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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Walter Pater (1839–1894)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
 
THE FUNCTIONS of criticism are of necessity didactic, not creative; analytical, not synthetic. Yet from time to time critics reveal themselves who vivify their presumably crystallized work with profoundly imaginative thought. Walter Pater is one of these inspirers of criticism. He holds a unique position among English essayists of the nineteenth century by reason of his refinement of vision; of his power of expressing what he saw in language of exquisite rectitude; of the suggestive philosophy which underlies his criticisms, whether they be of Greek art, or of English poets, or of the Italian Renaissance. He is an artist-critic in the sense that he looks upon life with the discrimination of the poet, not of the scientist. He is a creator in the sense that he gives to tradition the freshness of immediate revelation. His essays on Botticelli, on Leonardo, on ‘Measure for Measure,’ throw sudden, vivid light on apparently smooth surfaces of long-accepted fact, revealing delicate and intricate beauties.  1
  Pater’s philosophy of the beautiful in art and life is intrinsically a compiled philosophy, but it becomes original in its application. The old Spartan ideal of temperance in every affair of life becomes for him the governing principle in the manifestations of art. He emphasizes again and again the value of the asceticism inherent in all great art products, a Greek asceticism which is but another word for harmony and proportion. To him the life of the artist resolves itself into a Great Refusal: whether it is that of the patient Raphael, steadfastly purposing that he will not offend; or of Michelangelo, subduing his passion to the requirements of the passionless sonnet; or of the Greek athlete, with his superb conception of physical economy; or whether it is the asceticism of the stylist who rejects all words, however tempting, which will not render him exquisite service. “Self-restraint, a skillful economy of means, ascêsis, that too has a beauty of its own.”  2
  This self-conscious modern application of an essentially Greek ideal, inborn in Pater, was further developed by his educational influences. Walter Horatio Pater was born August 4th, 1839, of a family originally from Holland, but long resident in England. In 1858 he entered Queen’s College, Oxford. At this time England’s period of romanticism had already found brilliant expression in the paintings and poems of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Modern mysticism had attained its apotheosis in ‘The Blessed Damozel.’ It was a mysticism clearly intelligible to the sensuous soul of Pater, who, though dominated by the Greek ideal, retained always his love of flesh, half revealing, half concealing the elusive spirit. His essays on Sandro Botticelli, on Luca della Robbia, on ‘Aucassin and Nicolette,’ witness to this love of the mediæval incapacity for distinguishing soul from body; the Dantesque belief that they are one, and must fare forth together even into the shadowy ways of eternity. But Pater by the law of his development passed from under the influence of Ruskin and Rossetti into the influence of Winckelmann and Goethe. Goethe’s problem “Can the blitheness and universality of the antique ideal be communicated to artistic productions which shall contain the fullness of the experience of the modern world?” became Pater’s problem, which he, essentially a modern, found difficult of solution. “Certainly for us of the modern world, with its conflicting claims, its entangled interests, distracted by so many sorrows, so many preoccupations, so bewildering an experience, the problem of unity within ourselves, in blitheness and repose, is far harder than it was for the Greek within the simple terms of antique life.” This passage from his essay on Winckelmann is the keynote of Pater’s world-weariness, as it is of all who strive to build up Greek serenity on modern experiences. Goethe succeeded in uniting the Romantic with the Hellenic spirit by the fusing power of his genius. Pater, being a critic, not a creator, could not always reconcile the conditions of nineteenth-century life with the temper of Greece.  3
  His works exhibit a hunger for perfection which was the fruit of a passionate admiration of Greek form, and of the spirit which it embodied,—the rational, chastened, debonair spirit of the daylight. Because the maladies of the soul were not unknown to him, this critic and lover of the great past placed an almost exaggerated value upon that unperplexed serenity which perished with young Athens. Heiterkeit and Allgemeinheit (Blitheness and Universality)! are they possible to the complex modern, troubled about many things? At least he can attain to them approximately through his productions, if he be an artist. So Walter Pater recovers the Greek spirit in scrupulous, restrained workmanship, in devotion to form for its own sake. In his Greek studies, in his Plato and Platonism, in his essay on Winckelmann,—throughout his writings, indeed,—this practice toward perfection receives emphasis. It is not that of the Christian art “always struggling to express thoughts beyond itself”; but it is a self-controlled pagan practice, satisfied with the tangible goal of an art which suggests nothing beyond its own victorious fairness.  4
