The English author Walter Horatio Pater (1839-1894) was the most influential figure in the Esthetic movement of the late 19th century. His writings reveal a mind of sensibility and discrimination, embodying its judgments in carefully wrought prose.
By the 1860s and 1870s the younger generation of British intellectuals was beginning to react against the excessive weight of moral criteria prevalent in critical judgments on the fine arts. Walter Pater led the way in this reaction by stressing the diversity of artistic experience and the need for flexibility in judgments. He directed critical attention to discrimination of the special and essential character of each work of art or artistic personality and to precise analysis of the effect each produces upon the individual. In effect, he developed refinement of critical response into a philosophy of life.
Pater was born at Shadwell, East London, on Aug. 4, 1839. His father, a surgeon of Dutch descent, died when Walter was a child, and the boy was brought up chiefly by an aunt. He attended King's School, Canterbury, and then entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1858. In his youth he was devout, but at the university he became more questioning about Christian beliefs. His interest in literature was already quite pronounced. After taking his degree (1862), he settled in Oxford and in 1864 gained a fellowship at Brasenose College.
Pater now began to write for the reviews. His intense reading in English authors was evident in a piece on Coleridge published in the Westminster Review of 1866. It was the basis of a later, fuller essay on Coleridge and drew an important distinction between the relativity of modern thought and the absolutism of the past. Pater was coming within the influence of the "art for art's sake" movement, under the leadership of Algernon Charles Swinburne and such French writers as Théophile Gautier. They claimed for art the specialized techniques of analysis and criteria of value that pertained to scientific investigation.
Pater's reverence for the revived classical humanism of the Italian Renaissance was evident in a series of essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Pico della Mirandola and on Michelangelo's poetry that he published in the Fortnightly Review (1869-1871). These, together with a few others, a preface, and a conclusion, formed the basis of the collection Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). This book, by far the most influential of all Pater's writings, is well known for its rhetorical set pieces, such as the celebrated meditation on Leonardo's Mona Lisa. However, it is packed with subtle discriminations and esthetic speculations. The famous conclusion, with its assertion that "not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end" of life, and its exhortation "to burn always with this hard gemlike flame," became the rallying cry of a generation of esthetes. Some tended to overlook the context of intense intellectual concentration and esthetic analysis in which Pater's words found their meaning and application, and they responded to his call as an invitation to active paganism. Similar misunderstanding also gave rise to hostility and satire, as in W. H. Mallock's The New Republic (1877), in which Pater was lampooned. Somewhat embarrassed, Pater withdrew the conclusion from the second edition (1877), replacing it in the third (1888) when he could direct his readers to a fuller treatment of his thought in Marius the Epicurean.
Career at Oxford
Pater now became the leader of a cult of disciples at Oxford, but fears about the decadent tendencies of his writings prevented his advance in the university. His own habits, however, remained ascetic. He was always by nature shy; his temperament was doubtless in a part a response to his ugliness. His rooms at Brasenose remained the center of his work for most of his life, though for a time he also kept an address in Kensington or outside the college in Oxford.
The most sustained exposition of Pater's point of view is contained in his philosophical novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), which traces the spiritual evolution of a young Roman in the time of the Antonines as he comes under the influence, successively, of Cyrenaic philosophy, the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, and the ardor and courage of the early Christian community. In spite of its many passages of great beauty, the novel is fatiguing as a whole. However, it does absolve Pater from the charge of advocating a narrowly conceived pleasure as the goal of life.
Pater continued to write articles for periodicals, largely on Greek and English literature, philosophy, and the fine arts. A group of philosophic character sketches were collected in 1887 as Imaginary Portraits. Some of his most discriminating literary criticism was contained in the volume Appreciations (1889). This collection was introduced by his famous article "Style," which had appeared the preceding year in the Fortnightly Review. The volume concluded with a postscript on the meaning of the terms "classical" and "romantic" which offered his well-known definition of the romantic character in art as the "addition of strangeness to beauty." His volume Plato and Platonism appeared in 1893.
After several bouts of illness, Pater suffered a heart attack and died suddenly on July 30, 1894. His former pupil C. L. Shadwell posthumously edited several volumes of his work: Greek Studies (1895), Miscellaneous Studies (1895), and Gaston Latour (1896), an unfinished novel.
Further Reading on Walter Horatio Pater
The standard biography of Pater is Thomas Wright, The Life of Walter Pater (2 vols., 1907; repr. 1969). Another general introduction to his life and work and is Arthur Christopher Benson, Walter Pater (1906; repr. 1968). For studies of Pater's thought and criticism see Ruth C. Child, The Aesthetic of Walter pater (1940); Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (1949); and the relevant chapters in René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, vol. 4: The Later Nineteenth Century (1965). See also Arthur Symons, A Study of Walter Pater (1932). Recommitted for background on the Esthetic movement are William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (1945), and Jerome Buckley, The Victorian Temper (1951).
Additional Biography Sources
Donoghue, Denis, Walter Pater: lover of strange souls, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1995.
Levey, Michael, The case of Walter Pater, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Monsman, Gerald Cornelius, Walter Pater's art of autobiography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Walter Pater, a life remembered, Calgary, Alta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 1987.