the undue keeping-up of profane altar-fires

t k

Senior Member
Korean - Korea
It was all, at bottom, in him, the aesthetic principle, planted where it could burn with a cold, still flame; where it fed almost wholly on the material directly involved, on the idea (followed by appropriation) of plastic beauty, of the thing visibly perfect in its kind; where, in short, in spite of the general tendency of the "devouring element" to spread, the rest of his spiritual furniture, modest, scattered, and tended with unconscious care, escaped the consumption that in so many cases proceeds from the undue keeping-up of profane altar-fires. (From The Golden Bowl by Henry James. A larger context is here. Use ctrl-f to locate the excerpt.)

Please explain the bold-faced part. Thanks. --- tk
  • Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    "The undue keeping-up of profane altar-fires" = giving things that are not related to the spirit with the kind of attention that should be given to matters that are not material.

    The 'aesthetic principle' burning with a 'cold, still flame' is the altar fire -- which represents Mr Verver's 'worship' of aesthetic principles. That is, it represents the importance Mr Verver gives to the beauty of material things. Fire is the 'devouring element', because it spreads. In many cases, this kind of preoccupation with material things spreads and uses up people sensitivity to values that are not material. In Mr Verver's case, it did not do this.

    Henry James is a very challenging writer, even for native speakers of English. The Golden Bowl is one of his more challenging books. You would do well to get an annotated book, or some sort of readers' guide to help you with it. It is difficult to comment on isolated sentences as we do in this forum in a way that would be helpful.
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