was a necessary precursor to Easter's dawn. War produces as much bravery as loss of life. Ephemeral yet also eternal, timely and timeless. Beauty breathes paradox. And as for paradox in people, my wise Jungian analyst once said during a session: 'The bigger the person, the bigger the shadow'. There would never be a shadow if there were no light.

Pater's overt desire was for beauty - but mostly in art not in a relationship. He chose to observe brushwork rather than to feel on a consistent basis the hand's caress, the nestle of a cheek. He bridled - his impulse was to rear up - at every fence of real life: public school, career at Oxford, the very prospect of raising a family - and the risk of commitment. Pater chose - or was destined - to be a master of atmosphere; and 'the odour is cherry-blossom' (Samuel Butler, Notebooks). A few months after Pater died, Henry James said of him: 'He shines in the uneasy gloom - vaguely - with a phosphorescence, not a flame' (letter to Edmund Gosse, 13 December 1894).

The first letter of his surname stands for Pater, also for paradox and puzzle. The jigsaw of the writing and his inner and outer life - all interlocking - has many pieces. Even if we can never complete, let us at least start. By enquiry - most of all by empathy - we shall learn and gain much to our benefit.

The story of Pater's life and work - though unusual (perhaps because it was so unusual) - can speak to us in an inspiring way about the contingent topics of beauty, the arts, observation, criticism, and the art of full experience plus its surtax. His essays - as slow to read as they were to write - will always raise questions, and give some answers, about what is vital and lasting about arts commentary. Pater gives some clues and suggestions: he then invites us to find and follow our own route in a lifelong quest.

He is the quintessential critic in whose life and prose a Romantic's isolation can be seen in all its starkness. He prompts us to ask in what ways are the artist and critic special. Along the way, we may discover more about their rare (sometimes rarified) access to beauty's essence and her fragrance, both heady and prickly. But why are they often so lonely? And what are the dangers of isolation? A gift, taken to excess, can become a curse: 'Beauty is Nature's coin, must not be hoarded,/But must be current' (Milton, Comus). Each of us can ask: 'How well do I balance the wish for more, with the joy of appreciating all that is already being given?' Perhaps in art, as in most areas of our life, we should rate quality above quantity. If we are to keep our balance - even our sanity - we must not allow beauty to become a thing in itself. As Martin Rinkart's hymn Now Thank We All Our God (Nun danket alle Gott, 1636) reminds us, the search for truth (in any form) should involve, not just the mind and imagination but also - and especially - 'heart and hands and voices' in a spirit of gratitude. …

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