Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls Summary

Denis Donoghue


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When a first-rate critic explores the life and work of an enigmatic and elusive writer, readers can expect a provocative treatise. Denis Donoghue’s Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls is just such a work. The author or editor of more than twenty monographs on literary figures from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, Donoghue brings his exceptional knowledge and keen insights to his study of the writer he unabashedly calls the Father of Modernism in England. “The main justification for writing a book on Pater at this point,” Donoghue remarks in his introductory chapter, “is to clarify the recognition one is claiming for him.” Having written extensively about modern poets and critics, Donoghue is particularly well prepared to trace the influence of this nineteenth century figure on his successors in the following century.

Donoghue selects for his subtitle a phrase from Pater’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci which is, in the biographer’s view, the key to Pater’s mission as a critic: “But a lover of strange souls may still analyse for himself the impression made on him” by the works of an artist “and try to reach through” that impression to a definition of genius. The “strange souls” Pater loves are not only his contemporaries but also the historical figures about whom he writes and the fictional ones he creates—though, as Donoghue points out, these are most often simply extensions of their creator himself. Throughout, great stress is placed on Pater’s “antinomianism,” the tendency (prevalent in modern writings) to see great literature as an antithesis to the predominant values of a society rather than as a reflection of those values. Donoghue considers Pater a leading figure in “a tradition of dissent,” a spokesperson for a quiet counterculture. In fact, using Pater as his chief example, Donoghue defines modernism as “the art and literature of an adversary relation to the official purposes of late-nineteenth-century society.”

Anyone expecting a standard biography will be disappointed. Carefully avoiding speculation, even when the temptation to engage in the practice might be overwhelming, Donoghue refuses to embellish even the sparse details available about his subject. Consequently, the “life” of Pater offered in this volume is little more than a sketch occupying a mere eighty pages—barely a quarter of the entire text. What information Donoghue does offer focuses primarily on the relationships Pater had with others, especially other creative figures, many of whom were influenced in some way by the critic’s ideas and writings. In five succinct chapters, Donoghue reviews his subject’s fleeting friendships with dozens of men and women of influence great and small in English letters, most notably among them the poets Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lionel Johnson, and Arthur Symons; educator Oscar Browning; artist Simeon Solomon; critic and historian John Addington Symonds; novelists George Moore and Mrs. Humphry Ward; and that most controversial and enigmatic literary luminary Oscar Wilde. With great sensitivity Donoghue discusses Pater’s homosexuality, noting how in both published writings and correspondence with friends he introduces words and phrases that were part of the homosexual code of his day. Yet Donoghue does not dwell on this aspect of Pater’s life; accepting it as fact, he simply admits that it affected Pater’s dealings with others, causing him embarrassment and on occasion more serious difficulties in a century when homophobia was commonplace.

By far the bulk of Donoghue’s study is given over to an examination of Pater’s published writings. In these, rather than in the facts of his life, lie the clues to Pater’s nature as a thinker and a critic; in them Donoghue finds his reasons for assigning the key role to Pater in the development of the modernist spirit. Donoghue’s method is to show how Pater reacted to the works of other artists; by doing so, he claims, it is possible to come to some understanding of the critic himself.

Donoghue analyzes both major works and minor ones, giving many of them a sensitive reading that reveals something of Pater’s method of composition and ideology. Interestingly, some of Donoghue’s commentaries (for example, “Botticelli” and “Winckelmann”) seem to be imitative of Pater’s style; they are impressions rather than formal essays, revealing those elements of Pater’s work that strike Donoghue as particularly illuminating or...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)