Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pater, Walter Horatio
PATER, WALTER HORATIO (1839–1894), critic and humanist, was born at Shadwell in the east of London on 4 Aug. 1839. He was the second son of Dr. Richard Glode Pater and Maria Hill, his wife. The family is of Dutch extraction, the critic's ancestors having, it is believed, come over from the Low Countries with William of Orange. It is said that the French painter Jean-Baptiste Pater was of the same stock. The English Paters had settled at Olney in Buckinghamshire, where they lived all through the eighteenth century. Reserved and shy, preserving many of their Dutch habits, they are described in family tradition as mingling little with their neighbours, and as keeping through several generations this curious custom, that, while the sons were always brought up as Roman catholics, the daughters were no less invariably trained in the Anglican faith. The father of Walter Pater quitted the Roman church before his marriage, without, however, adopting any other form of faith, and his two sons were the first Paters who were not brought up as catholics.
The grandfather of the critic removed to New York, and there Richard Glode Pater was born. He settled as a physician at Shadwell, and here were born to him two sons—the elder, William Thomson Pater (1835–1888), a medical practitioner—and two daughters, who survive. Richard Glode Pater died so early that his second son scarcely remembered him in later life. The family, at his decease, removed to a retired house in Chase Side, Enfield, which has since been pulled down. Here they continued to reside for fourteen or fifteen years. Walter Pater received the first elements of education in a local school at Enfield, but proceeded at the age of fourteen to King's School, Canterbury. Of the feelings and experiences of this change of life he has given a vivid picture in the ‘imaginary portrait’ called ‘Emerald Uthwart.’ Pater was happy at King's School, in spite of his complete indifference to outdoor games. In his first years at public school he was idle and backward, nor was it till he reached the sixth form that his faculties seemed really to awaken. From the first, however, and long before he went to Canterbury, Walter had been considered the ‘clever’ one of the family; not specially precocious, he was always meditative and serious—marked from the very cradle for the intellectual life. From the time when he first began to think of a future condition, his design was to be a clergyman, and this had received a great impetus, while he was yet a little boy, from his having seen, during a visit to Hursley, Keble, who walked and talked much with him, and encouraged him in his religious aspirations.
Shortly before he left school, when he was entering his twentieth year, Pater read ‘Modern Painters,’ and came very abruptly under the influence of Ruskin. The world of art was thus for the first time opened to him. But there is no truth in the fable, widely circulated at the time of his death, to the effect that the finished and beautiful essay on 'Wlnckelmann' was written and even printed while the author was a school-boy at Canterbury. It was not until many years later that Pater became aware of the existence of the German critic, and his essay was composed and published long after he was a fellow of Brasenose. But he is not known to have made any attempt to write, either as schoolboy or undergraduate, his earliest essays being as mature in style as he was mature in years. Pater did not begin to practise the art of authorship until he had mastered all its secrets.
On 11 June 1858 Pater entered Queen's College, Oxford, as a commoner, with an exhibition from Canterbury, and four years later, in the Michaelmas term of 1862, he graduated B.A. with a second class in classics. He was the pupil of Mr. W. W. Capes, then bursar and tutor of Queen's, and he was coached by Jowett, who was struck by his abilities, and who said to him, 'I think you have a mind that will come to great eminence.' Some years afterwards there was an estrangement of sympathy between Jowett and Pater, but this was removed in the last year of the life of each, and the master of Balliol was among those who congratulated Pater most cordially on his 'Plato and Platonism.' In 1862 Pater took rooms in the High Street, Oxford, and read with private pupils. It was not until after he graduated that Pater emerged from his shell at Queen's and came to know some of the more interesting men in other colleges. In the beginning of 1863 he and Professor Bywater were elected members of the Old Mortality, an essay society which flourished at Oxford between 1858 and 1865. The principal resident members at that time were Thomas Hill Green [q. v.], Alfred Robinson, Henry Nettleship [q. v.], Professor Bryce, the present master of Balliol (Edward Caird), and Mr. Boyle of Trinity, with whom Pater had been reading. Pater's first essay was philosophical; one who was present describes it as a 'hymn of praise to the absolute.' Through the Old Mortality, Pater became acquainted with other non-resident or future fellows, such as John Nichol, Mr. Swinburne, and Sir Courtenay Ilbert. In 1864 he was elected a fellow of Brasenose College, and went into residence there, proceeding M.A. in 1865. It was as a non-clerical fellow that he took his place in the society.
On relinquishing his early project of entering the church of England, Pater had thought of becoming a unitarian minister. But this notion also he had abandoned by 1864. His interests were at the time, however, mainly philosophical. His early visits to Germany led him to value all things German. The influence of Jowett and T. H. Green served to strengthen this habit. Mr. Capes warned him against its excess, but his endeavour to attract his pupil to the lucidity and gaiety of French literature met at first with little success. In the year following his election to his fellowship, he paid, in company with Mr. C. L. Shadwell, fellow of Oriel College, his first visit to Italy, and at Ravenna, Pisa, and Florence formed those impressions of the art of the Renaissance which powerfully coloured his future work as an artist. With the accession of humanistic ideas, he gradually lost all belief in the Christian religion.
