From Critical Kit-Kats
by Edmund Gosse

Walter Pater


FEW recent events can have surprised and saddened the sincere lovers of literature more than the death, in middle life, of Walter Pater. A peculiar vexation, so to speak, was added to the natural grief such a loss must have caused, by the strange inexactitude, in matters of detail, which marked almost all the notices of his career which appeared at the time. In most of these notices, it is true, there was manifested a wish to pay homage to one of the most exquisite, the most self-respecting, the most individual prose-writers of the age; but knowledge, especially of his earlier years and intellectual development, was lacking. He was one who never had tempted the interviewer, who had never chatted to the press about himself, and facts regarding him were not at that abrupt moment forthcoming.

How far accidents of time and place were responsible for aiding this condition of things it were now perhaps idle to speculate. The fame of Walter Pater will not be wrecked on the holiday of an editor or the indolence of a reporter. It is grounded on the respect which has not yet failed to follow pure and distinguished excellence in the art of writing. As years go on, he will more and more find his admirers, the rescuers of his renown. A subtle and penetrating essay by Mr. Lionel Johnson (in the Fortnightly Review for September 1894) has already pointed the way to those whose business it will be to detect Pater’s influence upon his age, and to illustrate the individual merits of his style. In the following pages an attempt will be made to present the facts of the uneventful career of the author of Marius, so oddly travestied at the moment of his death, with some regard to continuity and truth In preparing this sketch, I have had the encouragement and the help of the surviving members of his family, without whose co-operation I should not have undertaken such a task.


A very considerable interest attaches to the parentage of Walter Pater. His family was of Dutch extraction, his immediate ancestors having, it is believed, come over from the Low Countries with William of Orange. It was said, and our friend loved to believe it, that the court-painter, Jean Baptiste Pater, the pupil of Watteau, was of the same stock. If so, the relationship must have been collateral and not direct, for when the creator of so many delicate fêtes champêtres was painting in Flanders—he died in 1736—the English Paters had already settled at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, where they lived all through the eighteenth century. Reserved and shy, preserving many of their Dutch customs, they are described in family tradition as mixing little with their neighbours, and as keeping through several generations this curious custom, that, while the sons were always brought up as Roman Catholics, the daughters were no less invariably trained in the Anglican faith. The father of Walter Pater quitted the Roman Church before his marriage, without adopting any other form of faith, and his two sons were the first Paters who were not brought up as Catholics.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century, the poet Cowper was the fellow-townsman and the friend of the Dutch emigrants in Olney, and the family long possessed some of his verses in his own manuscript. The son of the man who had known Cowper quitted the Buckinghamshire household, and went out to America. He settled in New York, associating chiefly with the Dutch colony in that city; here his son, Richard Glode Pater, the father of the critic, was born. The family came back in the beginning of the present century, and settled at Shadwell, on the north shore of the Thames, between Wapping and Stepney, a situation now of extreme squalor, but eighty years ago still considered countrified and pleasant. Here, after his father’s death, Richard Glode Pater continued to live, a medical practitioner working, mainly for the love of them, among poor folks in the East End, refusing to move into a more fashionable quarter, and despoiling himself of his patrimony by his constant benevolence.

To the house in Shadwell, Richard Glode Pater brought Maria Hill as his wife, and here were born to him four children, two of them sons, of whom Walter was the second. The elder son, William Thomson Pater, adopted his father’s profession, and became the head of a large lunatic asylum. He died unmarried, on April 24, 1887, at the age of fifty-two, “quitting,” in his brother’s words, “a useful and happy life.” In him, however, with the exception of a. marked pleasure in being surrounded with pretty objects, not a single feature had ever shown itself of the peculiar intellectual characteristics or tastes of his brother. The future critic was born at Shadwell, on August 4, 1839, receiving the names Walter Horatio, in compliment to a cousin who survives him.

Richard Glode Pater died so early that his second son scarcely remembered him in later life. The mother and grandmother left the house in Shadwell, and went to live with a sister of the former at Enfield, where the children were brought up. In the retired neighbourhood of Chase Side they took a house, which has since been pulled down; it possessed a large, old-fashioned garden, in which the children found great delight. It would be an error to trace in the imaginary portrait, called The Child in the House, a definite picture of the early surroundings of Walter Pater. The existence at Enfield is hardly touched upon there, with the sole exception of the “cry on the stair,” announcing the death of Florian Deleal’s father; this, it appears, is a reminiscence of the decease, not of his father, but of his grandmother, which was so announced to the household at Enfield. So far as The Child in the House depicts a veritable scene, it presents to us Fish Hall, near Hadlow, Kent, the residence of his godmother and cousin, Mrs. Walter H. May; this mansion, part of which was very old, was the favourite holiday-haunt of the little Paters, and a place of mystery and romance to Walter.

