|Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp||PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF WALTER PATER
met Walter Pater fourteen years ago, at the
house of Mr. George T. Robinson in Gower Street, at that time a meeting-place for poets,
novelists, dramatists, writers of all kinds, painters, sculptors, musicians, and all
manner of folk, pilgrims from or to the only veritable Bohemia. The host and hostess had
the rare faculty of keeping as well as of winning friends, and were held in affectionate
esteem by all who knew them but the delightfully promiscuous gatherings, where all
amalgamated so well, were due in great part to the brilliant young scholarpoet, Miss A.
Mary F. Robinson (Madame Darmesteter), and to her sister, now the well-known novelist,
Miss Mabel Robinson. Among the many avocations into which Miss Mary Robinson allowed
herself to be allured from her true vocation was that of soro consolatrix to all
young fellow-poets in difficulty or distress ; and of these, none had better cause to
realise her goodness of heart and illumining sympathy than the blind poet Philip Bourke
Marston. In 1880 and 1881, it was rare that a week elapsed throughout nine months of the
year when Miss Robinson did not give up at least an hour or two one afternoon for reading
to and talking with the friend whom she so much admired and so much pitied. It was within
a week after Dante Gabriel Rossetti had sent me with a special letter of introduction to
Marston that he, in turn, took me to the house of the only friend in London who in any
adequate degree filled for him the void created by the loss of his comrade, Oliver Madox
Brown ; and though I went with pleasure, having read with keen appreciation A Handful
of Honeysuckle, I had no idea how much, and in how many ways my entry into that
friendly circle was to mean to me.
One afternoon, Philip Marston surprised me with the suggestion that we should make a formal call at Gower Street. As he had been there, and I with him for a long "confab," the previous day, and as I knew his dislike of "afternoons," there seemed something perverse in his proposal ; but when he added oracularly, "Do come; you won't regret it," there was nothing more to be said. When we entered the drawingroom, at that happy moment when the last day-dusk and the fire-glow are uninvaded by any more garish light, I saw that there were a few visitors, all common acquaintances with one exception. The exception was a man of medium height, rather heavily built, with a peculiar though slight stoop. His face was pale, and perhaps a dark and very thick mustache made it seem even more so. There was a singular impassiveness about him, which I noted with vague interest---aroused, I remember because of what appeared to me a remarkable resemblance to Bismarck, or rather to a possible Bismarck, a Bismarck who had ceased to be a junker, and had become a dreamer and profound student. He stood by the piano listening to something said, laughingly, by Miss Robinson, though his face had not even that grave smile that afterwards became so familiar to me, and his eyes were fixed steadfast on the fire. The glow fell right across them, and I could see how deep-set they were, and of what a peculiar grey ; a variable hue but wherein the inner light was always vivid, and sometimes strangely keen and penetrating. With one hand he stroked a long-haired cat that had furtively crept towards him along the piano, from a high chair at the narrow end.
When he spoke I could not distinguish what he said, but I was aware of a low, pleasant voice, altogether unbismarckian. I heard Miss Robinson say something about Philip Marston; but, with the abruptness which later I found to be characteristic, her companion shook hands with her and his hostess and bade them good-bye. As he neared the door he passed Marston and myself. He did not look in our direction, yet. he had hardly gained the threshold before he turned, came to Marston's side and, taking his hand in his, pressed it cordially, saying: "I am very glad to meet you. Your poetry has given me great pleasure." Then, with the same quiet abruptness with which he had left Miss Robinson, he made his way from the room.
" Who is he ? " I asked.
"It must be Walter Pater," replied Marston, almost in a whisper, for he did not know whether the visitor was still near or in the room at all.
" Surely not," I urged, having in mind a description of the author of the book that was a kind of gospel of joy to me---a description ludicrously inexact and inapt, though given by a member of the college of which Mr. Pater was a Fellow.
Yes, it must have been Pater. I knew he was to be here. That was why I urged you to come. If only we'd come earlier we might have met him properly. I know every other voice in the room ; and I am sure that was no other than the voice of Mr. Rose."
