Walter Pater (1839---94) is a man whose time is coming, but it has been a long wait. Despite the excellent books by Michael Levey (The Case of Walter Pater, 1978) and Denis Donoghue (Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls, 1995), we still need a full biography; the two-volume effort by Thomas Wright (1907) is seriously inadequate. We at least have a reliable edition of Pater’s letters by Lawrence Evans (1970). It is a cause for celebration that Oxford University Press has announced a modern scholarly edition of the complete works to replace the unannotated “Library Edition” of 1910. Meanwhile, few individual titles are available. The Renaissance (1873) and Marius the Epicurean (1885) may still be found by diligent searchers, but the former is likely to be read by students of art history rather than English literature, and the latter encountered, if at all, by postgraduates specializing in the nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle. Imaginary Portraits (1887) was published in 2014 in an exemplary edition by Lene Østermark-Johansen, but I doubt whether it has had wide currency. On the credit side, there are high-quality monographs such as Carolyn Williams’s Transfigured World:Walter Pater’s Aesthetic Historicism (1989) and William F. Shuter’s Rereading Walter Pater (1997). These are now joined by the outstanding collection of essays in Pater the Classicist. Tellingly, of the twenty-one contributors, only seven are academic teachers of literature. The others are classicists and art historians. Their collective aim is to make the case that Pater, whom they describe as “our greatest aesthetic critic,” is also a force to be reckoned with in classical studies.
Pater is a force to be reckoned with in classical studies.
Both those claims have been routinely dismissed in the past. Aesthetic criticism was one of T. S. Eliot’s chief targets in The Sacred Wood (1920), with Pater among those singled out for opprobrium, and Eliot continued the attack in his essay “Arnold and Pater” (1930), which dismisses Pater as “incapable of sustained reasoning.” Well, if the alternative to being Pater is to be F. H. Bradley, I know what my preference would be. On the classical side, Richard Jenkyns, in a still influential book, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (1980), was even more cutting: Pater’s Plato and Platonism (1893), he asserted, tells us “next to nothing” about its subject, and while he allows that “historical self-consciousness” such as we find in Marius may be “an experience very exquisite, very cultivated,” for him it really only amounts to “cultural narcissism.” Such sneers are wholly misplaced. Eliot owed greater debts to Pater than he was willing to acknowledge. In particular, Appreciations (1889) anticipates some key insights of Eliot’s, such as his perception of the “musical design” of Shakespeare’s plays, and his warning against the romanticism which is a by-product of “aesthetic” criticism. Far from being a victim of this tendency, Pater is aware, and wary, of it. Again, Pater’s essay on “Style” propounds a theory of criticism on which Eliot was to build. Pater’s Hegelian view of the dynamic interaction between different historical epochs (subtly explored by James I. Porter in Pater the Classicist) is strikingly close to Eliot’s account of tradition. As for Jenkyns’s scorn, it is repeatedly refuted, explicitly and implicitly, by the contributors to this book.
Although he was at Queen’s College as an undergraduate, Pater was for a time tutored by Jowett of Balliol. He did not, however, completely endorse Jowett’s view of Plato, which combined idealism with a lofty conception of public service. As Daniel Orrells shows, Pater saw Plato rather as foreshadowing the late Victorian conflict between pure abstract reasoning and scientific investigation, between the urge to synthesize and the urge to classify. “For Pater,” Orrells concludes, “the oscillation between the general and the particular . . . is the history of thought.” Pater’s professional life, as well as his publication, reflects his concern for the formation of the intellect. He was a conscientious teacher of his pupils at Brasenose College, paying close attention to their essays in a way that was unusual at the time, and was active in giving lectures to university and other audiences. Isobel Hurst informs us that he gave thirty-eight courses in twenty years, focusing principally but not exclusively on the texts prescribed for the “Greats” syllabus, which required reading of Greek and Latin literature, history, and philosophy. These were no dry commentaries, however, for the syllabus was designed to make students see the relevance of ancient texts to contemporary problems. Plato and Platonism, which was originally delivered as a series of lectures, shows how engagingly that could be done. Such an approach suited Pater’s eclectic, synthesizing cast of mind. Prompted by the example of his sister Clara, who taught women students (including Virginia Stephen, later Woolf), he was also drawn towards emerging academic disciplines such as anthropology and comparative religion, and kept abreast of archaeological discoveries. Indeed, one of his central intuitions about Greek religion, that it was influenced more heavily by Orphism than by worship of the Olympian pantheon, has been vindicated, according to Robert Fowler, by excavations carried out in the last half-century.