If, however, The Child in the House must be accepted very guardedly as giving an impression of the physical surroundings of Walter Pater’s childhood, much more of actual reminiscence has been put into Emerald Uthwart (a story now reprinted in the Miscellaneous Studies). The first elements of education were given at the private house of the head-master of the grammar-school at Enfield, but the earliest crisis of Pater’s life was the entrance into King’s School, Canterbury, at the age of fourteen. The “old ecclesiastical city,” to which Emerald proceeds, is Canterbury, closely and exactly described, and the features enumerated in the story—“the curiosities of the Precincts, the ‘dark entry,’ the rich heraldries of the blackened and mouldering cloister, the ruined overgrown spaces where the old monastery stood, the stones of which furnished material for the rambling prebends’ houses”—these were features at Canterbury which immediately impressed the imagination of the shy and sensitive little boy, and remained with him through life as having given him his earliest experience of aesthetic pleasure.

It seems probable that, on the whole, this part of Emerald Uthwart may be taken as strictly autobiographical. Pater was happy at King’s School, in spite of his complete indifference to outdoor games. In his first years at public school he was very idle and backward, nor was it till he reached the sixth form that his faculties seemed really to awaken. He is remembered as rather a popular boy, and as years went on his unquestioned ability inspired respect. On the day of Pater’s funeral the Warden of Keble preached in the Cathedral of Canterbury, and was able to record, in touching phrases, the pride which the school had always felt in him, and Pater’s own persistent attachment to the school. From the first, and before he went to Canterbury, Walter had been considered the “clever” one of the family; not specially precocious, he was always meditative and serious—marked from the very first for the intellectual life. It is interesting to note that, quite without prompting from without, and while still at Enfield, all his thoughts were turned towards the Church. He loved best to organise a sort of solemn processional game, in which he took the part of bishop or cardinal. From the time when he first began to think of a future condition, his design was to be a clergyman; never, curiously enough, a priest in the religion of his fathers, but in the Anglican ritual. Throughout life, it may here be said, even in his later days, when his thoughts turned back more and more to theological pre-occupations, Walter Pater never had any serious leaning towards Rome. Yet there can be little question that the heritage of his ancestors, in their obstinate adhesion to Catholicism, had much to do with his haunting sense of the value of the sensuous emblem, the pomp of colour and melody, in the offices of religion. These tendencies had received a great impetus while he was yet a little boy, and had not proceeded to Canterbury, from a visit he paid to a young friend who lived at Hursley. Here he attracted the attention of Keble, who walked and talked much with him, and encouraged him in his religious aspirations. Pater retained through life a vivid recollection of this saintly man, although he never saw him again.

Shortly before he left school, as he was entering his twentieth year, Pater read Modern Painters, and came very abruptly under the influence of Ruskin. The world of art was now for the first time opened to him. It is necessary at this point to refute an extraordinary fable, widely circulated at the time of his death, to the effect that the finished and beautiful essay on “Winckelmann “was written, and even printed, while the author was a schoolboy at Canterbury. The idea is preposterous; it was not until many years later that Pater became aware of the existence of the German critic, and his essay was composed and published long after he was a Fellow of Brasenose. It is singular, indeed, that he is not known to have made any attempt to write, either as a schoolboy or an undergraduate, his earliest essays being as mature in style as the author was mature in years. Pater made no painful experiments in authorship, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He did not begin to practise the art of writing until he had mastered all its secrets.

On June 11, 1858, he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, as a commoner, with an exhibition from Canterbury; and four years later, in the Michaelmas Term of 1862, he took his degree, gaining only a second class in Literæ Humaniores. Of these years of his undergraduate life it does not appear that there is much to reveal. In bare rooms, in the dim back quadrangle of his College, Pater worked quietly and unobtrusively, making few friends, very shy and silent, hardly observed in the noisy Oxford life of thirty-five years ago. He was the pupil of Mr. W. W. Capes, now rector of Liphook, then bursar and tutor of Queen’s, and amongst those very rare spirits who divined the man he was to be was his earliest friend, Mr. Ingram Bywater, now Regius Professor of Greek. It is not understood that during these undergraduate days Pater’s mind, a seed slowly germinating in the darkness, showed much partiality for pure literature or for plastic art. He was fascinated mainly by the study of logic and metaphysic, which were his pastimes, while the laborious business of classical scholarship occupied all but his leisure moments. Whether any record of these silent years remains, even with the few friends who shared them, seems doubtful. Pater never kept a diary, rarely wrote letters, and at this time offered no salient points for observation to seize upon. Yet one far-seeing man had noted the peculiar originality of Pater’s temperament. Having in the ordinary course of his studies submitted some work to Jowett, that astute observer was so much struck with his power that he very generously offered to coach him for nothing. The offer was gratefully accepted, and Pater used to describe the thrill of gratification, and, still more, of astonishment, which he experienced when Jowett said to him one day, as he was taking his leave: “I think you have a mind that will come to great eminence.” Unhappily, some years after there was a complete estrangement of sympathy between Jowett and Pater. But it is pleasant to record that, in the last year of the life of each, it was removed, and that Jowett was among those who congratulated Pater most cordially on his Plato and Platonism.

