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WALTER PATER: SOME CHARACTERISTICS

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WALTER PATER was a man in whom fineness and subtlety
of emotion were united with an exact and profound scholar-
ship ; in whom a personality singularly unconventional, and
singularly full of charm, found for its expression an abso-
lutely personal and an absolutely novel style, which was
the most carefully and curiously beautiful of all English
styles. The man and his style, to those who knew him, were identical ; for,
as his style was unlike that of other men, concentrated upon a kind of
perfection which, for the most part, they could not even distinguish, so his
inner life was peculiarly his own, centred within a circle beyond which he
refused to wander ; his mind, to quote some words of his own, “keeping as a
solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.” And he was the most lovable
of men ; to those who rightly apprehended him, the most fascinating ; the
most generous and helpful of private friends, and in literature a living counsel
of perfection, whose removal seems to leave modern prose without a con-
temporary standard of values.

“For it is with the delicacies of fine literature especially, its gradations of
expression, its fine judgment, its pure sense of words, of vocabulary—things,
alas ! dying out in the English literature of the present, together with the
appreciation of them in our literature of the past—that his literary mission is
chiefly concerned.” These words, applied by Pater to Charles Lamb, might
reasonably enough have been applied to himself; especially in that earlier part
of his work, which remains to me, as I doubt not it remains to many others,
the most entirely delightful. As a critic, he selected for analysis only those
types of artistic character in which delicacy, an exquisite fineness, is the prin-
cipal attraction ; or if, as with Michel Angelo, he was drawn towards some more
rugged personality, some more massive, less finished art, it was not so much
from sympathy with these more obvious qualities of ruggedness and strength,
but because he had divined the sweetness lying at the heart of the strength : “ex

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forti dulcedo.” Leonardo da Vinci, Joachim du Bellay, Coleridge, Botticelli :
we find always something a little exotic, or subtle, or sought out, a certain
rarity, which it requires an effort to disengage, and which appeals for its perfect
appreciation to a public within the public ; those fine students of what is fine
in art, who take their artistic pleasures consciously, deliberately, critically, with
the learned love of the amateur.

And not as a critic only, judging others, but in his own person as a writer,
both of critical and of imaginative work, Pater showed his pre-occupation with
the “delicacies of fine literature.” His prose was from the first conscious, and
it was from the first perfect. That earliest book of his, “Studies in the History
of the Renaissance,” as it was then called, entirely individual, the revelation of
a rare and special temperament, though it was, had many affinities with the
poetic and pictorial art of Rossetti, Mr. Swinburne, and Burne-Jones, and seems,
on its appearance in 1873, to have been taken as the manifesto of the so-called
“æsthetic” school. And, indeed, it may well be compared, as artistic prose,
with the poetry of Rossetti ; as fine, as careful, as new a thing as that, and with
something of the same exotic odour about it : a savour in this case of French
soil, a Watteau grace and delicacy. Here was criticism as a fine art, written
in prose which the reader lingered over as over poetry ; modulated prose which
made the splendour of Mr. Ruskin seem gaudy, the neatness of Matthew
Arnold a mincing neatness, and the brass sound strident in the orchestra of
Carlyle.

That book of “Studies in the Renaissance,” even with the rest of Pater
to choose from, seems to me sometimes to be the most beautiful book of prose
in our literature. Nothing in it is left to inspiration : but it is all inspired.
Here is a writer who, like Baudelaire, would better nature ; and in this gold-
smith’s work of his prose he too has “rêvé le miracle d’une prose poétique,
musicale sans rhythme et sans rime.” An almost oppressive quiet, a quiet
which seems to exhale an atmosphere heavy with the odour of tropical flowers,
broods over these pages ; a subdued light shadows them. The most felicitous
touches come we know not whence—”a breath, a flame in the doorway, a
feather in the wind ;” here are the simplest words, but they take colour from
each other by the cunning accident of their placing in the sentence, “the subtle
spiritual fire kindling from word to word.”

