Most of Walter Pater’s work appeared initially in leading Victorian periodicals such as the Westminster Review, the Fortnightly Review, Macmillan’s Magazine, and similar publications. With the exception of his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), the volumes that were published in Pater’s lifetime, for example Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), or posthumously edited, for example Greek Studies (1895), were
thematically related collections of periodical essays or similar pieces, such as introductions and lectures. Moreover, even Marius was an “ideological” or “critical” novel, resembling a group of essays tied together by an ancillary plot. Indeed, Pater’s second, incomplete novel, Gaston de Latour (1896), appeared serially as a historical romance in Macmillan’s, but its chapter on Giordano Bruno was printed initially in the Fortnightly as an essay. Pater felt that the essay, lying between lyric poetry and the didactic treatise, was the “characteristic literary type of our own time, a time so rich and various in special apprehensions of truth, so tentative and dubious in its sense of their ensemble, and issues,” as he says in Plato and Platonism (1893). For the famous Renaissance essayist Montaigne, the genre, says Pater, provided “precisely the literary form necessary to a mind for which truth itself is but a possibility, realisable not as general conclusion, but rather as the elusive effect of a particular personal experience.”
Pater produced studies not only of Montaigne, but also of such eminent English essayists as Sir Thomas Browne and Charles Lamb. Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits contemporains (1846; Contemporary portraits) probably supplied Pater with the “imaginary portraits” label for his fiction, though portraiture is the characteristic form of Pater’s nonfictional essays as well. Pater’s pen portraits of real or imaginary figures— literary writers, artists, mythological figures, and political rulers—depict the living personality behind cultural productions, epitomizing particular historical phases, philosophic schools, and works of art. In his portraits, the accent is on finely discriminated “sensations and ideas” (the subtitle of Marius)—that is, on perception and the fleeting impression rather than on action or dialogue. This critical or analytic turn of mind is associated with a Romantic or Wordsworthian sense that eye and ear subjectively half-create the world they perceive. Pater agreed with Flaubert and Stendhal that prose was greatly superior to poetry for inquiring into those elusive mouvements de coeur, nuances of a consciousness conscious of itself.
Despite successive stages of composition and revision that often seemed to involve a disproportionate effort for the results obtained, Pater’s texts contain a certain irreducible core of factual and grammatical error as well as rhetorical ambiguity. Perhaps his private emotional tensions resisted final formulation in the logic and rhythm-phrases of prose.
Yet Pater’s essays do achieve a unique “imaginative sense of fact,” a”vision within,” as he defined his purpose in “Style” (1888); accordingly, they radically revise the Victorian positivistutilitarian prose standards of mimetic objectivity and rhetorical persuasion.
The customary synopsis of Pater’s style as precious, overrefined, artificial, or exotic is perhaps more fantasy than fact. His two most famous “purple panels,” both in his first book, The Renaissance, are passages on the sinister Mona Lisa in “Leonardo da Vinci” (1869), in which he imagines Lady Lisa to be “older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”; and on aesthetic experience in the volume’s Conclusion (1868), in which Pater advises young men to seek the quickening “passion” of art, “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame.”
Many readers familiar with these early essays are not acquainted, for example, with his portrait of the historical memoirist and femme fatale, Margaret of Navarre, in a diptych of essays on poisonous love in his late work, Gaston de Latour. Oscar Wilde had sent Pater a copy of his play, Salomé (perhaps because Pater earlier had given Wilde a book by Flaubert that suggested the topic), and accordingly Pater began his portrait of Margaret on a “moon-lit street,” reminiscent of the sensuously charged moon in Wilde’s play.
Wilde’s predatory princess and her trophy on a silver shield either echoes or is echoed in Margaret’s relic of a beheaded lover. Describing the pallor of the princess, “like white lilac or roses in winter,” Pater’s paradoxes catch something of her ambiguous beauty and the fate of Narcissus to which her beholders are driven: “there was almost oriental blue richness, blackness, in the king-fisher wings or waves of hair which over-shadowed ce beau visage blanc so abundantly, yet with lines so jealously observed along the proud, firm, smooth flesh, making you think, by its transparent shadows, of cool places around—yes! around dangerously deep water-pools, amid a great heat. Like such water, the black eyes surprised you by their clear dark blue, when in full sunlight for a moment, as the trees opened above.” Often in Pater’s prose, the larger unities of book, essay, paragraph, or sentence dissolve in qualifications, digressions, postponements, and delays as Pater works toward a final impression left vibrating in consciousness—here, Margaret’s dark blue eyes as perilous pools. This aggregate image through which all the other ideas rush anticipates what Ezra Pound in “Vorticism” (1914) called “a radiant node or cluster” that records “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” In Pater’s essays, we have a mind watching itself in motion; hunting its aesthetic equivalent within hesitant, exquisitely adjusted prose; and aspiring to permanence in “a fragment of perfect expression.”
