Reading Walter Pater's The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry this morning, I came across the lovely word opsimathy, or late learning. (Guy Davenport, I am reminded by his essay "On Reading," found the word in Pater as well.) Pater quotes Winckelmann: "I am one of those the Greeks call opsimatheis – I have come into the world and into Italy too late."
I am feeling very much opsimatheis – the opsimath – these days, striving to acquaint myself with the Victorians at this late date in life. So much to read, and so much of it so rich and rewarding. Who would have thought an academic who began by writing on Louis Zukofsky & the fortunes of late 20th-century avant-garde poetry would be transfixed by George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, or riveted to John Ruskin's yearly review pamphlets of the Royal Academy exhibitions?
At times I feel like I'm going at it with diminished resources. However more well-read I am now than I was two decades ago, or whatever bits of grace my prose style may have accrued, I find it more difficult to summon the hour-upon-hour concentration of grad school days, & my memory is no longer the reliably sturdy storage-&-retrieval unit it once was.
Sometimes it still makes connections, if only serendipitously. This morning I was also reading William Hurrell Mallock. Those who follow contemporary poetry and culture know Mallock, if they know him at all, as the author of A Human Document, the 1892 novel from which Tom Phillips has been quarrying successive versions of his artwork A Humument. But I'm reading Mallock's The New Republic (1877), a satirical novel of ideas Mallock began during his Oxford days earlier in the decade.
It's a bit of a hoot. Mallock essentially throws together, in an English country house, a selection of immediately recognizable caricatures of leading intellectual and cultural figures of his day, and sets them talking to one another. There are versions of Ruskin, of Benjamin Jowett, of Thomas Huxley, of Arnold, and – best of all – of Walter Pater. Pater is a "pale creature, with great moustache... He is Mr. Rose, the pre-Raphaelite," explains one character; "He always speaks in an undertone, and his two topics are self-indulgence and art."
In one hilarious moment, Rose/Pater explains what "success in life" consists in, closely echoing but parodying the famous "decadent" Conclusion to the first edition of The Renaissance: it consists
'in the consciousness of exquisite living – in the making our own each highest thrill of joy that the moment offers us – be it some touch of colour on the sea or on the mountains, the early dew in the crimson shadows of a rose, the shining of a woman's limbs in clear water, or –'The passage that most struck me, however, comes from Mr. Herbert, a clear stand-in for Ruskin, Mallock's own intellectual mentor:
Here unfortunately a sound of 'Sh' broke softly from several mouths.
in that in most of my opinions and feelings I am singular, is a fact fraught for me with the most ominous significance. yet, how could I – who think that health is more than wealth, and who hold it a more important thing to separate right from wrong than to identify men with monkeys – how could I hope to be anything but singular in a generation that deliberately, and with its eyes open, prefers a cotton-mill to a Titian?Where, thought I, instantly sitting up straight, had I read that before? It was not singled out in John Lucas's introduction to the 1975 Leicester University Press photo-reprint of The New Republic that I was reading; nor was it in Denis Donohue's book on Pater, the pages of which I had been turning over. Then it struck me – Ruskin himself. In Ruskin's 1875 Academy Notes, as part of a withering attack on "The Deserted Garden" by his erstwhile friend John Everett Millais, whom Ruskin had championed in his early pre-Raphaelite days, and who had married Ruskin's ex-wife Effie in 1855, Ruskin writes,
But if you think that the four-petalled rose, the sprinkle of hips looking like ill-drawn heather, the sun-dial looking like an ill-drawn fountain, the dirty birch tree, and rest – whatever it is meant for – of the inarticulate brown scrabble, are not likely to efface in the eyes of future generations, the fame of Venice and Etruria, you have always the heroic consolation given you in the exclamation of the Spectator: "If we must choose between a Titian and a Lancashire cotton-mill, give us the cotton-mill."Ruskin refers to an August 1870 review in the Spectator of his Oxford Lectures on Art, and will quote the offending passage again in Fors Clavigera #7. I had read it, it turns out, at least twice.
So I now have a hard & fast annotation, if only written in the margin of my photo-reprint copy of The New Republic. I'm not concerned as to whether the editor of the only annotated edition of the novel (University of Florida P, 1950) caught that (a Google Books search leads me to suspect not), only pleased that the internal scholarly apparatus is still working, even at a reduced level.
The editor of that 1950 edition, by the way, is J. Max Patrick, who edited the Anchor edition of The Prose of John Milton on my shelf. He also seems to have done extensive work on Herrick and Bacon, in addition to his foray in Mallock-editing. There were days when polymaths – rather than opsimaths – walked the earth.