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Keeping the Hard Gemlike Flame

Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls

by Denis Donoghue
Knopf, 364 pp., $27.50

Walter Pater published his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, in March 1873, when he was thirty-three. As one of his early reviewers, Emilia Francis Pattison, pointed out, the title created a misleading impression, since there was little in the book that could properly be called history: “Mr. Pater writes of the Renaissance as if it were a kind of sentimental revolution having no relation to the conditions of the actual world.” Four years later, when the second edition appeared, Pater tacitly acknowledged that she was right by changing the title to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, which is what it has remained ever since—although countless readers must have been disappointed, even so, to discover how little guidance Pater offers to his ostensible subject, how far more concerned he was with his own feelings.

Emilia Francis Pattison is often said to have served as a partial model for the character of Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A few months after her review appeared, George Eliot delivered her own verdict on Pater’s book, in a letter to her publisher: it seemed to her “quite poisonous,” she wrote, “in its false principles of criticism and false conceptions of life.” Strong words, stronger than anything Pater himself is likely to have been exposed to; but he came under sufficiently painful attack in reviews, sermons, and remonstrations from colleagues and friends. He had given offense, above all in the generalizing Conclusion to the book, and the reaction rattled him. In the second edition the Conclusion was suppressed.

Yet he must have known, in one part of his mind, that he had been inviting condemnation. Low-keyed though it was, The Renaissance was unmistakably a manifesto, and its message ran counter to some of the most deeply held convictions of his society. The secret of living well, it affirmed, was to live beautifully. “Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the end”—experience judged in terms of intensity, “stirring of the senses,” aesthetic satisfaction.

For Pater’s critics, such a doctrine was simply a refined form of hedonism, ancient selfishness in a fancy new guise. For his admirers, the refinement made all the difference. High passion, he had persuaded them—if it was the real thing, the genuine elevated article—was the key to a high quality of life; and of all the high passions, the one likely to yield most, by way of “a quickened, multiplied consciousness,” was the love of art for art’s sake. That still left unanswered some large questions about social responsibility and moral choice, but the implication seemed to be that if you looked after the aesthetics, morality would look after itself. “Then why should we be good, Mr. Pater?” an undergraduate is supposed to have asked him after one of his lectures—or so the story ran. “Because it is so beautiful.” It is not an answer that would have satisfied George Eliot.

In the 1870s, however, the future lay with Pater rather than his detractors. From the start, The Renaissance struck a nerve with younger readers (he eventually restored the Conclusion, in a toned-down form), and as the Aesthetic movement of the 1880s took shape he was acknowledged as its foremost guiding spirit. His fame spread, consolidated by the appearance of his essays and sketches, crowned by the publication of his novel Marius the Epicurean in 1885. Dozens of writers, of whom Wilde and Yeats are only the most conspicuous, came under his spell. For forty years or so, until roughly the First World War, he was a major element in the literary climate. And then it all faded, quite quickly. Inevitably there were time lags and chronological overlaps—Yeats, notoriously, gave him a place of honor in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse as late as 1936, chopping up his celebrated account of the Mona Lisa into vers libre. But for most readers by that date his books had a tired, wilted look, and the Paterian aesthete as a social type was as defunct as Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

Since then his reputation has remained that of a secondary figure, someone people are expected to know about but don’t on the whole feel much impulse to read. True, over the past twenty or thirty years he has enjoyed an academic revival of sorts; but it is significant that the best modern book about him—Michael Levey’s The Case of Walter Pater, published in 1978—should be heavily biographical in emphasis. Not that Levey doesn’t find merit in his writings. His ultimate aim, he tells us, is to lead us back to them. But his entire procedure assumes that, whatever their original appeal, they are unlikely to hold much interest for us today unless we have first become interested in the personality they reflect. There is of course an implied judgment here on Pater’s literary rank: you don’t find people trying to persuade you that James Joyce, say, is best approached in the first instance through Richard Ellmann, or Henry James through Leon Edel.

In the prologue to his new study Denis Donoghue makes larger literary claims for Pater than Levey does. It is the writer who ought to take pride of place, he argues, not the man—and at the same time he deplores the practice of treating him as an essentially autobiographical writer. On the contrary, his critical works would never have achieved the influence they did if they had been mere subjective musings. The motifs in his fictional works are there not because they happened to him, but because he imagined them.