This allusion to Mr. Mallock's parody was apt to irritate me then, and I was about to jump to that red tag when Miss Robinson came up, seriously reproachful because of the lateness of our arrival. But when she saw how sorry I was not even to have known at whom I was looking, she promised that a more fortunate opportunity should soon occur.
Three days later I received an invitation to dine with my friends in Gower Street, with those welcome words added, " to meet Mr. Walter Pater."
On the second occasion, I saw Pater in a different aspect. He was suave, polite, with that courteous deference he showed to the young as well as to his equals and elders. I have never forgotten my first impression of him, when he appeared in that austere if not almost sombre aspect which, though more rarely seen, was as characteristic as the reserved cordiality which won him so many friends.
Even at that early period of our acquaintance I noticed how swiftly responsive he was to youth as youth. When he spoke to one of the daughters of his hostess, or to any young man or woman, his face grew more winsome, and a serene, almost a blithe light came into his eyes. He looked so alert, standing by a tall lamp which gave a warmer glow to his complexion than its wont, that he seemed hardly the same man I had met before. I remember the attitude and look well, for it flashed upon me that I had seen, in an old city of Brabant, a portrait of a Flemish gentleman which, but for the accidental differences in dress and the ornammentation of the lamp, might have been painted from him there and then. I suppose he noted my intent look, for, though we had not yet been introduced, he came over to me, held out his hand, and asked how Philip Marston was, saying that he was glad to see him the other day. I was surprised of course, that he had recognised me ; for, as I have said, so far as I was aware he had not looked our way on the afternoon in question, until he made his abrupt and brief advance to Marston. Gravely smiling, and with eyes filled with a kind and friendly light, he added : " I recognised you at once. I am accustomed to seeing, and noting, young faces ; and when once I note, I never forget. But not only do I recognise you I know who you are."
At this complimentary remark my heart sank, for at that time I was absolutely unknown as a writer, and was sure that nothing of my youthful scribbling could have come to Mr. Pater's knowledge, or having come, could have attracted his, attention. I feared, therefore, he had mistaken me for some notable young poet or novelist, and that when he learned I was a "nobody" his interest would be less cordial. But his ensuing words set me at ease. This meeting happened at a time when I had begun to see a good deal of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, then so much a recluse that almost no strangers, and few even of friends and acquaintances, penetrated the isolation in which he lived.
With a kind touch on my shoulder Pater repeated my name, and then asked about Rossetti, and told me that after dinner he wanted to have a chat with me about the poet-painter, "the greatest man we have among us, in point of influence upon poetry, and perhaps painting."
I had been told that Walter Pater was too reticent, too reserved, perhaps too selfabsorbed to be a good or even an interesting conversationalist at a dinner-party. Then, and later, I had opportunity to note that if he was self-absorbed he did not betray it, and that he was neither reserved in manner nor reticent of speech. That evening he was possessed by a happy gaiety. Humour was never Pater's strong point, but on that occasion he was both humorous and witty, though with the quiet wit and humour of the Hollander, rather than of the Frenchman. From the first, I never took Walter Pater for an Englishman. In appearance, in manner, he suggested the Fleming or the Hollander; in the mien and carriage of his mind, so to say, he was a Frenchman of that old northern type which had its meditative and quiet extreme in Maurice de Guérin, and its intensely actual extreme in Guy de Maupassant. Neither mentally nor physically could I discern anything British in him, save in his appreciations ; and he had traits which affiliated him to those old Huguenot bearers of his name who no doubt had a strong Flemish strain in their French blood.
After the ladies had gone we found ourselves next each other. At once he began to speak to me about Rossetti, asking first many questions as to his health, his way of life, and what he was doing with brush and pen.
