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Walter Pater - The Delicacies of Fine Literature

by Arthur Symons

Writing about Botticelli, in that essay which first interpreted Botticelli to the modern world, Pater said, after naming the supreme artists, Michelangelo or Leonardo:

But, besides these great men, there is a certain number of artists who have a distinct faculty of their own by which they convey to us a peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and these, too, have their place in general culture, and must be interpreted to it by those who have felt their charm strongly, and are often the objects of a special diligence and a consideration wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the stress of a great name and authority.

It is among these rare artists, so much more interesting, to many, than the very greatest, that Pater belongs; and he can only be properly understood, loved, or even measured by those to whom it is 'the delicacies of fine literature' that chiefly appeal. There have been greater prose-writers in our[Pg 317] language, even in our time; but he was, as Mallarmé called him, 'le prosateur ouvragé par excellence de ce temps.' For strangeness and subtlety of temperament, for rarity and delicacy of form, for something incredibly attractive to those who felt his attraction, he was as unique in our age as Botticelli in the great age of Raphael. And he, too, above all to those who knew him, can scarcely fail to become, not only 'the object of a special diligence,' but also of 'a consideration wholly affectionate,' not lessened by the slowly increasing 'stress of authority' which is coming to be laid, almost by the world in general, on his name.

In the work of Pater, thought moves to music, and does all its hard work as if in play. And Pater seems to listen for his thought, and to overhear it, as the poet overhears his song in the air. It is like music, and has something of the character of poetry, yet, above all, it is precise, individual, thought filtered through a temperament; and it comes to us as it does because the style which clothes and fits it is a style in which, to use some of his own[Pg 318] words, 'the writer succeeds in saying what he wills.'

The style of Pater has been praised and blamed for its particular qualities of colour, harmony, weaving; but it has not always, or often, been realised that what is most wonderful in the style is precisely its adaptability to every shade of meaning or intention, its extraordinary closeness in following the turns of thought, the waves of sensation, in the man himself. Everything in Pater was in harmony, when you got accustomed to its particular forms of expression: the heavy frame, so slow and deliberate in movement, so settled in repose; the timid and yet scrutinising eyes; the mannered, yet so personal, voice; the precise, pausing speech, with its urbanity, its almost painful conscientiousness of utterance; the whole outer mask, in short, worn for protection and out of courtesy, yet moulded upon the inner truth of nature like a mask moulded upon the features which it covers. And the books are the man, literally the man in many accents, turns of phrase; and, far more than that, the man himself, whom one felt through his few,[Pg 319] friendly, intimate, serious words: the inner life of his soul coming close to us, in a slow and gradual revelation.

He has said, in the first essay of his which we have:

The artist and he who has treated life in the spirit of art desires only to be shown to the world as he really is; as he comes nearer and nearer to perfection, the veil of an outer life, not simply expressive of the inward, becomes thinner and thinner.

And Pater seemed to draw up into himself every form of earthly beauty, or of the beauty made by men, and many forms of knowledge and wisdom, and a sense of human things which was neither that of the lover nor of the priest, but partly of both; and his work was the giving out of all this again, with a certain labour to give it wholly. It is all, the criticism, and the stories, and the writing about pictures and places, a confession, the vraie vérité (as he was fond of saying) about the world in which he lived. That world he thought was open to all; he was sure that it was the real blue and green earth, and that he caught the tangible moments as they passed.[Pg 320] It was a world into which we can only look, not enter, for none of us have his secret. But part of his secret was in the gift and cultivation of a passionate temperance, an unrelaxing attentiveness to whatever was rarest and most delightful in passing things.

In Pater logic is of the nature of ecstasy, and ecstasy never soars wholly beyond the reach of logic. Pater is keen in pointing out the liberal and spendthrift weakness of Coleridge in his thirst for the absolute, his 'hunger for eternity,' and for his part he is content to set all his happiness, and all his mental energies, on a relative basis, on a valuation of the things of eternity under the form of time. He asks for no 'larger flowers' than the best growth of the earth; but he would choose them flower by flower, and for himself. He finds life worth just living, a thing satisfying in itself, if you are careful to extract its essence, moment by moment, not in any calculated 'hedonism,' even of the mind, but in a quiet, discriminating acceptance of whatever is beautiful, active, or illuminating in every moment. As he grew older he[Pg 321] added something more like a Stoic sense of 'duty' to the old, properly and severely Epicurean doctrine of 'pleasure.' Pleasure was never, for Pater, less than the essence of all knowledge, all experience, and not merely all that is rarest in sensation; it was religious from the first, and had always to be served with a strict ritual. 'Only be sure it is passion,' he said of that spirit of divine motion to which he appealed for the quickening of our sense of life, our sense of ourselves; be sure, he said, 'that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.' What he cared most for at all times was that which could give 'the highest quality to our moments as they pass'; he differed only, to a certain extent, in his estimation of what that was. 'The herb, the wine, the gem' of the preface to the Renaissance tended more and more to become, under less outward symbols of perfection, 'the discovery, the new faculty, the privileged apprehension' by which 'the imaginative regeneration of the world' should be brought about, or even, at times, a brooding over 'what the soul passes, and must pass, through, aux abois with [Pg 322]nothingness, or with those offended mysterious powers that may really occupy it.'


