Keeping the Hard Gemlike Flame

Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls

by Denis Donoghue
Knopf, 364 pp., $27.50

Walter Pater
Walter Pater; drawing by David Levine

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…

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