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Forms of Attention: Botticelli and Hamlet

Forms of Attention: Botticelli and Hamlet

by Frank Kermode, Frank Lentricchia (Foreword by)

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Sir Frank Kermode, the British scholar, instructor, and author, was an inspired critic. Forms of Attention is based on a series of three lectures he gave on canon formation, or how we choose what art to value. The essay on Botticelli traces the artist’s sudden popularity in the nineteenth century for reasons that have more to do with poetry than


Sir Frank Kermode, the British scholar, instructor, and author, was an inspired critic. Forms of Attention is based on a series of three lectures he gave on canon formation, or how we choose what art to value. The essay on Botticelli traces the artist’s sudden popularity in the nineteenth century for reasons that have more to do with poetry than painting. In the second essay, Kermode reads Hamlet from a very modern angle, offering a useful (and playful) perspective for a contemporary audience. The final essay is a defense of literary criticism as a process and conversation that, while often conflating knowledge with opinion, keeps us reading great art and working with—and for—literature.
“Kermode’s volume has the virtue of a lecturer’s accessible style designed for a listening audience. It is also self-consciously spare of ‘naked criticism.’ There is, nonetheless, an abundance of learned commentary, steady substance, and unveiled critical excellence. Which is to say the volume is a useful and engaging reflection of its learned author.”—London Review of Books

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Forms of Attention

Botticelli and Hamlet

By Frank Kermode

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1985 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-43176-5


Botticelli Recovered

Habent sua fata libelli, and so do paintings. The works of Botticelli were ignored for centuries; indeed it has been said, by the historian who has described with most authority the circumstances of his resurrection, that "probably no other great painter, so far, has endured so long a period of neglect" as Botticelli. He died, as Michael Levey puts it, "at an awkward moment for his reputation"; but many artists have done that, and risen again much more promptly than Botticelli. He was already, it seems, sinking from his zenith in the last years of his life, probably because by comparison with Leonardo and Michelangelo he was old-fashioned, even deliberately archaistic. Vasari, upon whom continuance of fame so much depended, took an evolutionary view of the art of painting, and although his Life of Botticelli did something to preserve at least the name of the artist, he could not have thought him comparable with the very great men of the next generation, and the biography is defective and perfunctory. Botticelli's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were overshadowed by their great neighbors, and when they were noticed at all it was mostly by way of unfavorable comparison. Fuseli was not exceptional in criticizing their "puerile ostentation." The Dante illustrations could not be admired until Dante himself again came to be so, and indeed they had to wait some time even after that event. In short, the oblivion into which this painter fell soon after his death was so close to being total that one might suppose it could be dissipated only by some extraordinary development in the history of taste.

And that is what occurred. The Primavera and The Birth of Venus emerged from obscurity and were hung, in 1815, in the Uffizi. The side walls of the Sis tine Chapel began to be noticed, even by some admired. In 1836 Alexis-Franqois Rio published De la poésie chrétienne, a book containing passages in praise of the Sis tine frescoes; it was translated into English in 1854, and Levey thinks it induced Ruskin to look for the first time at Botticelli. (One unpredictable consequence of his doing so was the painter's important appearance in A la recherche du temps perdu.) Meanwhile interest in Botticelli grew faster than accurate knowledge of him, and a collection might 'contain "'Botticellis' by all sorts of people—but none by Botticelli." Among the painters, Burne-Jones was an admirer in the early sixties. Conventional opinion was still easily shocked by the intrusion of pagan themes into Quattrocento painting; but the advocacy of Burne-Jones and, later, of Rossetti encouraged the avant-garde.

There persisted, in the sixties, a widely shared opinion which must seem surprising to us, that Botticelli limited his appeal by preferring ugly women. A solid history of painting published in that decade described these women as "coarse and altogether without beauty." The first Englishman to find a way of correcting this view was Swinburne in 1868. What had hitherto been called clumsiness was now transformed into a "faint and almost painful grace," and those ugly faces took on a "somewhat lean and fleshless beauty, worn down it seems by some sickness or natural trouble." Botticelli's archaisms, his unnaturally sad Madonnas, were no longer faults. Fitted into a later historical tradition, and a modern program for painting, he was on the way to joining the list of artists who had a special relevance to the modern world. Of this tradition Mario Praz was later to write much of the history in his book The Romantic Agony.

