decorated initial  'P'ater's "Wordsworth" (1874) marks a pause in his development. In his defense of "impassioned contemplation" as a higher ethic in which means and ends are identified and in which life is treated "in the spirit of art" (Appr., pp. 60-62), he epitomized his view of the ideal aesthetic observer which he had been developing since the essay on Winckelmann. In its concern for the "sum of perfection," its rejection of the "machinery" of life, its opposition of being to doing, its near identification of morals and manners, and its advocacy of a detached witnessing of the spectacle of human life, "Wordsworth" draws heavily on Arnold's "Sweetness and Light" and other essays of the sixties. More important, the ideal of isolated immobile observation is dearly a simplification and extension of Arnold's ideal of disinterested criticism, now shorn of its social orientation though freely drawing on the religious ambiance of Arnold's ideal of culture and "Perfection." (See Chapter 14, note 13, above.)

Pater's chief work of the years 1875 through 1880 is the series of studies in Greek myth and art which became the bulk of the posthumously collected Greek Studies. The unifying theme is the elaboration and modification of the dialectically conceived classical-medieval antagonism, first developed in "Coleridge" and "Winckelmann." Once again, Arnold's "Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment" becomes both a source for Pater's ideal of life and the foil for his special reading of Greek culture. The new note of special interest is that Pater repeatedly implies that the Greek religious spirit is still somehow available today to at least the few, "those more elevated spirits" who, in the decline of the older religion, will "pick and choose and modify ... [245/246] whatever in it may seem adapted to minister to their culture" (p. 137). This series of essays — produced, surprisingly, in the years immediately before and during the first stages of the writing of Marius — thus becomes one of the most ambitious attempts in modern English letters to assert the viability in the present of a "pagan" religious ideal. Pater's technique again is to suggest that Greek religion is richer and more complex than Arnold and others suggest, that the later stages of Greek myth and the highest Greek sculpture with which it is allied incorporate the best features of the medieval religious spirit.

The contemporary relevance is immediately clear in the first of the two lectures titled "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," delivered in 1875 and published in January and February 1876, which opens with the claim that by following the history of the myth of Demeter "we come across various phases of Greek culture, which are not without their likenesses in the modern mind." Moreover, Pater's characteristic elitist point of view is equally dear in the notion that the myth connects itself "with the picturesque superstitions of the many, and with the finer intuitions of the few" (p. 81). He details three successive phases of the Demeter story: first, the "half-conscious, instinctive, or mystical, phase" of unwritten legend, expressing "certain primitive impressions of the phenomena of the natural world"; second, the conscious, or poetic and literary, phase, in which poets use "the vague instinctive product of the popular imagination ... with a purely literary interest"; and third, the ethical phase, in which the persons and events of the narrative "are realised as abstract symbols, because intensely characteristic examples, of moral or spiritual conditions" (p. 91). James Kissane has recently showed that Pater's approach to myth is typically Victorian in that his interest is humanistic and aesthetic and, inevitably, ethical, rather than anthropological. ("Victorian Mythology," p. 5-28.) Pater, like Ruskin and Symonds, looked for no truths in myths in the old manner, and, while aware of the new anthropology of the seventies, he does not look for patterns of primitive worship in myths. Instead, he is in the mainstream of Victorian mythology in his emphasis, as Kissane puts it, on "the primarily subjective origin of myths, their adaptability to [246/247] the conceptions of succeeding generations, and their resulting enrichment by this process of imaginative transformation and elaboration." (Ibid, p. 19.)3 This flexible and organic concept, in which myth had no positive content but could never be outmoded, (Ibid, p. 21.) proved admirably adaptable to Pater's polemical purposes.

Part of his strategy is to emphasize, even more than he had done in "Winckelmann," the "Biblical" and "medieval" quality of Greek myth, its "sacredness" and "mystery." For Greek religion to be, implicitly, an adequate rival to Christianity, Pater must demonstrate that it includes the now admittedly touching and picturesque and emotionally satisfying characteristics of medieval religion and yet surpasses medieval religion by its having given rise to high Greek art and thought. The Biblical and medieval parallels become labored and obtrusive. The modern reader finds the "spiritual element of Greek religion" in stories of the disguises and transformations of the gods: the apparition of Athene to Telemachus, for example, in Odyssey I, "has a quite biblical mysticity and solemnity" (p. 119). The "mysteries," which are the expression of the worship of Demeter, "may or may not have been the vehicle of a secret doctrine, but were certainly an artistic spectacle, giving, like the mysteries of the middle age, a dramatic representation of the sacred story, — perhaps a detailed performance, perhaps only such a conventional representation, as was afforded for instance by the medieval ceremonies of Palm Sunday" (p. 122). Moreover, Pater shows that "a parallel has sometimes been drawn between [the Eleusinian] festival and All Soul's Day," and says, concerning the hymn of Callimachus: "He developes, in something of the prosaic spirit of a medieval writer of 'mysteries,' one of the burlesque incidents of the story" (pp. 123, 125).