In this book prose seemed to have conquered a new province; and
further, along this direction, prose could not go. Twelve years later, when
“Marius the Epicurean” appeared, it was in a less coloured manner of writing
that the “sensations and ideas” of that reticent, wise, and human soul were

                         WALTER PATER                                    35

given to the world. Here and there, perhaps, the goldsmith, adding more
value, as he thought, for every trace of gold that he removed, might seem to
have scraped a little too assiduously. But the style of “Marius,” in its more
arduous self-repression, has a graver note, and brings with it a severer kind of
beauty. Writers who have paid particular attention to style have often been
accused of caring little what they say, knowing how beautifully they can say
anything. The accusation has generally been unjust : as if any fine beauty
could be but skin-deep ! The merit which, more than any other, distinguishes
Pater’s prose, though it is not the merit most on the surface, is the attention to,
the perfection of, the ensemble. Under the soft and musical phrases an inexor-
able logic hides itself, sometimes only too well. Link is added silently, but
faultlessly, to link ; the argument marches, carrying you with it, while you
fancy you are only listening to the music with which it keeps step. Take an
essay to pieces, and you will find that it is constructed with mathematical pre-
cision ; every piece can be taken out and replaced in order. I do not know
any contemporary writer who observes the logical requirements so scrupulously,
who conducts an argument so steadily from deliberate point to point towards
a determined goal. And here, in “Marius,” which is not a story, but the
philosophy of a soul, this art of the ensemble is not less rigorously satisfied ;
though indeed “Marius” is but a sequence of scenes, woven around a sequence
of moods.

In this book and in the “Imaginary Portraits” of three years later—
which seem to me to show his imaginative and artistic faculties at their point
of most perfect fusion—Pater has not endeavoured to create characters, in
whom the flesh and blood should seem to be that of life itself; he had not the
energy of creation, and he was content with a more shadowy life than theirs for
the children of his dreams. What he has done is to give a concrete form to
abstract ideas ; to represent certain types of character, to trace certain
developments, in the picturesque form of narrative ; to which, indeed, the
term portrait is very happily applied ; for the method is that of a very patient
and elaborate brush-work, in which the touches that go to form the likeness
are so fine that it is difficult to see quite their individual value, until, the
end being reached, the whole picture starts out before you. Each, with
perhaps one exception, is the study of a soul, or rather of a consciousness ;
such a study as might be made by simply looking within, and projecting
now this now that side of oneself on an exterior plane. I do not mean to say
that I attribute to Pater himself the philosophical theories of Sebastian van
Storck, or the artistic ideals of Duke Carl of Rosenmold. I mean that the

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attitude of mind, the outlook, in the most general sense, is always limited and
directed in a certain way, giving one always the picture of a delicate, subtle,
aspiring, unsatisfied personality, open to all impressions, living chiefly by
sensations, little anxious to reap any of the rich harvest of its intangible but
keenly possessed gains ; a personality withdrawn from action, which it despises
or dreads, solitary with its ideals, in the circle of its “exquisite moments,” in
the Palace of Art, where it is never quite at rest. It is somewhat such a soul,
I have thought, as that which Browning has traced in “Sordello ;” indeed,
when reading for the first time “Marius the Epicurean,” I was struck by a
certain resemblance between the record of the sensations and ideas of Marius
of White-Nights and that of the sensations and events of Sordello of Goito.

The style of the “Imaginary Portraits” is the ripest, the most varied and
flawless, their art the most assured and masterly, of any of Pater’s books : it
was the book that he himself preferred in his work, thinking it, to use his own
phrase, more “natural” than any other. And of the four portraits the most
wonderful seems to me the poem, for it is really a poem, named “Denys
l’Auxerrois.” For once, it is not the study of a soul, but of a myth ; a
transposition (in which one hardly knows whether to admire most the learning,
the ingenuity, or the subtle imagination) of that strangest myth of the Greeks,
the “Pagan after-thought ” of Dionysus Zagreus, into the conditions of
mediæval life. Here is prose so coloured, so modulated, as to have captured,
along with almost every sort of poetic richness, and in a rhythm which is
essentially the rhythm of prose, even the suggestiveness of poetry, that most
volatile and unseizable property, of which prose has so rarely been able to
possess itself. The style of “Denys l’Auxerrois” has a subdued heat, a veiled
richness of colour, which contrasts curiously with the silver-grey coolness of
“A Prince of Court Painters,” the chill, more leaden grey of “Sebastian van
Storck,” though it has a certain affinity, perhaps, with the more variously-
tinted canvas of “Duke Carl of Rosenmold.” Watteau, Sebastian, Carl :
unsatisfied seekers, all of them, this after an artistic ideal of impossible
perfection, that after a chill and barren ideal of philosophic thinking and
living, that other after yet another ideal, unattainable to him in his period, of
life “im Ganzen, Guten, Schönen,” a beautiful and effective culture. The
story of each, like that of “Marius,” is a vague tragedy, ending abruptly, after
so many uncertainties, and always with some subtly ironic effect in the
accident of its conclusion. The mirror is held up to Watteau while he
struggles desperately or hesitatingly forward, snatching from art one after
another of her reticent secrets ; then, with a stroke, it is broken, and this artist

