Walter Horatio Pater(1839–94) was an English essayist and literary critic. He was born in Stepney. His father who was a surgeon died in 1842 and his mother died in 1854. From 1869 he lived with his unmarried sisters Hester and Clara (one of the founders of Somerville College, Oxford). After a childhood in rural Enfield, he was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and the Queen’s College, Oxford, where his interests in Hellenism, pre-Socratic and German philosophy, European art, and literature were encouraged by Benjamin Jowett, the classical scholar W. W. Capes (1834–1914), and Matthew Arnold. He became a fellow of Brasenose in 1864.
His Oxford career was marked by personal and professional controversies. Jowett blocked a university appointment when he suspected Pater’s involvement with a student; colleagues attacked the ‘Conclusion’ to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) because it postulated the relativity of existence (‘that strange, perpetual, weaving and
unweaving of ourselves’), celebrated ‘pagan’ art, and the love of art for its own sake’, and advised ‘To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’. Many of his writings on art challenge those of John Ruskin, then Oxford’s Slade professor of art. Gerard Manley Hopkins was among the students who appreciated his critical and aesthetic independence.
Early essays for the Westminster Review and the Fortnightly Review articulated a radical critique of absolutism and expressed admiration for Hellenic homoerotic discourse and culture. Studies in the History of the Renaissance, later acclaimed by Oscar Wilde and others as ‘the holy writ of beauty’, traces the rebirth of Hellenism in medieval France, the art of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and the classicism of Winckelmann.
1. Studies in the History of Renaissance (1873)—a book of essays on Italian painters from the 14th century to 16th
century. In it, he finely advocates the amalgamation of physic, morals, and pleasure. It became a manifesto of the Aesthetic Movement that started in the last phase of the Victorian Age.
2. Marius the Epicurean (1885)—a philosophic romance. It is set in the days of Marcus Aurelius;
3. Imaginary Portraits (1887) are shorter pieces of philosophical fiction.
4. Appreciations With An Essay on Style (1889)—one of his landmarks containing his oft-quoted remark about Romanticism—”Strangeness added to beauty’. It reflects his engagement with Victorian periodical journalism and belles lettres.
5. Plato and Platonism (1893) based on lectures and scholarly essays, represents an eclectic synthesis of ancient and then-contemporary philosophy and justifies a homoerotic sensibility.
6. The Child in the House (1894) is one of many texts blurring the boundaries between autobiography and fiction.
7. Greek Studies and Miscellaneous Studies (1895) praises ancient matriarchal religious practices; modernists such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Virginia Woolf were influenced by its revisionary myth- making and the story of female empowerment.
8. Gaston de Latour (1896) an unfinished romance.
Pater had developed a highly polished prose-style and had a constructive influence on the Aesthetic Movement of the age. Pater’s works have long been associated with ‘the art for art’s sake’ movement, and the cultivation of decadence in the 1880s and 1890s. W. B. Yeats insisted that Pater’s writings are permanent in our literature because of their ‘revolutionary importance’. In the decades immediately following the Wilde trial, many male modernists, including T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis, felt compelled to denigrate Pater’s writings, but his contribution to modernist aesthetics and theories of subjectivity, and his importance to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others, have been affirmed by critics such as F. McGrath.
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