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Several years after Walter Pater's death, the anonymous "F," presumably a student of Pater's at Oxford, wrote a modest and suitably quiet memoir of his don, not a tribute properly, but more a brief sketch appropriately drawn just before the twentieth century foreclosed the Victorian era. The short reflection, called "In Pater's Rooms," includes only four paragraphs, each topically discrete and without connective links. The first describes the room itself, the second Pater's literary attitudes, the third his taste in architecture; the last is a single sentence conclusion remarking that although "that Oxford room" is tenanted by another, it will remain Pater's as long "as English literature lasts." The opening paragraph describing Pater's lodgings begins:
The room was small, but the Gothic window with its bow enlarged it, and seemed to bring something of the outside Oxford into the chamber so small itself. The Radcliffe just a few hand-breadths away from the pane, the towers and the crockets of All Souls' beyond, and to the right the fair dream of St. Mary's spire, filling up the prospect with great suggestions-through the window one took in all these, and they seemed for a moment to become almost the furniture of the student's chamber.
"F" then recalls his conversations with Pater, but in a tone so reminiscent of his master's that it almost betrays the motive for anonymity:
We talked of literary success, and literary prospects for a beginner of good talents, who is willing to work and wait. Dare it be said aloud? most of the modern minor poets might be using their endowments better in writing prose in this "prose age"; the same qualities that minister to a tardy mediocrity in poetry and the world of imagination, would develop grace and artistic finish in prose, the world of fact, which sorely needs to be more than fact, if it is not to be less than truth.
With what seems a careless innocence and ease, "F" has described and synthesized complexities of thought Pater himself was at pains to express and document throughout his literary career. Our concerns now are those transitions "F" omits or, rather, presumes: what relationship might something so seemingly peripheral as Pater's rooms have to his literary and aesthetic values, and what, in turn, do those values have to do with architectural style?
"F," obviously familiar with Pater's fiction, permits of the suggestion that to Pater rooms were the externalized configurations of internal consciousness, descriptive not only of the quality and structure of minds but filled with a metaphoric furniture of thought derived from particular sensuous experience of an outside world as it intruded through windows and doors, making its impress felt. Pater himself had written:
Into the mind sensitive to "form," a flood of random sounds, colours, incidents, is ever penetrating from the world without, to become, by sympathetic selection, a part of its very structure, and, in turn, the visible vesture and expression of that other world it sees so steadily within.
It is difficult for any reader of Pater not to conjure up the rooms which open up in his fictional writings, the sequestered attic of Sebastian van Storck, the Rococo-frescoed halls of Antony Watteau, even the spare cell of the Prior Saint-Jean. But more elusive is the relevance of a mind-room equation to Pater's larger literary aesthetic. It is no secret that the aging Pater, in his essay "Style," made explicit the requirements for good and great literature:
Given the conditions I have tried to explain as constituting good art;-then, if it be devoted further to the increase of men's happiness, to the redemption of the oppressed, or the enlargement of our sympathies with each other, or to such presentment of new or old truth about ourselves and our relation to the world as may ennoble and fortify us in our sojourn here, or immediately, as with Dante, to the glory of God, it will be also great art; if, over and above those qualities I summed up as mind and soul-that colour and mystic perfume, and that reasonable structure, it has something of the soul of humanity in it, and finds its logical, architectural place, in the great structure of human life.
The passage announces Pater's controversial break from stylistic considerations to substantive ones, those concerning the subject matter of literature and its scope; but what is important for us here are Pater's requirements and the terms in which he couches them. "F" suggests at least one reason for Pater's notorious volte-face in the "Style" essay: presumably, Pater saw what "F" calls a "tardy mediocrity" in modern imaginative literature. While "tardy" sounds like Pater, his own terms are rather different, in slight ways and yet momentously. After noting a quality of mind which, characteristically nineteenth century, is "little susceptible to restraint" and yields "lawless verse," Pater condemns what he terms removable decoration in all literature for having a "narcotic force... upon the negligent intelligence to which any diversion, literally, is welcome, any vagrant intruder, because one can go wandering away with it from the immediate subject." As remedy, Pater makes his request that literary style have two properties, "mind" and "soul."
By mind, the literary artist reaches us, through static and objective indications of design in his work, legible to all. By soul, he reaches us, somewhat capriciously perhaps, one and not another, through vagrant sympathy and a kind of immediate contact.
Mind, however, Pater also calls architectural conception, and its literary effect is curative:
The otiose, the facile, surplusage: why are these abhorrent to the true literary artist, except because in literary as in all other art, structure is all-important, felt, or painfully missed, everywhere?-that architectural conception of a work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does but, with undiminished vigour, unfold and justify the first-a condition of literary art, which... I shall call the necessity of mind in style.
Mind and soul fused Pater calls literary architecture. In literary architecture, the soul of style, while important, affords only secondary colorations, picturesque ones at that, the light and shade, a literary genius loci of atmosphere, playing on and around literature's overriding architectural structure:
For the literary architecture, if it is to be rich and expressive, involves not only foresight of the end in the beginning, but also development or growth of design, in the process of execution, with many irregularities, surprises, and afterthoughts; the contingent as well as the necessary being subsumed under the unity of the whole. As truly, to the lack of such architectural design... informing an entire, perhaps very intricate, composition, which shall be... true from first to last to that vision within, may be attributed those weaknesses of conscious or unconscious repetition of word, phrase, motive, or member of the whole matter, indicating... an original structure in thought not organically complete.
After describing the literary artist's task as one of "setting joint to joint," Pater concludes the passage with a double image, stating, "The house he [the writer] has built is rather a body he has informed."