Given the austere position which Donoghue stakes out, it is surprising that he goes on to devote more than a quarter of his text, eighty pages or so, to what he calls a “Brief Life” of Pater. For critical purposes, a really brief life, a résumé of a few pages, would surely have sufficed: it is as though Donoghue had become hooked on the biographical issues in spite of himself. Still, no reasonable reader is going to object, since he covers the ground with uncommon vivacity. Perhaps “Brisk Life” would be a better description.

The outward course of Pater’s career was simple and mostly unremarkable. His father, a doctor in the East End of London, died when he was only two, his mother when he was fourteen. After some contented early years in Enfield, a small town in Hertfordshire, he was sent to the King’s School, Canterbury. Initially unhappy there, he took refuge in religion and the school rituals connected with the Cathedral, and when he went up to Oxford, it was with the idea of becoming a clergyman. He persisted with his plans, even after he had lost his faith, but they were sabotaged by a former friend who was shocked by his duplicity and denounced him to the bishop of London. Instead, he became a don, teaching classics at Brasenose—an incongruous figure in a college best known for its sportsmen. At the age of thirty he set up house in North Oxford with his two unmarried sisters, and the three of them also shared the small house he took in London after the success of Marius the Epicurean. With increasing fame, his social circle widened, but what struck most people who met him was his reserve. He died in Oxford, of a heart attack brought on by pleurisy, a few days short of his fifty-fifth birthday.

It was a life with only two obvious dramas—loss of faith, with its attendant career complications, and the mini-scandal stirred up by the first edition of The Renaissance. Beyond that, there was an almost laughable gulf between preaching and practice, between Pater’s exhortations to burn with a gemlike flame and his gray everyday existence. The high priest of Experience seems to have devoted most of his time and energy to not having any. Yet, given the signals he felt impelled to make in his writing, there is drama (and not just comedy, either) in this very absence of drama—a sense of secrecy, of feelings being crushed down and forced to find what outlets they could.

At one level, in one light, his work can be seen as marking the emergence of a distinctive phase of homosexual culture. Pater never seems to have been in any doubt about his own sexual orientation—his writing abounds in references to beautiful male faces and yearned-for youths; and though caution soon got the better of him, the boldness of some of his early work, if you consider when and where he was writing, still impresses. The essay on Winckelmann (1867), later incorporated into The Renaissance, is rightly described by Donoghue as a defense of homosexuality—or as explicit a defense as Pater could have hoped to get away with. The praise of beauty, paganism, strangeness, and so forth in the other chapters in the book is necessarily rather vague, but for anyone prepared to do a little decoding there can be no mistaking its drift. Pater’s early critics didn’t just frown on his hedonism. Some of them scented “corruption.”

The years in which most of the essays that make up The Renaissance were written were also years in which he permitted himself a few dandified touches (apple-green silk tie, yellow kid gloves), and embarked on a number of unconventional friendships. The most daring of them was with Simeon Solomon, a young artist (and uninhibited homosexual) whose work he admired. He continued to show an affectionate interest in Solomon after he had been convicted and given a prison sentence for importuning, in 1873—from a distance, it is true, but in marked contrast to Swinburne, another friend of Solomon, who ran for cover. In 1876 Pater published an article in which he praised him, under the thinnest of disguises (“a young Hebrew painter”), in loaded language: his painting of Bacchus was extolled as the realization of “a melancholy and sorrowing Dionysus…the god of the bitterness of wine, ‘of things too sweet’; the sea-water of the Lesbian grape become somewhat brackish in the cup.”

Verbal fantasies are almost certainly where it all stopped. It seems highly unlikely that the Secret Life of Walter Pater, if it ever became known, would contain anything very startling. Donoghue quotes from a previously unpublished account of his being seized by a sudden fancy while at the hairdresser’s, placing a youthful assistant’s slippered foot on his knee, stroking it, observing it “from every angle possible.” If he had been prepared to lend more weight to the evidence of the writer’s eccentric admirer Richard Jackson—who was admittedly unbalanced but not necessarily always unreliable—he might have included a few details about his sentimental friendships with some of the young men he met at St. Austin’s, a peculiar High Church mission in South London which Jackson had helped to endow and where Pater worked as a lay brother. But such mild episodes are hardly the stuff of which a Wildean scandal is made; and though Pater had a long and on the whole friendly literary relationship with Wilde, he was always anxious, as Donoghue makes clear, not to be drawn too deeply into his life.