                         WALTER PATER                                    37

n immortal things sinks out of sight, into a narrow grave of red earth. The
mirror is held up to Sebastian as he moves deliberately, coldly onward in the
midst of a warm life which has so little attraction for him, freeing himself one
by one from all obstructions to a clear philosophic equilibrium ; and the
mirror is broken, with a like suddenness, and the seeker disappears from our
sight ; to find, perhaps, what he had sought. It is held up to Duke Carl, the
seeker after the satisfying things of art and experience, the dilettante in
material and spiritual enjoyment, the experimenter on life ; and again it is
broken, with an almost terrifying shock, just as he is come to a certain rash
crisis : is it a step upward or downward ? a step, certainly, towards the
concrete, towards a possible material felicity.

We see Pater as an imaginative writer, pure and simple, only in these
two books, “Marius” and the “Imaginary Portraits,” in the unfinished
romance of “Gaston de Latour” (in which detail had already begun to obscure
the outlines of the central figure), and in those “Imaginary Portraits,”
reprinted in various volumes, but originally intended to form a second series
under that title : “Hippolytus Veiled,” “Apollo in Picardy,” “Emerald
Uthwart ;” and that early first chapter of an unwritten story of modern English
life, “The Child in the House.” For the rest, he was content to be a critic :
a critic of poetry and painting in the “Studies in the Renaissance” and the
“Appreciations,” of sculpture and the arts of life in the “Greek Studies,”
of philosophy in the volume on “Plato and Platonism.” But he was a critic
as no one else ever was a critic. He had made a fine art of criticism. His
criticism—abounding in the close and strenuous qualities of really earnest
judgment, grappling with his subject as if there were nothing to do but that,
the “fine writing” in it being largely mere conscientiousness in providing
a subtle and delicate thought with words as subtle and delicate—was, in effect,
written with as scrupulous a care, with as much artistic finish, as much artistic
purpose, as any imaginative work whatever ; being indeed, in a sense in
which, perhaps, no other critical work is, imaginative work itself.

“The æsthetic critic,” we are told in the preface to the “Studies in the
Renaissance,” “regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of
art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing
pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar and unique kind. This
influence he feels, and wishes to explain, analyzing it, and reducing it to its
elements. To him, the picture, the landscape, the engaging personality in life
or in a book, ‘La Gioconda,’ the hills of Carrara, Pico of Mirandola, are
valuable for their virtues, as we say in speaking of a herb, a wine, a gem ; for

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the property each has of affecting one with a special, a unique, impression of
pleasure.” To this statement of what was always the aim of Pater in criticism,
I would add, from the later essay on Wordsworth, a further statement, applying
it, as he there does, to the criticism of literature. “What special sense,” he
asks, “does Wordsworth exercise, and what instincts does he satisfy ? What
are the subjects which in him excite the imaginative faculty ? What are the
qualities in things and persons which he values, the impression and sense of
which he can convey to others, in an extraordinary way ?” How far is this
ideal from that old theory, not yet extinct, which has been briefly stated, thus,
by Edgar Poe : “While the critic is permitted to play, at times, the part of the
mere commentator—while he is allowed, by way of merely interesting his
readers, to put in the fairest light the merits of his author—his legitimate
task is still, in pointing out and analyzing defects, and showing how the work
might have been improved, to aid the cause of letters, without undue heed of
the individual literary men.” And Poe goes on to protest, energetically, against
the more merciful (and how infinitely more fruitful !) principles of Goethe, who
held that what it concerns us to know about a work or a writer are the merits,
not the defects, of the writer and the work. Pater certainly carried this theory
to its furthest possible limits, and may almost be said never, except by impli-
cation, to condemn anything. But then the force of this implication testifies
to a fastidiousness infinitely greater than that of the most destructive of the
destructive critics. Is it necessary to say that one dislikes a thing ? It need
but be ignored ; and Pater ignored whatever did not come up to his very
exacting standard, finding quite enough to write about in that small residue
that remained over.

