The object of this essay is to identify the differences between two versions of Walter Pater’s description of La Gioconda as a means of exemplifying and exploring changes in meaning undergone by literary texts. In this case, its main concern remains the transcendence of a work of art within its canon and the allegorical imagery it evokes, a continuity that is nevertheless disrupted by later spatial rearrangement. Consequently, this analysis drives us to engage with a notion of authorship that values significantly the cultural heritage in which the writer finds himself, placing more weight on the text’s contribution to this legacy than on the figure of the author as sole creator.
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Firstly, one must note the chronology and structural form of the text. Pater originally published the passage in 1873 as part of his research on Leonardo da Vinci in Studies in The History of The Renaissance, with W. B. Yeats later incorporating it in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which he published in 1936. Hence, the most compelling change is its transformation from lyrical prose, undistinguished from the rest of the essay, into a separate poem in free verse. Through this remodelling, Yeats is constituting himself as an authority within the text and redesigning the context in which it is to be received. That is, he represents an instance of intervention that effectively changes the meaning after the author’s death.
Additionally, the fragment features as the opening work in a collection of modern poetry. This not only conditions the way that the text is read, but similarly creates certain expectations from the rest of the anthology. Yeats himself defended both his choice of Pater and his style, writing that ‘only by printing it in vers libre can one show its revolutionary importance’ (1936: 8). However, in doing so, he was assuming that the reader would know the original scholarly backdrop of the extract and its cultural implications. Thus, he invites certain suppositions regarding Pater’s work and reputation, as well as Yeats’ own conception of modern poetry, that are not fully accounted for in the rest of his introduction to the volume.
As for the alterations in the physical presentation of the text, Yeats removed a single sentence from Pater’s reflection on the Mona Lisa and published it as a poem in seventeen different lines, employing the original punctuation to divide them. As a result, they vary in length, and each one is introduced by a capital letter except for the initial ‘SHE’, which presides the poem in full capital letters and contains an ‘S’ in a significantly larger font. Yeats only added a comma after ‘the changing lineaments’, presumably to divide that line from the final verse.
In Pater’s version, the passage is encompassed within a larger examination of his own associations upon the image rather than actual visual description, with phrases very similar in rhythm (Jeffreys 1993: 23). Here, his reaction to the famous piece serves the wider purpose of defining the author’s place within Renaissance artistry. In terms of paratextual elements, we observe its characterization as an academic text through the title, the seal and the clarification of Pater as a fellow of Oxford’s Brasenose College. The header of each page alternatively reads ‘The Renaissance’ or ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, clarifying and contextualising the topic.
In the 1936 version, the para-text includes the author’s name in capital letters with the dates of his birth and death. These are followed by the title that Yeats attributed to the poem, ‘Mona Lisa’, in cursive lettering, and the number one. The first page informs us of the title of the book and the fact that Yeats is the editor, but nowhere does it indicate that Pater did not conceive the text in the displayed format. This is because Yeats only mentions the change in the introduction, which is not available to us in the document we have received. Therefore, we face another layer of filtering in the form of photographs, as we have access to images of the texts but not the texts themselves. This suggests that yet another figure alien to the 1873 publication has had a say in the presentation of the text after Pater’s death.
Following this line of thought, we must consider the number of voices present in the text and what these signify for a larger argument on authorship. Even in the original version, the text comprises the voices of both Pater as writer and Da Vinci as the painter of the Mona Lisa. Yeats’ adaptation inserts another one, but in neither case is the historical woman portrayed allowed to add her own. While she is necessary for Da Vinci to create his masterpiece, she must disappear to give way to the immortal image that she inspired, becoming a symbol of suggestion for the artist (Jeffreys 1993: 26).
From this, we get the impression of a collapse of barriers between author and painter that accompanies the blurring of the individual and archetypal image that La Gioconda represents. Through his writing, Pater impersonates Da Vinci in a manner similar to what Yeats and Renaissance artists themselves did by reviving classical motifs. Pater’s conception of Da Vinci as an artist influences the way in which he relates to his own passage, establishing a paradigmatic relationship between artist and work that transcends a single discipline (Jeffreys 1993: 29-30).
