THE TEMPTATIONS OF
WALTER PATER'S IMAGINARY
One longs to penetrate into the lives of the men who have given expression to so much power and sweetness. . . . For the way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.
Pater, The Renaissance
RECENTLY, after many years of disdainful neglect, Walter Pater has emerged once again as a figure of significance in literary history. What precipitated this minor renaissance in Pater appreciation is not completely clear, but some suggestive surmises can be made. First of all, there is the accident of current critical polemics. Pater is a figure much reviled by modernist writers of the school of Eliot, and the latest generation of critics, out of sheer youthful exuberance if nothing else, has taken a provocatively antithetical line on this late Victorian prophet of aestheticism, celebrating him precisely for the thing their critical fathers found so enticingly offensive: his self-referential critical writing. Quite clearly, Pater provides the contemporary critic, anxious for figures he can see as congenial precursors, with a ready-made model of playful intimacy and impersonal yet highly subjective style. Pater's delicately shifting balance of systematic scepticism and insightful self-regard makes him a natural choice for the contemporary critic caught between the exhausted varieties of traditional criticism (formalist and historical) and the fashionable modes of avant garde deconstruction.