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Portrait of an Epicurean

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

The little town of Enfield can claim singular distinctions. Lamb, long a resident, has paid his tribute; it was the place of Keats’ student days; and it is further graced by the fact that in the later forties a certain very unremarkable child used to walk its dust-blown streets. Years later, this same child, then a Fellow of Brase-nose College, writing on the wistful Elia, must have experienced deep pangs of self-doubt when he set down, casting off reticence with an uncommon boldness for him, a reminiscence of Enfield, where, as he says, he heard the cuckoo for the first time. This is interesting, if only because it is the one personal admission Walter Pater ever ventured in the whole ten volumes of his collected work. Yet there were other things which, even if he did not mention them directly, made quite as profound a mark upon his young sensibilities.

For it was here, and during his visits to Tunbridge, that he first began to receive the delicate, perplexing impressions of the external world that all his life were to trouble and delight him. There in the quiet English atmosphere, the peculiar traits, the inherited manners and prejudices of countless generations of serious heads, gone now into the dust, commenced, all unknown to the boy, to accumulate in him; and the visitations of lovely sights and sounds were already defining in his mind what he was later to know as the soul of visible objects. As he moves into his teens his life becomes more and more inward, withdrawn into the region of thought and meditation, yet showing nothing extraordinary, certainly nothing precocious, to those who observed from the outside.

He was awkward, a little morose perhaps; yet who could say what he was hiding? The portrait lengthens and reveals the face of one enigmatic, to say the least; a bit over-sensitive, you might think him, from the shrinking expression in the eyes; slightly abnormal, too, in his lonely ways; yet it is just this so-called abnormality, always so disturbing to a world phlegmatically constituted, that is the first manifestation in youth of inborn distinction, still unable to make itself articulate in any other way. And thus it was that his friends must have wondered at this strange, silent, scared youngster, so backward with other children of his age who always far out-talked him, and attracted the bulk of the elders’ attention.

Unnaturally introspective, knowing already things that most pleased him—this boy, like the grown man who called the Swiss lakes “horrid pots of blue paint,” preferred instinctively the remoter, more refined loveliness of the world to the greater, more awe-inspiring sorts of beauty which appeals to that larger class of people who can see only what is obvious, unmistakable, among the things that the spirit admires. Yet he did not ask them to change their ways; he simply wanted to be left alone at his own shrines.

The filtering twilight in an old attic room, the smells associated with various parts of the house, voices, footsteps, the colours of the objects about the room, with its long heavy curtains, its curious prints, its echoing silence; and the view from the library—among the musty-smelling leather volumes—of the trees in the old-fashioned walled garden, with the occasional gay butterfly or the intense feebleness of a humming-bird—these things young Walter, like his own Florian Deleal, loved in those early, unformed days, and recorded afterwards, with imaginative changes and improvements, half-autobiographically, mixing at will a delightful fancy and “the finer sort of memory.”

The Child in the House lived in a vicinity encroached upon by the smoke and clouded atmosphere of the great city of London, but “he did not hate the fog because of the crimson lights that fell from it sometimes upon the chimneys, and the whites which gleamed through its openings, on summer mornings, on turret and pavement.” He leans towards the things in life that come to him with delight for the ear and eye, not “dependent on any choiceness or special fineness,” loving always, he knows not quite why, all that will awaken the child’s joy in gay colours and full bien-etre, delivering him in a certain degree from the more disagreeable aspects of the world that he senses about him and catches gh’mpses of now and then.

There were many terrors, but the worst of all!. . . Death and the Beyond!—the thought comes to him terribly, haunt-ingly, shattering the placid life of the sensitive spirit. Yet there was a consolation that memory sought out. To the boy, possessed of “a strong innate sense of the sober tones in things,” these familiar figures that passed away seemed always to be “still abroad in the world, somehow, for his protection,” having discarded only a portion of themselves—”a worn-out garment left at a deserted lodging”—the truer part appearing yet to have being somewhere, not far from him in his walks. But to be torn away from the things he loves—the clouds at sunset, the laughter of the women in the garden, the exquisite consciousness of living—was a horror graced only by the visible beauty of it all, “the turning of the child’s flesh to violets in the turf above him . . . translating so much of its spiritual verity into things that may be seen.”

