enry James called Walter Pater "the mask without the face" (228) with good reason. Behind Pater's characters and narrative personae his own personality is an enigma. A lack of personal documentation has encouraged his critics to interpret his fictive works as fragments of autobiography (Donoghue, Monsman, et al). However, closer examination suggests that they comprise his ideal self; they are vibrant masks behind which he crouches, most aptly defined in his own words as "the illusive, inscrutable, mistakable self" (">Diaphaneitè").
Walter Horatio Pater was born on 4th August 1839 near Stepney in London. Pater's early life was overshadowed by the sudden premature deaths of his father and mother. It is likely that these deaths influenced his preoccupation with "the awful brevity" of life (Renaissance 152). The immediate practical effect was that Pater and his siblings, William, Hester and Clara, went to live with their Aunt Margaret in Tunbridge Wells, in Kent. They were a lower-middle class family with enough money to send Pater to the King's School nearby.
In 1858, he was granted a scholarship to study at Queen's College, Oxford University. His undergraduate career was academically undistinguished but it was in this period when he encountered ideas and people that would shape his aesthetic. Oxford at that time was the centre of great intellectual fervour. Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were setting new (secular) terms for culture and art. They were significant inspirations for Pater and he engaged with their ideas for the rest of his career, albeit often in disagreement. Withstanding this, Ingram Bywater recalls that William Wolf Capes, Pater's history master, had a definitive effect on the scope of his thinking. Capes pointed beyond Oxford to alternative modes of thought on the Continent: "his lectures were enriched by brilliant and attractive digests of the latest works in French, German, and even Scandinavian literature" (236). Pater took the opportunity to learn to speak German and he set to reading works of the German Enlightenment during the long vacations of 1859-62 when he stayed with his Aunt Bessie and his sisters in Heidelberg. Thereafter, "he gave much time to the aesthetic theorists of Germany — Wincklemann, Lessing, Goethe, Hegel, such speculations agreed with the cogitating spirit in him" (Johnson 364).
These extra-curricular interests soon paid dividends. Following several attempts to gain an academic position, "he was elected to his fellowship at Brasenose [College, Oxford] in 1864 for his knowledge of German philosophy" (Ward 25). Pater quickly established himself as a mild, though apparently unthreatening miscreant. He became a core member of the agnostic discussion group, the Old Morality club, founded by Swinburne a few years earlier. The Oxford establishment tolerated his criticism of Christianity, even his notion of a new Epicureanism, as long as it was discrete. His publication of Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873 irrevocably changed that. Its subversive Conclusion dared to suggest that
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end [ . . . To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy is success in life. 
This passage caused a furore in the conservative press that permanently tainted Pater's career. One typical critic branded its aesthetic "cold-blooded dilettantism" (Whistler 108). The response of the Oxford establishment made matters worse. Jonathan Wordsworth, also a Fellow of Brasenose, accused him of bringing the University into disrepute in a reproachful letter that claimed to represent "many of your contemporaries" (19-21).
So what was all the fuss about? By the standards of today it would be difficult to see how Pater transgressed the moral boundaries. The Renaissance comprises a series of essays on figures that in Pater's view define the Renaissance as a sensibility. He uses these essays to explore self-fulfilment and a universal definition of art. The Conclusion was the contentious element. Here Pater's argument that "experience itself is the end" directly contradicts the location of value in Christianity in the heavens. The further implication that one must aim to heighten the quality of each moment of life because of its fleeting nature, smacked of unbridled hedonism in the contemporary climate of moral reserve. And, of course, his sexualized language ("ecstasy", "passion", etc) exacerbated this.
Pater was stung by the critical backlash against The Renaissance. It was twelve years before he published his next book, Marius the Epicurean (1885). Like his later books — Imaginary Portraits (1887), Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (1889) and Plato and Platonism (1893) — Marius can be conceived as an attempt to expand and reformulate ideas outlined in The Renaissance. In a footnote to the 1888 edition of The Renaissance he explained, "I have dealt more fully in Marius the Epicurean with the thoughts suggested by [this Conclusion]" (150). In these works Pater develops his views on artistic character, the concept of art and its value, which had been obscured by reviews of The Renaissance. His eternal quest to define a raison d'etre based on individualism and aesthetic experience rather than metaphysics is fundamental to this. Even so, these later works signal a partial retreat from The Renaissance. By comparison, their language is guarded, sterile even. They lack the infectious "passion" and "ecstasy" that in The Renaissance embodies the heightened mode of consciousness of which it speaks.