Pater’s direct experience of classical sites was admittedly limited. He visited Rome only briefly, and Greece never. This latter omission he shared with a figure of crucial importance for him, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717---68), a German historian who first established a methodology for classifying Greek art, and spent a long period in Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. A chapter in Pater the Classicist, co-authored by Stefano Evangelista and Katherine Harloe, contends that Pater saw in Winckelmann “a paradigm of the aesthetic critic’s continual striving for self-evaluation, integration, and harmonization,” and admired his work for the place it gave to classical scholarship in opening up new ways of understanding past cultures, rather than in imposing a cramping intellectual template. Winckelmann’s book on the history of ancient art, published in 1764, which stressed the relationship between the social and aesthetic aspects of the classical world, made him famous. He met a tragic end, being murdered in a hotel in Trieste on his way back from a visit to Munich and Vienna. Lessing and Goethe were among his protégés, and Pater devoted an essay to him in The Renaissance— the first of his essays, in fact, to take the classical world rather than the Renaissance as its subject.
The sensuousness of Winckelmann’s response to Greek sculpture reflected the homosexuality which he and Pater shared. There are numerous discreet hints of this in Pater’s work, and it seems to have been fairly widely known in his circle. In 1874 he was reprimanded by Jowett over his friendship with an undergraduate: coming only a year after the row over his “Conclusion” to the first edition of The Renaissance, this must have made him extremely circumspect. Yet he wrote of Winckelmann’s “romantic, fervent friendships with young men,” praising his “serenity” about Greek statuary, his “absence of any sense of want, or corruption, or shame,” and admired the “moral sexlessness” of the statues themselves.
Many of Winckelmann’s scholarly interests fed into Pater’s writing. His fascination with Apollo lies behind “Apollo in Picardy,” with its transposition of classical myth into a modern setting, while his work on Pausanias, the author of the Periegesis, an investigation of Grecian topography, was extended in Pater’s lectures on this text in 1878 and in Greek Studies (1895). Pausanias, Winckelmann, and Pater were all drawn to the fragmentariness of the surviving monuments and artifacts, “traces” as Pater repeatedly called them—a word which, as Charlotte Ribeyrol points out, evokes both movement (a path to be tracked) and stasis (a residual imprint). Pater’s Winckelmann essay specifies “motion ever kept in reserve” as characteristic of “the best Greek sculpture,” while in “The Age of Athletic Prizemen” (Greek Studies) the Discobolus of Myron is praised for catching “that moment of rest which lies between two opposed motions,” the right arm flung back for the throw and the left foot tensed for the step.
We may see that same quality in the typical Paterian sentence, with its propulsion constantly checked, interrupted, and recalibrated by dashes, parentheses, and proliferating subordinate clauses. This is prose which has absorbed Aristotle’s point, in the Nichomachean Ethics (on which Pater lectured throughout the 1870s), that there is an “energy” of immobility as well as one of motion. As Elizabeth Prettejohn excellently says, “Elegance of style in Pater is never decorative; rather, it is the formal counterpart to precision and nuance in argumentation.” This is something which Eliot and Jenkyns missed. Prettejohn’s “Pater on Sculpture” astutely observes that Pater’s analysis in Greek Studies of the Aegina marbles as the culmination, rather than the rudimentary beginnings, of a tradition was a modification of what she calls the “relentless progressivism” of Hegel (whose work Pater knew well in German), and anticipated the early Modernist fascination with so-called primitive art. Winckelmann’s exaltation of “pure form” (shades of Clive Bell!) was gradually left behind as Pater developed a dialectic between the Ionic and the Dorian schools.
This is prose of immobility as well as of motion.