Donoghue gives nicely discriminated accounts of Pater’s dealings with a great many writers besides Wilde—among others, with Henry James, Gerard Manley Hopkins (who was briefly one of his students), John Addington Symonds, George Moore, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson. He also builds up a convincing impression of the man himself. The solitary Pater, the fastidious Pater, the Pater who wasn’t shy about playing at literary politics are all skillfully evoked. So is the Pater who gave nothing away, the master of the suave evasion and the opaque response. So is the Pater who in Henry James’s words was “far from being as beautiful as his own prose,” and who grew a fierce mustache in the unavailing hope that it would help.

There are one or two gaps. Pater’s boyhood deserves fuller treatment—the Enfield years in particular, which as he himself suggested were the seedbed of his later imaginative life; and Donoghue doesn’t quite do justice to the feline side of his personality, the side which you can glimpse, for example, in the reminiscences of the artist William Rothenstein. (Rothenstein records Pater’s skill at extracting indiscretions from other people without giving anything away himself, his disquieting trick of assuming ignorance of subjects about which he was perfectly informed, his double-edged praise when he was asked about Wilde—“Oh, Wilde, he has a phrase for everything.”) For the most part, though, the portrait is as complete and fully rounded as space permits.

In his second, central section Donoghue moves smartly from the life to the work. The section is arranged in the simplest manner possible: he examines the writings, item by item, in chronological order. But this apparent straightforwardness is deceptive, since the nature of his inquiry is constantly shifting. There are jumps in the argument, turnings aside to consider other writers, miscellaneous reflections, piecemeal conclusions. Large cultural themes are casually introduced and just as casually dropped. As you would expect, a good many illuminating things are said along the way, but the discussion lacks cumulative force.

The most striking claim which the book makes is that, faded appearances notwithstanding, Pater is one of the key masters of modernism. This is an idea which has been around for some time (though you wouldn’t guess as much from Donoghue). In Walter Pater and the Gods of Disorder (1988), for instance, Robert and Janice Keefe argue that Pater had an enduring significance for Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and other writers of the High Modernist era: “Intellectually he was their father, and his influence was to be built on, as well as outgrown.” Still, no one else, as far as I know, has seen his presence extending as widely as Donoghue does, or persisting for as long. “Pater is audible,” he writes, “in virtually every attentive modern writer—in Hopkins, Wilde, James, Yeats, Pound, Ford, Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Aiken, Hart Crane, Fitzgerald, Forster, Borges, Stevens, Ammons, Tomlinson and Ashbery.”

It is just as well that Donoghue isn’t required to demonstrate the truth of this assertion in detail. “Presence” (the word he prefers) is an even vaguer concept than “influence,” and the critical machinery hasn’t been invented that could measure the exact infusion of Pater in The Waste Land or A Passage to India or The Great Gatsby. My own feeling is that once we move beyond Pater’s immediate disciples, Donoghue seriously overstates his case. So many other crosscurrents are at work—some of them so much more powerful—that it is slightly bizarre to single Pater out in this fashion.

Fortunately he is less concerned with modernism’s debt to Pater than with Pater’s anticipations of modernism. Here he is on far firmer ground. Long ago, in Axel’s Castle, Edmund Wilson recruited Pater to the ranks of the Symbolists and presented him as an English equivalent, at a lower level, of Mallarmé. Extending this insight, Donoghue elaborates on basic Paterian assumptions—eternal flux and transition, the inescapably subjective nature of experience, intensity as a supreme value—and on the type of art which Pater thought they entailed: an art of mood rather than meaning, rich in sensation, purged of the need to convey a message; an art in which matter and form (as in music) were at one.

It was also an art of opposition, however oblique, to the social status quo. “Antinomian,” in the sense of “subversive,” is a recurrent term in Donoghue’s interpretation. “It was Pater,” he writes, “more than Arnold, Tennyson, or Ruskin, who set modern literature upon its antithetical—he would say its antinomian—course.” And again, “Antinomianism is crucial. I must stay with it. Pater had an interest in finding, below the surface of an apparently unified society, intimations of visionary dissent.”

