Walter Pater (3025 words)

Walter Pater flourished as a literary and art critic, novelist, and story writer in England during the late nineteenth century. His older contemporary Matthew Arnold said of this period: “There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve” (“Introduction”, The English Poets, ed. T. H. Ward, 1880, para.1). Pater was one of the questioners and shakers who helped to revolutionize thinking during the period, drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the history of Western philosophy, history, art, and mythology; British, Continental, and American literature; the higher criticism of the Bible; and the latest discoveries in geology, biology, archæology, anthropology, psychology, and aesthetics. He took from all these sources only the elements that he could realize and synthesize for himself and express in a unique style that transformed essays in criticism into works of art, and fiction into an exploration of the sensations and ideas of an individual who stood as an exemplar of a world view at a moment in time. Much has been written about Pater’s influence upon younger contemporary writers, including Vernon Lee and Oscar Wilde; upon English and American poets and fiction writers of the Modern Period, including W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Wallace Stevens; and upon Continental writers, including Marcel Proust and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In recent years, he has been claimed as a forebear by deconstructionists, postmodernists, and queer theorists; and Thomas Pfau, in a poem entitled “Pater”, has referred to him as “one name to recognize ourselves with” (The Paris Review [New York], Fall 2002).

Pater was born on August 4, 1839, at No.1, Honduras Terrace, Commercial Road, Stepney, a borough in London’s East End. His grandfather, John Thompson Pater, born in 1766, had been something of a maverick. Although the eldest son of a wealthy trader in lace who had a fine house in Weston Underwood, Buckinghamshire, he is listed in the 1800 United States Census as the head of a family in the township of New Utricht (later Utrecht), in Kings County (now the Borough of Brooklyn), New York. It is not known when he and his wife, Hester Grange Pater, sailed to New York; but their three children, Hester Elizabeth Mary (1793-1862), Richard Glode (1796/7-1842), who became the father of the author, and William Grange (1800-1845) are all accounted for (by sex and age) in the 1800 Census. However, a few years later Thompson Pater was listed “in Holden’s Triennial Directory between 1805 and 1808 as ‘surgeon [a general practitioner] and man midwife’, living [in England] near the Ponds, Highgate” (Michael Levey, The Case of Walter Pater, 207-8). Apparently always seeking a shoreline, Thompson Pater settled in 1808 on Commercial Road near the Docks on the Thames River. According to tradition, he died in 1812. Both of his sons adopted his vocation and remained on Commercial Road as surgeons to people of the working class who lived in Stepney. On June 10, 1834, Richard Glode Pater was married to Maria Hill, born about 1801 in London. No relative of hers is ever mentioned by Walter Pater or, with certainty, by any of his biographers. Richard Pater died at 45, on January 28, 1842. His estate was valued at £5,000, and he was survived by his wife and four children: William Thompson (1835-1887), Hester Maria (1837-1922), Walter Horatio (1839-1894), and Clara Ann (1841-1910). He was followed in death three years later by his brother and fellow-surgeon.

After the death of Richard Pater, his wife and children, his mother, and his sister, now a spinster known to the children as Aunt Bessie, moved to the more salubrious borough of Enfield, in Greater London. In his first fictional “portrait”, “A Child in the House” (1878), Pater creates a young man rather like himself, Florian Deleal, who is inspired by a dream to examine in regard to himself “that process of brain-building by which we are, each one of us, what we are” (Misc. Studies, Lib. Ed., 173). The story of Florian is idealized, and some of the details are different from comparable details in Pater’s life; however, in reading this story one gains insight into some aspects of Pater’s character, not only as a child, but also as a man – his acute response to beauty in the material world and in art, his sensitivity to the suffering of persons and animals, his memorable impressions of Biblical texts and illustrations, his solemn response to religious environments, his love of home in all its particulars, his sharp sense of death.

Death struck the Pater family for the third time since Walter’s birth when his grandmother died on February 21, 1848. Of the three strong and compassionate women in the household, it is likely that this grandmother – like the grandmother Pater was to create for his character Gaston de Latour – was the one who never failed to treat him with uncritical affection. Of the two Pater boys, William was, by tradition, the more handsome and Walter, certainly, the more studious. In 1851, William left home and became a clerk. He later served briefly in the Army, and then, following family precedent, became a surgeon, working the last several years of his life in asylums for the insane. In 1853, after Pater had completed Enfield Grammar School, the family moved to Harbledown, very near Canterbury, so that he could attend the King’s School, which is adjacent to the Canterbury Cathedral. As the new family residence, Maria Pater rented No.12 Harbledown Place, a two-story, terraced town house, which can still be seen. On February 3, Pater was admitted to the King’s School as a day boy and in December was named a King’s Scholar, with the privilege of wearing a cap and gown. However, tragedy struck only a year after he entered the school. His mother died on February 25, 1854. She had placed the remainder of her legacy in trust, naming Elizabeth Pater, a surgeon, and a lawyer as trustees. Henceforth, until her own death in December 1862, Aunt Bessie would be, in the truest sense, the guardian of Hester, Walter, and Clara.

