Reminscences of Walter Pater, cont'd
I saw Walter Pater occasionally after this date, I did not stay with him again in Oxford
until the late spring of 1884. In the autumn of 1882, I wrote to him telling him that I
believed 'I had discovered and recovered each article he had published, and had had them
separately bound ; and at the same time eagerly urged upon him that the time had come when
he should no longer delay the collection in book form of these essays on literature and
art. At the date in question, I was writing that chapter in my Record of Dante Gabriel
Rossetti which deals with his prose, and had made particular allusion to and quotation
from Pater---an unimportant fact which I appear to have considered worthy of communication
to him. On November 5, he wrote with over-generous words of praise, as was his kindly wont
with young writers (beginning informally, and adding,
"I think we have known each other long enough to drop the
BRADMORE ROAD, OXFORD,
"November 5, 1882.
". . . I read your letter
with great pleasure, and thank you very much for it. Your friendly interest in my various
essays I value highly. I have really worked hard for now many years at these prose essays,
and it is a real encouragement to hear such good things said of them by the strongest and
most original of young English poets. It will be a singular pleasure to me to be
connected, in a sense, in your book on Rossetti, with one I admired so greatly. I wish the
book all the success both the subject and the writer deserve.
"You encourage me to do what I have sometimes thought of
doing, when I have got on a little further with the work I have actually on hand, namely,
to complete the various series of which the papers I have printed in the Fortnightly,
&C., are parts. The list you sent me is complete with the exception of an article on
Coleridge in the Westminster of January 1866, with much of which, both as to
matter and manner, I should now be greatly dissatisfied. That article is concerned with S.
T. C.'s prose but, corrected, might be put alongside of the criticism on his verse which I
made for Ward's English Poets. I can only say that should you finish the paper you
speak of on these essays, your critical approval will be of great service to me with the
"As to the paper on Giorgione which I read to you in
manuscript, I find I have by me a second copy of the proof, which I have revised and sent
by this post, and hope you will kindly accept. It was reprinted some time ago, when I
thought of collecting that and other papers into a volume. I am pleased to hear that you
remember with so much pleasure your visit to Oxford, and hope you will come for a longer
stay in term time early next year.
"At the end of
this month I hope to leave for seven weeks in Italy, chiefly at Rome, where I have never
yet been. We went to Cornwall for our summer holiday; but though that country is certainly
very singular and beautiful, I found there not a tithe of the stimulus to one's
imagination which I have sometimes experienced in quite unrenowned places abroad. . . ."
The copy of the Giorgione essay alluded to in this letter was one of several essays
printed at the Clarendon Press in Oxford at Pater's own cost. I asked him once why,
particularly as his was so clear and beautiful a handwriting, he went to this heavy
expense when he did not mean to publish (and in some instances the type was distributed
after a few copies had been printed) ; to which he replied that though he could, and did,
revise often and scrupulously in manuscript, he could never adequately disengage his
material from the intellectual light in which it had been conceived, until he saw it in
the vivid and unsparing actuality of type. This copy, besides its autograph inscription
and textual corrections, bears the circular stamp of the Clarendon Press, November 12, 1878;
so it was printed three years before I heard it from manuscript and more than ten years
before it was published in book form along with other papers. As its pagination is from
page 157 to page 184, its author must have had quite a large volume printed at the
Much as I value this early Giorgione copy, and The
Child of the House, and each of the books given me on publication, my chief treasure is the bound copy of the proofs of Marius the Epicurean.
I had these proofs for some weeks before publication, and so had the additional pleasure
of a thorough familiarity with one of the finest and perhaps the most distinctive of the
prose works of the Victorian era, before the less fortunate public knew anything of it. Marius
had been begun, and in part written, long before Walter Pater went to Rome, in 1882, for
the first time ; but it was not till the summer of 1883 that he wrote it as it now
stands---wrote and rewrote, with infinite loving care for every idea, for every phrase,
for each sentence, each epithet, each little word or mark of punctuation.