In 1862—his degree had been a disappointment—Pater, now three-and-twenty, took rooms in the High Street, Oxford, and read with private pupils. Of these Mr. T. H. S. Escott has told us in his pleasant reminiscences of Oxford that he was one. Another pupil, of somewhat later date, was Mr. Charles Lancelot Shadwell, now Fellow of Oriel, destined to become the most intimate of all Pater’s friends, and now the guardian and editor of his papers. But still no definite aim seemed to have revealed itself to the future critic; he was reading and meditating deeply, but he had as yet no call to create. Time went by; in 1864 Pater was elected a Fellow of Brasenose College, and went into residence there. With this change in his material existence, a change came over his mind. His sympathies grew wider and more human, he became more of a student of poetry, he formed more friendships, and was more assiduous in their cultivation. Of his earliest efforts after literary expression, all, it is believed, were destroyed by himself, with the solitary exception of the little study of a pure and brilliant spirit of youth, called “Diaphaneitè,” of which the MS., dated July 1864, was found after his death and published by Mr. Shadwell in the Miscellaneous Studies of 1895. At last, in 1866, at the age of twenty-seven, he ventured to write and to print a little essay, a note or fragment, on Coleridge. We may read this first expression of a new writer today in the Appreciations. We shall find little of the peculiar charm of the mature Pater. His interest is solely in Coleridge, the metaphysician, the critic of thought; that this same philosopher was an exquisite poet has not occurred to him, he positively forgets to mention the fact. As far as style is concerned, the little essay is correct and cold, without oddity, but with little trace of the harmonious felicity which was about to develop.

Vast is the change when we meet Walter Pater next. He had come from school with a tendency to value all things German. The teaching of Jowett and of T. H. Green tended to strengthen this habit, but Mr. Capes warned him against its excess, and endeavoured, at first with but little success, to attract him to the lucidity and gaiety of French literature. Pater’s studies in philosophy now naturally brought him to Goethe, so massive an influence in the Oxford of that day, and the teaching of Goethe laid a deep impress upon his temperament, upon his whole outlook on the intellectual life. It was natural that one so delicately sensitive to the external symbol as was Pater should be prepared by the companionship of Goethe for the influence of a man who was Goethe’s master in this one direction, and it was to a spirit inflammable in the highest degree that in 1866 was laid the torch of Otto Jahn’s Life of Winckelmann, the Biographische Aufsätze. There was everything in the character and career of the great German restorer of Hellenic feeling to fascinate Pater, who seemed, through Ruskin, Goethe and Hegel, to have travelled to his true prototype, to the one personality among the dead which was completely in sympathy with his own. Pater, too, among the sandhills of a spiritual Brandenburg, had held out arms of longing towards ideal beauty, revealed in physical or sensuous forms, yet inspired and interpenetrated with harmonious thought. The troubled feverish vision, the variegated and indeed over-decorated aesthetic of Ruskin, had become wearisome to Pater— not simple enough nor sensuous enough. Winckelmann was the master he wanted, who could “finger those pagan marbles with unsinged hands, with no sense of shame or loss,” who could live serenely “in a world of exquisite but abstract and colourless form;” and it was with the study of Winckelmann that he became himself a writer.

His famous essay on “Winckelmann” was the result of this new enthusiasm. It was published in the Westminster Review for January 1867, the author being now in his twenty-eighth year. From this time Pater’s advance, though slow, was unbroken. Mr. John Morley having, in 1867, taken the editorship of the Fortnightly Review, called around him immediately a group of the most brilliant young men of the day. Walter Pater was in no undue haste to respond to the appeal. In 1868, inventing a name which has since sunken into disrepute and even ridicule, he wrote an essay on “Æsthetic Poetry,” in which the early work of Mr. William Morris received prompt and judicious analysis. Then followed the series which are still so potent in their peculiar charm, the magnificent and most characteristic “Notes on Lionardo de Vinci,” in November 1869; the “Fragment on Sandro Botticelli” in August 1870; the “Pico della Mirandula” in October, and the “Michelangelo” in November 1871. In 1873 most of these, and others, were published together in the memorable volume originally entitled Studies in the History of the Renaissance.

