Max Beerbohm’s “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” includes a joke that requires some readerly inference:
… when Braxton’s first book appeared fauns had still an air of novelty about them. We had not yet tired of them and their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability. We did tire later.
There must have been so, so many of those things. Walter Pater wrote one of them, his Imaginary Portrait “Denys l’Auxerrois,” and provided the intellectual support for some of the others in several of the essays in Greek Studies (1894). Dionysius was one of Pater’s subjects. This mild, ascetic man and his theoretical bacchanals.
Denys is the god Dionysius in a degenerate medieval form. He mysteriously appears in Auxerre as a child, becomes an organ-builder and musician, and leads the townspeople into frenzy.
The hot nights were noisy with swarming troops of disheveled women and youths with red-stained limbs and faces, carrying their lighted torches over the vine-clad hills, or rushing down the streets, to the horror of timid watchers, towards the cool spaces by the river. A shrill music, a laughter at all things, was everywhere.
The vintage becomes, of course, especially good. Wine snobs may sneer: sure, the vintage of Chablis! Now, now.
But Pater is up on the latest scholarship, as he shows in Greek Studies, and his Dionysius is not the triumphant god of the Bacchae of Euripides but rather a true fertility god, flourishing but also dying with the seasons, so that it is not the unbelievers but Denys himself who is torn apart in a frenzy.
The monk Hermes sought in vain next day for any remains of the body of his friend. Only, at nightfall, the heart of Denys was brought to him by a stranger, still entire. It must long since have mouldered into dust, under the stone, marked with a cross, where he buried it in a dark corner of the cathedral aisle.
Denys’s life and death are also pictured in a stained glass window that gets “Pater’s” attention, putting a frame around the story. I have been in that very cathedral, I believe I have even heard the organ there, but no one pointed out the window or where the heart of a reincarnated Greek god was kept as a relic.
I might not have read Pater’s Greek Studies if I had not just read The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Pater is less fanciful, or bold, than Friedrich Nietzsche. In particular, he does not think Euripides destroyed tragedy but rather takes The Bacchae as a useful and genuine example of Greek religious expression. He turns the Euripides play into another imaginary portrait, some mix of criticism, like a summary with commentary, and fiction, but with essayistic digressions. He does the same for the myths of Demeter and Persephone and the Hippolytus of Euripides. As criticism, it is odd, but enjoyable, personable.
The Renaissance is easily Pater’s best book, followed by the 1888 collection Appreciations, which I have barely mentioned, but further reading in Pater was rewarding, if often confusing. Imaginary Portraits deserves a fresh look, but by whom, exactly?