Pater, Walter

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PATER, WALTER (1839–1894), English writer, critic, and aesthete.

In June 1858 Walter Horatio Pater matriculated at Queen's College, University of Oxford, where he read classics. Pater's earliest published review essays, "Coleridge's Writings" (1866) and "Winckelmann" (1867), expressed his unorthodox views on Christian religion and sexuality, as did two unpublished essays circulated in 1864, "Diaphaneite" and "Subjective Immortality." The latter essay stoked theological controversy among the high-church party at Oxford for its denial of an afterlife. In February 1864 Pater was elected to the first nonclerical fellowship in classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he resided until 1869.

Soon after, Pater published three anonymous articles for the Westminster Review on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Winckelmann, and William Morris. In particular, he attacked theological dogmatism, glowingly advertised Winckelmann's promotion of Hellenism and homoeroticism, and linked himself to his pre-Raphaelite contemporaries such as John Ruskin as well as to the style of "aesthetic poetry." Pater's Morris essay climaxed in a conclusion that presented life as a flux of sensory perceptions in which the noblest task for the observant eye was to identify and capture a momentarily stable and satisfying form, thereby extending life's "highest" moments. His approach openly esteemed the male form in art in the same measure as it appreciated the application of abstract reason and logic. His conclusion advocated the cultivation of "passion," defined as the "fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness." These views would mark the rest of Pater's career, to the delight of aesthetes and the consternation of Anglican clergy.

In 1869 Pater moved to north Oxford, living with his two sisters, and began to dress as a dandy. For the first time he published articles under his own name in the Fortnightly Review. The first, on Leonardo da Vinci (1869), included his famous invocation of the Mona Lisa: "She is as old as the rocks upon which she sits," the influence of which W. B. Yeats carried into the twentieth century when he printed this passage as the first poem in his Oxford Book of English Verse (1939). Studies of Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, and Michelangelo followed. In 1872 he combined these with new essays, to produce Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). To this work he attached the "Conclusion" from the Morris essay, which proved highly controversial in its new context and was withdrawn in the 1877 edition, only to be reinstated in 1888. Oscar Wilde, a former student, would praise Studies as the "golden book" of his youth, but the notoriety Pater's work attracted among traditionalists turned him away from publishing another book for twelve years.

In Studies, Pater redefined the Renaissance as a "tendency" in human civilization, rather than as a specific historical "moment"—a tendency that was born in ancient Greece and is characterized by the "desire for a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life." He would do the same to the terms "Romantic" and "classical" in an 1876 essay. The bold preface to his Studies overturned Matthew Arnold's call for an objective analysis of art by emphasizing instead the primacy of subjective responses. For Pater, the first task of any serious viewer is to recognize "one's own impression" of a work of art rather than the qualities of the object in itself.

His links to the "aesthetic school," with its practitioners' reputation for hedonism and "Greek love," and the discovery of letters exposing his intimacy with a young man at Brasenose threatened Pater with expulsion from Oxford. He was subsequently passed over for important university posts in the late 1870s and 1880s and rendered financially vulnerable. At this time he also experimented with a hybrid genre that fused biography, fiction, history, and criticism, which he labeled the "imaginary portrait." In 1882 he traveled to Rome and in 1883 resigned his Oxford tutorship. March 1885 saw the publication of his only finished novel, Marius the Epicurean, which Pater identified as an extended elaboration upon his infamous "Conclusion." Set in the Rome of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the novel treats the problems of morality in a decadent pagan world where an ascetic Christianity is in the ascendant.

In the late 1880s Pater's productivity increased. His output included short stories, collected in Imaginary Portraits (1887), and criticism of modern French and English literature in Appreciations: With an Essay on 'Style' (1889). In 1893 Pater published his last book, Plato and Platonism, derived from lectures on ancient Greek philosophy, art, and archaeology.

Pater won little recognition in his lifetime. Modern scholars recognize Pater for having introduced a distinctively gay sensibility into English letters and for lending quiet inspiration to a generation of similarly inclined male writers, including J. A. Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and Oscar Wilde. Critics are still divided as to whether Pater's ethereally refined prose style expresses the final bloom of late Romanticism or announces a nascent modernism.

See alsoArnold, Matthew; Carpenter, Edward; Decadence; Ellis, Havelock; Philhellenic Movement; Symonds, John Addington; Wilde, Oscar.


Brake, Laurel. Walter Pater. Edited by Isobel Armstrong. Plymouth, U.K., 1994.

Buckler, William E. Walter Pater: The Critic as Artist of Ideas. New York 1987.

Donoghue, Denis. Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. New York, 1995.

Iser, Wolfgang. Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment. Translated by David Henry Wilson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987.

Wright, Thomas. The Life of Walter Pater. 2 vols. New York, 1969.

Stephen Vella