Walter Pater, a Life Remembered

Walter Pater, a Life Remembered

Walter Pater, a Life Remembered

Walter Pater, a Life Remembered

Excerpt

It might even be said that the trial-task of criticism, in regard to literature and art no less than to philosophy, begins exactly where the estimate of general conditions, of the conditions common to all the products of this or that particular age--of the "environment"--leaves off, and we touch what is unique in the individual genius which contrived after all, by force of will, to have its own masterful way with that environment.

Plato and Platonism (1893), pp. 124-25

Walter Horatio Pater (1839-94) stands apart as one of the most enigmatic figures of the nineteenth-century. He was born in Stepney, a riverside slum of East London, and educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and at Queen's College, Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of Brasenose College, where he taught classical literature and philosophy from 1864 to 1894, but the Establishment at Oxford never accepted him. It is no exaggeration to say that fate has been less than kind to his memory. He has been praised by some critics as the most original writer after John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, and reviled by others as "the most baneful influence ever to be at Oxford."

The strange irony is that "the most personal of Victorian prose writers" is also the least known and the most misrepresented. Reconstructing Pater's life so that he emerges as a living personality has become a formidable task indeed. Many of those who knew him well predicted when he died that no definitive life of the "master" would ever appear (see p. 130n). The external aspect of his life seems to have been remarkably uneventful and unusually placid, and fundamental matters of fact, chronology and perspective have yet to be established. Very little is known about the first twenty-five years of his life, for example, and the details of his friendships and associations have never been ascertained. The many legends fostered by his reserved nature and secluded way of life (they usually represent Pater as a retired military officer with a thick moustache) complicate the task. One theory has it that Pater never wanted to be the subject of a biography, and to thwart intrepid biographers who at some time in the future might want to write his life he disclosed only so much of his personality in his writings and took extraordinary measures to conceal the details of his private life.

Moreover, the important sources of information, the portraits produced by Pater's first biographers, are unreliable, as a perusal of the . . .

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