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Pater, Walter (1839-1894)  
 
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The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

Among British prose writers of the Victorian era, Pater stands as the embodiment of stylistic elegance. His critical essays--ranging widely over Classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary artists and writers--are themselves literary works of the first order. William Butler Yeats called Pater's novel Marius the Epicurean (1885, rev. 1892) "the only great prose in modern English."

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A close student of German philosophy (particularly the work of Hegel) and well read in the French writers of the period, Pater's criticism and fiction were highly cerebral, yet embraced the purely sensuous dimensions of art and life. From the 1870s through the 1890s, he was regarded by the reading public as a major theorist and practitioner of Aestheticism and Decadence. (Pater himself regarded this identification with some perplexity, though his influence on Oscar Wilde, for instance, was clear).

His stylistic elegance and his dangerous ideas about art's autonomy from morality, combined with rumors of homosexuality at Oxford, where he taught, made Pater's name virtually synonymous with gay sensibility during the late nineteenth century. In 1876, speaking as a guardian of public morals, W. T. Courthope announced: "we repudiate the effeminate desires which Mr. Pater, the mouthpiece of our artistic 'culture,' would encourage in society."

In recent decades, Pater has been rediscovered by critics as one of the most important English sources of literary Modernism.

Pater began contributing reviews and essays to the Westminster and the Fortnightly Reviews during the late 1860s, including pieces on the poetry of William Morris and the prose of Coleridge. In a remarkably candid paper on the great German classicist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, published in 1867, Pater noted: "That his affinity with Hellenism was not merely intellectual, that the subtler threads of temperament were interwoven in it, is proved by his romantic, fervid friendships with young men."

Studies in the History of the Renaissance

A number of Pater's essays were assembled in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)--including the study of Winckelmann, who, as Pater explained in the preface, "coming in the eighteenth century, really belongs in spirit to an earlier age." But The Renaissance, as the book is usually called, was more than a collection of magazine pieces. For in assembling them for republication, Pater elaborated on the aesthetic doctrine running throughout the essays.

In the preface, Pater dismissed efforts "to define beauty in the abstract." Rather, when discussing a given work of art, literature, or music, the critic must answer the question: "How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?" This demands of the critic "the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects."

Such critical impressionism doubtless appeared self-indulgent, even solipsistic, in itself; but Pater's "Conclusion" carried it still further. Writing in a philosophical vein, he insisted that the universe's flux of life, death, and constant change made the passionate enjoyment of each moment the greatest human good:

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. . . . With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.

As Pater concludes, art will serve best "to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

This radically amoral vision of privately cultivated sensibility quickly became notorious. In the second edition (1877), Pater suppressed the "Conclusion" on the grounds that "it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall"--as he put it when restoring a version of the essay in the book's third edition (1888).

Caricatures of Pater

Pater's hedonistic doctrine lent itself to caricature. In W. H. Mallock's satirical novel The New Republic (1876), Pater appears as "Mr. Rose, the pre-Raphaelite," a character whose "two topics are self-indulgence and art." Rose finds modern city life dreary except for "the shops of certain of our upholsterers and dealers in works of art."

Mallock's portrait hints at other proclivities beyond a taste for fine upholstery: Rose gazes "upon life as a chamber, which we decorate as we would decorate the chamber of the woman or the youth that we love," and is described as showing a special interest in young men.

There were also allusions to Pater in Charles Edward Hutchinson's pamphlet Boy Worship (1880), an exposé of homosexuals at Oxford.

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