In 1870 Walter Pater published his famous essay, later reprinted with little change in The Renaissance (1873). Though it coincided with, and in considerable measure caused, the great vogue of Botticelli, Pater's essay is cautious enough to remember the familiar strictures. "People have begun to find out the charm of Botticelli's work," he says, and "his name, little known in the last century, is quietly becoming important." Nevertheless Botticelli is still "a secondary painter," and needs a certain amount of justification. There are Madonnas, Pater admits, who might seem "peevish-looking"—they conform "to no acknowledged type of beauty." It could even be said that there is "something in them mean and abject ..., for the abstract lines of the faces have little nobleness ... and the color is wan." He sees these Madonnas as detached, uninvolved in their role, like the "Madonna of the Magnificat," to whom "the high cold words" of that canticle mean little. Nor do the pagan Venuses escape this strangeness. "Botticelli's interest," says Pater, "is neither in the untempered goodness of Angelico's saints, nor the untempered evil of Orcagna's Inferno, but with [sic] men and women, in their mixed and uncertain condition, always attractive, clothed sometimes by passion with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink."

Yet The Birth of Venus reminds him of Ingres, which makes it modern; and there is also in this painter a strong Greek feeling, as of the modern world's first look back at the forms of antiquity. Moreover, the visionary quality of Botticelli significantly resembles that of Dante; and, finally, he is a true manifestation of the wonderful early Renaissance. In a sense all these claims may be resolved into one, the claim to modernity. The modern includes a new appropriation of Greek art, of Dante, of the newly valued Quattrocento. All that disparate history comes together here, which is why one can find in Botticelli a modern "sentiment of ineffable melancholy." His goddess of pleasure, "the depositary of a great power over the lives of men," is modern in that manner, and the Madonnas are modern in being saddened rather than pleased at what is happening to them. And so Botticelli, who depicted "the shadow of death in the grey flesh and wan flowers" in a representation of Venus, becomes a modern painter.

Released at last from his historical oubliette, he was celebrated as new, as unacademic, as having affinities with the Japanese art that was now pouring into Paris and London by the tea chest. The cult was the subject of jokes in Punch and in Patience. Cheap reproductions abounded. But although he grew popular he made on the art of the period an impression that would last into a later modernism:

    Her present image floats into the mind—
    Did Quattrocento finger fashion it,
    Hollow of cheek as if it drank the wind
    And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

Now firmly established in his new setting, Botticelli was accorded a position of eminence from which he was unlikely ever to be completely dislodged. He owed his promotion not to scholars but to artists and other persons of modern sensibility, whose ideas of history were more passionate than accurate, and whose connoisseurship was, as I have said, far from exact. At this stage exact knowledge had no part to play. Opinion, to some extent informed, required, at this modern moment, a certain kind of early Renaissance art; Botticelli, along with some contemporaries—though first among them—provided it. Enthusiasm counted for more than research, opinion for more than knowledge.

I shall now give some account of a man born about the time of the great Botticelli revival, and strongly influenced by Pater as well as by Morris. His part, therefore, was rather to reinforce and secure than to establish Botticelli's fame. Herbert Horne's is not a famous name, and he was denied even a brief entry in the British Dictionary of National Biography. Most of our information about his life has been assembled by Ian Fletcher, upon whose published and unpublished work I here to a considerable extent depend. Born in 1864, Horne was pretty exactly the contemporary of Yeats and Arthur Symons. Like them, he studied at no university, but he had very early acquired an expert knowledge of several arts. He was also a precocious and successful collector. Soon he became a follower of Pater. At eighteen he went to study design with the architect and designer A. H. Mackmurdo, founder of the Century Guild, which was dedicated to the unification of the arts. Horne became coeditor, with Mackmurdo, of the journal called The Century Guild Hobby Horse, which tried to bring on this unification by publishing new poetry along with articles of artistic and antiquarian interest. Horne himself was painter, bookbinder, architect and designer, an authority on furniture and ancient musical instruments, a remarkable collector of English eighteenth- century painting, and a poet.

