Publication of Walter Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance in 1873 was a hugely important event (whether as cause or effect or both) in a sexual and aesthetic revolution defining an era stretching from the 1880s right up until 1939 (the death of Yeats in the January of that year is as good a marker as any).
Some commentators, with ample justification, have argued that this era embodies a Second Renaissance, a creative reawakening as potent as its quattrocento antecedent – though it has become almost impossible for us to see it in those terms. For instance, in the shadow of the Great War, it became fashionable to muddy these waters by positing symbolism’s later Modernist phases as the creation of “the Machine Age”: as if machines somehow had not existed in the Victorian era.
We, uncomfortably numb in our era of niggardly Puritanism, could care less either way.
The Second Renaissance was driven, as the first had been, by a renewed interest in classical materials. In the quattrocento, these materials had arrived entire, as Byzantine libraries were shipped to Italy to save them from destruction by Islamic hordes. In the 1870s, they arrived in fragments of parchment and papyrus, disinterred thanks to a new craze called archaeology.
Soon, everyone was thinking about the art of writing in terms of vivid fragments. Painters, sculptors and composers soon had their own take on this too.
And of course, the most influential critics were those who helped their readers make the most of fleeting impressions. Cue Walter Pater:
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood or passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swifly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.