Nor did he merely ignore what was imperfect, he took the further step,
the taking of which was what made him a creative artist in criticism. “It was
thus,” we are told of Gaston de Latour, in one of the chapters of the unfinished
romance, “It was thus Gaston understood the poetry of Ronsard, generously
expanding it to the full measure of its intention.”
That is precisely what Pater
does in his criticisms, in which criticism is a divining-rod over hidden springs.
He has a unique faculty of seeing, through every imperfection, the perfect
work, the work as the artist saw it, as he strove to make it, as he failed, in his
measure, quite adequately to achieve it. He goes straight to what is funda-
mental, the true root of the matter, leaving all the rest out of the question.
The essay on Wordsworth is perhaps the best example of this, for it has fallen
to the lot of Wordsworth to suffer more than most at the hands of interpreters.
Here, at last, is a critic who can see in him “a poet somewhat bolder and more

                         WALTER PATER                                    39

passionate than might at first sight be supposed, but not too bold for true
poetical taste ; an unimpassioned writer, you might sometimes fancy, yet
thinking the chief aim, in life and art alike, to be a certain deep emotion ;”
one whose “words are themselves thought and feeling ;” “a master, an expert,
in the art of impassioned contemplation.” Reading such essays as these, it is
difficult not to feel that if Lamb and Wordsworth, if Shakespeare, if Sir Thomas
Browne, could but come to life again for the pleasure of reading them, that
pleasure would be the sensation : “Here is someone who understands just
what I meant to do, what was almost too deep in me for expression, and
would have, I knew, to be divined ; that something, scarcely expressed in any
of my words, without which no word I ever wrote would have been written.”

Turning from the criticisms of literature to the studies on painting, we see
precisely the same qualities, but not, I think, precisely the same results. In a
sentence of the essay on “The School of Giorgione,” which is perhaps the most
nicely-balanced of all his essays on painting, he defines, with great precision :
“In its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us
than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a moment, on the floor : is
itself in truth a space of such fallen light, caught as the colours are caught in
an Eastern carpet, but refined upon, and dealt with more subtly and exquisitely
than by nature itself.” But for the most part it was not in this spirit that he
wrote of pictures. His criticism of pictures is indeed creative, in a fuller sense
than his criticism of books ; and, in the necessity of things, dealing with an
art which, as he admitted, has, in its primary aspect, no more definite message
for us than the sunlight on the floor, he not merely divined, but also added, out
of the most sympathetic knowledge, certainly. It is one thing to interpret the
meaning of a book ; quite another to interpret the meaning of a picture.
Take, for instance, the essay on Botticelli. That was the first sympathetic
study of at that time a little-known painter which had appeared in English ;
and it contains some of Pater’s most exquisite writing. All that he writes, of
those Madonnas “who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies,” of that
sense in the painter of “the wistfulness of exiles,” represents, certainly, the
impression made upon his own mind by these pictures, and, as such, has an
interpretative value, apart from its beauty as a piece of writing. But it is after
all a speculation before a canvas, a literary fantasy ; a possible interpretation, if
you will, of one mood in the painter, a single side of his intention ; it is not a
criticism, inevitable as that criticism of Wordsworth’s art, of the art of Botticelli.

This once understood, we must admit that Pater did more than anyone
of our time to bring about a more intimate sympathy with some of the subtler

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aspects of art ; that his influence did much to rescue us from the dangerous
moralities, the uncritical enthusiasms and prejudices, of Mr. Ruskin ; that of
no other art-critic it could be said that his taste was flawless. And in regard
to his treatment of sculpture, we may say more ; for here we can speak
without reservations. In those essays on “The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture,”
and the rest, he has made sculpture a living, intimate, thing ; and, with no
addition of his fancy, but in a minute, learned, intuitive piecing together of
little fact by little fact, has shown its growth, its relation to life, its meaning in
art. I find much of the same quality in his studies in Greek myths : that
coloured, yet so scrupulous “Study of Dionysus,” the patient disentanglings of
the myth of Demeter and Persephone. And, in what is the latest work,
practically, that we have from his hand, the lectures on “Plato and Platonism,”
we see a like scrupulous and discriminating judgment brought to bear, as
upon an artistic problem, upon the problems of Greek ethics, Greek
philosophy.