At this point he became partly famous. We may look back over the years which followed his fellowship, and see that, with the accession of humanistic ideas, he had gradually lost all belief in the Christian religion. This was the point, in his whole career, at which he was furthest from the Anglican faith. His intention, on relinquishing the idea of entering the Church of England, had been to become a Unitarian minister. This also he had abandoned by 1864. But that Pater’s interest in ecclesiastical matters was never really dead, and that it soon began to revive, is proved by an anecdote with which the Bishop of Peterborough obliges me. He remembers dining with him in 1873, in company with Bonamy Price. Conversation turned on ecclesiastical matters, and Pater passed on to a dreamy monologue about the beauty of the Reserved Sacrament in Roman churches, which “gave them all the sentiment of a house where lay a dead friend.” This immediately aroused the Protestantism of Bonamy Price, and a theological discussion ensued which waxed so warm that Dr. Creighton had to suggest a retreat to the drawing-room. When he came up for election at Brasenose it was as a non-clerical fellow—I think the first who ever was appointed there—that Pater took his place in the society. In the next year, in company with Mr. Shadwell, he paid his first visit to Italy, and at Ravenna, Pisa, Florence, formed those impressions of the art of the Renaissance which were so powerfully to colour all his own future work as an artist. In 1858, when he came to Oxford, his sisters had migrated to Heidelberg, and here it was his custom to spend the long vacation, making no friends among the Germans, however, and never, in all those years, troubling himself to learn to speak their language.


The costume of Walter Pater had been the ordinary academic dress of the don of the period, but in May 1869 he flashed forth at the Private View of the Royal Academy in a new top hat and a silk tie of brilliant apple-green. This little transformation marked a crisis; he was henceforth no longer a provincial philosopher, but a critic linked to London and the modern arts. Where he touched the latter was through the Pre-raphaelites, especially through the extreme admiration he had conceived for the works of Mr. Burne-Jones, then much talked about, but rarely seen. At no time, I think, had he much personal knowledge either of that painter or of Rossetti. With Mr. Swinburne he became about that date more intimate. The poet was a not unfrequent visitor in those years to Pater’s college rooms. To all young Oxford, then, the name of Mr. Swinburne was an enchantment, and there used to be envious traditions of an upper window in Brasenose Lane thrown open to the summer night, and, welling forth from it, a music of verse which first outsang and then silenced the nightingales, protracting its harmonies until it disconcerted the lark himself at sunrise.

After this, it is a notable instance of the art of sinking to record that I first set eyes on Pater in 1871, as he and Mr. Swinburne were dismounting from a hansom cab at Gabriel Rossetti’s door in Cheyne Walk. Almost unknown to the world, he was already an object of respect to me as the author of those “Notes on Lionardo,” which had seemed to give a new aspect to the whole conception of Italian art. In 1872 I was presented to him in the studio of William Bell Scott: it was not until the early months of 1874 that I first began to visit him at Oxford, and so opened a friend ship which was never clouded for a moment in the course of more than twenty years. From this point, then, although my opportunities of seeing Pater, especially in Oxford, were but occasional, I can record something from personal knowledge.

In 1869, removing from Brasenose many of the pretty objects and bric-à-brac with which he had been the first man in Oxford to decorate college rooms, Pater furnished a little house in Norham Gardens, No. 2 Bradmore Road, his sisters returning from Heidelberg to keep house for him. Once settled here, Pater blossomed out into considerable sociability, entertaining and being entertained in the cordial Oxford way. He had now a large circle of pleasant acquaintances; I cannot remember that he had many intimate friends. Besides those whom I have mentioned already, I can but recall Mark Pattison, Dr. Mandell Creighton (now Bishop of Peterborough), and Miss Mary Arnold, soon to marry an accomplished young member of Pater’s own college, Mr. Humphry Ward. To these he would doubtless talk, to each in a different way, of the interests most deeply rooted in his heart, “of charm, and lucid order, and labour of the file,” and to a very few London friends also. The rest of the world found him affable and acquiescent, already in those remote days displaying a little of that Renan manner which later on became emphasised, a manner which trifled gracefully and somewhat mysteriously with a companion not entirely in sympathy.

Pater’s relation to the Rector of Lincoln was amusing. It was at once confiding and suspicious. “Pattison is charming,” he used to murmur, “when he’s good. Shall we go over and see if he is good this afternoon ? “But he was worried by a certain wilful-ness in the Rector; he could prove to be so far from good, so absolutely naughty. I remember on one occasion—I think in the autumn of 1875—when the Rector, on a visit at Bradmore Road, had been delicious: he had talked, in his most distinguished way, on a dozen rare and exquisite topics. He left, begging Pater to come to him next day, and kindly extending the invitation to me. Accordingly we went, but the charm was broken. A frivolous demon had entered into the Rector; he talked of croquet and of petticoats. We went back, sad and silent, to Bradmore Road, and, just as we reached home, Pater said, with solemn firmness, “What Pattison likes best in the world, no doubt, is romping with great girls in the gooseberry-bushes!”

