PATER, WALTER (1839-94)
The critic and historian, best known for his influential study, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater was a Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford, when Wilde first read his study in the autumn of 1874, during his first term at Magdalen College. Pater's impact on Wilde may be gauged by his remark in De Profundis, which refers to Pater's Studies as "that book which has had such a strange influence over my life". The obvious influence of Pater's Studies on Wilde occurs in The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Henry urges Dorian in Chapter 2 to live to the fullest, for one's youth is transient:
Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed.... Ah! realise your youth while you have it. Don't squander the gold of your days.... Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.... A new Hedonism - that is what our century wants.
The famous "Conclusion" of Pater's Studies had inspired Wilde, who interpreted Pater's urging as an amoral quest, though Pater, as in the following, had focused on the effect of "experience" on the "spirit":
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.... How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.... While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment....
Yeats later recalled that Wilde mentioned Studies, perhaps facetiously, as "my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written". Indeed, in Intentions, Wilde wrote that Pater was "on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us ......
On 24 July 1877, Pater first wrote to Wilde in response to a letter and a review of the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition (1 May) that the young Oxford student had sent him: Pater called the notice "excellent .... it makes me much wish to make your acquaintance, and I hope you will give me an early call on your return to Oxford." Wilde's notice, he continues, "shows that you possess some beautiful, and for your age quite exceptionally cultivated, tastes, and a considerable knowledge also of many beautiful things". Their correspondence during Wilde's final year at Oxford suggests that he saw Pater several times.
Wilde's first opportunity to review one of Pater's works occurred in 1887, when he wrote about Imaginary Portraits in the Pall Mall Gazette (11 June). This brief review summarises each of the portraits, then judges the book as "singularly attractive.... He does not weary us with any definite doctrine, or seek to suit life to any formal creed. He is always looking for exquisite moments, and when he has found them, he analyses them with delicate and delightful art ......
In 1888, Pater wrote to Wilde after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales to tell him how "delightful" he had found "him and his companions." "The Selfish Giant" was "certainly ... perfect in its kind. Your genuine 'little poems in prose,' those at the top of pages 10 and 14, for instance, are gems, and the whole, too brief, book abounds with delicate touches and pure English".
In 1890, Wilde reviewed Pater's Appreciations in the Speaker (22 March) under the title "Mr. Pater's Last Volume". This lengthy review, glowing with praise, concludes: "...in Mr. Pater, as in Cardinal Newman, we find the union of personality with perfection. He has no rival in his own sphere, and he has escaped disciples." Writing to Wilde, Pater expressed his "very great pleasure" in reading the review, whose prose was "pleasantly written, genial, sensible criticism...": "How friendly of you to have given so much care and time to my book, in the midst of your own work in that prose of which you have become so successful a write".
When The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott's Magazine (20 June 1890), Pater may have been reluctant to review it - possibly because of his own homoerotic impulses - when the reviews attacked it as "unmanly," suitable for "outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys" (who figured in a recent scandal involving a male brothel). When the second version appeared with excisions and revisions, Pater could now review the somewhat less daring novel in the Bookman (Nov. 1891) in appreciation of Wilde's favourable review of Appreciations.
Pater wrote the most penetrating account of the novel at the time: though Wilde's writing reflected "something of an excellent talker" and, in his use of paradox, the continuity of "the brilliant critical work of Matthew Arnold," Pater also perceived that Wilde's "clever" book "seems to set forth anything but a homely philosophy of life for the middle-class - a kind of dainty Epicurean theory rather - yet fails, to some degree, in this ...:
A true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man's entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde's heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is to lose, or lower organisation, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development. As a story, however, a partly supernatural story, it is first-rate in artistic management....
Levey has written that, in his review, Pater "had singled out the character of Lord Henry Wotton for surprisingly strong moral disapproval (possibly displeased, or alarmed, by Wotton's echoes of his own earlier hedonism) and he may even have surmised that there was gathering around Wilde far greater opprobrium than he himself had endured". Dorian Gray, "a quite unsuccessful experiment in Epicureanism, in life as a fine art, is ... a beautiful creation," writes Pater, who then draws "a very plain moral" from the novel "to the effect that vice and crime make people coarse and ugly." Pater concludes that the work "may fairly claim to go with that of Edgar Poe, and with some good French work of the same kind, done, probably, in more or less imitation of it".
Wilde may have met Pater in January 1890, and except for some brief notes from Pater, their correspondence apparently ceased during the few remaining years left to the Oxford don. Levey contends that the paradoxical Pater - who once said, "It doesn't matter what is said as long as it is said beautifully" - provided a model for Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "For the younger, much bolder and far more compulsively fluent [Wilde], Pater must have seemed in possession of a gift he had totally failed to exploit".
Ellmann notes that Wilde later criticised the style of Pater's Renaissance work as too studied, lacking "the true rhythmical life of words," and when Pater died, Wilde queried, "Was he ever alive?" According to Robert Ross, writes Ellmann, Wilde later "disparaged Pater as man, as writer, and as an influence...". But given Wilde's unpredictable facetiousness, such reports may be unreliable. Other accounts - in addition to what Wilde had written about Pater - indicate his devotion to him. For example, in an "interview" in the St. James's Gazette (18 Jan. 1895), Wilde said that "the only writers who have influenced me are Keats, Flaubert, and Walter Pater", and in a memoir of a meeting with Wilde in 1898 written by the critic and novelist Wilfred Hugh Chesson (1870-1952) and published in the Bookman (Dec. 1911), Wilde told him, in referring to the small size of a series of books: "It is unjust to a good style to print it on a tiny page. Imagine turning Pater over rapidly. It is violence" .References: The Autobiography of W. B. Yeats (1965); Lawrence Evans, ed., Letters of Walter Pater (1970); Michael Levey, The Case of Walter Pater (1978); Laurel Brake, Subjugated Knowledges (1994); Denis Donoghue, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls (1995).