- The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe
As late as 1922, W. B. Yeats considered Marius the Epicurean ‘the only great prose in modern English’, but he also wondered whether ‘it, or the attitude of mind of which it was the noblest expression, had not caused the disaster of my friends’. He meant especially the English victims of dissipation and despair, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons. ‘It taught us to walk upon a rope tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm’ (W. B. Yeats: ‘The Tragic Generation’ : in Autobiographies, edited by William H. O’Donnell and Douglas N. Archibald (New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 235). But it was T. S. Eliot’s essay ‘Arnold and Pater’ (1930) that damaged Pater’s reputation beyond hope of repair in the English-speaking world. After Eliot, it became easy to regard Pater as a minor moralist pretending to be something else: literary critic, art critic, cultural historian, metaphysician, historian of philosophy, novelist, [End Page 330] theorist of Art for Art’s Sake. Eliot found Arnold and Pater scandalous, different only in the degree of that quality: each of them had the effrontery to try to establish Culture in the place of Religion and to set up one’s sensory experience in the place of a convinced Belief. Pater merely gave Arnold’s hubris a further charm of phrase and incantation. Eliot thought it urgent to put a stop to the notion of Art for Art’s Sake except as ‘an exhortation to the artist to stick to his job’. In that consideration, the ‘right practice of “art for art’s sake” was the devotion of Flaubert or Henry James’ (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber), 1976 reprint, pp. 442–443).
But Pater could never have been popular. Even if he had not been overshadowed by more flamboyant writers – Arnold, Ruskin, Wilde – or by such a ‘public intellectual’ as Newman, he would not have appealed to mass culture. He was always a subjective thinker, in the sense described by Kierkegaard: ‘The subjective thinker is an existing individual essentially interested in his own thinking, existing as he does in his thought. His thinking has therefore a different type of reflection, namely the reflection of inwardness, by virtue of which it belongs to the thinking subject and to no one else’ (Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 67–68). Such a writer rarely has a following: if he is fortunate, he becomes a footnote or at best a short chapter in the discrimination of personalities. Or his name is linked to a certain tone, as in ‘Audenesque’ or ‘Larkinish’. The OED gives ‘Pateresque’ and ‘Paterian’ as ‘resembling the style of Pater’s writing or his method of criticism’ but doesn’t commit itself to describing that style or that method: it provides a citation from 1903 assuring readers that ‘ “Pateresque” is no slight’ and one from 1977 in which R. L. Woolf remarks of some faith that ‘this Paterian Christianity is astonishingly like Paterian paganism’.
Not surprisingly, The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe finds most of its evidence in France and Italy. The essays on his reputation in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Portugal, and Spain are put to some trouble, looking around for his fingerprints. Translations of his books in these cultures are scholarly enterprises, they do not assume a wide or popular readership or lead to much general discussion. But if the ‘common reader’ is hardly found, it is notable how Pater has appealed – and continues to appeal – to minds already distinguished. Hofmannsthal leads to Rudolf Borchardt in one direction and to Rudolf Kassner in another. Rilke comes briefly into sight; E. R. Curtius, too. [End Page 331] Proust’s reading in Pater is still doubtful, but a minor issue beside his reading of Ruskin. It is interesting to think of Gide, Duthuit, and DuBos taking positions...