So it is that we catch glimpses of the possible young Walter Pater as we trace out the spiritual, the aesthetic evolution in Florian Deleal. For the latter had come to know, early in his days, that it is only the necessities of life, so-called, that are the things most absolutely unessential to us. “And thinking of the very poor, it was not the things that men most care for that he yearned to give them; but fairer roses, perhaps, and the power to taste, quite as they will, at their ease and not task-burdened, a certain desirable, clear light in the new morning, through which he had sometimes noticed them, quite unconscious of it, on their way to early toil.”

Here, in dreams of reality, the young Epicurean is shown advancing towards the philosophy of Marius. To bring all of life to one vital point of outlook!—this was the effort, so soon defining itself. And the change that came to him at fourteen when he went up to King’s School at Canterbury, was delightfully in accord with the direction of his early thoughts. There amid the fostering, reserved silence of the old English town, Pater found himself, as it were, becoming more and more congenial with his own mind. We know how he used to stand in the afternoons before the cathedral, gazing enraptured at the heaven-reaching spire, adoring its long shadow against the great surrounding trees and spread of lawn. He had already come “to love, for their sakes, church lights, holy days, all that belonged to the comely order of the sanctuary, the secrets of its white linen, and holy vessels, and fonts of pure water; and its hieratic purity and simplicity became the type of something he desired always to have about him in actual life.” Here the dreamer was content for awhile; the quiet, studious air of Canterbury was in kinship with his own unobtrusive way.

And yet when he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1858, his future career was no better defined than it had been in the days of his idyllic, peaceful childhood at Enfield. At nineteen he had read Ruskin, to be brought under his influence forcibly enough; but whenever he had taken to writing himself it was not with any determination to keep it up, and his efforts were tentative, surely—things that the wise among the budding authors of the earth are quick to com-demn to the fire. Still there is no sign that Pater had an over-amount of fuel. Some authors (the majority) learn as they write; others, like Pater, are content to hold back until they can step full-fledged upon the stage. And had not Jowett told him in the Greek class that he thought Pater’s mind would “come to great eminence”? Yet in what channels did he consider it might flow? It would have been strange to forecast at that time that this timid, dreamy-minded young student would one day fill two volumes with what is perhaps the subtlest appreciation of the finer parts of the true Greek spirit that has ever appeared in English. Having, however, even in those days, a perfectly individual conception of the Hellenic world, Pater made poor showing for himself in the final classical examination, taking a very modest second-class.

He was coming, nevertheless, to form his own tenacious little manner of looking at things. The Society of the Old Mortality must have been considerably surprised, perchance a little bored, one August evening in 1864, when one of its members read before them (Swinburne was one of the listeners) a study of a certain type of character, a curious, rather ill-constructed little thing called Diaphaneite. It was an affair of many abstractions, over-packed with thought, seeming to have been composed in a kind of convicted indifference. As the first piece of his writing extant for us, it is interesting mainly for its style, which is so painfully restrained, so utterly unmusical, as to remind one of the agony of a bound man struggling to escape, graced now and then by a quick, nervous turn of the limbs. Pater is this bound man, and it was a long time before he was to get the ropes cut; in the meanwhile they tore his flesh unmercifully. But it is significant that while matter crowded in upon him, the form is still undeveloped. Yet the essay itself is far from convincing, the last thing, you would imagine, to enlist a band of crusaders for the “regeneration of the world.” Howbeit, he is prepared already, in the face of a civilization too chaotic and too superficial ever to touch him quite intimately, to “value everything at its eternal worth;” and he can speak of “that fine edge of light where the elements of our moral nature refine themselves to the burning point.”

Still the thing is important insofar as it serves to show in a small way the attitude of his mind in those days—which was not a little leaning towards philosophy. Pater was certainly no very original speculative thinker; he was, as some one has said so well, only “philosophically cultured;” he was interested far more in the aesthetic, the more human, side of thought than in patent abstract doctrines. And it was like him two years later, in writing on Coleridge, to bring forth so emphatically the value of the poet’s revulsion against the plotting, calculating tendency of the German transcendental movement—for, to him, to dehumanize philosophy was to separate it from the soul of man which it is designed to serve, associating it more and more with a mere passing fashion of the mind, or with an alien intellectual ideal. We see that by the manner in which he treated Plato years afterwards-valuing more, indeed, the personality, the unique individualism of the philosopher among men, than the impersonal, removed aspect of his doctrine.