One of the earliest reviews of Marius the Epicurean was that which appeared in The
Athenæum as the leading article, some seven to eight columns in length. Besides
this, I wrote also a longer article upon the book in the now defunct magazine, Time.
My Athenæum review appeared on the last day of February, and on March 1 Pater
wrote as follows:
" 2 BRADMORE ROAD, OXFORD.
" . . . I have read your article in
The Athenæum with very real pleasure ; feeling criticism at once so independent
and so sympathetic to be a reward for all the long labours the book has cost me. You seem
to me to have struck a note of criticism not merely pleasant, but judicious ; and there
are one or two important points---literary ones---on which you have said precisely what I
should have wished, and thought it important for me to have said. I thank you sincerely
for your friendly work; also for your letter [about Marius], and the other
article, which forward to, and greatly value. I was much pleased also, that Mrs.
Sharp had been so much interested in my writing. It is always a sign to me that I have to
succeeded in my literary aim when I gain the approval of accomplished women.
"I should be glad, and feel it a great compliment, to have Marius
translated into German, on whatever terms your friend likes ; provided of course, that
Macmillan approves. I will ask him his views on this point.
"As regards the ethical drift of Marius, I
should like to talk to you, if you were here. I did mean it to be more
anti-Epicurean than it has struck you as being. In one way, however, I am glad that you
have mistaken me a little on this point, as I
had some fears that I might seem to be pleading for a formal thesis of 'parti pris.' Be
assured how cheering your praise---praise from so genuine and accomplished a fellow
workman---has been to me. Such recognition is especially a help to one whose work is so
exclusively personal and solitary as the kind of literary work which I feel I can do best
must be. . . . "
From a later passage in this letter ultimately of so purely
personal an interest that its reproduction here would be unwarrantable---it is evident
that Pater had carefully read through the book after its publication, to find his
fastidious taste offended by one or two little flaws. For, not content with the revised
proofs he had given me, he wrote, "I have told the Macmillans to send you a properly
bound copy of Marius, with only a few misprints."
When I went to stay with him in the late spring of 1884, when Oxford was looking its
loveliest, we had many long talks about Marius and the new Cyrenaicism, and on
all implied in what it has become the vogue to call the new Hedonism.
More and more Walter Pater sought a rarer atmosphere of beauty---outward beauty, and the
beauty of the inner life. His ideals of conduct were Spartan rather than what in so
loosely called Epicurean; austerity in clear, lucid, wind-swept thought ; austerity in the
expression of that thought; even when wrought by it to the white heat of creative emotion,
but an austerity that came from the reserve force of perfect and scrupulous mastery, and
from no timidity or coldness or sterility of deep feeling ; and austerity in life.
How well I remember one evening in the meadows by the Cherwell! It was a still,
golden sunset. Already the dew had begun to fall, and the air was heavy with the almost
too poignant fragrance of the meadowsweet. I had made a remark about the way some people
were haunted by dream fragrances, and instanced queen-of-the-meadow, as we call it in
Scotland, in my own case. Pater replied that certain flowers affected his imagination so
keenly that he could not smell them with pleasure; and that while the white jonquil, the
gardenia, and the syringa actually gave him pain, the meadowsweet generally gave him a
sudden fugitive sense of distant pastures, and twilit eves, and remote scattered hamlets.
"On an evening like this," he added, there is too much of it. It is the fault of
nature in England that she runs too much to excess. Well, after all, that is a foolish
thing to say. There is always something supremely certain about nature's
"You remember Blake---'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom'? "
" Yes; it is a notable saying, and, like most kindred sayings, is probably half true,
though I doubt if in this instance more than partially, or only very occasionally true.
Talking of Blake, I never repeat to myself, without a strange and almost terrifying
sensation of isolation and long weariness, that couplet of his:
weary of time,
Who contest the steps of the sun."