"Of the six men now living," he said; "who are certain to be famous in days to come---Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Rossetti, and Swinburne---one is, in my judgment, the most significant as well as the most fascinating. Of these, Ruskin has had by far the most influence over the sentiment of people; Arnold has exercised the most potent influence on intellectual manners, and probably on intellectual method ; and Tennyson has imposed a new and exigent conception of poetic art, and has profoundly affected the technique not only of contemporary poetry, but of that which is yet unwritten. As for Browning, he is and perhaps long will be the greatest stimulus to hopeful endeavour. He is the finest representative of workable optimism whom England has given us. I am convinced that hundreds of people who delight in his writings are primarily attracted by his robust, happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met attitude towards what he himself prefers to call Providence, and to the tragic uncertainties and certain tragicalities of life. How often one hears the remark, given with conclusive emphasis, "Ah, but how hopeful he is of every one and everything! No one can admire Browning at his best more than I do ; but I do not think his genius is so wedded to his conscious and often tyrannical optimism as is commonly supposed."
" Then Robert Browning is not the one of the six to whom you refer so specially ? "
"No; certainly not. Browning is a great poet, perhaps a greater than any of us know. Unquestionably, he, and he only, can be thought of as the successor to the Laureateship, if, as is likely, he survive Tennyson. I think of him sometimes as a superb god of poetry, so proudly heedless or reckless that he never notices the loss of his winged sandals, and that he is stumbling clumsily where lie might well lightly be lifting his steps against the sunway where his eyes are set. But I do think he will be much read in the future, as he is now, chiefly as a stimulant to high- heartedness, to high hope and a robust self-assurance. I remember Matthew Arnold saying that he would admire Browning still more but for his depressing optimism._____of Balliol, who had never met Browning, was wont to say that the poet must be, or have been, a very unhappy man. 'Such a robust flouting of probabilities,' he would urge, ' could be due only to the inevitable law of reaction ---the same that made Keats enjoy a beefsteak after the most sentimental deliverances in Endymion, or that made Byron go off with La Guiccioli after he had extolled the beauty of virtue.' But this attitude towards Browning is rare. To most people he is an inexhaustible spring of hope. And hope, I need hardly say, is to most people more vitally near and dear than poetry ; or, if you will, let me say that it is poetry, the poetry many of us can feel in the twilight rather than in any poem, or in the day, at daybreak or sunset, rather than in any painting by old master or new."
"Then was your particular allusion to Rossetti ?"
"Yes. To my mind he is the most significant man among us. More torches will be lit from his flame---or from torches lit at his flame---than perhaps even enthusiasts like yourself imagine."
At this point a well-known critic intervened, with somewhat obtrusive asperity, to the effect that Arnold would be read when Rossetti was forgotten that Browning would be read when Arnold was forgotten and that Tennyson would still be familiar to all lovers of poetry when Browning would be known only of students and readers curious in past vogues and ideals.
Pater did not often laugh, but when he did it was always with a catching geniality. His laugh at this juncture prevented a heated argument, and enabled him to waive the subject without any appearance of discourtesy. Smilingly he remarked: "We have all drifted into the Future. Posthumous conversation is unsatisfactory. Besides, prophets never think much of other people's prophecies. Talking of prophets, how delightfully cocksure Arnold is when he is in the grand vein, as in that last paper of his ! Do you not think"---- And so the breakers were safely weathered, and "the wide vague " safely gained again.
Before we parted that night, Walter Pater had made me promise to visit him in Oxford---a promise given only too gladly, though without an over-sanguine hope of its fulfilment, a possibility that at that time seemed too good to be realisable. I could not then understand why Pater should take so genuine an interest in a young man who had "done nothing," and of whose possibilities he knew little save by vague and friendly hearsay ; but later I understood better. I was youn g and full of hope and eager energy, and had travelled much and far, and experienced not a few strange vicissitudes. This of itself was enough to interest Pater ; indeed, I have known him profoundly interested in an undergraduate simply because the young man was joyously youthful, and had an Etonian reputation as a daredevil scapegrace. Shortly before I first came to London in 1879, I had returned from a long and eventful voyage in the Pacific and Antarctic and on that first night, and on many nights thereafter, it seemed to give my new and much-revered friend a singular pleasure to listen to my haphazard narrative of strange sights I had seen and experiences I had undergone. The reason of this extreme interest in all youthful, unconventional, or unusual life was that Pater himself had never been joyously young, and that he lacked the inborn need as well as the physical energy for adventurous life, whether upon the cricket field and the river, or on the high seas and in remote lands.