These themes are pursued with a good deal of subtlety. Pater emerges looking fresher than he has looked for a long time. But at the end we still aren’t convinced that he has the importance which Donoghue attributes to him. We aren’t quite convinced that Donoghue himself is convinced.

In his imaginative works, Marius and the Imaginary Portraits, Pater is relatively lacking in energy. (He is also notably unmodern in his choice of subject matter—not necessarily a fault, but surely one of the hallmarks of modernism was its success in engaging, quite as much as naturalism, with the detail of contemporary life.) In his criticism, he seldom enlarges your sense of what it is that makes a particular artist unique: everything tends to get Paterized. And in both departments, his style has a debilitating effect. It blurs the edges of what he has to say and muffles its emotional impact; it leaves the reader with his eyelids a little weary.

In the final, stock-taking section of the book, Donoghue attempts to tackle this last problem head-on, in a chapter entitled simply “His Style.” He begins by resurrecting a forgotten book on Pater by Edward Thomas, published in 1913, and quoting one of Thomas’s more hostile comments:

On almost every page of his writing words are to be seen sticking out, like the raisins that will get burnt on an ill-made cake. It is clear that they have been carefully chosen as the right and effective words, but they stick out because the labour of composition has become so self-conscious and mechanical that cohesion and perfect consistency are impossible. The words have only an isolated value;…they are anything but living and social words.

That seems to me both true and very well put; and although Donoghue proceeds to mount a prolonged defense on Pater’s behalf, it is an indictment which I don’t think he ever really succeeds in answering. It is no answer, for example, to say that Pater’s stylistic “techniques of delay,” which he analyzes with great skill, “mark his quiet refusal to live by the rhythms of public life, commerce and technology,” that they express “his distaste for bourgeois values.” When Edward Thomas spoke of “living and social words,” he had in mind something very different, as his own admirable poetry makes clear.

The most ambitious passage in the chapter invokes Henry James. As stylists, Donoghue argues, Pater and James had at least one notable feature in common: both of them tended to write in a manner which was “responsive to the mind thinking rather than to the things being said,” in which the real content was “mental movement.” Even if you grant that this is true, however, an extended comparison between the two men is bound to be to Pater’s disadvantage. James’s prose has so much more body—a product of his closer involvement with the world—and its complexities generally earn their moral or psychological keep: in Auden’s majestic phrase, he was the “master of nuance and scruple.” With Pater, by contrast, you all too often feel that the refinements lead nowhere, that it is a case of nuance as an end in itself and scruple for scruple’s sake.

Donoghue sees style as the main achievement of Marius the Epicurean, which is not likely to sound much of an attraction to other readers. But then he doesn’t seem very attracted by the book himself. His chapter on it is a skimpy affair—only seven or eight pages on a work which might have been expected to occupy a central place in any study of Pater.

It is an ambitious book, certainly. Set in the time of Marcus Aurelius, it describes the moral and intellectual progress of a young Roman searching for a philosophy he can live by. (He eventually works his way from paganism toward Christianity, though without quite getting there.) It is also a book which makes few concessions to the ordinary novel reader. The narrative keeps a chaste distance from the action; most of it is given over to commentary and analysis; there is little sense of drama, almost no dialogue, only the sketchiest characterization. If you picked up such a book casually, without knowing anything about it, the odds are that you would soon put it down. You would probably conclude that it was a museum piece.

There is in fact a good deal of life in it, but not enough, today at least, to sustain one’s interest unaided. Even more than with Pater’s other work, you have to take an interest in the author as well, to recognize how much the story is his story. Not that Marius is simply a mask from behind which Pater’s features are forever peeping out, or that his world doesn’t have an imaginative existence—a rather pale one, admittedly—in its own right. The book can fairly claim to be, if not exactly a novel, then a romance. But it is also, unmistakably, a self-portrait. Some of it, from Marius’s early sense of a religious vocation to his phobia about snakes, reflects Pater’s experience quite closely, some of it in idealized form; every page of it is permeated with his personality. And it is correspondingly rich in psychological interest. An account of it as an oblique life-history by (shall we say?) the late Erik Erikson would have been better worth having than any number of analyses of its style.