When I first met Pater he was nearly fifty. I did not meet him for about two years after he had been writing to me, and his first letter reached me when I was just over twenty-one. I had been writing verse all my life, and what Browning was to me in verse Pater, from about the age of seventeen, had been to me in prose. Meredith made the third; but his form of art was not, I knew never could be, mine. Verse, I suppose, requires no teaching, but it was from reading Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance, in its first edition on ribbed paper (I have the feel of it still in my fingers), that I realised that prose also could be a fine art. That book opened a new world to me, or, rather, gave me the key or secret of the world in which I was living. It taught me that there was a beauty besides the beauty of what one calls inspiration, and comes and goes, and cannot be caught or followed; that life (which had seemed to me of so little moment) could be itself a work of art; from that book I[Pg 323] realised for the first time that there was anything interesting or vital in the world besides poetry and music. I caught from it an unlimited curiosity, or, at least, the direction of curiosity into definite channels.

The knowledge that there was such a person as Pater in the world, an occasional letter from him, an occasional meeting, and, gradually, the definite encouragement of my work in which, for some years, he was unfailingly generous and attentive, meant more to me, at that time, than I can well indicate, or even realise, now. It was through him that my first volume of verse was published; and it was through his influence and counsels that I trained myself to be infinitely careful in all matters of literature. Influence and counsel were always in the direction of sanity, restraint, precision.

I remember a beautiful phrase which he once made up, in his delaying way, with 'wells' and 'no doubts' in it, to describe, and to describe supremely, a person whom I had seemed to him to be disparaging. 'He does,' he said meditatively, 'remind me of, well, of a steam-engine stuck in the mud. But he is so enthusiastic!' Pater liked[Pg 324] people to be enthusiastic, but, with him, enthusiasm was an ardent quietude, guarded by the wary humour that protects the sensitive. He looked upon undue earnestness, even in outward manner, in a world through which the artist is bound to go on a wholly 'secret errand,' as bad form, which shocked him as much in persons as bad style did in books. He hated every form of extravagance, noise, mental or physical, with a temperamental hatred: he suffered from it, in his nerves and in his mind. And he had no less dislike of whatever seemed to him either morbid or sordid, two words which he often used to express his distaste for things and people. He never would have appreciated writers like Verlaine, because of what seemed to him perhaps unnecessarily 'sordid' in their lives. It pained him, as it pains some people, perhaps only because they are more acutely sensitive than others, to walk through mean streets, where people are poor, miserable, and hopeless.

And since I have mentioned Verlaine, I may say that what Pater most liked in poetry was the very opposite of such work as that of Verlaine, which he might have[Pg 325] been supposed likely to like. I do not think it was actually one of Verlaine's poems, but something done after his manner in English, that some reviewer once quoted, saying: 'That, to our mind, would be Mr. Pater's ideal of poetry.' Pater said to me, with a sad wonder, 'I simply don't know what he meant.' What he liked in poetry was something even more definite than can be got in prose; and he valued poets like Dante and like Rossetti for their 'delight in concrete definition,' not even quite seeing the ultimate magic of such things as Kubla Khan, which he omitted in a brief selection from the poetry of Coleridge. In the most interesting letter which I ever had from him, the only letter which went to six pages, he says:

