Friday, October 23, 2015

Walter Pater's Rome - at no time had the winter roses from Carthage seemed more lustrously yellow and red

Marius the Epicurean is in form a historical novel about 2nd century Rome, but a historical novel that allows itself lines like:

And the scene of the night-watching of a dead body  lest the witches should come to tear off the flesh with their teeth, is worthy of Théophile Gautier.  (Ch. 5, describing The Golden Ass)

Here, then, was the theory of Euphuism, as manifested in every age in which the literary conscience has been awakened to forgotten duties towards language, towards the instrument of expression: in fact it does but modify a little the principles of all effective expression at all times.  (Ch. 6, from a rich argument about style and literary decadence)

A phrase from Goethe’s Faust, a long quotation from Rousseau’s Émile, offhand references to Cardinal Newman and Walter Savage Landor – one might think the book is in fact some kind of work of literary criticism.  In part it is.  Part of the challenge of reading Pater is that the art criticism, literary essays, and fiction are all in service of a long continuing argument.  The imaginary portrait of Marius is different in form than the historical portraits of Leonardo and Winckelmann in The Renaissance (1873), but not in purpose.

I am not convinced that all of these forms should be used like this.  Maybe they should have different purposes!  All part of learning to read Pater.

Regardless, if the historical novel is rarely convincing, the novelized history is often excellent, especially in the chapters about Rome, “that city of tombs, layer upon layer of dead things and people… heroism in ruin” (Ch. 12), as in the descriptions of the horrific “games” involving the slaughter of men and animals in Chapter 14 – Marius rejects Stoicism in large part because of Marcus Aurelius’s indifference to the cruelty of the arena combats – or the marvelous “day in the life of Rome” in Chapter 11:

They visited the flower-market, lingering where the coronarii pressed on them the newest species, and purchased zinias, now in blossom (like painted flowers, thought Marius), to decorate the folds of their togas.  Loitering to the other side of the Forum, past the great Galen's drug-shop [another celebrity cameo], after a glance at the announcements of new poems on sale attached to the doorpost of a famous bookseller [there is more reading, more book-buying in Marius than I would have guessed], they entered the curious library of the Temple of Peace, then a favourite resort of literary men, and read, fixed there for all to see, the Diurnal or Gazette of the day…

I began to wonder if Pater was secretly describing a day in London.

The twelfth chapter is one of the book’s hybrids, a “speech” by Marcus Aurelius that is – I think – an ingenious hodgepodge of Meditations, Ecclesiastes, and Shakespeare. The speech somehow ends with not just the fall of night but the coming of winter, “the hardest that had been known in a lifetime.” 

The wolves came from the mountains; and, led by the carrion scent, devoured the dead bodies which had been hastily buried during the plague, and, emboldened by their meal, crept, before the short day was well past, over the walls of the farmyards of the Campagna.  The eagles were seen driving the flocks of smaller birds across the dusky sky.  Only, in the city itself the winter was all the brighter for the contrast, among those who could pay for light and warmth.  The habit-makers made a great sale of the spoil of all such furry creatures as had escaped wolves and eagles, for presents at the Saturnalia; and at no time had the winter roses from Carthage seemed more lustrously yellow and red.

Now, this is not London, right?  This is Rome, Pater’s Rome.

So next, the Rome of Henry James.


  1. I am new to your blog and looking forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks! More is coming - just try to stop me - with luck less cryptic than this post.

  3. "I began to wonder if Pater was secretly describing a day in London."

    Yeah, that's not exactly Giuseppe Belli's Rome that Pater is describing there.

    I must have read that wolves passage in college - it seems so very familiar.

  4. No, Belli's, ha ha ha, no. The E. T. A. Hoffmann novel I am about to finish, that one visits Belli's Rome.

    The "wolves on the Campagna" passage is one of the best things in Marius, and extracts easily.