But it was not until 1866 that Pater came into contact with the first vital influence of his life. There is ever a certain inspiration to be derived from the lives of men who have, as it were, suddenly “discovered” themselves, who have come at last out of that torture-chamber of undefined longings to bathe in the new-awakened light of their own minds. Pater, approaching Winckelmann in this spirit, through Otto Jahn’s “Life” of him, found one whose early struggles with the world of thought had been not a little like his own. Body and mind Winckelmann had been through a veritable treadmill—you might almost say a screw-press—and what had emerged was but the haggard image of a restless master, passionately engaged in battle with himself and the life about, coming finally into contact with the divine beauty of the Hellenic world of art, finding there a soothing deliverance, a sort of haven, where the tired wayfarer, born out of due time, may rest his limbs for awhile. It was in the nature of manna, and Pater could partake of it. To become “consummate, tranquil, withdrawn into the region of ideals, yet retaining colour from the incidents of a passionate intellectual life”—this was the dream that gave no peace to either of these men. And how like Winckel-mann was this young Oxonian!—both devoted to the days of cloistered study and austere abstemience; both to be misunderstood, one to be mocked at by a world possessed of coarse and lewd suspicions, the other to be murdered on his way to Leipsic, where Goethe, just then on the threshhold of his sovereign youth, received the news of his death on the very day they had appointed for their meeting!

Here Pater came for the first time to the full understanding of the clear, pellucid Greek soul, so beloved of this chaotic German dreamer; and it is here, too, that he first touches upon the finer elements of the Epicurean philosophy, which he was to define so perfectly, two years after, in the famous “Conclusion” to “The Renaissance.”

What we have here is more or less a foretaste. To be true to one’s self—”balance, unity with one’s self”—this Pater saw as the driving force towards the achievement, on our parts, of a conscious culture, the aim of which, he holds, “should be to attain not only as intense but as complete a life as possible.” Yet where, in the midst of our modern civilization shall come that “blitheness and repose” he speaks of so repeatedly here? Certainly, it cannot come from the world without. No! it needs must come from within, or not at all. And thus it was that in the necessity of seeking for it—for that divine sense of fulness, of absolution, of complete harmony between body and mind, in one’s self— Pater had come to look for, to definitely expect, a higher intellectual fife among individuals. For, as he saw, “the proper instinct of self-culture cares not so much to reap all that those various forms of genius can give, as to find in them its own strength. The demand of the intellect is to feel itself alive.” To think for Thought’s sake, you could almost say, to feel the thrill of the mind’s movement in every nerve, not to think for the sake of some foreign advantage beyond Thinking itself—this, indeed, might seem the chief aim, of a process that is a little dangerous, after all. For the mission of the intellect is to acquire only insofar as these acquirations will excite and develop the natural forces. We shall see later on how he brought the attainment of that soothing Heiterkeit closer to his own ideals—into the cloistered sphere of “impassioned contemplation.”


In 1873, Pater’s first book, “The Renaissance,” appeared, the collection of nine papers which had been published in the magazines here and there, with a Preface and Conclusion. As to how the little volume was received there is sufficient testimony. Here it was that bull-necked English Philistinism first came to have the knowledge of one who, in their own walled midst, held so strange a philosophy. By all those who had never read him Pater was said to be positively naughty. His face was that of a kind of voluptuous monster, “into which the soul with all its maladies had passed;” and his predilection was for the sensuous things of the world, “strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” The man who was supposed to talk at random of the furious tyranny of “the sorcerer’s moon, large and feverish,” was satirized in a resplendent company by W. H. Mallock. He is pictured here as one who always carries with him, as relief from the sordid horrors of the London streets, a piece of “artistic cretonne, as a kind of aesthetic smelling-salts,” and generally “speaks of people as if they had no clothes on.” Well, the misconception is hideous, agonizing, possible only to a British public used to tea-parties and the chatter of curates. Some critics have made out that the parody really hurt Pater and increased his natural timidity; but so far as I can see he took it as a huge joke and felt rather flattered.

But among the truly cultured “The Renaissance” could not help being welcomed enthusiastically; and to the young liberals of the day, revolting against a dead-alive Victorian-ism that had lost the full use of its limbs, it became almost a cult, Oscar Wilde confessing afterwards that the first reading of it had been a turning-point in his life.