  This devotion to the poise of Greek art and life, to the significant indifference which precludes blind enthusiasm and therefore inadequate workmanship, is blended in Pater with a love of those delicate transitional periods of growth and experience in the lives of nations and of men. The ‘Studies of the Renaissance’ are chiefly concerned with the revelations of its dawn. The ‘Imaginary Portraits’ are of youths who have not yet surrendered to custom their freshness, their bland originality. Pater had the Greek love of youth, and of its characteristics, so precious because so fleeting. These characteristics agree best with his philosophy. Youth loves experience; and to Pater, not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. Youth is not habit-bound, and “our failure is to form habits; for after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world.” So he draws Marius, whose young years accumulate experiences but pass no judgments, and the Child in the House, and Emerald Uthwart dead before his life had crystallized, and Gaston de Latour in the transitional environment of the Renaissance, and Hyacinth slain in the freshness of his beauty, and Sebastian van Storck escaping from life with passionate haste that he may find refuge in the eternal. These youths are on a mental pilgrimage, whose goal they never reach. The most famous of them, Marius the Epicurean, seems the embodiment of Pater’s peculiar philosophy, his love of training, of asceticism in the Greek sense; his appreciation of the value of the transitional. The spiritual journey of Marius is indicated through wonderful chapter after chapter of a novel without a plot. This young Roman lives his chastened, thoughtful, expectant life against the background of the Empire of Marcus Aurelius; enjoying its vivid, varicolored scenery in the detached spirit of the artist; turning always with a sense of relief from the garish show to the gray realms of philosophic thought. The Emperor himself is the second hero of the book, portrayed effectively as the philosopher king who might have ruled Plato’s Republic. Like Marius, he too is a mental wayfarer, who refuses the comforts of the wayside Inn for the sake of the intangible Goal. Marius dies young, with the vision of the City of God still far in the bleak distance; yet with the hope of a mind naturally Christian, that on his love for others his soul may assuredly rest and depend.  5
  The pathos of mortality seems to Pater to embody itself in this craving of Marius, and of his kin in every age, for the personal and the definite: in their refusal to accept, despite this craving, the anthropomorphic gods of the multitude, lest they should miss a rarer divinity. “We too desire,” said Lucian, the friend of Marius, “not a fair one, but the fairest of all; unless we find him we shall think that we have failed.”  6
  To Pater, viewing this life and its phenomena in the Heraclitean spirit, yet always with the half-suppressed longing for the Fixed, the Absolute, orthodoxy is but a retardation of progress; conviction and certitude are alike numbing to the soul of man. He extracts most from life who passes through it with a kind of divine indifference, handling all things as though they were not; yet absorbing the fine essence of each experience because it is transitory. “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”  7
  Of Pater’s style much has been said in praise and detraction. It expresses his hunger for perfection in its extreme polish, its elaborate form, its verbal nicety. But it is never spontaneous, and its art is sometimes artifice. Its merits are perhaps too evident to make of it a great style. Yet it will always witness to the value of patience and of conscientiousness in the handling of words: furthermore, it is an effective key to the otherwise shadowy personality of Pater; to the complex nature, tinged with morbidness, in which end-of-the-century passions broke in upon classic, perhaps pseudo-classic calm.  8
  Walter Pater died July 30th, 1894, at Oxford; where, as a Fellow of Brasenose College, he had spent the greater portion of his uneventful life. His influence may not be far-reaching in the future; but as he himself said of Rossetti, his works will always appeal with power to a special and limited audience.  9
 
 
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