decorated initial 'D' espite his natural quietude Walter Pater was a keen social net-worker. In his own unassuming way he became a core figure in Oxford's literary milieu between the 1860s and 90s. Disparagingly for one concerned with Pater's literary relations, he once wrote in earnest, "I read almost no English fiction "(Pater Letters 118). It was rarer still for him to read poetry. As this suggests, the literary influences on Pater number relatively few. However, his influence on the next generation of writers is significant: through them he was instrumental in bringing a new aesthetic to the fore.

This brief discussion identifies how Pater was influenced by and influenced his contemporaries. In his undergraduate years, Matthew Arnold and A. C. Swinburne provide the focus, as his chief sources of inspiration. Later, Pater's most notable literary acquaintances were Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, "Vernon Lee "(Violet Paget) and Henry James. As we look in turn at his relationships with these figures, we will address their circumstances and contexts, and their professional implications.

Arnold and Swinburne

When Pater matriculated at Oxford in 1858, Matthew Arnold was at the centre of Oxford's vibrant culture. Although their ways barely crossed, Arnold's august presence was fundamental to Pater's intellectual development in his undergraduate years. He attended Arnold's lecture "On the Modern Element in Literature" in 1861. Pater borrowed many volumes of his poetry, which voice his dissatisfaction with established religion and instead look to value life on humanist terms. This searching poetry is a likely inspiration for Pater's poetic efforts, which he later burned in self-conscious homage to Goethe. Arnold's poetry expresses the question that was to underlie Pater's later writings: how does one give meaning to one's life in secular society? Arnold was yet to form his own answer, which came in his modus operandi, Culture and Anarchy (1868) and whose phrases permeate Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Arguably, though, the fact that Arnold asked this question at all was most significant for Pater in the midst of Oxford's Tractarian orthodoxy.

The other major figure in Pater's undergraduate years was Swinburne. John McQueen recalls, "not long after we went up to Oxford, P[ater] & I [saw] Swinburne, whom neither of us knew mdash; he was of Balliol mdash; also walking with a friend near Headington: and Pater, I think, remarked "how vivacious he looked" (qtd Inman 4). Swinburne's defiant attitude to convention appealed to Pater in the 1860s; his beautiful and striking clothes were indicative of the subversive ethics he voiced. Swinburne cultivated Pater's unconventional ethics in a more indirect way too. He founded the Old Morality Club, an agnostic discussion group, which Pater joined in 1864 and where he developed the ideas that underpinned The Renaissance. By the 1870s Pater and Swinburne had common friends in Simeon Solomon and Edmund Gosse, but "[Swinburne] never met Pater, to speak to him, more than twice — once in London and once in Oxford, and even then only a few words passed "(Evans xxxix). By this time Pater was less enamoured with Swinburne's materialistic individualism anyway. His dual conceptions of art and selfhood had become quite unlike those of Swinburne. That is not to say that age had made him conform to the prevailing wind of wind realist aesthetics either. To all intents and purposes, Pater had formed an aesthetic that was unique in literary Britain.

The Outsider

Pater's relations with his Victorian peers were not always positive. On the contrary, publication of The Renaissance (1873) brought forth some formidable interlobulars on the subject of his morality. Mrs. Oliphant was the most vocal of these, writing in Blackwood's Magazine of his dangerous hedonism. George Eliot wrote to John Blackwood in support of this stance that she found "Mr. Pater's book [ . . . ] quite poisonous "(Eliot 92). The Renaissance caused disquiet in Oxford too: Jonathan Wordsworth and Benjamin Jowett were prominent critics (Wordsworth 12-4). The battle lines were drawn. It was a significant moment in the division between the literary realists, who sought moral purpose in art, and the fledgling aesthetes. In this fray Pater has been presented as the one who heralded the charge against the dominant realist, morality-driven aesthetic. This is one of the many representations of Pater with which we can and should take issue, but the fact remains that the publication of The Renaissance symbolizes some important ideological differences that in practice distanced Pater from the dominant literary scene of his time. There is little suggestion that Pater felt aggrieved by this, however. In the late-1880s, George Moore crossed enemy lines to ask Pater to review his book, but Pater declined on grounds that it was scarred by "violent incidents and abnormal states of mind" (Moore 532) When, unperturbed, Moore sent him a copy of his next book Confessions of a Young Man, Pater elucidated his position: "I wonder how much you may be losing, both for yourself and your writings, by what [ . . . ] I still must call a cynical, and therefore exclusive, way of looking at the world. You only call it "realistic." Still —!" (Letters 81). His mildly reproving tone nevertheless shows his exasperated distain for Moore's gritty realism. Pater's strong opposition to the realist, moral answer to the "function of art question "has come to define him as its polar opposite. This is an overly simplistic appraisal though, for he is neither anti-realist in any straight-forward way, nor immoral. The most we can assert is that his aesthetic is in part a response to some tenets of English realism.

Related Materials

Works Cited

Eliot, George. "Eliot on Pater." Walter Pater: The Critical Heritage. R.M. Seiler, ed. London: Routledge, 1980. 92.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin, 1987. 81.

Evans, Lawrence. "Introduction." Letters of Walter Pater. xv-xliv.

Inman, Billie Andrew. Walter Pater's Reading: a Bibliography of his Library Borrowings and Literary References, 1858-1873. London: Garland Publishing, 1981.

Lee, Vernon. Euphorion: Being the Studies of the Antique and Mediaeval in the Renaissance. New York: Kessinger, 2005.

Moore, George. "Avowals IV: Walter Pater." Pall Mall Magazine. xxxiii. August, 1904. 532.

Pater, Walter. "Charles Lamb." Appreciations: With an Essay on Style. 1889. London: Macmillan, 1910. 105-124.

_____. "Coleridge." Appreciations: With an Essay on Style. 1889. London: Macmillan, 1910. 65-104.

_____. Letters of Walter Pater. Lawrence Evans, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

_____. The Renaissance. 1873. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

_____. "Wordsworth." Appreciations: With an Essay on Style. 1889. London: Macmillan, 1910. 39-64.

Symons, Arthur. Days and Nights. Selected Writings. Roger Holdsworth, ed. London: Fyfield, 2003.

_____. "Some Browning Reminiscences." North American Review. cciv. October, 1916.

Wilde, Oscar. "Preface." The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Wordsworth, Jonathan. "Letter to Pater." Letters of Walter Pater. Lawrence Evans, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. 12-14.

Yeats, W.B. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1955.


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Last modified 15 November 2005