In Marius the Epicurean (1885), many strands in Pater’s thinking come together, and several of the essayists give detailed attention to the novel—if that is the right word for a book whose full title is Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas. Mrs. Humphry Ward, reviewing it in Macmillan’s Magazine, saw it as an expression of late-nineteenth-century religious doubt disguised as the experiences of an impressionable second-century youth who perceives the shortcomings of the old philosophies, feels the fresh attractiveness of Christianity, but hesitates to commit himself. That is perhaps too narrow an interpretation, missing other possibilities, for example that Pater may be composing a kind of Platonic dialogue about different sets of values. It also discounts the explicitness of the ending. To use the title of the last chapter of the novel, Marius is anima naturaliter christiana, a naturally Christian soul, and he dies strengthened by the Last Sacraments, amid the prayers of Christian friends who hold his death, “according to their generous view of the matter, to have been of the nature of a martyrdom.”
Pater plays variations on his classical sources in Marius. Duncan Kennedy’s essay studies the role of Tibullus—who was ignored in England but admired by Goethe—in coloring the presentation of Marius himself as an introspective solitary. Richard Rutherford concentrates on the portrait of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Stoics, whose Meditations comes so close to Christianity in temper yet who also persecuted Christians. Matthew Arnold’s essay on the emperor (1863), reprinted in Essays in Criticism: First Series (1865), depicts him, again in late Victorian mode, yearning for a wisdom and a truth which philosophy alone cannot supply. In Pater it is Marius himself who does this; the historical Marcus Aurelius’s regret at Christian martyrdom is omitted. Yet the book never sets out to be a conventional historical novel in the manner of Walter Scott or George Eliot. Rather it is, in James Porter’s phrase, “made up of plural temporalities,” a syncretic mix of allusions to ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, and nineteenth-century Europe, moving “between a past which has ceased to be and a future which may never come.” Porter is perhaps echoing Arnold’s “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born,” the condition of psychological and spiritual paralysis which he diagnosed as the malaise of his time. Pater was in agreement, remarking in Appreciations the “inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness,” the “endless regret,” characteristic of the age. “The modern spirit,” he observed, could know nothing “except relatively and under conditions.” The tapestry of different historical epochs which is woven in Marius is a worked example of this relativism. Eliot, again, missed the point completely, dismissing the novelas “an incoherent hodge-podge.”
As mentioned above, Pater the aesthete is also considered in this book. That description needs to be carefully glossed. “Aesthete” in late Victorian usage could be a coded reference to homosexuality, but it can be understood in a less censorious way. It is true that Pater liked to affect a dandyish mode of dress, especially during his time in London between 1885 and 1893, when his “at homes” attracted such figures as Arthur Symons and Vernon Lee. Oscar Wilde had attended his lectures when an undergraduate in the 1870s, and Pater had urged him to write prose, as being “so much more difficult” than poetry. Wilde offers a particularly interesting case of Pater’s influence because his student notebooks have survived (Oscar Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making, eds. Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand, 1989). They establish that Wilde knew the Winckelmann essay with its summary of Hegel’s aesthetic theories. Adam Lee, in his essay on “Pater’s Reading of Aristotle,” notes Wilde’s sharing of Pater’s admiration for the contemplative life. Pater’s influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he tutored in the 1860s, and whose hypersensibility he may have encouraged, was more equivocal; Pater’s opposition to Christian dogma was unacceptable to Hopkins, but he was attracted by the intensity of Pater’s aesthetic responses.
The caricature of Pater as “Mr. Rose” in W. H. Mallock’s The New Republic (1876) cleverly hits off the more précieux aspects of his style. Mr. Rose is a “pale creature,” a “pre-Raphaelite” who “always speaks in an undertone, and his two topics are self-indulgence and art.” This is amusing, but markedly one-sided. It glances at two of Pater’s essays: “Aesthetic Poetry,” much of which is about William Morris, and “Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” But one of the points made in “Aesthetic Poetry” is the change in Morris’s style from a feverish, unhealthy emotionalism to a saner, more outward-looking appreciation of the human and natural worlds. Pater’s aestheticism (his admiration for transcendent beauty in works of art) was balanced by his historicism (his recognition that such art- objects do not float free of a socio-historical or philosophical context). Like Wilde and Hopkins, if he could be dreamy, he could also be startlingly tough. As Whitney Davis shows in an outstanding essay, Pater takes up Lessing’s concept of “arrested action” in sculpture—which Davis finds resurfacing in Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” of photographic “images on the run”—and develops it in connection with the Greek ideal of rhythmos, locating in the Parthenon friezes, for instance, a sequence of links and breaks in line and movement which function “like liturgic music.” Rhythmoi in Greek aesthetics are controlled by the “beat” of repeated forms or patterns which constitute a “flow”; the supreme example of this is the dance. A sculpture can capture the flow at a moment of arrest and maximum grace. Again one can see analogies with Pater’s own prose. Ultimately, “aesthetic” as applied to him is most fully understood in its etymological sense: he was a lover of beauty in all its forms, but (pace Richard Jenkyns) no mere exquisite.