In 1866 Pater's first essay in composition, a fragment on Coleridge, was published in the ‘Westminster Review.’ His studies in philosophy naturally brought him to Goethe, and it was only natural that one so delicately sensitive to the external symbol as Pater was, should be prepared by the companionship of Goethe for the influence of a man who was Goethe's master in this one direction. The publication of Otto Jahn's ‘Life of Winckelmann’ in 1866 made a profound impression on Pater. His famous essay on Winckelmann was the result of this new enthusiasm. It was published in the ‘Westminster Review’ for January 1867. From this time forth he began to contribute essays to the larger periodicals, and particularly to the ‘Fortnightly Review.’ In 1868, inventing a name which has since sunk into disrepute, he composed an essay on ‘Æsthetic Poetry,’ in which the early work of Mr. William Morris received prompt and judicious analysis. Then followed the series which possess a potent and peculiar charm, the characteristic ‘Notes on Lionardo da Vinci,’ in November 1869; the ‘Fragment on Sandro Botticelli,’ in August 1870; the ‘Pico della Mirandula’ in October, and the ‘Michelangelo’ in November 1871. In 1873 most of these and others were published together in the memorable volume originally entitled ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance.’
In 1869 he had become associated with the group of painters and poets known as the pre-Raphaelites, and particularly with Mr. Swinburne, but he remained domiciled in Oxford. He took a house at No. 2 Bradmore Road, and his sisters came to live with him. Once settled here, Pater became a familiar figure in academic society; but, although he had a large circle of pleasant acquaintances, his intimate friends were always few. His career was exceedingly quiet and even monotonous. He was occupied through term-time in tutorial work, and his long vacations were almost always spent abroad, in Germany or France, in the company of his sisters. He would walk as much as possible, and sometimes more violently than suited his health. He loved the north of France extremely, and knew it well; nor was it any sensible drawback to his pleasure that he spoke no language but his own, and even in French could scarcely make his wants understood. Once, in 1882, he spent the winter in Rome.
Always engaged in literary labour, his procedure was nevertheless so slow and so complicated that twelve years elapsed between the publication of his first book and his second. In February 1885 his romance of ‘Marius the Epicurean’ was published in two volumes. This is, without doubt, Pater's most valuable legacy to literature. It is written to illustrate the highest ideal of the æsthetic life, and to prove that beauty may be made the object of the soul in a career as pure, as concentrated, and as austere as any that asceticism inspires. ‘Marius’ is an apology for the highest epicureanism, and at the same time it is a texture which the author has embroidered with exquisite flowers of imagination, learning, and passion. Modern humanism has produced no more admirable product than this noble dream of a pursuit through life of the spirit of heavenly beauty. In 1887 Pater published a volume of ‘Imaginary Portraits,’ four short romances, two of them on French topics—‘A Prince of Court Painters,’ an anecdote of Watteau, and ‘Denys l'Auxerrois,’ a fantastic vision of Renaissance manners—one on a Dutch subject, ‘Sebastian van Storck,’ and one on a German, ‘Duke Carl of Rosenmold.’ These are studies in philosophic fiction, executed with great delicacy. In 1889 he collected some of his miscellaneous critical studies into a volume called ‘Appreciations, with an Essay on Style.’ In 1893 he published his highly finished college lectures on ‘Plato and Platonism.’ In 1894 ‘The Child in the House,’ an ‘imaginary portrait,’ written in 1878, was issued from the Oxford press of Mr. Daniel. In January 1895 a posthumous volume of ‘Greek Studies’ appeared, prepared for the press by Mr. Shadwell.
Pater's household was moved to 12 Earl's Terrace, Kensington, in 1886, and in 1893 back to Oxford, where he again took a house, 64 St. Giles's. But all the while his real home was in his rooms at Brasenose, where he divided his time between his college duties and his books. His death was almost without warning. He was taken ill at Oxford with rheumatic fever in June 1894, and died suddenly, when he was believed to be convalescent, on Monday, 30 July 1894. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Giles at Oxford.
The qualities of Pater's style were highly original, and were in harmony with his sequestered and somewhat mysterious character. His books are singularly independent of influences from without; they closely resemble one another, and have little relation to the rest of contemporary literature. He exhausted himself in the research after absolute perfection of expression, noting with extreme refinement fine shades of feeling and delicate distinctions of thought and sentiment. His fault was to overburden his sentences, to annex to them too many parenthetical clauses and adjectival glosses. He was the most studied of the English prose-writers of his time, and his long-drawn style was lacking in simplicity and freshness. He wrote with labour, incessantly revising his expression and adding to it, wearying himself in the pursuit of a vain perfection. He possessed all the qualities of a humanist.
In temperament Pater was stationary rather than recluse, not shrinking from his fellows, but unwilling to move to meet them. He was fond of travel, yet hated the society of strangers. His disposition was highly affectionate, but not effusive, and his tendencies were contemplative and indolent. For a long time before his death he had silently grown to be a leading personage in the intellectual life of Oxford, though taking no part in any of its reforms or factions. He had a singular delight in surrounding himself with beautiful objects, but without any of the instinct of a collector; their beauty and nothing else delighted him, and the perfect copy of an ancient coin gave him as much pleasure as the original. He disliked noise and extravagance of all kinds; his manners were of the utmost simplicity; and his sense of fun as playful as that of a child.
The volumes published by Pater have been enumerated above. Of works brought out in periodical form, and not as yet republished, the most important are : 1. 'Gaston de la Tour,' a romance, a portion of which appeared in 'Macmillan's Magazine,' from June to October 1888, and was then discontinued. It was never completed, but a considerable number of chapters still exist in manuscript. 2. 'Emerald Uthwart,' a short romance published in the 'New Review' for 1892. 3. 'Some Churches in France,' a series of studies commenced in 'The Nineteenth Century' for 1894. 4. 'Apollo in Picardy,' a short romance published in 'Harper's Magazine' for 1893. 5. 'Pascal,' a study published in the ' Contemporary Review' for February 1895. Pater was also an occasional contributor to the 'Guardian.'[Personal knowledge and family information, See 'Walter Pater: a Portrait' in the Contemporary Review for December 1894, by the present writer.]