The cutting edge of the argument is not felt until later, however, when discussing Ovid's treatment of the Demeter myth and his addition of "a pathos caught from homely things, not without a delightful, just perceptible, shade of humour even, so rare in such work. All the [247/248] mysticism has disappeared; but, instead, we trace something of that I worship of sorrow,' which has been sometimes supposed to have had no place in classical religious sentiment" (p. 134). Pater has, of course, gone back to the argument of "Winckelmann," where Newman's view of classical polytheism as "gay and graceful" had been sharply challenged by Pater's insistence on the immemorial and somber ritual prehistory of the high Hellenic culture. Similarly, Pater dearly recalls Arnold's polarized opposition of the medieval "religion of sorrow" and the allegedly superficial "religion of pleasure" of the Greeks, in "Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment." For it is essential to Pater's argument that the reader appreciate the deep ethical significance of the image of Demeter as "the divine sorrowing mother," or the image of her "enthroned, chastened by sorrow" (p. 136):

The myth has now entered on the third phase of its life, in which it becomes the property of those more elevated spirits, who, in the decline of the Greek religion, pick and choose and modify, with perfect freedom of mind, whatever in it may seem adapted to minister to their culture. In this way, the myths of the Greek religion become parts of an ideal, visible embodiments of the susceptibilities and intuitions of the nobler kind of souls. [pp. 136-37]

Here, again, Pater seems to be recalling that extraordinary passage in "Coleridge" on certain religious states of mind which remain, even "for those who have passed out of Christianity," "the delicacies of the higher morality of the few." For "the modern aspirant to perfect culture" finds in the best theological writings "the expression of the inmost delicacies of his own life, the same yet different!" One can only assume that in 1876 Pater is implicitly arguing that Greek myth more adequately conveys those religious graces than does Augustine, or Francis de Sales, or Newman, whom he had praised a decade earlier.

The ambitiousness of this, Pater's most developed defense of the power of a "pagan" religious ideal, and the seriousness with which he proposes it, are dear in a final paragraph, in which he explains his fundamental view of myth:

There is an attractiveness in these goddesses of the earth, akin to the influence of cool places, quiet houses, subdued light, tranquillising voices. [248/249] What is there in this phase of ancient religion for us, at the present day? The myth of Demeter and Persephone, then, illustrates the power of the Greek religion as a religion of pure ideas — of conceptions, which having no link on historical fact, yet, because they arose naturally out of the spirit of man, and embodied, in adequate symbols, his deepest thoughts concerning the conditions of his physical and spiritual life, maintained their hold through many changes, and are still not without a solemnising power even for the modern mind, which has once admitted them as recognised and habitual inhabitants; and, abiding thus for the elevation and purifying of our sentiments, long after the earlier and simpler races of their worshippers have passed away, they may be a pledge to us of the Place in our culture, at once legitimate and possible, of the associations, the conceptions, the imagery, of Greek religious poetry in general, of the poetry of all religions. [p. 151]

What does not appear in the version printed in Greek Studies is the virtually unheard of personal tone of the opening of this paragraph in the original periodical version of the lecture: "There is an attractiveness in these goddesses of the earth akin to the influence of cool places, quiet houses, subdued light, tranquillising voices; for me, at least, I know it has been good to be with Demeter and Persephone, all the time I have been reading and thinking of them; and all through this essay, I have been asking myself, what is there in this phase of ancient religion for us at the present day?" ("The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," p. 276.)

In "A Study of Dionysus" (December 1876) the polemical intention, if somewhat muted, is unmistakable: "the religion of Dionysus was, for those who lived in it, a complete religion, a complete sacred representation and interpretation of the whole of life" (p. 18). In his stress upon the "energetic, imaginative intelligence" of the Greeks (p. 11), Pater makes Greek religion the bearer of the religious holism that is at the basis of his humanism. The key is Pater's constantly renewed search for an adequate formula for the unification and harmonizing of the disparate forces of man's nature.

