Victorian Literature Walter Horatio Pater
by
Anne Varty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0051

Introduction

Walter Pater, classicist and Oxford don, radical aesthetic philosopher, and consummate prose stylist, was immensely influential in his own day. His work fell into critical neglect during the first half of the 20th century, but starting in the 1970s the significance of his contributions began to be understood and from 1980 onward his life and work have been the subject of ever-increasing critical attention. His favorite literary form is the essay, and he shot to notorious prominence in 1873 when he published his first collection of essays, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (subsequently titled The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry). Here, he set out his aesthetic philosophy, championed “Art for Art’s sake,” questioned fundamental beliefs of Christianity and began to adjust traditional views of masculinity. Pater did not publish another book for twelve years, until his only completed novel Marius the Epicurean appeared in 1885, designed, he claimed, to answer some of the ethical objections his work had received. He continued to publish essays and short fiction until his death in 1893.

General Overviews

There are few studies that attempt to give a general overview of Pater’s achievements. The best short introduction is Fletcher 1959, now a historical source in its own right but still the most secure platform on which to build contemporary approaches. Hough 1949 is written in a similar vein, while Brake 1994 focuses on more recent critical concerns. Monsman 1980 is a more discursive study of Pater’s life and work, while Shuter 1997 offers a specialized overview of Pater’s lifelong practice of textual revision.

  • Brake, Laurel. Walter Pater. Writers and Their Work. London: Northcote House, 1994.

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    A succinct overview of Pater’s life and the major trends of his work, Brake opens with a biographical chronology and a survey of his life and career. She continues by focusing on Pater’s favored literary forms, articles, essays, short stories, lectures that were published as contributions to journals and the periodical press. She emphasizes the material methods of his production that sit at odds with his emphasis on the spiritual transcendence and material invulnerability of art and aesthetics.

  • Fletcher, Ian. Walter Pater: British Book News on Writers and Their Work 114. London: Longmans, Green, 1959.

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    This is an accessible and impressively durable account of Pater’s life, work, and lasting achievement. It remains one of the best introductions to Pater. Fletcher identifies Marius the Epicurean as Pater’s most significant publication and shows how it is pivotal in his intellectual expression of historical relativism, the significance of faith in an era of doubt, the richness of spiritual inwardness, and aesthetic vision.

  • Hough, Graham. The Last Romantics. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1949.

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    Fletcher 1959 claims this contains the best single essay on Pater. Hough’s chapter on Pater remains illuminating, providing an overview of his place in English literature, his relations with Arnold and Ruskin, and his unique contributions to aestheticism.

  • Monsman, Gerald. Walter Pater’s Art of Autobiography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

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    This ranges widely across Pater’s published and unpublished oeuvre (making compelling use of Pater’s juvenile poetry in Wright 1907 [cited under Biographies]), and argues that Pater projected his autobiography and personal psychodramas into the figures of his fiction and the subjects of his criticism, exploring and multiplying the idea of self. Monsman presents Pater’s early experience of the deaths of his parents as formative and identifies his work as anticipating deconstruction.

  • Shuter, William. Rereading Walter Pater. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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    Scholarly and with expansive reference across Pater’s published and unpublished work, this compares Pater’s early expressions with his later revisions in order to collapse the distinction between “early” and “late,” assessing shifting ideological force and revision itself as primary expressions of composition, particularly in relation to Pater’s attitudes to religion.

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