12 Earl's Terrace,          
Kensington, W.,    
Jan. 8, 1888.

My dear Mr. Symons,—I feel much flattered at your choosing me as an arbiter in the matter of your literary work, and thank you for the pleasure I have had in reading carefully the two poems you have sent me. I don't use the word 'arbiter' loosely for 'critic'; but suppose a real controversy, on the question whether you shall spend your best energies in writing verse, between your poetic aspirations on[Pg 326] the one side, and prudence (calculating results) on the other. Well! judging by these two pieces, I should say that you have a poetic talent remarkable, especially at the present day, for precise and intellectual grasp on the matter it deals with. Rossetti, I believe, said that the value of every artistic product was in direct proportion to the amount of purely intellectual force that went to the initial conception of it: and it is just this intellectual conception which seems to me to be so conspicuously wanting in what, in some ways, is the most characteristic verse of our time, especially that of our secondary poets. In your own pieces, particularly in your MS. 'A Revenge,' I find Rossetti's requirement fulfilled, and should anticipate great things from one who has the talent of conceiving his motive with so much firmness and tangibility—with that close logic, if I may say so, which is an element in any genuinely imaginative process. It is clear to me that you aim at this, and it is what gives your verses, to my mind, great interest. Otherwise, I think the two pieces of unequal excellence, greatly preferring 'A Revenge' to 'Bell in Camp.' Reserving some doubt whether the watch, as the lover's gift, is not a little bourgeois, I think this piece worthy of any poet. It has that aim of concentration and organic unity which I value greatly both in prose and verse. 'Bell in Camp' pleases me less, for the same reason which makes me put Rossetti's 'Jenny,' and some of Browning's pathetic-satiric pieces, below the rank which many assign them. In no one of the poems I am thinking of, is the inherent sordidness of everything in the persons supposed, except the one poetic trait then under treatment, quite forgotten. [Pg 327]Otherwise, I feel the pathos, the humour, of the piece (in the full sense of the word humour) and the skill with which you have worked out your motive therein. I think the present age an unfavourable one to poets, at least in England. The young poet comes into a generation which has produced a large amount of first-rate poetry, and an enormous amount of good secondary poetry. You know I give a high place to the literature of prose as a fine art, and therefore hope you won't think me brutal in saying that the admirable qualities of your verse are those also of imaginative prose; as I think is the case also with much of Browning's finest verse. I should say, make prose your principal métier, as a man of letters, and publish your verse as a more intimate gift for those who already value you for your pedestrian work in literature. I should think you ought to find no difficulty in finding a publisher for poems such as those you have sent to me.

I am more than ever anxious to meet you. Letters are such poor means of communication. Don't come to London without making an appointment to come and see me here.—Very sincerely yours,

Walter Pater.

'Browning, one of my best-loved writers,' is a phrase I find in his first letter to me, in December 1886, thanking me for a little book on Browning which I had just published. There is, I think, no mention of any other writer except Shakespeare (besides the reference to Rossetti which I have[Pg 328] just quoted) in any of the fifty or sixty letters which I have from him. Everything that is said about books is a direct matter of business: work which he was doing, of which he tells me, or which I was doing, about which he advises and encourages me.

In practical things Pater was wholly vague, troubled by their persistence when they pressed upon him. To wrap up a book to send by post was an almost intolerable effort, and he had another reason for hesitating. 'I take your copy of Shakespeare's sonnets with me,' he writes in June 1889, 'hoping to be able to restore it to you there lest it should get bruised by transit through the post.' He wrote letters with distaste, never really well, and almost always with excuses or regrets in them: 'Am so over-burdened (my time, I mean) just now with pupils, lectures, and the making thereof'; or, with hopes for a meeting: 'Letters are such poor means of communication: when are we to meet?' or, as a sort of hasty makeshift: 'I send this prompt answer, for I know by experience that when I delay my delays are apt to be lengthy.' A review took him sometimes a year to get through;[Pg 329] and remained in the end, like his letters, a little cramped, never finished to the point of ease, like his published writings. To lecture was a great trial to him. Two of the three lectures which I have heard in my life were given by Pater, one on Mérimée, at the London Institution, in November 1890, and the other on Raphael, at Toynbee Hall, in 1892. I never saw a man suffer a severer humiliation. The act of reading his written lecture was an agony which communicated itself to the main part of the audience. Before going into the hall at Whitechapel he had gone into a church to compose his mind a little, between the discomfort of the underground railway and the distress of the lecture-hall.

In a room, if he was not among very intimate friends, Pater was rarely quite at his ease, but he liked being among people, and he made the greater satisfaction overcome the lesser reluctance. He was particularly fond of cats, and I remember one evening, when I had been dining with him in London, the quaint, solemn, and perfectly natural way in which he took up the great black Persian, kissed it, and set it down[Pg 330] carefully again on his way upstairs. Once at Oxford he told me that M. Bourget had sent him the first volume of his Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine, and that the cat had got hold of the book and torn up the part containing the essay on Baudelaire, 'and as Baudelaire was such a lover of cats I thought she might have spared him!'

We were talking once about fairs, and I had been saying how fond I was of them. He said: 'I am fond of them, too. I always go to fairs. I am getting to find they are very similar.' Then he began to tell me about the fairs in France, and I remember, as if it were an unpublished fragment in one of his stories, the minute, coloured impression of the booths, the little white horses of the 'roundabouts,' and the little wild beast shows, in which what had most struck him was the interest of the French peasant in the wolf, a creature he might have seen in his own woods. 'An English clown would not have looked at a wolf if he could have seen a tiger.'