Dionysus, as we see him in art and poetry, is the projected expression of the ways and dreams of this primitive people, brooded over and harmonised [249/250] by the energetic Greek imagination; the religious imagination of the Greeks being, precisely, a unifying or identifying power, bringing together things naturally asunder, making, as it were, for the human body a soul of waters, for the human soul a body of flowers; welding into something like the identity of a human personality the whole range of man's experiences of a given object, or series of objects — all their outward qualities, and the visible facts regarding them — all the hidden ordinances by which those facts and qualities hold of unseen forces, and have their roots in purely visionary places. [p. 29]

The dialectical nature of this historic process is equally characteristic. Pater discerns a "struggle" through the history of Greek art and drama "between the palpable and limited human form, and the floating essence it is to contain" (p. 34). The world of the "old beliefs," a world of "Titanic vastness," is contrasted to "that limiting, controlling tendency, identified with the Dorian influence in the history of the Greek mind, the spirit of a severe and wholly self-conscious intelligence" (pp. 34-35.). "These two tendencies ... met and struggled and were harmonized in the supreme imagination, of Pheidias, in sculpture — of Aeschylus, in the drama" (p. 35). So important to Pater has the presence of "sorrow" in a "complete" religion become, that he not only stresses that "It is out of the sorrows of Dionysus . . . that all Greek tragedy grows" (p. 40), but also makes sorrow an essential basis for the relevance of Greek religion to Pater's small band of elite souls. "If Dionysus, like Persephone, has his gloomy side, like her he has also a peculiar message for a certain number of refined minds, seeking, in the later days of Greek religion, such modifications of the old legend as may minister to ethical culture, to the perfecting of the moral nature" (p. 49). When Pater declares this will be "the finer, mystical sentiment of the few, detached from the coarser and more material religion of the many" (p. 50), he is again dealing with phases of Greek culture "which are not without their likenesses in the modern mind."

Sometime in 1878, according to C. L. Shadwell (p. 2), Pater revised his four Greek studies with a view to publication, an intention he did not carry out. At that time he added to "Demeter and Persephone" an important Passage that reveals it is still precisely Arnold's version [250/251] of the "familiar view of Greek religion" which these studies are primarily directed against:

The "worship of sorrow," as Goethe called it is sometimes supposed to have had almost no place in the religion of the Greeks. Their religion has been represented as a religion of mere cheerfulness, the worship by an untroubled, unreflecting humanity, conscious of no deeper needs, of the embodiments of its own joyous activity. It helped to hide out of their sight those traces of decay and weariness, of which the Greeks were continually shy, to keep them from peeping too curiously into certain shadowy places, appropriate enough to the gloomy imagination of the middle age; and it hardly proposed to itself to give consolation to people who, in truth, were never "sick or sorry." But this familiar view of Greek religion is based on a consideration of a part only of what is known concerning it, and really involves a misconception, akin to that which underestimates the influence of the romantic spirit generally, in Greek poetry and art; as if Greek art had dealt exclusively with human nature in its sanity, suppressing all motives of strangeness, all the beauty which is born of difficulty, permitting nothing but an Olympian, though perhaps somewhat wearisome calm. In effect, such a conception of Greek art and poetry leaves in the central expressions of Greek culture none but negative qualities; and the legend of Demeter and Persephone, perhaps the most popular of all Greek legends, is sufficient to show that the "worship of sorrow" was not without its function in Greek religion; their legend is a legend made by and for sorrowful, wistful, anxious people; while the most important artistic monuments of that legend sufficiently prove that the Romantic spirit was really at work in the minds of Greek artists, extracting by a kind of subtle alchemy, a beauty, not without the elements of tranquility, of dignity and order, out of a matter, at first sight painful and strange. [pp. 110-11]

The clearly implied antagonist is Arnold, who had said, "The ideal, cheerful, sensuous, pagan life is not sick or sorry," and who had seen the superiority of the religion of sorrow to lie in its power to "console" and "to be a comfort for the mass of mankind, under the pressure of calamity, to live by" (CPW, 111, 222, 228, 229). The upshot is that Pater's complete Greek religion and art are the dialectical harmony of the two polar tendencies of Greek life: they embody a full measure of the strangeness and beauty of the "romantic spirit" that remains even in the highest products of Greek art. This statement amplifies and [251/252] slightly complicates the remarks of the Winckelmann essay: "Out of Greek religion under happy conditions arises Greek art,. . . to minister to human culture. The claim of Greek religion is that it was able to transform itself into an artistic ideal" (Ren-1, p. 176).

