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Renaissance Fancies and Studies Part 8

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I have given the influence of St. Francis as an example of what added strength our modern soul may get by a sojourn in the Past. What our soul may get of similar but more sober joy may be shown by another example from that wonderful Umbrian district, one of the earth's oases of spiritual rest and refreshment. Among all the sane and satisfying art of the Renaissance, Umbria, on the whole, has surely grown for us the highest and the holiest. I am not speaking of the fact that Perugino painted saints in devout contemplation, nor of their type of face and expression. Whatever his people might be doing, or if they were not people at all, but variations only of his little slender trees or distant domes and steeples, his art would have been equally high and holy. And this because of its effect, direct, unreasoning, on our spirit, making us, while we look, live with a deeper, more devoutly joyful life. What the man Perugino was, in his finite dealings with his clients and neighbours, has mattered nothing in the painting of these pictures and frescoes; still less what samples of conduct he was shown by the ephemeral magnificos who bought his works.

The tenderness and strength of the mediaeval Italian temper (as shown in Dante when he is human, but above all in Francis of a.s.sisi) has been working through generations toward these paintings, interpreting in its spirit, selecting and emphasising for its meaning the country in all the world most naturally fit to express it; and thus in these paintings we have the incomparable visible manifestation of a perfect mood: that wide pale shimmering valley, circular like a temple, and domed by the circular vault of sky, really turned, for our feelings, into a spiritual church, wherein not merely saints meditate and Madonnas kneel, but ourselves in deepest devout happiness.

IV

Thoughts such as these bring with them the memory of the master we have recently lost, of the master who, in the midst of aesthetical anarchy, taught us once more, and with subtle and solemn efficacy, the old Platonic and Goethian doctrine of the affinity between artistic beauty and human worthiness.

The spiritual evolution of the late Walter Pater--with whose name I am proud to conclude my second, as with it I began my first book on Renaissance matters--had been significantly similar to that of his own Marius. He began as an aesthete, and ended as a moralist. By faithful and self-restraining cultivation of the sense of harmony, he appears to have risen from the perception of visible beauty to the knowledge of beauty of the spiritual kind, both being expressions of the same perfect fittingness to an ever more intense and various and congruous life.

Such an evolution, which is, in the highest meaning, an aesthetic phenomenon in itself, required a wonderful spiritual endowment and an unflinchingly discriminating habit. For Walter Pater started by being above all a writer, and an aesthete in the very narrow sense of twenty years ago: an aesthete of the school of Mr. Swinburne's _Essays_, and of the type still common on the Continent. The cultivation of sensations, vivid sensations, no matter whether healthful or unhealthful, which that school commended, was, after all, but a theoretic and probably unconscious disguise for the cultivation of something to be said in a new way, which is the danger of all persons who regard literature as an end, and not as a means, feeling in order that they may write, instead of writing because they feel. And of this Mr. Pater's first and famous book was a very clear proof. Exquisite in technical quality, in rare perception and subtle suggestion, it left, like all similar books, a sense of caducity and barrenness, due to the intuition of all sane persons that only an active synthesis of preferences and repulsions, what we imply in the terms _character_ and _moral_, can have real importance in life, affinity with life--be, in short, vital; and that the yielding to, nay, the seeking for, variety and poignancy of experience, must result in a crumbling away of all such possible unity and efficiency of living.

But even as we find in the earliest works of a painter, despite the predominance of his master's style, indications already of what will expand into a totally different personality, so even in this earliest book, examined retrospectively, it is easy to find the characteristic germs of what will develop, extrude all foreign admixture, knit together congruous qualities, and give us presently the highly personal synthesis of _Marius_ and the _Studies on Plato_.

These characteristic germs may be defined, I think, as the recurrence of impressions and images connected with physical sanity and daintiness; of aspiration after orderliness, congruity, and one might almost say _hierarchy_; moreover, a certain exclusiveness, which is not the contempt of the craftsman for the _bourgeois_, but the aversion of the priest for the profane uninitiated. Some day, perhaps, a more scientific study of aesthetic phenomena will explain the connection which we all feel between physical sanity and purity and the moral qualities called by the same names; but even nowadays it might have been prophesied that the man who harped upon the clearness and livingness of water, upon the delicate bracingness of air, who experienced so pa.s.sionate a preference for the whole gamut, the whole palette, of spring, of temperate climates and of youth and childhood; a person who felt existence in the terms of its delicate vigour and its restorative austerity, was bound to become, like Plato, a teacher of self-discipline and self-harmony. Indeed, who can tell whether the teachings of Mr. Pater's maturity--the insistance on scrupulously disciplined activity, on cleanness and clearness of thought and feeling, on the harmony attainable only through moderation, the intensity attainable only through effort--who can tell whether this abstract part of his doctrine would affect, as it does, all kindred spirits if the mood had not been prepared by some of those descriptions of visible scenes--the spring morning above the Catacombs, the Valley of Sparta, the paternal house of Marius, and that temple of aesculapius with its shining rhythmical waters--which attune our whole being, like the music of the Lady in _Comus_, to modes of _sober certainty of waking bliss_?

This inborn affinity for refined wholesomeness made Mr. Pater the natural exponent of the highest aesthetic doctrine--the search for harmony throughout all orders of existence. It gave the nucleus of what was his soul's synthesis, his system (as Emerson puts it) of rejection and acceptance. Supreme craftsman as he was, it protected him from the craftsman's delusion--rife under the inappropriate name of "art for art's sake" in these uninstinctive, over-dextrous days--that subtle treatment can dignify all subjects equally, and that expression, irrespective of the foregoing _impression_ in the artist and the subsequent _impression_ in the audience, is the aim of art. Standing as he did, as all the greatest artists and thinkers (and he was both) do, in a definite, inevitable relation to the universe--the equation between himself and it--he was utterly unable to turn his powers of perception and expression to idle and irresponsible exercises; and his conception of art, being the outcome of his whole personal mode of existence, was inevitably one of art, not for art's sake, but of art for the sake of life--art as one of the harmonious functions of existence.

Harmonious, and in a sense harmonising. For, as I have said, he rose from the conception of physical health and congruity to the conception of health and congruity in matters of the spirit; the very thirst for healthiness, which means congruity, and congruity which implies health, forming the vital and ever-expanding connection between the two orders of phenomena. Two orders, did I say? Surely to the intuition of this artist and thinker, the fundamental unity--the unity between man's relations with external nature, with his own thoughts and with others'

feelings--stood revealed as the secret of the highest aesthetics.

This which we guess at as the completion of Walter Pater's message, alas! must remain for ever a matter of surmise. The completion, the rounding of his doctrine, can take place only in the grateful appreciation of his readers. We have been left with unfinished systems, fragmentary, sometimes enigmatic, utterances. Let us meditate their wisdom and vibrate with their beauty; and, in the words of the prayer of Socrates to the Nymphs and to Pan, ask for beauty in the inward soul, and congruity between the inner and the outer man; and reflect in such manner the gifts of great art and of great thought in our soul's depths.

For art and thought arise from life; and to life, as principle of harmony, they must return.

Many years ago, in the fulness of youth and ambition, I was allowed, by him whom I already reverenced as a master, to write the name of Walter Pater on the flyleaf of a book which embodied my beliefs and hopes as a writer. And now, seeing books from the point of view of the reader, I can find no fitter ending to this present volume than to express what all we readers have gained, and lost, alas! in this great master.

THE END

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