Walter Horatio Pater. Born 4 August 1839 in London. Studied at King’s School, Canterbury, 1853–58; Queen’s College, Oxford, 1858–62., B.A. in classics, 1862. Tutor in Oxford, 1862–64; elected to the Old Mortality, an essay society in Oxford, 1863;
Fellow, from 1864, and tutor, until 1883, Brasenose College, Oxford, M.A., 1865.
Traveled to Italy for the first time, 1865, and lived in Rome, 1882, 1883. Contributor to various journals, from 1866, including the Westminster Review and the Fortnightly Review. Associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Swinburne, from 1869. Lived in London, 1885–93, and Oxford, 1893–94.
Awards: honorary degree from the University of Glasgow, 1894.
Died in Oxford (of rheumatic fever), 30 July 1894.
Essays and Related Prose
Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873; revised edition, as The Renaissance, 1877; revised editions, 1888, 1893; edited by Donald L.Hill, 1980, Adam Phillips, 1986, and William E.Buckler, in Three major Texts, 1986
Imaginary Portraits, 1887; edited by William E.Buckler, in Three Buckler, in Three Major Texts, 1986
Appreciations, with an Essay on Style, 1889; revised edition, 1890; edited by William E.Buckler, in Three Major Texts, 1986
Plato and Platonism: A Series of Lectures, 1893
Greek Studies: A Series of Essays, edited by Charles L.Shadwell, 1895
Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays, edited by Charles L. Shadwell, 1895
Essays from The Guardian, 1896
Uncollected Essays, 1903
Sketches and Reviews, 1919
Selected Works, edited by Richard Aldington, 1948
Essays on Literature and Art, edited by Jennifer Uglow, 1973
Selected Writings, edited by Harold Bloom, 1974
Three Mafor Texts, edited by William E.Buckler, 1986
Other writings: two novels (Marius the Epicurean, 1885; Gaston de Latour
[unfinished], 1896, revised edition edited by Gerald Monsman, 1995).
Collected works edition: Works, 10 vols., 1910.
Court, Franklin E., Walter Pater: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1980
Wright, Samuel, A Bibliography of the Writings of Walter Pater, New York: Garland, and Folkestone: Dawson, 1975
Block, Ed, “Walter Pater’s ‘Diaphaneite’ and the Pattern of Reader Response in the Portrait Essay,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25 (1983):427–47
Buckler, William E., Walter Pater: The Critic as Artist of Ideas, New York: New York University Press, 1987
Chandler, Edmund, “Pater on Style,” Anglistica 20 (1958):1–100
Court, Franklin E., “Walter Pater’s Impressionism: A ‘New Line’ in English Prose,” in Der englische Essay: Analysen, edited by Horst Weber, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, 1975: 263–74
Donoghue, Denis, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls, New York: Knopf, 1995
Duffy, John J., “Walter Pater’s Prose Style: An Essay in Theory and Analysis,” Style 1 (1967):45–63
Fletcher, Ian, Walter Pater, London: Longman, revised edition, 1971 (original edition, 1959)
Fraser, G.S., “Walter Pater: His Theory of Style, His Style in Practice, His Influence,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by George Levine and William Madden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968:201–23
Inman, Billie A., “Pater’s Appeal to His Readers: A Study of Two of Pater’s Prose Styles,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14 (1973):643–66
Monsman, Gerald, “Walter Pater: Style and Text,” South Atlantic Quarterly 71
Monsman, Gerald, Walter Pater, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Monsman, Gerald, “Introduction: On Reading Pater,” in Walter Pater: An Imaginative Sense of Fact, edited by Philip Dodd, London: Cass, 1981:1–11; also in Prose Studies 4 (1981):1–11
Seiler, R.M., editor, Walter Pater: The Critical Heritage, London and Boston: Routledge, 1980
Zangwill, Israel, “Pater and Prose,” in his Without Prejudice, London: Fisher Unwin, and New York: Century, 1896:207–19
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