- Pater’s Imaginary Portraits
IN 1878, Walter Pater submitted to Macmillan’s Magazine a work that would be published as “The Child in the House”: “I call the M.S. a portrait,” he wrote, “and mean readers, as they might do on seeing a real portrait, to begin speculating—what came of him?” It is a peculiar emphasis, particularly from a critic who in “The School of Giorgione” famously pronounced, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” is “always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception.” But the observer’s curiosity, however discordant with a protomodernist formalism, registers the inescapable force of temporality in Pater’s writing. The passage of time is felt most keenly in a pervasive sense of death and nostalgic estrangement, both personal and collective, from an imagined “home.” Yet the speculation also registers a sense of time as the very fabric of individual selfhood, and of history as an arena of longing, above all a yearning for “renaissance” in Pater’s broad sense of the term, the emergence [End Page 105] from a world of neglected or thwarted desire into a realm of new vitality and understanding.
The imaginary portrait, as Pater called his new form, became an especially suggestive vehicle for imagining individual lives within history. Each portrait typically focuses on an individual who is deeply solitary, an enigma to the world around him, yet inhabits a historical moment in which his peculiar desires become harbingers of epochal cultural transition; he becomes, in effect, one of Emerson’s representative men, but of a world not his own. Thus “Duke Carl of Rosenmold” imagines a disappointed forerunner of the German Aufklarung, while “Sebastian Van Storck” describes a Spinoza-like figure setting himself against the exuberant material life of seventeenth-century Holland. Heine’s fantasy of the Greek gods in exile offered Pater an especially resonant model for the recurrent sense of baffled longing, of a sensibility somehow born out of its time and consumed with “wistful” desire for a world in which it might recover or finally realize a happiness at odds with the historical present. “What came of him?” was thus reframed in broader terms; in the later portraits the protagonist invariably dies, but that death poses the question, “What became of his desires?” How did his life, and what he lived for, illuminate a broader, collective history, and how in turn does the history illuminate the singularities of the life?
These questions resonate throughout Pater’s career, as do the peculiar formal dynamics of the portraits. “Imaginary portraits” hints at a host of blurred binaries, beginning with those between fact and fiction and the general and the particular, but it also accommodates a wealth of genres, mediated largely by the force of Pater’s style. The portraits incorporate elements of the scholarly essay, brief life, short story, allegory, lyrical ekphrasis, historical vignette, myth, diary, epitaph. Yet they have been relatively neglected by scholars, perhaps because their very hybridity confounds the sense of formal specificity that the phrase seems to promise.
Whatever the cause of this neglect, Lene Østermark-Johansen’s magisterial new edition should go a long way toward dispelling it. (The work marks a very auspicious beginning to the new series, “Jewelled Tortoise,” from Modern Humanities Research Association.) The provocations of Østermark-Johansen’s work begin with her unconventional selection. In his lifetime, Pater published only five works under the title “Imaginary Portraits”: “The Child in the House,” and then the four works collected in the 1887 volume Imaginary Portraits (all five portraits [End Page 106] first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine). Østermark-Johansen supplements these with two late works, “Apollo in Picardy” and “Emerald Uthwart,” both collected in the posthumous Miscellaneous Studies (1895), and the fragment “An English Poet,” begun soon after “The Child in the House” but not published until 1931. But the continuities among these works may be most suggestively evoked in a more unconventional inclusion, “Hippolytus Veiled: A Study from Euripides.” This...