Pater abandoned the formal profession of Christianity at the age of twenty-one.
Pater abandoned the formal profession of Christianity at the age of twenty-one. He was aware of Winckelmann’s reception into the Catholic Church in 1754, largely in order to gain access to Roman antiquities; was that hypocrisy? Nothing so simple, said Pater: for Winckelmann, as for himself, “the moral instinct . . . was merged in the artistic,” and all religions, including Christianity, retained an element of paganism. Canterbury, where Pater went to school, and Oxford both stood for Anglican orthodoxy, but ritual was always more important to him than doctrine. Michael Levey tells the story of his Wildean verdict on some sermons which earnest friends had taken him to hear: “It doesn’t matter what is said as long as it is said beautifully.” After graduation, he briefly entertained the idea of being ordained, but, as Levey relates, his school friend J. R. McQueen wrote to the Bishop of London protesting that this would be a profanation. His interest in broader religious questions persisted, however. His review of Mrs. Humphry Ward’s celebrated crisis-of-faith novel Robert Elsmere (1888)—a kind of reply to her review of Marius—reminded readers that, while Elsmere is “a type of a large class of minds which cannot be sure that the sacred story is true,” there also exists “a large class of minds which cannot be sure it is false.” In his last, unfinished, essay, Pater presented Pascal as a man in whom “doubts never die, they are only just kept down in a perpetual agonia.” It would be overstating the case to say that Pater was tormented by doubts; when he wrote about Greek religion, he took it seriously, and asked himself what it would have been like actually to believe it. As Robert Fowler’s essay shows, myth for Pater was something to be developed rather than discarded.
“Demeter and Persephone” in Greek Studies outlines three phases in that process of development. First there is a mystical phase, in which the myths are orally transmitted in an effort at etiological explanation. This is succeeded by a poetical phase, in which the oral traditions are given literary expression, and then by an ethical or spiritual phase in which the myths are interpreted symbolically, giving them universal significance. Fowler points out similarities between Pater’s theories and those of Ruskin in The Queen of the Air (1869) and of Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872); there are also affinities with Blake (a connection worth further exploration). Pater’s binary opposition of Apollo and Dionysus, his distinction between the Thracian and the Greek Dionysus, and his insight into the Greek attraction towards the irrational are all in the tradition of Nietzsche, but Nietzsche’s greater brilliance overshadowed Pater, while the growth of a more scientific, archaeological study of classical art made his aestheticism look outmoded, even amateurish. Yet he influenced the work of Jane Harrison, who knew him and his sisters, and arguably that of E. R. Dodds (whose The Greeks and the Irrational Fowler doesn’t mention). Fowler notes a recent re-emergence of the study of belief systems among professional classicists, and concludes, in words which all his fellow-contributors would endorse, that Pater “may yet have something to teach scholars of the subject.”
In 1894 Pater was confined to bed with a bout of rheumatic fever. Having recovered from this, he contracted pleurisy, which brought on a heart attack. He died a few days short of his fifty-fifth birthday. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford, in the grounds of the former church of St Cross, which since 2011 has housed the Historic Collections Centre of Balliol College. This proximity of secular and sacred places, the life of the mind and the repose of the soul, seems very appropriate. As Pater the Classicist shows, the pursuit of humane learning was always, for Pater, in some sense a spiritual quest.
1Pater the Classicist: Classical Scholarship, Reception, and Aestheticism, edited by Charles Martindale, Stefano Evangelista, and Elizabeth Prettejohn; Oxford University Press, 384 pages, $105.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 18
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