Horne seems to have been a rather chilly and disagreeable man—if we are to believe Arthur Symons, a surly, even sinister figure, a successful but dispassionate womanizer, and a secret homosexual. An unpublished poem, reported by Fletcher, speaks of the poet (aged about twenty) as containing in his person "the torrid and the frigid interwove," a combination reflecting his conviction that "the poetic nature is the marriage of Heaven and Hell," The line about the torrid and the frigid recurs in a half- amorous set of letters now in the library of the Warburg Institute, and Fritz Saxl took it as the key to the whole character of Horne, whom he greatly admired. From these letters we may also learn that in 1885 Horne was working at "verse, painting, designing down to drainpipes," and also painting on a settle an allegorical panel with the Tree of Knowledge and Death in a thornless rose bush. He expresses an admiration for Parsifal, though not for The Ring, the former perhaps suiting better with a certain rather vague religiosity in the poetry he was writing. With considerably more animation he professes himself keen on the music halls, wishing some rich patron would rent him a stall at the Gaiety.

This ambition will seem odd or vulgar only to people unfamiliar with the preoccupations of artists and aesthetes at this period. Horne was always serious about the arts, and very nearly supreme among them was the art of the dance. His interest in the Gaiety and in the Alhambra was by no means entirely a matter for lusty hours of leisure. Of course, one object was to pick up the dancing girls; but there is something distinctive about the aesthetics of such activities. The poet Ernest Dowson was grateful to Horne for taking the risk of publishing his poem "Non sum qualis eram" in The Hobby Horse; and he respected him as the benefactor of Lionel Johnson, and the host of the Rhymers' Club, established in January 1891; but he found him so formidable that he was uneasy about dining alone with him. I mention this to provide some context for Dowson's account of a meeting with Horne and his great friend the artist Selwyn Image (Slade Professor of the History of Art at Oxford) at the back door of the Alhambra on a doubtless chilly night in January 1890. They introduced Dowson to "several trivial choryphees." "There was something grotesque," he goes on, "in the juxtaposition. Horne very erect & slim & aesthetic—and Image the most dignified man in London, a sort of cross in appearance between a secular abbé and Baudelaire, with a manner de 18me siècle—waiting in a back passage to be escort to ballet girls [begin strikethrough]whom they don't even!!![end strikethrough] I confess, this danseuse-worship escapes me!!"

But here Dowson, not his friends, is out of step. He holds himself immune to "danseuse-worship," which was, among his peers, an important cult at the time. The dance was associated with the Mass as well as with the poetic image, and from Loie Fuller and Jane Avril to Nini Patte-en-l'air, dancers were adored; respectable clergymen as well as artists and professors waited for dancing girls in back alleys, since the ritual required it. The cult was by no means unrelated to that of Botticelli's enigmatic Venuses. (I do not know whether E. H. Gombrich's conjecture that the central figure of the Primavera—identified by most, though not all, commentators as Venus—is "dancing with a slow halting step" had any antecedent in the nineties.) At all events, a quantity of poetry was dedicated to the dance and to dancers; there were many set-pieces on Javanese and other exotic dancers, especially by Arthur Symons, and many on Salome. Out of this movement, and after great transformations, came the dances and dancers of Yeats and Eliot. Waiting in that back alley, Horne was doing nothing out of character for a nineties artist, a painter of settles, an admirer of Parsifal, a lover of Botticelli.