My first visit to Walter Pater was my first visit to Oxford. I leave to enthusiasts for that fair city of towers and spires, who may also be admirers of one of the worthiest of her sons, to imagine with what eager pleasure I went, with what keen pleasure I drank deep during a few happy days at this new fount, so full of fresh and delightful fascination.
Pater then lived, with his two sisters, in a pretty house a short way out of the actual town. He had, moreover, his Fellow's rooms at Brasenose, where sometimes he preferred to stay when much preoccupied with his work and where occasionally he put up an invited guest. I came to know these rooms well later, but I have not forgotten my first impression of them. The sitting-room, or study, was in a projection of Brasenose, looking out upon the picturesque, narrow public way. There was a snug, inset, cushioned corner, much loved and frequented by its owner---always thereafter to me a haunted comer in a haunted room. My first impression then of the tout-ensemble was of its delicate austerity. There was a quiet simplicity everywhere, eminently characteristic of the dweller; but one could see at a glance that this austerity was due to an imperious refinement, to a scrupulous selection. There were low-set bookshelves, filled with volumes which were the quintessential part of the library Pater might have had if he had cared for the mere accumulation of books. Most of them were the Greek and Latin classics, German and French works on æsthetics, and the treasures of French and English imaginative literature. To my surprise, I noticed, in one section, several volumes of distinctly minor contemporary poetry ; but these roved to be presentation copies, for which Pater always had a tender heart. "To part with a book containing an inscription of personal regard, affection, or homage," he said to me once, "is to me like throwing on to the high-road rare blooms brought from a distance by kind or loving friends."
While I was examining some of these volumes, that evening, he took a leather portfolio from a cabinet.
"Here is what delights me. This portfolio contains only manuscript poems. Some are manuscript copies of poems that the world already possesses ; others are copies of verses which are to appear in due course ; and a few are the actual originals, in even the most immature of which I have a rare pleasure. If it were practicable, I would read all poetry, for the first time, in the handwriting of the poet. There is always, to me, an added charm when I can do so, an atmosphere. The poem gains, and my. insight or sympathy is swifter and sure. I am conscious of this also in prose though perhaps not so keenly, and certainly not so frequently. Of course there is one exception---every one, surely, must feel the same here ; that is, in the instance of letters. Imagine the pleasure of reading the intimate letters of Michael Angelo, of Giorgione, of Lionardo, of Dante, of Spenser, of Shakespeare, of Goethe in the originals! It would be like looking on a landscape in clear sunlight or moonlight, after having viewed it only through mist or haze."
"Several young writers," he continued, have sent their manuscript to me to look over; and at this moment I have two small manuscript books by undergraduates of exceptional promise. But I will show you what will interest you more. Here is a copy of The Sea-Limits in Rossetti's own writing. He made the copy at a friend's request. Here is a page of Atalanta in Calydon, which was given to me as the original, though very likely it is only a copy made by Swinburne. I must find out from him some day. Matthew Arnold gave me this original, or first copy, of the first three stanzas of his Morality. All these others, here, are autograph poems, or part poems, or prose passages by Ruskin, Tennyson Browning, Meredith, Victor Hugo; though, alas, few of these are my own, but have been lent to me. Even this vicarious ownership is a joy."
I asked him if he had ever written verse himself. He said he had, and that before his twenty-fifth year he had written a good deal in verse, and had made many metrical translations from the Greek anthology, from Goethe, and from Alfred de Musset and other French poets.
"At twenty-five I destroyed all, or nearly all-everything in verse which had survived. in none of my original efforts was there any distinction. Not one had that atmosphere of its own which there is no mistaking. But I learned much through the writing of verse, and still more through metrical translation. I have great faith in scrupulous and sympathetic translation as a training in English composition. At one time I was in the habit of translating a page from some ancient or modern prose writer every day Tacitus or Livy, Plato or Aristotle, Goethe or Lessing or Winckelmann, and once, month after month, Flaubert and Sainte-Beuve."