The vacations in these years were very pleasant to Pater; they were almost always spent abroad—in France, in the company of his sisters. He would walk as much as possible, scouring a neighbourhood for architectural features, and preserving those impressions of travel, which most of us lament to find so fugitive, with astonishing exactitude. He was no linguist, and French was the only language in which he could even make his wants understood. Although so much in Germany in his youth, he could speak no German. When he was travelling he always left a place, if any one staying in the hotel spoke to him. He had no wish to be competent in modern languages; he used to say: “Between you and me and the post, I hate a foreigner,” and when exotic persons of distinction threatened to visit Brasenose, Pater used to disappear until he was sure that they had gone. He loved the North of France extremely, and knew it well. He was always planning a series of studies on the great ecclesiastical towns of France, yet wrote no more than a couple of these—on Amiens and on Vézelay. So eagerly did he prosecute these holiday tours, that he habitually over-walked himself, thus losing much of the benefit which he might otherwise have gained from the only form of exercise he ever indulged in. I note, in a letter of 1877, describing a visit to Azay-le-Rideau, this characteristic sentence: “We find always great pleasure in adding to our experiences of these French places, and return always a little tired indeed, but with our minds pleasantly full of memories of stained glass, old tapestries, and new wild flowers.” These excursions rarely extended further than the centre of France, but once, I think in 1882, Pater went alone to Rome, and spent the winter vacation there. He could ill endure exciting travel, or too rapid hurrying from one impressive place to another. His eye absorbed so slowly, and his memory retained what he saw so completely, that to be shown too much was almost physical pain to him, and yet he was always inflicting it upon himself.

Some time after I knew him first, that entertaining skit, The New Republic, was produced, and achieved great popular success. Pater had his niche in this gallery of caricatures, under the title of Mr. Rose. It has been represented that he suffered violent distress from this parody of his style and manner, that it caused him to retire from society and to abandon the prosecution of literature. Nothing in the world could be further from the truth. He thought the portrait a little unscrupulous, and he was discomposed by the freedom of some of its details. But he admired the cleverness and promise of the book, and it did not cause him to alter his mode of life or thought in the smallest degree. He was even flattered, for he was an author much younger and more obscure than most ot those who were satirised, and he was sensible that to be thus distinguished was a compliment. What he liked less, what did really ruffle him, was the persistence with which the newspapers at this time began to attribute to him all sorts of “æsthetic” follies and extravagances. He said to me, in 1876: “I wish they wouldn’t call me ‘a hedonist’; it produces such a bad effect on the minds of people who don’t know Greek.” And the direct result of all these journalistic mosquito-bites was the suppression of the famous “Conclusion” in the second (1877) edition of his Renaissance.

The source of his very long silence—for twelve years divided his second book from his first—I hardly know, unless it be attributed to the painful slowness of his methods of composition, and his extreme solicitude for perfection of style. At last, in February, 1885, was published his romance of Marius the Epicurean, the work by which, I believe, Pater will pre-eminently be known to posterity. In the meantime had appeared, in the Fortnightly Review for 1876, several of those Greek studies, on Demeter and Persephone, on the Marbles of Ægina and the like, which Mr. Shadwell collected in a posthumous volume in 1895; The Child in the House, too, in its earliest form, belongs to 1878, though first published as a book in the summer of 1894. The success of Marius was as great as that of a book so grave and strenuous could be. In 1887 Pater followed it by a series of four Imaginary Portraits, studies in philosophic fiction, one of which, “Denys l’Auxerrois,” displays the peculiarities of his style with more concentrated splendour than any other of his writings. In 1889 he collected some of his miscellaneous critical studies into a volume called Appreciations, with an Essay on Style. In 1893 he published his highly finished college lectures on Plato and Platonism in a volume of rare dignity and humanistic beauty. Finally, in the early summer of 1894, The Child in the House was issued from the Oxford Press of Mr. Daniel, as a precious toy for bibliomaniacs. This list of publications practically resumes the events in Pater’s life through twenty years.