Pater succeeded in his formal studies at the King’s School, excelling in Ecclesiastical History and Classics, and, in 1858, was awarded by the school an exhibition of £60 per year for three years to help finance his further education. On the lighter side, he enjoyed mimicking self-important men and acting in dramatic roles, especially the role of Hotspur, “A very valiant rebel”, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. He shared with his two close friends, Henry Dombrain and John Rainier McQueen, his only friends among the school boys, a devout spirit, steady application to studies, a refusal to participate in sports or to fight, and a love of comparing impressions while walking in the woods outside Canterbury. However, Pater distinguished himself by the avidity of his private reading in modern poetry, novels, and discursive prose, as well as in the writing of poems. McQueen later reported that Pater was a prolific poet in his youth, but only nine of his poems have survived and of those only four were written before he left Canterbury. The second earliest of these poems, “Poets Old and New” (1856), shows that Pater was then a student of poetry and poets, and this is made plainer by the fact that all of the nine extant poems are written in different stanza and verse forms.

Having been born into the household of three devout women, Pater had early developed a religious spirit and an appreciation of High Church ritual; as a boy he had played at being a preacher, and while at the King’s School, supposed that he would become a clergyman. However, his favorite preacher, Canon Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, was not only a specialist in Church history, but also a champion of the Broad Church contingent of the Anglican Church. Pater read his works and the works of other Liberal clergymen, who were able to absorb some ideas from the higher criticism of the Bible and geological science; and he read poets like Alfred Tennyson and Matthew Arnold who had experienced crises of faith. By the time he left Canterbury for Oxford, his own crisis of faith had begun. In the summer of 1858, he wrote the poem “Watchman, What of the Night?” (see Isaiah 21:11-12), in which he cries out in the seventh stanza: “ [. . .] Where are the dead? / Nowhere!, a voice replies. Yet thou hast died, / O Christ Redeemer! Let me cling to Thee, / Hold me from yon abyss; with frenzied glide / Down, down, I sink. Oh! Let me live in Thee, / Or deep in hell, – it seems so awful not to be.” Ten years later in the conclusion to his essay “Poems by William Morris”, he wrote:

Well, we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo somewhere says: we have an interval and then we cease to be. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest in art and song. For our one chance is in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. High passions give one this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, political or religious enthusiasm, or the “enthusiasm of humanity”. Only, be sure it is passion, that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake (Westminster Review 90 [Oct. 1868], 312).

Between the anguished cry of Pater at nineteen to be rescued from the abyss and the exhortation of Pater at twenty-nine to accept the reality of death and make one’s life really worth living lies a remarkable, sustained search for truth and then for his own destiny, mainly through reading.

In Walter Pater’s Reading: A Bibliography of His Library Borrowings and Literary References, 1858-1873, I have discussed Pater’s extensive reading during his years as a student at the Queen’s College, Oxford (1858-1862), and the years when he was finding his vocation and writing his earliest essays and his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the first phase, he read every significant Western philosopher from Heraclitus to John Stuart Mill, being especially attentive to Aristippus, Plato, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Ernest Renan. In order to read Hegel and other German philosophers (and Goethe), in the summer of 1860 he learned to read German, in Heidelberg, where Aunt Bessie, Hester, and Clara had gone to live immediately after he had completed his schooling in Canterbury. However, he became no philosopher’s disciple and found no metaphysical certainty. He concluded, as he states in “Poems by William Morris”: “The service of philosophy, and of religion and culture as well, to the human spirit, is to startle it into a sharp and eager observation” (311). The second phase of his reading began in May 1863, after his graduation from the Queen’s College on December 11, 1862, when he read Hegel’s Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik [Lectures on Aesthetics]. To this time he had shown no special interest in art or art history. However, what religion and philosophy had been unable to do – give him a sense of vocation and impassion his mind with enthusiasm for expression – the study of art proved able to do, and Hegel’s Ästhetik gave him a framework upon which to develop his interpretation of the history of art.

In February 1864, Pater was elected to the first non-clerical fellowship at Brasenose College, Oxford, as probationary Classical Fellow. In July 1864 he read to the Old Mortality Society, a group of undergraduates and Fellows, an essay entitled “Diaphaneitè”, which was not published until after his death, perhaps because it lacks a formula, or clear organizing theme characteristic of his later essays. In it he describes an unusual type of person, one who treats life “in the spirit of art” (Misc. Studies, Lib. Ed., 249). He spent the remainder of the summer vacation in Paris, primarily learning to read French. Then between December 1864 and February 1865 he read Edgar Quinet’s Les Révolutions d’Italie, and found a subject that would be central to the essays in his first book and would recur in several of his later works: the great upheaval in thinking that occurred when the medieval mind discovered pagan art.