For Pater, the activity of great writing is the simultaneous activity of filling-informing-and of forming, the giving of full form/idea to that which is felt, sensed, or known but which has no embodied structure prior to the art act. Literary architecture is, consequently, an alive "reasonable structure": it is a body with a soul. In this context, the building of literary architecture is a composing of pregnant forms: it is pro-creative and full of care. The architectural analogue helps the reticent Pater to speak of such artistic making without embarrassment of exposure. But more significant for Pater, the analogue enables him to suggest that all structures mean regardless of scale, place, or occasion: Pater moves, in his passage of literary architecture, from art structure to human structure to life structure, from "colour" and "structure" (architecture) to "soul" and "mind" (man) to "soul of humanity" and "structure of human life."
There are more suggestive links between the materials and the structures of literary art. The mind-structure analogue-either Pater's room as "F" describes it or Pater's literary architecture-offers a distinct notion of inside and outside: the room "seemed to bring something of the outside Oxford into the chamber so small itself." Some correspondence, even if only in the most literal sense, exists between inside and outside, between a room and its "vagrant intruders." This correspondence has fruitful consequences; the trans-parent window enlarges the inner room-world, informing it by and with the external prospect, which itself is already full of "great suggestions": "through the window one took in all these, and they seemed for a moment to become almost the furniture of the student's chamber." The activity "F" describes here is one of receiving, the artistic activity of influence or impression. For the activity of creating literary architecture, the direction changes to one of expression. One comes to expect Pater's announcement, made later, in his "Style" essay: "Well! all language involves translation from inward to outward." Figuratively, literary architecture enables transmission, if not translation, from the inside out, and it also provides checks to lawlessness: intruders cannot enter wantonly, nor can what is inside grow wildly without structural checks.
As easy as this notion of inside and outside is, it is worthwhile to look at it for another moment, since the idea persists, and has persisted throughout Pater's fictional and critical writings as well as throughout the work of others who also select architecture as their art model. The imprisoned self in the one-time suppressed "Conclusion" of Pater's The Renaissance-suffering the intractability of a relativist aesthetic-also occupies a room of sorts. We cannot help but recall Tennyson's woeful "Soul" locked within "The Palace of Art"; but Pater has morbidly reduced palace to a chamber of Poelike terror, just as elsewhere his rooms shrink still further to single cells, biologically and architecturally more minute and limiting:
At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But when reflexion begins to play upon those objects they are dissipated under its influence... the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.
Pater's "Conclusion" makes the otherwise neutral word "translation" from the "Style" essay appear tinged with optimism and therefore, appropriately, encouraging. In suggesting the possibility of movement from the inward chamber to the outside, Pater, in "Style," is also suggesting the possibility of creating viable literary works of art. His summation-that great literature "finds its logical, architectural place, in the great structure of human life"-so expands the cloistral chamber of The Renaissance as to offer a positive alternative to the philosophic and psychological confines of a relativistic and, by default, virtually solipsistic existence.
It is important, then, that Pater's anonymous elegist concludes his memoir with a recount of Pater's taste in architecture. Out of "F's" rendering Pater looms as no less a Victorian man of letters for participating in the charged architectural controversies persisting throughout his century. According to "F," Pater felt that things of quite the first rank had been produced in the 'seventies and 'eighties: gross and flagrant mistakes had been made in modern Gothic and Renaissance; but churches and public buildings had lately been built as perfect in their way as the work of the twelfth or fourteenth century. He instanced St. Philips Church, which lies behind the London Hospital.
"F" goes on to say that Pater's thinking about Whitechapel "led him to dwell with enthusiasm upon the perfect Norman of Waltham Abbey, that to the death of Harold, and that to the 'stirring, interesting writing of Professor Freeman, which I love to read.'" [Plate 2] The attention paid here to Pater's stylistic sympathies throws into relief "F's" opening description of his don's rooms: no longer is it incidental that Pater's window was Gothic or that the metaphoric furniture of the room was towers and church-steeples of pre-Gothic (Norman), Gothic, and Gothic-Revival Oxford. The Gothic window qualifies Pater's vision: history and philosophy, political and aesthetic, cling to Gothic where they would not cling to buildings from another period or of a differing "mental style"; in turn, the towers and steeples cluttering Pater's room assume symbolic value, recalling to a reader religious and academic collisions of the past, perhaps the scarring Tractarian upheaval or the subsequent secularizing of an Oxford whose dons in the 1870s could relinquish celibacy vows. For Pater, too, as "F" well knew, architectural style triggers, intentionally, an associative remembering, buildings themselves sustaining qualities of expressive art-forms: one building beckons another, Whitechapel the Norman Waltham Abbey; Waltham Abbey then conjures history and rule, namely Harold, who finally solicits from Pater's memory affection for one man's writing, that of Professor Freeman.
"F's" brief service to Pater's memory in 1899 managed to imply a great deal while saying little. In a few paragraphs the associative pattern comes clear, and reminiscence turns upon a coupling of architecture with literature. This, in fact, is one extraordinary service Pater's concept of literary architecture performs: in every kind of writing that Pater undertook, he celebrates the power for memory and association that architecture bestows. If a generic architecture (home, church, school), or architecture still more abstracted into sheer structure (rooms), has implications for Pater's conception of literature, so, too, do particular manifestations of architecture. On a formalistic level alone, qualities resplendent in architecture specifically Gothic find literary parallels in Pater's essays.
Excerpted from Literary Architecture by Ellen Eve Frank Copyright © 1983 by Ellen Eve Frank. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Plates||xiii|
|II||"The Poetry of Architecture"||51|
|III||"The Stored Consciousness"||113|
|IV||The Architecture of Fiction||167|
|V||The Analogical Tradition of Literary Architecture||217|
|Credits for Photographs||311|