During that period the household was moved once, in 1886, to Kensington, and again, in 1893, back to Oxford, where he fitted up a house in St. Giles. But, all the while, Pater’s real home was in his rooms at Brasenose, where he passed a quiet, cloistered, and laborious existence, divided between his college duties and his books. His later years were comforted by a great deal of consideration and affection from those around him; noiseless, as he was, and in a sense unexhilarating, he became increasingly an object of respectful admiration to young Oxford men, whom, on his part, he treated with the most courteous indulgence. Of this generation, one disciple came to proffer a tribute of hero-worship, and remained to become an intimate friend; this was the Rev. F. W. Bussell, now Fellow of Brasenose, whose tender solicitude did much to render the latest of Pater’s years agreeable to him. Pater acted for some time as dean and tutor of his college, entering assiduously into the councils and discipline of the society, but he never accepted, if indeed it were ever offered, any university office. He shrank from all multiplication of responsibility, from anything which should break in upon the sequestered and austere simplicity of his life. As time went on, a great change came over his relation to religious matters. When I had known him first he was a pagan, without any guide but that of.the personal conscience; years brought gradually with them a greater and greater longing for the supporting solace of a creed. His talk, his habits, became more and more theological, and it is my private conviction that, had he lived a few years longer, he would have endeavoured to take orders and a small college living in the country.

Report, which found so much to misrepresent in a life so orderly and simple, has erred even as to the place and occasion of his death. He was taken ill with rheumatic fever in the month of June 1894, being, as he remained to the end, not in college, but with his sisters in their house in St. Giles. He was recovering, and was well enough to be busy upon a study on Pascal, which he has left nearly completed, when, in consequence of writing too close to an open window, pleurisy set in and greatly reduced his strength, Again he seemed convalescent, and had left his room, without ill-effect, on July 29, when, repeating the experiment next day, the action of the heart failed, and he died, on the staircase of his house, in the arms of his sister, at ten o’clock on the morning of Monday, July 30, 1894. Had he lived five days longer, he would have completed his fifty-fifth year. He was buried, in the presence of many of his oldest friends, in the beautiful cemetery of St. Giles at Oxford.


When Pater was first seized with an ambition to write, the individuals of his own age with whom he came into competition were mainly poets. Those were the early days of Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, of Morris, of Swinburne; and most of the still younger men made their first steps in the field of verse, however far they might afterwards diverge from it. Pater, in this nest of singing-birds, resolved to be in prose no less painstaking, no less elaborate, no less bound by rule and art than the poets were. He is to be distinguished from those who had so much to say that their speech was forced out of them in a torrent, nor less from those whose instinct led them to bubble forth in periods of a natural artless grace. If we take these symbols of a mountain-stream or of a fountain for other prose-writers who have won the ear of the public with little effort, then for Pater the appropriate image seems the artesian well, to reach the contents of of which, strata of impermeable clay must be laboriously bored. It was not that there was any lack of material there, nor any doubt about the form it must take when it emerged, but that it was so miraculously deep down and hard to reach. I have known writers of every degree, but never one to whom the act of composition was such a travail and an agony as it was to Pater.

In his earlier years the labour of lifting the sentences was so terrific that any one with less fortitude would have entirely abandoned the effort. I recollect the writing of the opening chapters of Marius, and the stress that attended it—the intolerable languor and fatigue, the fevers and the cold fits, the grey hours of lassitude and insomnia, the toil as at a deep petroleum well when the oil refuses to flow. With practice, this terrific effort grew less. A year or two ago I was reminding him of those old times of storm and stress, and he replied, “Ah! it is much easier now. If I live long enough, no doubt I shall learn quite to like writing.” The public saw the result of the labour in the smooth solidity of the result, and could suppose, from the very elaboration, that great pains had been taken. How much pains, very few indeed can have guessed!

It may be of interest to record the manner in which this most self-conscious and artistic of prose-writers proceeded. First of all, another pretty fable must be knocked on the head. It has been said, and repeated, that Pater composed his best sentences without any relation to a context, and wrote them down on little squares of paper, ready to stick them in at appropriate and effective places. This is nonsense; it is quite true that he used such squares of paper, but it was for a very different purpose. He read with a box of these squares beside him, jotting down on each, very roughly, anything in his author which struck his fancy, either giving an entire quotation, or indicating a reference, or noting a disposition. He did not begin, I think, any serious critical work without surrounding himself by dozens of these little loose notes. When they were not direct references or citations, they were of the nature of a memoria technica. Here is an example:

“Something about the gloomy Byzantine archit., belfries, solemn night come in about the birds attracted by the Towers.”

Here is another:

“? did he suppose predestination to have taken place, only after the Fall?”

These papers would be placed about him, like the pieces of a puzzle, and when the right moment came the proper square would serve as a monitor or as a guide.