But though the books in Walter Pater's rooms were a special attraction, the. first thing to catch the eye was a large and fine alto-rilievo, a Madonna by Luca delta. Robbia, the exquisite delicacy and soft cream-white tone of which not only harmonised with, but seemed to focus the other things in the room-the few etchings against the dull yellow wall-paper, one or two old Italian bronze ornaments that caught the sheen of sunlight or lamplight, a low, wide piece of Wedgewood full of white flowers, a slim gold-brown vase on the broad sill, containing wall-flowers, or flowering lavender, or chrysanthemums, or winter aconites, as the season went.
The afternoon sunlight pervaded the room with a quiet beauty. The interior looked to me like an old Picture, with something of the home charm of the finest Dutch art, and more of the remote grace, the baven-like serenity, so beloved of the early Italians. I noticed a long ray of sunlight slant across the flowers and waver into a shadowy corner, where it moved like a golden finger, and seemed to point out or lead forth unexpected vagaries of light and shade. When I glanced at my companion I saw that his gaze was arrested by the same vagrant sunbeam. He began to speak in a low voice about gold : the gold of nature above all, the chemic action of golden light and how it was "the primary colour of delight" throughout nature and in nearly all art.
"Through all writing, too, that is rare and distinctive and beautiful," he said, there is a golden thread. Perhaps the most skilful weavers are those who so disguise it in the weft that its charm is felt though its presence is undetected, or at least unobtruded."
Later, when the lamp was lit, he read, at my request, the revised version of his then unpublished (in book form) essay, entitled The School of Giorgione: chosen because of the allusions in it to that very alchemy of gold light of which he had spoken: "colouring, that weaving as of just perceptible gold threads of light through the dress, the flesh, the atmosphere, in Titian's Lace-Girl---the staining of the whole fabric of the thing with a new, delightful physical quality ;" "the accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a moment on the wall or floor ;" "this particular effect of light, this sudden inweaving of gold thread through the texture of the haystack, and the poplars, and the grass." "Only, in Italy all natural things are, as it were, woven through and through with gold thread, even the cypress revealing it among the folds of its blackness. And it is with gold dust, or gold thread, that these Venetian painters seem to work, spinning its fine filaments through the solemn human flesh, away into the white plastered walls of the thatched huts."
How well I remember that first lesson in the way rightly to apprehend art ; how "to estimate the degree in which a given work of art fulfils its responsibilities to its special material to note in a picture that true pictorial charm, which is neither a mere poetical thought or sentiment on the one hand, nor a mere result of communicable technical skill in colour or design on the other; to define in a poem that true poetical quality, which is neither descriptive nor meditative merely, but comes of an inventive handling of rhythmical languagethe element of song in the singing ; to note in music the musical charm-that essential, music, which presents no words, no definable matter of sentiment or thought, separable from the special form in which it is conveyed to us."
When he read, Pater spoke in a low voice, rather hesitatingly at first, and sometimes almost constrainedly. Soon, however, he became absorbed ; then his face would light up as with an inner glow, he would lean forward, and though his voice neither quickened nor intensified there was in it a new vibration. Occasionally he would move his right hand slowly, with an undulating motion.
For three or four days he was my guide in Oxford, but my happiest recollections are of our walks in Christ Church meadows and by the banks of the Cherwell. He walked heavily, and, particularly when tired, with a halting step that suggested partial lameness. He was singularly observant of certain natural objects, aspects, and conditions, more especially of the movement of light in grass and among leaves, of all fragrances, of flowing water ; but with this he was, I presume wilfully, blind to human passersby. Often I have seen some fellow-don wave a greeting to him which either he did not see or pretended not to see, and it was rare that ---his eyes rested on any undergraduate who saluted him, unless the evasion would be too obviously discourteous. On the other hand, he would now and again go out of his way to hail and speak cordially to some young fellow in whom he felt a genuine interest. NEXT