Kenneth Daley, The Rescue of Romanticism: Walter Pater and John Ruskin

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Kenneth Daley, The Rescue of Romanticism: Walter Pater and John Ruskin. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. ix + 169pp. Illus. $36.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8214-1382-1).

Reviewed by
Ernest Fontana
Xavier University

Given their obvious affinity of interests and sensibility and their importance in the Bloomian canon as strong critics, one would have expected more studies than currently exist of the interrelationship of Ruskin and Pater. One looks in vain for a study of them that is comparable to Delaura's study of Newman's influence on Arnold and Pater. Daley's study of Pater's possible revision of Ruskin's critique of an emerging concept of Romanticism attempts to fulfill this need. In his book, Daley focuses on what he feels are important topics shared by both writers: Wordsworth, the Italian Renaissance, and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The last chapter deals with the possible relation between Ruskin's Slade lectures, given at Oxford in the 1870's, and Pater's contemporary critical project.

Daley's study does successfully demonstrate the importance of Pater as a critic who argued for the value and significance of Romantic literary and artistic forms that enact "the transformation of the material world through the power of individual temperament" (17). Much of Pater's view of Romanticism as a counterpoise to Classicism derives from Goethe and Hegel, both of whom the German-phobic Ruskin eschewed, a point that Daley does not sufficiently emphasize. What is less persuasive is Daley's contention that Ruskin's critical writing constitutes the pre-text against which Pater's view of Romanticism is written.

This thesis presents several problems. Certainly the fact that Pater cites Ruskin only once in a footnote does not invalidate Daley's argument. But what does render Daley's argument problematic is his attempt to pin Ruskin down to a fixed position against which Pater can be seen to write. Ruskin's imagination and field of response are always in process, and though he is critical in Modern Painters (Vol. 3, 1856) of Romantic poetry's indulgence in what he designates "the Pathetic Fallacy" (as he terms the falsification of subjectivity which Daley argues Pater recuperates), Ruskin elsewhere, notably in the letters of Fors Clavigera, in The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, and in Praeterita, strongly enacts the expressionistic subjectivism he seems to have deplored in 1856, as John Rosenberg, Jay Fellows, and Paul Sawyer have demonstrated.

Ruskin is more than a mere art or literary critic; he is, even in his apparently critical prose, a great Romantic autobiographical writer, who consistently dramatizes his own sensibility, whether his subject be Turner, Tintoretto, glacial formations, or railroad journeys. If Pater read Ruskin, did he assimilate only his critical ideas--"his response to Ruskin's ideas" (42)--or did he read Ruskin as he read Pascal, Winkelmann, and Montaigne, for his distinctive and individualized temperament? Daley's study assumes that Pater's hypothetical reading of Ruskin was a very un-Paterian gleaning of ideas rather than a characteristically Paterian apprehension of a distinctive and partially antithetical temperament. The most compelling attempt to identify such a response by Pater to Ruskin remains Robert and Janice Keefes' speculative reading of Pater's imaginary portrait, "Apollo in Picardy" (Walter Pater and the Gods of Disorder [Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988]). They contend that Pater's portrait of Prior Jean, who is eventually driven into madness by his physical and largely sexual response to male beauty, is based on Pater's reading of Ruskin's incomplete and terminally visionary Praeterita. The Keefes recognize, as Daley does not, that a Paterian reading focuses on the nuances and mysteries of temperament not primarily on clear and distinct ideas, and, furthermore, that Pater's fiction is itself a form of criticism as his criticism is often a form of fiction.

Because Daley does not sufficiently engage Pater's fiction, largely ignoring Marius the Epicurean and Gaston de Latour, he simplifies Pater's position as one that "[purges] Ruskin's theory of its transcendental bias" (8). Pater, in his late fiction, in his "Introduction" to Shadwell's translation of Dante's Purgatorio (1892) and in his 1888 review of Mrs. Ward's Robert Elsmere, moves from the solipsistic aestheticism of the 1870s to a position that in fact expresses a "transcendental bias" in which he makes allowance for "a great possibility" that "opens wide the door of hope and love" (Essays from "The Guardian" [London: Macmillan, 1910] 68).

In the case of Ruskin, Daley also simplifies and in doing so suppresses crucial Ruskinian conflicts and tensions. For example, Daley's four-page account of Ruskin's view of the Renaissance ignores the fact that while Ruskin deplored Renaissance Palladian architecture, his response to Renaissance Venetian painting, beginning with his discovery of Tintoretto in 1845 and culminating in his religious "deconversion" before Veronese's painting of Solomon and Sheba in 1858, was passionate and enthusiastic and anticipated Pater's own "School of Giorgione." If one reads Ruskin's letters along with his published works, one sees that his response to the Renaissance was complex, contradictory, and laced with qualification and reconsideration. The same simplification is found in Daley's treatment of Ruskin's relationship to Rossetti. Daley cites Ruskin's late Oxford lecture "Realistic Schools of Painting: D. G. Rossetti and M. Holman Hunt," thereby simplifying the complex personal and professional relation between Ruskin and Rossetti and their considerable correspondence in the 1850s and 1860s.

Despite its limitations, Daley's study does suggest possible topics for future exploration. For example, Daley's frequent citations of W. J. Courthrope's searching criticisms of Pater in The Quarterly Review suggest that this provocative and intelligent reactionary's The Liberal Movement in English Literature warrants a critical edition and a study of its influence on American anti-Romantics like Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. One key difference between Ruskin and Pater lies in their responses to prose fiction. Whereas Ruskin could read Scott's novels with admiration, he found the more realistic and naturalistic fiction of the nineteenth century repellent (see his "Fiction Fair and Foul"). In contrast, Pater, because of his knowledge of French fiction, of Balzac and Stendhal, for example, recognized the novel as a serious form of contemporary cultural practice. A study of their varying responses to the novel would be useful and illuminating.

Since both Pater and Ruskin wrote on a wide range of topics, any attempt to juxtapose them must be more selective and focused than Daley's effort to pin down their use of a vague and floating concept such as "Romanticism." Architecture is of course Ruskin's primary interest, and it is an increasingly important element in Pater's late fiction, particularly evident in the unfinished Gaston de Latour, and "Apollo in Picardy," as well as in the essays "Amiens" and "Vézelay." It is as if Pater sought to emulate and consciously compete and contend with Ruskin on Ruskin's own ground. Thus near the end of his life Pater, in his increased emphasis on Christian architecture, appears to be moving towards Ruskin rather than swerving away from him as Daley argues. This process suggests, as Denis Donoghue observes (Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls [New York, 1995] 259-60), a richer site of possible intertextual revisioning than the somewhat formulaic topic Daley has chosen through which to interrogate the literary and imaginative relationship of these two writers.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: