Walter Pater’s discovery of William Blake considered in new book

A new collected edition on Walter Pater includes a chapter on Pater and Blake by Luisa Calè.

Walter Pater and the Beginnings of English Studies, edited by Charles Martindale, Elizabeth Prettejohn, and Lene Østermark-Johansen, and published by Cambridge University Press, includes a chapter by Luisa Calè on Pater and Blake, "Spiritual form: Walter Pater's encounters with William Blake":

The relationship between the arts was central to Pater’s literary criticism. His interest in the poet-painters Blake and Rossetti offers an ideal corpus for thinking about form within and across the arts. Although Pater never devoted a whole essay to Blake, his name surfaces in discussions about form and style, image and meaning, soul and mind, in which literature is defined within a classical and European aesthetic tradition. Artistic examples and analogies shape a comparative and complementary understanding of literature and art through exercises in appreciation and interartistic lines of cultural influence that present Blake and Hugo as the ‘true sons’ of Michelangelo. This chapter traces Pater’s engagement with Blake through Swedenborg and Swinburne, and then focuses on Blake’s function in Pater’s poetics. Pater’s explicit references to Blake bring to view his illustrations to Job and Robert Blair’s The Grave, revealing the role played by visual invention in his attempts to define the organic interfusion of form and matter in literary writing. In his essays on Demeter and Dionysus, he mentions Blake as a ‘ “survival” from a different age’, who can articulate an aesthetic politics for the present through the experience of ‘spiritual form’, a concept he attributes to Blake. Blake had used this formula satirically in the titles of his dystopian allegorical portraits of Pitt, Nelson, and Napoleon to denounce their political imposition as a satirical yoking of opposites. These paintings were exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club’s Blake retrospective when Pater developed his own idea of ‘spiritual form’ in 1876. In a strong act of misreading and revaluation, Pater repurposes the term to signal the utopian potential of an ancient embodied aesthetic to heal the separation between form and content and to restore the prelapsarian eternal body celebrated in Blake’s prophetic writings. Comparison with Blake’s discussion of Chaucer shows how both writers look to sculpture to develop an embodied ideal of the human form divine and to define how it might be achieved, restored, reformed through an embodied aesthetic. Engagement with Blake illuminates the inter-art dynamics of Pater’s critical practice, providing insight into the role of art criticism in developing his writing about literature. Pater’s Blake brings out a discipline of literary form that is shaped by a multisensorial aesthetic.

Luisa Calè is Reader in Romantic and Nineteenth-Century Literature and Visual Culture at Birkbeck. University of London. She works on the visual and material cultures of literature in the Romantic Period, practices of reading, viewing, and collecting that dismantle the book and question its function as a support for reading, and on critical disciplinarity. 

Walter Pater and the Beginning of English Studies is available from Cambridge University Press and other booksellers.