The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 17. Walter Pater

On a far higher plane of literature stands Walter Pater; but he, though he was influenced by Ruskin, is singularly different from the elder writer, and the difference sheds back a light upon the master’s theories. Ruskin, bowed with sorrows though he was, remained unconquerably optimistic, and, so long as he was capable of work, he laboured with even excessive hopefulness at schemes of social regeneration. Pater retires from the dust of conflict into an artistic seclusion. The conclusion of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance is, in the highest degree, significant. Its teaching is that, to beings like men, beings under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve, the love of art for art’s sake is the highest form of wisdom. “For art comes to you, proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” The Oscar Wilde development had not the good will of Pater any more than that of Ruskin; but it logically follows from Pater’s principle.

Pater was one of the most fastidious of literary artists. By his artistic theory he was driven to seek perfection of style. If art for art’s sake is the highest thing of all, if life is a series of moments and its aim is to make each moment as exquisite as it can be made, it follows that each sentence, in a sense, is an end in itself. The result is a style beautiful indeed—at its best very beautiful—but overlaboured. The purpose partly defeats itself. The whole suffers from the excessive pains bestowed upon the parts, and the reader shares the oppression felt by the writer.

Pater’s literary career began with the essay entitled Winckelmann, which he contributed, in 1867, to The Westminster Review, and this, with other papers contributed to periodicals, constituted the volume which was published in 1873. In the second edition, the conclusion which has been quoted above was omitted, because Pater felt that it might mislead young men. It was, however, subsequently restored; and the conceptions it indicates form the substance of the fine romance, Marius the Epicurean, which shows clearly that Pater’s own epicureanism was of a very noble sort, but which fails, like every form of epicureanism, to show why any one kind of pleasure should be the pleasure of all. Imaginary Portraits followed, and then Appreciations, Plato and Platonism and the charming “imaginary portrait,” The Child in the House. This was the last volume published during Pater’s life, but several followed it posthumously. Pater gave a colour of his own to everything he touched. His criticism reveals so much of himself that the question is naturally suggested, whether it reveals as much of the artist or the writer criticised. But it must be remembered that the criticism that does not carry the atmosphere of personality is a singularly dull affair; and, also, that Pater was unusually well endowed with both the emotional and the intellectual gifts of the critic. There are few whose judgments are deserving of closer attention.