Yeats, like most people who knew him, had reservations about Horne and Image (whom Horne, facetiously no doubt, described as "the gem of this dim age"); he thought them "typical figures of transition, doing as an achievement of learning and exquisite taste what their predecessors did in careless abundance"; but he admired Horne, too, for his "conscious deliberate craft." Like Saxl after him, he praised the church Horne built near Marble Arch on the model of the cathedral at Pietrasanta in Tuscany (it was destroyed by bombing, like most of Horne's buildings in London). And he credited Horne with "what I must lack always, scholarship"; he was one of those, said Yeats, who helped to teach him that "violent energy, which is like a fire of straw, consumes in a few minutes the nervous vitality, and is useless in the arts." Yeats is writing with the aid of hindsight, knowing of Horne's later achievements, patient and monumental; the burning of damp faggots was, as it turned out, more suited to the work Horne was born to do than any display of genius that burns itself out.

However, for the time being he went on with other tasks, painting settles, cretonnes, fenders, harpsichords; designing and binding books (he published a study of bookbinding in 1894); working as an architect; editing Jacobean plays and Herrick; collecting paintings; writing poems. When Verlaine paid his famous visit to London and Oxford it was Horne who helped Symons to look after him; he was right in the middle of contemporary poetry. His own slim volume, Diversi Colores, with his own typography and design, was published in 1891, the year of the Rhymers; it has forty-odd pages of poems strongly influenced by Campion, Herrick, and madrigal verse, with some fairly warm liturgical pieces and some cool love poems. On this evidence Horne was but a small poet; and Ian Fletcher makes only small claims for the verse that remains in manuscript. It is absolutely of its historical moment. Horne was a gifted minor artist at the center of his world. At his house in Fitzroy Street artists of all kinds gathered: Fletcher lists Dowson and Johnson, Sturge Moore, Yeats, Sickert, Walter Crane, Augustus John, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Arnold Dolmetsch (who built the harpsichord Horne decorated), and Roger Fry.

But this phase of his life was ending. He grew more and more interested in antiquarian matters, and the files of The Hobby Horse show it. He became an authority on the restoration of old buildings, on book illustration, on fifteenth-century woodcuts. He added to his remarkable collection; as Fletcher remarks, the building of it with such slender resources must have required "a certain ruthlessness and detachment." He quarreled with Mackmurdo; The Hobby Horse died; and the aesthetic phase was over. Horne grew more and more interested in Italian art. He began to spend much time in Florence, and published a scholarly article on Uccello, but his main interest was Botticelli.

In 1908 he sold a considerable part of his English collection to Edward Marsh; most of it is now in the National Gallery in London. Horne used the proceeds to buy and restore an old palazzo in Florence, acquired in 1912. On his death in 1916 he left Casa Horne to the city of Florence, with provision for its upkeep; but the endowment was spent on unsuccessful investments. The Museo Horne may still be visited, though the most important of its contents have been moved to the Uffizi Gallery.

During these years in Florence Horne applied himself with remarkable dedication to the writing of a long book on Botticelli, and a second volume on the scuola; until very recently this second volume was supposed never to have been written, but I am told by Professor Fletcher that it has been found in the Museo Horne. Its publication will be an event of importance. Long before he moved to Florence, Horne, as Yeats tells us, was "learned in Botticelli" and "had begun to boast that when he wrote of him there would be no literature, all would be but learning." And Horne's Alessandro Filipepi called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence (1908) might seem to justify that claim. It is regarded by modern art historians as one of the finest books ever written about a Renaissance painter; Sir John Pope-Hennessy, in his preface to the facsimilereprint of 1980, says that it "has stood the test of time better than almost any other book about art history," and that "all subsequent Botticelli scholarship depends" on Horne's. Fritz Saxl admired it for its austerity, for Horne's unweaving of the frigid from the torrid; for, says Saxl, he writes "accurately and disinterestedly in a frigid style which almost obliterates the personality of the author," To such self-discipline, to the suppression of that "torrid" streak, we owe, according to Saxl, "an unimpeachable piece of historical scholarship."


Excerpted from Forms of Attention by Frank Kermode. Copyright © 1985 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Frank Kermode (1919–2010) was a British literary critic who taught English literature at University College London, the University of Cambridge, Columbia University, and Harvard University. His criticism was regularly featured in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and he was the author of many books including The Sense of an Ending; The Classic; The Genesis of Secrecy; and, most recently, Concerning E. M. Forster. Kermode was knighted in 1991. 

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