This led to my asking him what were his favourite intimate
passages. I have forgotten, or do not remember with sufficient exactness to record them,
what he gave though I recollect that he placed foremost that noble maxim from Plato: "Honour
the soul; for each man's soul changes, according, to the nature of his deeds, for better
Every great writer, he said, had serviceable apothegms on the conduct of art as well as
the conduct of life. At that time he was re-reading some of the chief books of two great
novelists, more radically than merely racially distinct, Balzac and George Eliot. I asked
which writer he found the more stimulating, the more suggestive, the more interesting.
Balzac, he replied, he found more interesting, though he thought George Eliot the more
suggestive. "But of neither would I speak as stimulating."
"Balzac,", he resumed, "is full of good things, things well said and worth
daily remembrance, as for example this : 'Le travail constant est la loi de I'art comme
celle de la vie.'
"A little while ago you said," I interpolated, "that Keats was
unquestionably right when he wrote that Invention was the pole-star of Poetry. Would you
say the same in the instance of every other art ?"
"No doubt, no doubt; only one must be sure one knows exactly what one means by
Invention. An admirable French critic has said this for us : ' L'Invention, qualité
premiére et base de toutes les autres, dans les operations des beaux-arts.' And by the
way, bear this, from the same source, ever in mind 'Il y a dans la composition deux
écueils à éviter, le trop peu d'art, et le trop d'art.'
It was on this occasion also, I remember, that, on my asking him what he, personally,
considered the most memorable passage in George Eliot, he surprised me by saying, after a
brief while for reflection, that it was the remark put into Piero di Cosimo's mouth, in
Romola : "The only passionate life is in form and colour."
His interest in Piero di Cosimo, and Bazzi, and a few other rare and distinctive figures
of mediæval Italy, was I may add singularly keen. There were two strangenesses, if I may
use the word, which always appealed to him strongly : the strangeness that lies in
familiarity, and the strangeness of the unusual, the remote, the mysterious, the wild. He
loved the vicarious life. His own was serenely quiet and uneventful, but he thrilled with
excitement when a foreign element, of altogether alien circumstance, entered it, whether
this intruder was a living person or only a mental actuality. He was like those early
Italian or Flemish painters of whom he speaks in one of his essays, "who, just
because their minds were full of heavenly visions, passed some of them, the better part of
sixty years in quiet, systematic industry." As he says of Wordsworth, " there
was in his own character a certain contentment, a sort of religious placidity, seldom
found united with a sensibility like his. . . . His life is not divided by profoundly felt
incidents ; its changes are almost wholly inward, and it falls into broad, untroubled
spaces. Thisplacid life matured in him an unusual, innate sensibility to natural sights
and sounds, the flower and its shadow on the stone, the cuckoo and its echo."
It is his apprehension of, his insight into, this subtle, profoundly intimate second-life
in every manifestation of human life and nature, of the warm shadow as well as of the
sunlit flower, of the wandering voice as well as of the spring harbinger, that is one
secret of the immediate appeal of Walter Pater's work, to all who not only love what is
beautiful, wheresoever and howsoever embodied, but also, as a Celtic saying has it, "
look at the thing that is behind the thing."