Intimately related to this is Roland Barthes’ theory on originality. He rejects uniqueness in favour of the text as a multi-dimensional space comprised of several other writings interacting and influencing each other. (1977: 148). This reinforces the multiplicity of voices found and expressed in Pater’s essay: ‘All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there…to refine and make expressive the outward form’ (1873: 118). Though a painting instead of a manuscript, he conceptualises the Mona Lisa and her mythological counterparts in the same way that Barthes does, perpetuating the tradition by writing within it and providing the opportunity so that Yeats, unbeknownst to him, might do the same through his own text.
Likewise, T. S. Eliot expands on this vision of authorship by characterising tradition as an ambition that is not merely inherited, but which the writer must strive towards. He disdains the notion of a poet or artist achieving meaning on his own, as his significance must inevitably be tied with that of his predecessors (Eliot  2008: 956). He accentuates this idea by asserting that authors require a historical sense that will recognize the presence of the past so that they will write ‘with the feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe…has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’ (956). Hence, he advocates for a depersonalization of the poet that will permit us to think of his work as ‘a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written’ (Eliot 2008: 958).
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This is especially relevant to our text due to the similarities in Pater’s own conception of the role of the artist in the production of culture. His agreement with both Barthes and Eliot is evident in his description of the Mona Lisa always in
reference to other symbolic women, as she is set ‘beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity’ (Pater 1873: 118). Not only is she their equivalent in a modern setting, she also embodies their qualities so that we might find her undistinguishable from Mary or Helen of Troy but for her own contribution to the unbroken procession of artists’ muses (Jeffreys 1993: 25). This affords her semblance with both multiplicity and immovability, effectively reminding us of Eliot’s claim that the ideal order is both modified by new works and complete before these have been produced (Eliot  2008: 956).
Notwithstanding this, we cannot fail to observe an essential difference between these theories. Whereas for Barthes language and the reader drive the performance and extraction of meaning, completely excluding the author, both Eliot and Pater ascribe him a part in the interpretation of the text. Eliot denies the centrality of the author in favour of the just evaluation of the poetry, but he does not argue for the dismissal of the author’s effort within the continuing literary doctrine and his replacement by the reader ( 2008: 961). Similarly, Pater highlights the importance of an artist’s trajectory, if not the person of the artist himself. By stating that ‘Leonardo’s history is the history of his art’ (1873: 119) he is identifying the artist with his craft and the history embedded in it, making it unthinkable that he should be entirely disposed of.
Furthermore, to eliminate the figure of the author would be to render this exercise useless. Pater’s writing of Renaissance artists provided a platform for him to develop a vision of authorship that he himself actively represents. His attempt at establishing its limitations mirrors our own quest to ascertain the meaning of
changes made by a person to whom we attribute a degree of authority. In this case, we must recognise that these texts are in one way or another enabled by authors, with the subsequent attention that they merit because of it.
In all, reading both versions of the text is not necessary. The original is part of a wider point on authorship working in conjunction with a cultural current that both influences and is contained in all new art. Equally worthy, the 1936 version stands on its own as a modernist poem with the same theme in a manner that goes unnoticed when reading the whole essay. Nonetheless, together they deepen the undercurrent of meaning present in Pater’s essay through exemplification of his argument. This is because both writers, together with Da Vinci, postulate La Gioconda as an emblem for the ages, utilising her to establish their own position in relation to an artistic canon that places the past as the driving force in the process of creation.
- Barthes, Roland.  1977. ‘Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press), pp. 142-148
- Eliot, T. S.  2008. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), pp. 955-961
- Graham, Elyse. ‘Walter Pater’ in Victorian Web, <//www.victorianweb.org/authors/pater/graham2.html> 2nd October 2018
- Jeffreys, Mark. 1993. ‘The Mona Lisa and the Symbol of Ideas: Pater’s Leda as Mother to Yeats’ Helen’ in Colby Quarterly, 29.4: 20-32
- Pater, Walter H. 1873. Studies in the History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan & Co.)
- Yeats, W. B. 1936. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)