In 1865, by election Pater became a fully-fledged Fellow of Brasenose, with duties as tutor and lecturer. Having secured a livelihood and found his direction as a writer, he destroyed his poems (the few extant ones were saved by friends) and traveled to Italy with his best friend, Charles L. Shadwell, primarily to study art in Ravenna, Florence, and Pisa. Upon his return, he launched his career as a writer by publishing three essays in the Westminster Review anonymously, as was general practice for contributors to this journal. In the first essay, “Coleridge’s Writings”, he reaped the fruit of his reading in philosophy and evolutionary biology. His range of reference in this essay is very extensive and his generalizations magisterial; for example, “Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the ‘relative’ spirit in place of the ‘absolute’” (Vol. 85 [Jan. 1866], 107). He portrays Samuel Coleridge sympathetically as a resister of change, a defender of absolute principles in religion and morals, but it is clear that he himself is a “modern” thinker. The most significant sense in which Pater was a relativist is the belief that he develops later in his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), his incomplete novel Gaston de Latour (1888), and in some of his “imaginary portraits”: that one’s temperament, constitutional tendencies of mind, and impressions from early experiences determine which religious or philosophical ideas will strike one as true, or as he states here: “In theology people are content with [. . .] arguments, the rejection of which Coleridge tells us ‘implies an evil heart of unbelief’, but of which we might as truly say that they derive all their consistency from the peculiar atmosphere of the mind which receives them” (126). Thus, to Pater theological and philosophical beliefs have become relative to the psychology and culture of the thinker.

In the second essay, “Winckelmann” (Vol. 87 [Jan. 1867]), he made a dramatic turn toward art history and criticism and revealed a subtle knowledge of same-sex orientation. In all of his essays on artists and writers, he relates the life of the man to his art or writing, and in this essay he attributes Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s success in interpreting the art of ancient Greece, in part, to his “romantic, fervid friendships with young men” (Vol. 87 [Jan. 1867], 87), because they gave him a temperamental affinity with the minds of Greek artists. He followed “Poems by William Morris”, the third essay, with an essay published under his name in November 1869 in The Fortnightly Review. This essay, “Notes on Leonardo da Vinci”, which contains the now most famous passage in all of his works, the “prose poem” on Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, established Pater as an art critic and won him a following among young writers.

After the publication of this essay Pater was able to sublease a house on Bradmore Road, in Oxford, for himself and his sisters, who apparently had been living with some of their Pater relatives in England since the death of Aunt Bessie in Dresden in 1862. Hester and Clara resided with him in Oxford and then in London, 1885-1893, and in Oxford again during the last year of his life, although he always maintained rooms at his college as well as a household.

Pater’s first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), developed a definition of the Renaissance different from those of John Ruskin and other English critics. It included a “Preface” that defined a different approach in criticism, the approach of the aesthetic critic; and included not only essays on Italian and French artists and writers, but also the essay on Winckelmann. It also contained as its “Conclusion” the passionate conclusion from “Poems by William Morris”. After the publication of this book, in 1873, Pater was publicly denounced by various clergymen for his unbelief in fixed principles of religion and his “hedonistic” philosophy. Then, when an unconsummated but loving relationship between Pater and an undergraduate poet named William Money Hardinge became known in 1874 to several Oxford students and officials, he was denied nomination to the office of University proctor, to which he was entitled by seniority, and Hardinge was sent home, for nine months. However, this volume established Pater as the theorist of the Aesthetic Movement in England and as a worthy challenger to John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, leading Victorian critics of art and literature.

After suffering public and private censure, Pater became more circumspect in his life and his writing. In Marius the Epicurean, he re-examined ideas expressed in The Renaissance and explained them more fully, with some modification, especially in regard to the relativity of moral principles. He explored new forms of short fiction in Imaginary Portraits (1887). He expanded his range of criticism, treating English authors in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (1889) and Greek myths and art in essays published in periodicals between 1876 and 1894 and collected posthumously as Greek Studies: A Series of Essays (1895). His later works, like his earlier, reflect his wide reading. They develop his stance as a reconciler – of pagan and Christian values, as well as Classical and Romantic tendencies in literature. He retained his skeptical outlook, stating in his last book, Plato and Platonism: A Series of Lectures (1893): “Sanguine about any form of absolute knowledge, of eternal, or indefectible, or immutable truth, with our modern temperament as it is, we shall hardly become [. . .]. [S]uspended judgment [. . .] is but [. . .] the ‘philosophic temper’, [. . .] for which a survival of query will be still the salt of truth, even in the most absolutely ascertained knowledge” (Lib. Ed., 195-96). Pater died July 30, 1894, of a heart attack following a bout with rheumatic fever.

[Citations from the Library Edition of Pater’s works.]

Inman, Billie Andrew. "Walter Pater". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 April 2004
[, accessed 27 July 2017.]

Articles on Pater's works

  1. Appreciations: with an Essay on Style
  2. Imaginary Portraits
  3. Marius the Epicurean
  4. Studies in the History of the Renaissance

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