An apprehension, an insight in some degree akin, must be in the reader who would
understand Walter Pater the man as well as Walter Pater the writer and thinker. There are
few more autobiographical writers, though almost nowhere does he openly limn
autobiographical details. Only those lovers of his work who have read, and read closely,
lovingly, and intimately, all he has written can understand the man. He is one of those
authors of whom there can never be any biography away from his writings. The real man is a
very different one from the Mr. Rose of The New Republic, from "the mere
conjurer of words and phrases" of Mr. Freeman, from "the demoralising
moraliser" of the late Master of Balliol, from "the preacher of a remote and
exclusive aestheticism" of those who seldom read and never understood him, from the
sophisticated, cold, and humanly indifferent exponent or advocate of "art for art's
sake alone." In no writer of our time is there more tenderness ; more loving heed of
human struggle, aspiration, failure, heroic effort high achievement; more profound
understanding of "the thing that is behind the thing ;" above all, a keener, a
more alive, a more swift and comprehensive sympathy. If those who have read one or two of
the purely art essays only will take up the paper on Charles Lamb or the deeply
significant and penetrative study of Wordsworth (surely the most genuinely critical, the
most sympathetic and rightly understanding, of all estimates of Wordsworth), they will
speedily hear the heartbeat of one who was a man as other clean-hearted, cleanminded,
clean-living men are, and a writer of supreme distinction only "by grace of
Though there are few so direct autobiographical
indications as may be found in The Child of the House (essentially, and to some
extent in actual detail, a record of the author's child-life), or as the statement in the
Lamb essay that it was in a wood in the neighbourhood of London that, as a child, he heard
the cuckoo for the first time, the inner life of Walter Pater is written throughout each
of his books, woven "like gold thread" through almost every page, though perhaps
most closely and revealingly in Marius the Epicurean. That Marius is
largely himself would be indubitable even were there no personal testimony to support the
evidence. I remember, whenhe read Marius to me in manuscript, that the passage at page 136 (first edition), beginning,
"It seemed at first as if his care for poetry had passed away . . . to be replaced by
the literature of thought," was admitted by him to be---as again at pages 103, 169, and elsewhere---directly autobiographical.
This is the passage wherein occur two phrases now famous : "a severe intellectual
meditation, the salt of poetry," and "spontaneous surrender to the dominion of
the outward impressions." He had the same horror of snakes and creeping things of
which his young Epicurean was so painfully conscious. I remember one occasion when,
at Oxford, a small party of us had gone down-stream, to reach a wood of which Pater was
fond in the first hot days of late spring. He was walking with my wife, when suddenly she
saw him start, grow paler than his wont, and abruptly hurry forward with averted on was
head. The cause of this perturbation that, to the
right of the pathway, a large "earth adder," or " slow-worm," lay dead or dying.
This aversion was excited even by inanimate representations of snakes. Once when he was
visiting us in London; his gaze was attracted by the gleaming of the lamplight upon a
circular ornament my wife wore round her neck. It was a flexible silver serpent, made of
over a thousand little silver scales, the work of a Florentine mechanic, which I had
brought home from Italy. In response to his inquiry, she unloosed it and handed it to him
; but as she did so, it writhed about her arm as though alive. Pater drew back, startled,
nor would be touch or look at it, beautiful as the exquisitely minute workmanship was; and
indeed, so uneasy was he, so evidently perturbed that she should wear anything so
"barbaric," that, laughingly, she agreed not to replace it, but safely to lock
it up in its morocco case again.
Keenly, too, he had that vague dread of impending evil which perturbed Marius when, on his
way to Rome, lie climbed the gloomy, precipitous slopes of Urbs-Vetus ; that "sense
of some unexplored evil ever dogging his footsteps " (page 24) ; that recurrent sense
of some obscure danger beyond the mere danger of death---vaguer than that, and by so much
the more terrible" (page 124) that dread of which he writes (page 178), "His
elaborate philosophy had not put beneath his feet the terror of mere bodily evil, much
less of 'inexorable fate and the noise of greedy Acheron.' " He had a great dislike
of walking along the base of dark and rugged slopes, or beneath any impenitent rock. When,
a few years ago he came to reside for the most part in London, he hoped that this
apprehension would depart, or never be evoked. For a time, London gave him a fresh and
pleasant stimulus ; but later, it began to weary, to perturb, and at last to allure him
into even deeper despondencies than his wont. It was with a welcome sense of home-coming
that, not long ago, he returned to Oxford as his permanent place of abode. But of his
gloom, so far as his literary work is affected by it, the aptest thing that can be said is
a passage in his own essay On Charles Lamb : "The gloom is always there, though
restrained always in expression, and not always realised either for himself or his
readers; and it gives to those lighter matters on the surface of life and literature,
among which he for the most part moved, a wonderful play of expression, as if at any
moment these light words and fancies might pierce very far into the deeper hearts of
Aside from Marius the Epicurean, there is a radical mistake on the part of those
who affirm that Pater is, after all, but a subtle and seductive writer on art ; meaning
the arts of painting and sculpture. It is true that, from his first able essay, that on
Winckelmann, to those on The School of Giorgione and The Marbles of
Ægina, he is the profoundest, and generally the most trustworthy of art critics ;
but---and again, apart from the creative quality informing each of these essays, making
them not only interpretations, but works of art---he is, of course, much more than this. His volume of studies of contemporary poetry
and prose, and kindred themes, is alone sufficient to base an enduring reputation upon.