The two installments of "The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture" (February and March 1880) are of some importance in their implication that the "organic," "combining," "many-sided" early Greek religious art provides a pattern of life still available to the modern mind. Pater begins by protesting that because much is understood about the inner life of the Greeks from the poets and philosophers but very little is known about the craftsman's world, "students of antiquity have for the most part interpreted the creations of Greek sculpture, rather as elements in a sequence of abstract ideas, as embodiments, in a sort of petrified language, of pure thoughts, and as interesting mainly in connexion with the development of Greek intellect" (p. 189). He readily acknowledges that the best works of Greek sculpture are "intellectualised" through "the profoundly reasonable spirit of design" in Greek art: "Yet, though the most abstract and intellectualised of sensuous objects, they are still sensuous and material, addressing themselves, in the first instance, not to the purely reflective faculty, but to the eye; and a complete criticism must have approached them from both sides" (p. 190). This view (which anticipates Jacques Maritain's formula of art as "intelligentiated sense")6 leads Pater to his most suggestive use of the organic analogy, which he had once criticized in Coleridge (Appr., pp. 80-81). Greek art absorbs foreign sources in the way that physical organisms provide a "new cohering force" to already existing particles of matter (p. 215). This is "a new, informing, combining spirit playing over all those mere elements" (p. 216). This notion of the combining and cohesive power of early Greek art prepares for the implication that the religious matrix of Greek art provides the adequate synthesis of the sensuous and the [252/253] spiritual which Pater demands as an ideal of a many-sided culture. For instance, the "solemn images of the temple of Theseus are a perfect embodiment of the human ideal, of the reasonable soul and of a spiritual world; they are also the best made things of their kind, as an urn or a cap is well made." Even more explicitly: "A perfect, many-sided development of tectonic crafts, a state such as the art of some nations has ended in, becomes for the Greeks a mere opportunity, a mere starting-ground for their imaginative presentment of man, moral and inspired." The "informing, reasonable soul" enters a world of material splendor, and these two elements are continuously present in "Greek art after the heroic age" (p. 223). Later, Pater maintains that Greek art was characterized by "an energetic striving after truth in organic form" (p. 239). Moreover, in this age of the early Greek sculptors, which was still "simply religious... this widespread artistic activity was a religious enthusiasm also" (p. 241). The harmonizing process is evident, finally, in the idea that this impersonal early Greek art proved to be compatible with "types of art, fully impressed with the subjectivity, the intimacies of the artist" (p. 242).

The culmination of this sustained series of arguments occurs in "The Marbles of Aegina" (April 1880), one of the most notable interpretative efforts of Pater's career. Having demonstrated in detail in his earlier studies the permanent presence of a darker and more profound background in his "complete" Greek religion, he turns his full attention to that misunderstood high Hellenic religion and art that he has now provided with a rich ancestry. The dialectical structure of his treatment is important, moreover, because it initiates the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy that was to provide the pattern of much of Pater's fiction. (See R. T. Lenaghan, pp. 69-91.) His terms are not quite those of Nietzsche, however: the Ionian tendency is referred to as "Asiatic," and is opposed to the Dorian, or European, or "Apolline," or Hellenic. The Ionian influence, stressing the sensuous, was present from the beginning in Greek art. So was the emergent Dorian or European tendency, "a tendency to the realisation of a certain inward, abstract, intellectual ideal," directed toward "the impression of an order, a sanity, a proportion in all work, [253/254] which shall reflect the inward order of human reason, now fully conscious of itself" (p. 251). Greek sculpture not only undergoes the influence of these two opposing ideals but "by harmonising in itself their antagonism" reflects the larger pattern of Greek history in general (p. 252).

The "centrifugal" Ionian or Asiatic tendency asserts itself in separatism and individualism in politics; despite its grace and freedom, its evident weakness prevented Greek unity. Against this force, Plato set the Dorian influence of "a severe simplification everywhere," "the ideal of a sort of Parmenidean abstractness and calm." This is, however, only the exaggeration of "that salutary European tendency, which, finding the human mind the most absolutely real and precious thing in the world, enforces everywhere the impress of its sanity, its profound reflexions upon things as they really are, its sense of proportion." This "centripetal" tendency links individuals and states and periods, "under the reign of a composed, rational, self-conscious order, in the universal light of the understanding" (p. 253). This temper is best exemplified in "the religion of Apollo." Demeter and Dionysus remain throughout, as the "spiritual form" of life in grass and the green sap, almost entirely physical. But the physical element in Apollo is largely suppressed, and as "the 'spiritual form' of inward and intellectual light, in all its manifestations," he stands for those peculiarly European ideas, "of a reasonable, personal freedom ...; of a reasonable polity; of the sanity of soul and body, through the cure of disease and of the sense of sin; of the perfecting of both by reasonable exercise or ascésis; his religion is a sort of embodied equity, its aim the realisation of fair reason and just consideration of the truth of things everywhere" (p. 254). The same is true of Greek art, where the religion of Apollo sanctioned "the true valuation of humanity, in its sanity, its proportion, its knowledge of itself." This art expressed not only the highest and most ordered human intelligence but the great human passions as well (p. 255). Thus the Apolline, the "true Hellenic influence," created Greek humanism with its permanent grasp of "the inward harmony and system of human personality" (p. 256). This Apolline humanism — with its emphasis on an inward ideal, order, proportion, reason, harmony, reflecting on things as they really [254/255] are, the universal light of the understanding, and consideration of the truth of things — is very close in tone and phrasing to the Arnoldian Hellenic ideal of criticism and culture in the sixties. Pointedly lacking is Arnold's persistent concern for morality, that wrestling with Christianity in the form of "Hebraism" which, by the time of Culture and Anarchy, had provided a chief dialectical pattern of his thought.


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Last modified 29 August 2007