“The Renaissance” has been criticised from numerous sources as being too separate from the history, the greatest motive forces of the time. But such criticism is as inane as it is misleading. To compare Pater’s little volume to John Addington Symonds’ monumental labours on the same subject, is to see that Pater made no attempt to examine the political or other reasons that may be assigned to so magnificent a regeneration of a tottering world. He went to the flower, as the bee does, to derive the essence, having little or no concern for the thing itself. He has drawn a portrait of his own mind somewhere in the most beautiful of the studies in this book. “Through Leonardo’s strange veil of sight things reach him so, in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.” His were “hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse” —a virtue that Pater carried into his style. He came determined to taste, to sip merely, of a wine that was heady in too large a measure; and the fact that the light of a supreme day was at hand led him, not to seek the whole glory thereof, but rather to deliberate over certain curious tints on the flowers and trees. For had he not said that to define beauty, not in “its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics?” He travelled here, almost as a pilgrim, with his own cloistered road to explore; and his mission was to record the passionate impressions, the strange humours of the journey, in his own hooded phrases.

We trace here the evolution of his theories. In the essay on Winckelmann he had been content to say that “Philosophy serves culture, not by any fancied gift of absolute or transcendental knowledge, but by suggesting questions which help one to detect the passion, and strangeness, and dramatic contrasts of life.” But when he wrote that gorgeous “Conclusion” this was all a little too modified, since he had come to look upon the truest thinking, in the phrase of Novalis, as vivificircn. “The service of philosophy,” he now amends, “of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation.” There can be no other aim than this! He would ascertain the values of all philosophies, not by their inherent or abstract worth, but by the amount of direct influence they have upon our moving human ways. Any doctrine that has not an immediate bearing upon that with which the individual soul has associated its interests, can have, as Pater points out, “no real claim upon us.”

The address of this beauty, then, in the external world, is limited to the one, to the millions of separate and lonely souls, as souls, whom it designs to serve; and every impression that may be gathered and recorded anywhere “is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.”

To discriminate, to be passionately alive to that terrible sense of the transitory life of things—‘ “that continual vanishing away, that perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves”—this, indeed, is the ideal, so hard to attain, so difficult to hold. “Not the fruit of experience,” he says, “but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?”

In a world where nothing is quite permanent, where all things vanish at the very moment that we come best to understand them, it must of necessity, if we are to appease the hunger of the inner man, be our set purpose to react as strongly as possible to the shifting images of life that flit before us for an instant and are gone, to snatch all “that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment.” For a living death has settled upon him who can go through the world, bent exclusively upon his own private errands, seeing but indifferently in the affairs of others only the repetition of what has gone before, eternally, in the history of man. Perpetual change, change in circumstance and in the persons involved, must so certainly be the course of things that only the wide-awake spirit can appreciate and keep up with it. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame,” says Pater, “to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. . . . Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

Yet a question remained:—how to break away from that accepted Epicurean doctrine of mere “pleasure,” that eventual voluptuousness, which those who so eagerly misunderstand Pater always associate with him? Pater, like Marius, would never allow himself to be run away with; for the true idealist is one who cannot be made the dupe of his own illusions. To give all of one’s self, heedlessly, to life?—no; there we must stand, as if in a limited circle, probing our horizons for the depth that is in them, putting more stress, perhaps, upon what we have than upon what simply is.

So it was that he molded his theories nearer to the soul’s desire. The dangers of his philosophy were manifold, he knew; and it was his endeavour to determine where one might best find this long-desired sense of completeness in life, and what particular branch of activity might, without involving too many personal claims, “yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Well, the answer was quick on the tongue. “Of such wisdom,” he finally decides, “the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest qualities to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

There is much in that of the bashful, retiring Oxford tutor —the confession of a man who never smoked, and whose life was a model of rigorous, austerely self-disciplined existence. Yet it is his most characteristic utterance so far. Like all true lovers of life, Pater found it hard to cope with, was almost afraid of it, sometimes. Not the man to dash wildly from sensation to sensation, he needs must ask for something permanent, unblemishable, casting aside much that cannot ever claim his interests. So that his philosophy must embrace more than the mere love of things as they pass, shadows in the “perpetual flux;” it must also be a refinement of emotion, a sifting of the senses, directing always a certain hatred towards things that offend one’s candid feelings about the world. As well as a passion for all that is exquisite and quickening, it is equally an exclusion of what is sordid and ugly, the mere debris of our human years. It is philosophy in the truest sense of that word—a beautiful energy of the spirits, bringing into life an added grace of living.


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