As of the brilliant Flavian who so won the heart of Marius when he left sea-girl Luna for
Pisa, we might say of Walter Pater: "What care for style! What patience of execution! What research for the significant tones of ancient
idiom---sonantia verba et antiqua! What stately and regular wordbuilding,---gravis
et decora constructio!" But, invariably, we have to note also that ever
"the happy phrase of sentence is really modelled upon a cleanly finished structure of
Nothing irritated Pater more than to be called
a mere stylist. He was a thinker first, and a rare and distinguished stylist by virtue of
his thought ; for, after all, style is simply the rainbow light created by the thought,
and is pure, transparent, precise, and beautiful, or is intermittent, incoherent, crudely
interfused, even as is the thought.
Of his more directly or frankly imaginative work, his Imaginary Portraits, from the early Child
of the House to the latest, the narrative of Emuald Uthwart, of Gaston de
Latour, of Brother Apollyon, I have not now space to speak, nor indeed is this
the occasion. But once again I must say that those who would know Walter Pater must read
all he has written. In that serene, quiet, austere, yet passionate nature of his, so
eminently Teutonic, so distinctively northern, there was, strange to say, a strain of
Latin savagery. It found startling expression in the bloody tragedy of the sacrifice of Denys
l'Auxerrois, and in his latest published writing, in the strange and terrifying death
of the boy Hyacinth.
Let me, rather, end this article---so slight and inadequate, I am painfully aware---with
two noble passages, more truly characteristic of Walter Pater than any of the generally
perverted art-for-art's-sake dicta so often quoted from his earlier writings, severed from
their illuminating context. The first is that which concludes the earliest of his critical
studies, that on Wincklemann: "and what does the spirit need in the face of mondern
life? The sense of freedom. That naïve, rough sense of freedom which supposes man's will
to be limited, if at all, only by a will stronger than his, he can never have again. . . .
The chief factor in the thoughts of the modern mind concerning itself is the intricacy,
the universality, oaf natural law, even in the moral order. For us, necessity is not, as
of old, a sort of mythological personage without us, like that magnetic system of which
modern science speaks, penetrating us with a network subtler than our subtlest nerves, yet
bearing in it the central forces of the world. Can art represent men and women in these
bewildering toils so as to give the spirit at least an equivalent for the sense of
freedom? . . . Natural laws we shall never modify, embarrass us at they may; but there is
still something in the nobler or less noble attitude with which we watch their fatal
combinations. In the romances of Goether and Victor Hugo, in some excellent work done after
them, this entanglement, this network of law, becomes the tragic situation in which
certain groups of noble men and women work out for themselves a supreme dénouement.
Who, if he saw through all, would fret against the chain of circumstance which endows one
at the end with those great experiences?"
As this is from the first, so let the second be from the last of those memorable critical
studies, that on Style, written in 1888:
"It is on the quality of the
matter it informs or controls, its compass, its variety, its alliance to great ends or the
depth of the note of revolt, or the largeness of hope in it, that the greatness of
literary art depends, as The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Les
Misérables, the English Bible, are great art. Given the conditions I have tried to
explain as constituting good art: then, if it be devoted further to the increase of men's
happiness, to the redemption of the oppressed or the enlargement of our sympathies with
each other, or to such presentment of new or old truth about ourselves and our relation to
the world as may ennoble and fortify us in our sojourn here, or immediately, as with
Dante, to the glory of God, it will be also great art ; if, over and above those qualities
I summed up as mind and soul,---that colour and mystic perfume, and that reasonable
structure---it has something of the soul of humanity in it, and finds its logical, its
architectural place in the great structure of human life."