by Elyse Graham
Born in a slum in the East End of London in 1839, Walter Pater was the son of a professional family barely hanging on to the middle class.^1 When Pater was two, his father, a general practitioner, died suddenly of a brain hemmorhage. His uncle, who shared the family’s medical practice and supported his brother’s widow and children, died in an accident three years later.
Pater’s mother, suddenly in charge of a clan that included four children, a sister-in-law, and an aging mother-in-law, used the inheritance money to move the family to the suburb of Enfield. Pater often returned in his later writings to images of the little Enfield home and the beautiful campus around it. By all reports, family life there was a dance of mutual solitude, its participants emotionally close but well out of each other’s lives. The inherent, powerful loner streak this suggests helps to account for the contradictions that would later ground portraits of Pater the critic: a solitary man who cherished close friendships, passionate yet abstemious, emotional yet deeply reserved. None of the Pater children married.
The family cultivated a playful private legend, almost certainly false, that their surname came by lineage from Jean-Baptiste Pater, the only apprentice of the painter Watteau. By adulthood Pater would have known this was a fiction, but he clearly felt it nonetheless to have real explanatory value. Watteau makes many appearances in his later work; one of his “imaginary portraits,” “The Prince of Court Painters,” takes the perspective of Jean-Baptiste’s sister, and a story based loosely on Pater’s childhood, “The Child in the House,” finds in the family home “an element of descent in its inmates—-descent from Watteau, the old court-painter, one of whose gallant pieces still hung in one of the rooms” (37).
At school Pater was a pious and dedicated student, earning the nickname of “Parson Pater” (46). He performed well enough that when he was about thirteen, his family took the leap of moving to a village near Canterbury with a better school, to improve his chances of attending Oxford. (Pater’s brother joined the military and then went into medicine. The question of his sisters’ education seems not to have come up. Clara, the sister he was closest to, taught herself Latin and Greek and eventually became a tutor to Virginia Woolf.)
At the King’s School in Canterbury, Pater also began to write. His earliest biographer, Thomas Wright, says that the young Pater dreamed of becoming a poet: “Between 1856 and 1860 he wrote scores of poems, and a number of them, in his own handwriting and signed, are in the possession of his friends” (Wright, 99). Wright preserves a few excerpts: some are pure Victorian schoolroom (“o’er the surging Bosom of the billowy sea”), but others suggest hints of his later sensibility. One is presented as a sea ditty that Christian souls sing on their way to Heaven; it departs rather luxuriously from the austere tone one might expect, describing a pleasure voyage on boats that row themselves over a violet sea: “Every wave behind us glancing / Wears a crest of snow-white foam, / Like the matin cloud advancing, / In the blue ethereal dome” (Wright, 101). Parson Pater never escaped the suspicion that something in his sermons was unsettling or out of place, although to him it all seems to have been one. Pater’s friends named among his childhood heroes St. Paul and St. Apollonia, Diana and Hippolytus, figures who represent a startling mixture of attitudes toward paganism and Christianity, celibacy and sex, but who have in common a legendary intensity of dedication (Wright, 100).
Pater did manage to win a scholarship to Oxford, worth sixty pounds a year. He entered Queen’s College in June 1859. At Oxford, Pater continued writing poetry, and he allowed the rumor to be spread that he had published his work. Outside of class, he threw himself into the study of language; by his second year, he had set himself to translating a page every day from writers like Plato, Goethe, Lessing, Sainte-Beuve, or Flaubert, whose masterpiece, Madame Bovary, had first appeared in 1857. His reading also included Goethe and Wordsworth, the Greek and Latin classics and the Victorian sage writers, as well as the poetry of Matthew Arnold, who was then teaching as a young Oxford professor. (Pater’s verse of the period strikes a vaguely Arnoldian tone: “Oh! for a godlike aim through all these silent years.”) (Wright, 194)
As he would even in fatter years, Pater kept his quarters monkishly spare: a friend later recalled that Pater had called “Bellini’s picture of St. Jerome in his study” the ideal vision of a scholar’s room (Wright, 160). (As Wright notes, no such painting exists in Bellini’s works, but the general point is clear. For what it’s worth, Michael Levey thinks the reference is to a Carpaccio painting of St. Augustine, which was misidentified for a time as a St. Jerome. I think it’s pretty clear that the reference is to Dürer.) But for all his valorization of the monkish life, Pater was also wandering at this time into new forms of impiety. He had not been in college long before one of his old acquaintances wrote, “Pater seems in a very odd state. Does he still believe in Christianity?” (Wright, 167) His friends later recalled being startled by little “Mephistophelean sneers” he made in conversation, and by his habit of starting up bull sessions in which he would deliberately take contrarian positions. One evening, he bullied a classmate through a logical sequence to the concluding point that “if God was everywhere-—we could have no existence at all!” Another time, when he was taken to Low Church services, he merely commented, “spectacularly disappointing.” Yet he still made clear his intention to take orders—-just for a High Church curacy: “It doesn’t matter what is said, as long as it is said beautifully” (Wright, 169-203).