“Philosophy itself indeed, as he conceives it,” Pater tells us, speaking of
Plato (he might be speaking of himself), “is but the systematic appreciation of
a kind of music in the very nature of things.” And philosophy, as he
conceives it, is a living, dramatic thing, among personalities, and the strife of
temperaments ; a doctrine being seen as a vivid fragment of some very human
mind, not a dry matter of words and disembodied reason. “In the discussion
even of abstract truth,” he reminds us, “it is not so much what he thinks as
the person who is thinking, that after all really tells.” Thus, the student’s
duty, in reading Plato, “is not to take his side in a controversy, to adopt or
refute Plato’s opinions, to modify, or make apology for what may seem erratic
or impossible in him ; still less, to furnish himself with arguments on behalf of
some theory or conviction of his own. His duty is rather to follow intelli-
gently, but with strict indifference, the mental process there, as he might
witness a game of skill ; better still, as in reading ‘Hamlet’ or ‘The Divine
Comedy,’ so in reading ‘The Republic,’ to watch, for its dramatic interest,
the spectacle of a powerful, of a sovereign intellect, translating itself, amid a
complex group of conditions which can never in the nature of things occur
again, at once pliant and resistant to them, into a great literary monument.”
It is thus that Pater studies his subject, with an extraordinary patience and
precision ; a patience with ideas, not, at first sight, so clear or so interesting as
he induces them to become ; a precision of thinking, on his part, in which no
licence is ever permitted to the fantastic side-issues of things. Here again we
have criticism which, in its divination, its arrangement, its building up of

                         WALTER PATER                                    41

many materials into a living organism, is itself creation, becomes imaginative
work itself.

We may seem to be far now, but are not in reality so far as it may seem,
from those “delicacies of fine literature,” with which I began by showing Pater
to be so greatly concerned. And, in considering the development by which a
writer who had begun with the “Studies in the Renaissance,” ended with
“Plato and Platonism,” we must remember, as Mr. Gosse has so acutely
pointed out in his valuable study of Pater’s personal characteristics, that, after
all, it was philosophy which attracted him before either literature or art, and
that his first published essay was an essay on Coleridge, in which Coleridge
the metaphysician, and not Coleridge the poet, was the interesting person to
him. In his return to an early, and one might think, in a certain sense,
immature interest, it need not surprise us to find a development, which I
cannot but consider as technically something of a return to a primitive
lengthiness and involution, towards a style which came to lose many of the
rarer qualities of its perfect achievement. I remember that when he once
said to me that the “Imaginary Portraits” seemed to him the best written of
his books, he qualified that very just appreciation by adding : “It seems to
me the most natural” I think he was even then beginning to forget that it
was not natural to him to be natural. There are in the world many kinds of
beauty, and of these what is called natural beauty is but one. Pater’s tem-
perament was at once shy and complex, languid and ascetic, sensuous and
spiritual. He did not permit life to come to him without a certain ceremony ;
he was on his guard against the abrupt indiscretion of events ; and if his
whole life was a service of art, he arranged his life so that, as far as possible,
it might be served by that very dedication. With this conscious ordering of
things, it became a last sophistication to aim at an effect in style which
should bring the touch of unpremeditation, which we seem to find in nature,
into a faultlessly combined arrangement of art. The lectures on Plato, really
spoken, show traces of their actual delivery in certain new, vocal effects, which
had begun already to interest him as matters of style ; and which we may
find, more finely, here and there in “Gaston de Latour.” Perhaps all this was
but a pausing-place in a progress. That it would not have been the final stage,
we may be sure. But it is idle to speculate what further development awaited,
at its own leisure, so incalculable a life.

                                                                        ARTHUR SYMONS.


MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “Walter Pater: Some Characteristics.” The Savoy vol. 8, December 1896, pp. 33-41. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv8-symons-walter/