If Pater's corpus looks slight in comparison to other Victorian writers this is because most of his time went into teaching. He was a popular, unassuming master. His many undergraduate friends included Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Edmund Gosse and Gerard Manley Hopkins. They record that he gave them much encouragement, in (usually unsolicited) return for which they sought to uphold his aesthetic ideals and wrote good reviews for his books. Another of his young friends, W.B.Yeats, later wrote, "we looked consciously to Pater for our philosophy" (302). These friendships — like Pater's flirtations with controversy — permeated a fairly an uneventful life. Some might call it "almost colourless" as Pater describes the life of Botticelli (Renaissance 33). Although I would not go that far, it must be observed that Pater certainly liked routine: he prided himself on a stringent routine of teaching in the morning, writing in the afternoon and going to bed early. Apart from a spell in London (1885-1888) he lived with his sisters in Oxford for his whole adult life.
He died on July 30th 1894 after a short illness, realizing the latent fear of premature death that tinges The Renaissance and Marius. He was just 54 years old. Gaston de Latour, which he conceived as a sequel to Marius, was left unfinished. Pater's death symbolizes the beginning of the end of aestheticism: soon after, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned and The Yellow Book ceased publication.
Pater's critical afterlife has fluctuated according to critical trends. A brief surge in interest in his work was occasion by the posthumous publications of Greek Studies (1895), Miscellaneous Studies (1895) and Essays from The Guardian (1910), and two rather fanciful biographies by Thomas Wright and A.C. Benson respectively. However, the advent of New Criticism consigned him to the literary netherworld along with all other Victorian literature. Unfortunately, it was decades before Pater's work began to excite attention again. Harold Bloom, a casual admirer of Pater, has said that interest in his work continues to suffer from T.S. Eliot's criticism (431-43). In the last fifteen years though, there has been a resurgence of interest in his writings. Pater's connection with Oscar Wilde is the single most important cause for this. Wilde's renaissance as a gay icon has set the terms for new theoretical readings of Pater (a mixed blessing). Ian Small, for one, presents a convincing argument that Pater was homosexual. He certainly engaged in intense, ephemeral friendships with young men, including the artist Simeon Solomon who was later imprisoned for sodomy. But like most of Pater's private life, this remains in the realm of conjecture.
Walter Pater's personality remains elusive in spite of attempts to remove his mask. But then it was Pater himself who crafted the dichotomy and he took the liberty of erasing himself. To the frustration of his biographers he did not keep a diary nor did he write many letters, which he dismissed as "a poor means of communication" (Letters 123). There are weeks, months even, when he vanishes from history, like Watteau in Imaginary Portraits. A lecture that he gave in 1890 provides some insight to this: "[Prosper] Mérimée's superb self-effacement, his impersonality [ . . . ] becomes a markedly peculiar quality of literary beauty" (Miscellaneous Studies 24). In other words, Mérimée's achievement is to overcome the habitual idea that the personality of the artist inheres in his work of art. This implies that the artist's personality will recede to reveal a "peculiar" aesthetic quality. Just this aspiration characterizes Pater's writing. He allows himself to self-destruct. Fragments of autobiography are fused with his idols and his imagination so that there is no longer a distinction.
Yet curiosity about the real "Pater" is sustained by the incongruity between his vibrant philosophy of life and his own quiet, modest lifestyle. There is, I believe, a sense in which Pater lived the life that his timidity prohibited from his reality through his writings. He is a Victorian Walter Mitty who adventures outside the social constraints of his Age in his imagination. There is another possibility: that the implications of Pater's new Epicureanism, or "hedonism" for "ecstasy" and "passion", are more subtle. He refers to a heightened state of receptivity, rather than immoral pleasure-seeking. In each of his works, Pater is concerned with Man's ultimate raison d"etre in the modern world. I believe that Pater located this raison d"etre in the very experience of living and this is his continuing legacy.
Bywater, Ingram. "Some Oxford Memories of the Pre-Aesthetic Age." The National Review. 24. London, October 1894.
Donoghue, Denis. Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Eliot, T.S. "Arnold and Pater." Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1968. 431-443.
James, Henry. The Letters of Henry James. James Lubbock, ed. Vol I. London, 1920.
Johnson, Lionel. Fortnightly Review. 56. London, September 1894.
Pater, Walter. "Diaphaneitè." The Renaissance (1873). Oxford: OUP, 1998. 154-158.
_____. Letters of Walter Pater. Lawrence Evans, ed. Oxford: OUP, 1970.
_____. Miscellaneous Studies. London: Macmillan, 1928.
_____. The Renaissance. 1873. Oxford: OUP, 1998.
Ward, Anthony. Walter Pater: the Idea in Nature. London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd, 1966.
Whistler, Sarah. "Pater, Rio and Buckhurdt." Walter Pater: The Critical Heritage. R.M. Seiler, ed. London: Routedge, 1980. 97-108.
Wordsworth, Jonathan. Letter to Pater. Letters of Walter Pater. Lawrence Evans, ed. Oxford: OUP, 1970.
Yeats, W.B. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1955.
Last modified 15 November 2005