By the time Pater took his B.A. in 1862, an old school friend, John McQueen, had become sufficiently skeptical of Pater’s faith to write personally to the Bishop of London to prevent him from taking orders. Taking what must have seemed like his best bet, Pater returned to Oxford to wait in the hope that a fellowship position would open up. He took lodgings off High Street and worked as a private tutor. Finally, after two unsuccessful attempts, in February 1864 he won a classical fellowship at Brasenose College. He moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of the quad, which would remain his quarters at Oxford for the rest of his career.
Ian Fletcher makes a persuasive case that Pater’s selection as a fellow was mostly a vote of confidence on his dress and bearing. Although he had wider reading than a classics don required, he had no publications to his credit and had not been an outstanding student. The smooth readings and widely recognized publications came later, but Pater would still remain in the modest position of junior fellow until his death three decades later, never succeeding to a professorship or earning fame strictly as an academic. This was, as Fletcher puts it, the last promotion of his career.^2
But Pater came to attract another kind of attention; for the rumor gradually grew that, as one student put it, Pater had “a new and daring philosophy of his own, and a wonderful gift of style” (95). The style in this case had little to do with the creatively costumed theatricality of dandies like Oscar Wilde—-although his students later remembered that, above his eternal plain gray suit, Pater would sometimes affect a single, timid streak of dandyism, such as an apple-green tie. Rather, the style lay in his mode of analysis. As Michael Levey notes, what the undergraduates dubbed a “philosophy” was “really a highly personal confession”: where most scholars would set up house in the archives, collect prestigious titles and editorships, work up from academic articles to three-volume reference works, Pater quietly began producing oddball works in genres that mostly didn’t exist: biographies of imaginary people, studies of real people that threw out the facts and kept just the emotional atmosphere, memoirs that seemed to have been processed a few times through hallucination, critical essays that made the critic’s impressions the ground of analysis rather than its instruments (95).
In 1866 Pater read an essay by Otto Jahn on the German art historian Johann Winckelmann. The essay describes Winckelmann as a heroic figure who brought back into a graying world the open light and the sensual immediacy of Hellenic art. It also describes him as a student who gave himself over wholly to his field. Winckelmann believed that in order to understand classical art, one must cultivate a classical soul. It was a life in which Pater saw his own future, according to Wright: “In Winckelmann, Pater saw his own identical self—-an impassioned, flashing soul who flung off without hesitation anything and everything that seemed likely to interfere with his one great aim in life—-‘to attain the knowledge of beauty'” (Wright, 233).
Pater channeled his response into an essay of his own on Winckelmann, which the Westminster Review published in January 1867. As in so much of Pater’s writing, the career of his subject figures only in its thinnest outlines. The reader might suppose that Winckelmann’s life experiences consisted mainly of, on the one hand, the intense pursuit of beauty—-throwing out distractions that might lead away from his goal; cutting his sleep to a few hours a night; heroic amounts of reading—-and on the other hand, building imaginary rooms to house artists who had lived centuries earlier. Wherever Pater looked, he tended to find himself.
“It was with the study of Winckelmann,” Edmund Gosse said of Pater in 1894, “that he himself became a writer.”^3 Everything he would later need was there: not only a critical idiom that gave the desired focus to impression and sensation—-which Pater partly recognized in, partly derived from, Winckelmann’s theory of the art of sculpture, in which the sculptor excises background material to leave behind the pure delineation of feeling—-but also the crucial move, on the level of style, of calling attention to the critic’s consciousness as the medium through which the reader’s “vision” passes. John Morley, the sharp-eyed editor of the Fortnightly Review, sent the article’s author some words of praise. Pater quickly sent his thanks in the form of an essay on William Morris, which the magazine published. The writer and the magazine would maintain a close relationship for more than twenty years; by the end of that time, Pater was internationally celebrated for critical pieces known more than anything else for their style. In fact, the next piece of his that the Fortnightly published, an 1869 essay on the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, contained a passage so famous that it alone assured Pater a permanent place in English letters, while staining his reception with a lurid aura that he could never quite escape.
For more on “Leonardo da Vinci” (1869), see: The Renaissance
Over the next few years, Pater’s critical essays appeared at the steady trickle of one per year. He would start a new project by storing up notes from his reading on little squares of paper (“Something about the gloomy Byzantine archit., belfries, solemn night come in around the birds attracted by the Towers”), which he kept in little piles around his working space until, over time, his memory started connecting them in constellations.^4 Ferris Greenslet, who has written in great detail about Pater’s working methods, gives a good picture of the sedulous agony that followed: “The first draft of an essay was written upon specially prepared paper with the lines far apart, each word widely detached from its fellows. Then he would go over and over it, filling in between the lines, qualifying, amplifying, intensifying, until the page brimmed over with words. Then he would copy it out in the same way as at first, and begin the process of revision anew. This he would do many times, until the result satisfied him in sufficient measure for publication.”^5 Even after this, the author sometimes paid to have an early set of galley proofs struck off, so that he could see his lines in print and cover them with yet another layer of modifications