I once asked Pater if his family was really connected with that of the painter, Jean-Baptiste Pater. He said: 'I think so, I[Pg 331] believe so, I always say so.' The relationship has never been verified, but one would like to believe it; to find something lineally Dutch in the English writer. It was, no doubt, through this kind of family interest that he came to work upon Goncourt's essay and the contemporary Life of Watteau by the Count de Caylus, printed in the first series of L'Art du XVIIIe Siècle, out of which he has made certainly the most living of his Imaginary Portraits, that Prince of Court Painters which is supposed to be the journal of a sister of Jean-Baptiste Pater, whom we see in one of Watteau's portraits in the Louvre. As far back as 1889[4] Pater was working towards a second volume of Imaginary Portraits, of which Hippolytus Veiled was to have been one. He had another subject in Moroni's Portrait of a Tailor in the National Gallery, whom he was going to make a Burgomaster; and another was to have been a study of life in[Pg 332] the time of the Albigensian persecution. There was also to be a modern study: could this have been Emerald Uthwart? No doubt Apollo in Picardy, published in 1893, would have gone into the volume. The Child in the House, which was printed as an Imaginary Portrait, in Macmillans Magazine in 1878, was really meant to be the first chapter of a romance which was to show 'the poetry of modern life,' something, he said, as Aurora Leigh does. There is much personal detail in it, the red hawthorn, for instance, and he used to talk to me of the old house at Tunbridge, where his great-aunt lived, and where he spent much of his time when a child. He remembered the gipsies there, and their caravans, when they came down for the hop-picking; and the old lady in her large cap going out on the lawn to do battle with the surveyors who had come to mark out a railway across it; and his terror of the train, and of 'the red flag, which meant blood.' It was because he always dreamed of going on with it that he did not reprint this imaginary portrait in the book of Imaginary Portraits; but he did not go on with it because, having begun[Pg 333] the long labour of Marius, it was out of his mind for many years, and when, in 1889, he still spoke of finishing it, he was conscious that he could never continue it in the same style, and that it would not be satisfactory to rewrite it in his severer, later manner. It remains, perhaps fortunately, a fragment, to which no continuation could ever add a more essential completeness.

Style, in Pater, varied more than is generally supposed, in the course of his development, and, though never thought of as a thing apart from what it expresses, was with him a constant preoccupation. Let writers, he said, 'make time to write English more as a learned language.' It has been said that Ruskin, De Quincey, and Flaubert were among the chief 'origins' of Pater's style; it is curiously significant that matter, in Pater, was developed before style, and that in the bare and angular outlines of the earliest fragment, Diaphanéité, there is already the substance which is to be clothed upon by beautiful and appropriate flesh in the Studies in the Renaissance. Ruskin, I never heard him mention, but I do not doubt that there, to the young man beginning to[Pg 334] concern himself with beauty in art and literature, was at least a quickening influence. Of De Quincey he spoke with an admiration which I had difficulty in sharing, and I remember his showing me with pride a set of his works bound in half-parchment, with pale gold lettering on the white backs, and with the cinnamon edges which he was so fond of. Of Flaubert we rarely met without speaking. He thought Julien l'Hospitalier as perfect as anything he had done. L'Education Sentimentale was one of the books which he advised me to read; that, and Le Rouge et le Noir of Stendhal; and he spoke with particular admiration of two episodes in the former, the sickness and the death of the child. Of the Goncourts he spoke with admiration tempered by dislike. Their books often repelled him, yet their way of doing things seemed to him just the way things should be done; and done before almost any one else. He often read Madame Gervaisais, and he spoke of Chérie (for all its 'immodesty') as an admirable thing, and a model for all such studies.

Once, as we were walking in Oxford, he pointed to a window and said, with a slow[Pg 335] smile: 'That is where I get my Zolas.' He was always a little on his guard in respect of books; and, just as he read Flaubert and Goncourt because they were intellectual neighbours, so he could read Zola for mere pastime, knowing that there would be nothing there to distract him. I remember telling him about The Story of an African Farm, and of the wonderful human quality in it. He said, repeating his favourite formula: 'No doubt you are quite right; but I do not suppose I shall ever read it.' And he explained to me that he was always writing something, and that while he was writing he did not allow himself to read anything which might possibly affect him too strongly, by bringing a new current of emotion to bear upon him. He was quite content that his mind should 'keep as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world'; it was that prisoner's dream of a world that it was his whole business as a writer to remember, to perpetuate.



[4] In this same year he intended to follow the Appreciations by a volume of Studies of Greek Remains, in which he then meant to include the studies in Platonism, not yet written; and he had thought of putting together a volume of 'theory,' which was to include the essay on Style. In two or three years' time, he thought, Gastom de Latour would be finished.