Having prepared his box of little squares, he would begin the labour of actual composition, and so con scious was he of the modifications and additions which would supervene that he always wrote on ruled paper, leaving each alternate line blank. Mr. Austin Dobson reminds me that Goldsmith did the same. On this broad canvas of alternate lines, then, Pater would slowly begin to draw his composition, the cartoon of what would in time be a finished essay. In the first draft the phrase would be a bald one; in the blank alternate line he would at leisure insert fresh descriptive or parenthetical clauses, other adjectives, more exquisitely related adverbs, until the space was filled. It might then be supposed that the MS. was complete. Far from it! Cancelling sheet by sheet, Pater then began to copy out the whole—as before, on alternate lines of copy-book pages; this revise was treated in the same way—corrected, enlarged, interleaved, as it were, with minuter shades of feeling and more elaborate apparatus of parenthesis.

No wonder that certain disadvantages were attendant upon the excessive finish of such a style. It is not possible to work in this way, with a cold hammer, and yet to avoid a certain deadness and slipperiness of surface. Pater’s periods, in attaining their long-drawn harmony and fulness, were apt to lose vigour. Their polish did not quite make up for their languor, for the faintness and softness which attended their slow manipulation. Verse will bear an almost endless labour of the file; prose, as the freer and more spontaneous form, is less happy in subjection to it. “What long sentences Plato writes!” Pater says in his Platonism, and no doubt Plato might return the compliment. The sentences of the Oxford critic are often too long, and they are sometimes broken-backed with havimg had to bear too heavy a burden of allusion and illustration. His style, however, was his peculiarity. It had beautiful qualities, if we have to confess that it had the faults of those qualities. It was highly individual; it cannot be said that he owed it to any other writer, or that at any period of his thirty years of literary labour he faltered or swerved from his own path. He was to a high degree self-centred. Pater did not study his contemporaries; a year or two ago, he told me that he had read scarcely a chapter of Mr. Stevenson and not a line of Mr. Kipling. “I feel, from what I hear about them,” he said, “that they are strong; they might lead me out of my path. I want to go on writing in my own way, good or bad. I should be afraid to read Kipling, lest he should come between me and my page next time I sat down to write.” It was the excess of a very native and genuine modesty. He, too, was strong, had he but known it, strong enough to have resisted the magnets of contemporary style. Perhaps his own writing might have grown a little simpler and a little more supple if he had had the fortitude to come down and fight among his fellows.


Walter Pater was another of those discreet spirits who, like Gray, “never speak out.” He was cautious, reserved, and shy in his relations even with his friends; he seemed to possess no medium through which to approach them very closely. An extremely affectionate disposition took the place of expansiveness, and the young people who in later years gathered around him mistook the one ior the other. Each found in Pater what he brought; each saw in that patient, courteous, indulgent mirror a pleasant reflection of himself. The inaccessibility of Pater is another of those fables which have to be destroyed; no one was less a hermit, no one was more easily amused or better pleased to bid a congenial companion welcome. He was an assiduous host, a gracious listener; but who could tell what was passing behind those half-shut, dark-grey eyes, that courteous and gentle mask ? He liked the human race, one is inclined to say, liked its noise and neighbourhood, if it were neither too loud nor too near, but his faith in it was never positive, nor would he trust it to read his secret thoughts.

I have already suggested his likeness to Renan in the attitude of his mind. The great Frenchman has described, in his autobiography, the tendency which led him to refrain from opposition and argument, and to bow the head in the conversational house of Rimmon. Walter Pater had these concessions, mere escapes of the soul from undue pressure, and he had, too, quite unconsciously, some of the very tricks of speech of Renan—especially the “no doubt” that answered to the Frenchman’s incessant “n’en doutez pas.” With natures like his, in which the tide of physical spirits runs low, in which the vitality is lukewarm, the first idea in the presence of anything too vivacious is retreat, and the most obvious form of social retreat is what we call “affectation.” It is not to be denied that, in the old days, Pater, startled by strangers, was apt to seem affected: he retreated as into a fortress, and enclosed himself in a sort of solemn effeminacy. It was, at its worst, mild in comparison with what the masters of preposterous behaviour have since accustomed us to, but it reminded one too much of Mr. Rose. It was put on entirely for the benefit of strangers, and to his inner circle of friends it seemed like a joke. Perhaps in some measure it was a joke; no one could ever quite tell whether Pater’s strange rictus was closer to laughter or to tears.