Donoghue’s determination to keep biography and criticism apart, implicit in his treatment of Marius, comes right out into the open in his chapter on “The Child in the House.” This remarkable sketch, originally published in a magazine in 1878, describes the early years of a boy called Florian, recollected by him some thirty years later. It is notable for the intensity with which it both evokes and analyzes a child’s unfolding awareness of the world, and from the first, critics have assumed that it is in large measure an account of Pater’s own childhood. But Donoghue sets his face against such an approach as firmly as he can: “An autobiographical reading of the story,” he warns us, “is…no good.”

That is surely overreacting. Inadequate, yes; not strictly necessary, one would agree; but flatly, blankly no good? The grounds he gives for his conviction are that some elements in the story are clearly fictional (which no one has ever denied) and that at other points it is impossible to say where fact ends and fiction begins. Generally speaking, however, the fit between Florian and Pater is much closer than he suggests, and some of his reasoning seems less than conclusive. He talks, for example, of certain details in the story being drawn from Pater’s early essays, and “not otherwise from life”; by way of illustration he cites an account of Florian watching the light cast by snow on a ceiling, and an almost identical image in the essay on Botticelli. How on earth can he be sure that both passages don’t derive from the same childhood experience?

But speculating about such details isn’t very important. What matters much more is that in pursuing his case against an autobiographical interpretation, he manages to make the story sound a good deal less powerful than it is. I won’t say that this is something that follows logically, but it is how it works out in practice. On the central motif of the house itself (which other critics have seen as plainly inspired by Pater’s childhood home in Enfield), the most he will concede is that Pater, like Florian, “made much ado about houses as settings for the feelings that arise in them.” “Much ado” is hardly a phrase calculated to set the potential reader’s pulse racing. Again, we are told that “a comparison with Proust has often been considered”—to which, when it is put that way, one doesn’t feel like saying much more than “Uh-huh.” There is nothing to suggest that the comparison might be well founded, or that it is an index of the subtlety and originality which give “The Child in the House” a special place among the writer’s works.

As the book progresses, Donoghue’s enthusiasm for Pater shows further signs of waning, with one significant exception. In the later chapters, the Pater who proclaimed the autonomy of art gets an increasingly respectful hearing. He is a familiar enough figure, but we are invited to see him in a new light—as an ally against the politicization which has taken such a grip on contemporary literary studies.

Although Donoghue is understandably reluctant to tackle this dreary topic head-on, his views are pretty clear and obviously right. He deplores being admonished (as we all are nowadays) “to regard a work of art as merely a disguised ideological formation and to attend to it as a detective interrogates a suspect.” He warns us that if we can no longer tell the difference between a work of literature and an editorial, “the game is up.” He reminds us, in a witty anagram, that there are “reasons of taste” in art as well as “reasons of state.”

In the current climate, it is easier than it once was to appreciate what Pater meant to his early admirers. Over the past thirty years or so we have been afflicted with reductive readings of literature at least as cramping as the rigidly moralistic views from which he showed them a way out. (George Saintsbury, a member of the first generation to come under his spell, used to sum up prePater conditions by citing the story of Charles Kingsley being asked by his daughters, “Who was Heine, Papa?”, and replying, “A bad man, my dears, a bad man.” Crude—but not as crude as some of the things you hear at the MLA.)

How much Pater’s doctrines can still mean to us today is another question. A great deal, according to Donoghue. It is essential, he writes, to keep insisting that aesthetic values—“form, style, tone, pleasure”—are fundamental to the literature we care about; and “in his subdued way, Pater is where these ladders start.” A bold formulation, echoing (and reversing) Yeats, who eventually came to believe, in spite of Pater, that all the ladders started “in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The beginning of critical wisdom is no doubt to recognize that a poem is a poem and not something else—that the value of art, as philosophers say, is intrinsic and not instrumental. For grasping this truth early on and holding fast to it, Pater deserves praise. But most of us, most of the time, want more than he has to offer: we want the aesthetic values and the passions bred in the rag and bone shop, and we usually have no trouble finding art that provides both. The objection to his aestheticism is not to the doctrine as such, but to the narrowness with which he applied it. It turns its back on half the world. It is seldom more than a few steps away from preciosity. He remains a very interesting figure, as Donoghue demonstrates; but you can’t read him for long without becoming aware of how much he leaves out.

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