A nature so enclosed as his, so little capable of opening its doors to others, must have some outlet of relief. Pater found his outlet in a sort of delicate, secret playfulness. There are animals which sit all day immovable and humped up among the riot of their fellows, and which, when all the rest of the menagerie is asleep, steal out upon their slip of greensward and play the wildest pranks in the light of the moon. Pater has often reminded me of some such armadillo or wombat. That childishness which is the sign-manual of genius used to come out in the oddest way when he was perfectly at home. Those who think of him as a solemn pundit of aesthetics may be amazed to know that he delighted in very simple and farcical spectacles and in the broadest of humour. His favourite among modern playwrights was Mr. Pinero, and I shall never forget going with him to see The Magistrate, when that piece was originally produced. Not a schoolboy in the house was more convulsed with laughter, more enchanted at the romping “business “of the play, than the author of Marius. He had the gift, when I knew him first, of inventing little farcical dialogues, into which he introduced his contemporaries; in these the Rector of Lincoln generally figured, and Pater had a rare art of imitating Pattison’s speech and peevish intonation. One playful fancy, persisted in so long that even close and old friends were deceived by it, was the figment of a group of relations—Uncle Capsicum and Uncle Guava, Aunt Fancy (who fainted when the word “leg” was mentioned), and Aunt Tart (for whom no acceptable present could ever be found). These shadowy personages had been talked about for so many years that at last, I verily believe, Pater had almost persuaded himself of their existence. Perhaps these little touches will be thought too trifling to be mentioned, but I hold that they were all a part and parcel of his complex and shrouded intellectual life, and therefore not to be forgotten.

He had great sweetness and uniformity of temper, and almost the only thing that ever ruffled him was a reference to an act of vandalism committed at Brasenose while he was on the governing body. The college had a group, called “Cain and Abel,” cast in lead, a genuine work by John of Bologna. For some reason or other this was thought inconvenient, and was sold for old lead, a somewhat barbarous proceeding. Pater, from indolence, or else from indifference to late Italian sculpture, did not stir a finger to prevent this desecration, and in later years a perfectly unfailing mode of rousing him would be to say, artlessly, “Was there not once a group by John of Bologna in the college?” However sunken in reverie, however dreamily detached, Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”

Pater showed much tact and good sense in his attitude towards the college life. He lectured rarely, I believe, in later years; in the old days he was an assiduous tutor. His temperament, it is true, sometimes made it difficult to work with him. On one occasion, at the examination for scholarships, he undertook to look over the English essays; when the examiners met to compare marks, Pater had none. He explained, with languor, “They did not much impress me.” As something had to be done, he was asked to endeavour to recall such impressions as he had formed; to stimulate his memory, the names were read out in alphabetical order. Pater shook his head mournfully as each was pronounced, murmuring dreamily, “I do not recall him,” “He did not strike me,” and so on. At last the reader came to the name of Sanctuary, on which Pater’s face lit up, and he said, “Yes; I remember; I liked his name.”

My friend, Dr. Henry Jackson, gives me an anecdote which illustrates a more practical side to his character. In 1870, having just begun to lecture at Trinity, our Cambridge Platonist found himself seated next Pater at dinner in Brasenose. He said to him: “I believe you lecture constantly on The Republic. How do you get through it in time? It seems as though lecturing three times a week for three terms, it would be impossible to deal adequately within a year with all the problems and the fallacies.” “Oh! “said Pater, “I always begin by telling them that Socrates is not such a fool as he seems, and we get through nicely in two terms.” He grew more and more inclined to take an indulgent view of the young people. A year or two ago, I remember his saying, when somebody asked him whether the horse-play of the undergraduates did not disturb him, “Oh! no; I rather enjoy it. They are like playful young tigers, that have been fed.” He was not a “progressive”; our friend the Bishop of Peterborough recalls a serious discussion in common-room at Brasenose, on the burning subject of university reform. Pater interposed in the thick of the fray with the somewhat disconcerting remark, “I do not know what your object is. At present the undergraduate is a child of nature; he grows up like a wild rose in a country lane; you want to turn him into a turnip, rob him of all grace, and plant him out in rows.” And his remark, concerning bonfires in the quad, that they lighted up the spire of St. Mary’s so beautifully, will long be remembered.

The perennial conflict in his members, between his exquisite instinct for corporeal beauty on the one hand and his tendency to ecclesiastical symbol and theological dogma on the other, is the secret, I think, of what made the character of Pater so difficult for others to elucidate, in some measure also so painful and confusing for himself. He was not all for Apollo, nor all for Christ, but each deity swayed in him, and neither had that perfect homage that brings peace behind it. As Alphonse Daudet says of some thinker, “Son cerveau était une cathédrale désaffectée,” and when he tried, as he bade us try, “to burn always with the hard, gem-like flame” of aesthetic observation, the flame of another altar mingled with the fire and darkened it. Not easily or surely shall we divine the workings of a brain and a conscience scarcely less complex, less fantastic, less enigmatical, than the face of Mona Lisa herself. Pater, as a human being, illustrated by no letters, by no diaries, by no impulsive unburdenings of himself to associates, will grow more and more shadowy. But it has seemed well to preserve, while still they are attainable, some of the external facts about a writer whose polished and concentrated work has already become part of the classic literature of England, and who will be remembered among the writers of this age when all but a few are forgotten.