Walter Pater Essay - Critical Essays


Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean is the culminating expression of a fictional genre that began in the 1830’s and continued until the turn of the century. This genre, a peculiar mixture of religious speculation and personal confession, developed almost synchronously with the assault of science against traditional Christianity, beginning with the publication, in 1832, of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Lyell’s book, which exploded the biblical account of creation, was the first of several books—the most famous being Charles Darwin’s—that shook Western culture to its foundations. The passage of the Reform Bill, the theories of Darwin and Karl Marx, the development of the so-called higher criticism in the exegesis of biblical texts, the rise in population, and the spread of revolution, were but a few events that challenged the inherited certainties of Victorian England. People were forced to reevaluate old beliefs, to doubt discredited traditions, to revise social policies, to change moral valuations. It is not surprising that the confessional novel, the novel of doubt and faith, should acquire an unprecedented significance during such a period. The absence of reliable guideposts threw people back upon themselves and obliged them to search for unity, purpose, and direction in the kaleidoscopic sequence of their own lives.

Marius the Epicurean

Marius the Epicurean is one of the finest offshoots of a literary tradition inaugurated by Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1835) and sustained in such works as John Henry Newman’s Loss and Gain (1848), William Hale White’s The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1885), and Mary Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888; written as Mrs. Humphry Ward). Pater chose to set his search for meaning and purpose amid the disintegrating spectacle of Antonine Rome, but its bearing on the condition of late Victorian England is emphatically underlined: “Let the reader pardon me if here and there I seem to be passing from Marius to his modern representatives—from Rome, to Paris or London,” Pater interpolates at one point. Marius is clearly meant to be prototypical: He dramatizes a quest for religious values that satisfies the demands of modern consciousness and reflects the ambiguity of a shattered world.

This is not to say that his growth is haphazard or random; on the contrary, Pater implies an underlying teleology in Marius’s development: However dim and faint the sense of a superintending providence, his life is oriented toward the climactic moment of self-sacrifice with which the novel ends. Marius does not, however, fully resolve the conflicting calls of conscience and sensation, beauty and duty, engagement and withdrawal, in the fulfillment of that end. Though Pater evidently sees Marius’s entire existence as an elaborate preparation for the revelatory moment in which his moral and spiritual being are ultimately defined, critics have generally judged that this is accomplished, if at all, without dramatic conviction.

Marius’s youth is characterized, as was Pater’s, by a more than common susceptibility to sensuous impressions. His home, White Nights, a villa with adjacent farm, contributes to these susceptibilities. The note of grave beauty, of life lived under the conditions of animal sacrifice and seasonal change, develops in the boy a wistful reverence and wonder, which deepen with the passage of years. The Wordsworthian element in all this is not fortuitous, for Marius is destined to enact precisely that pattern of spiritual growth enunciated in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”—a pattern that involves a gradual conversion from the sensory to the spiritual planes of existence, a slow but steady ascension from the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of his first impulsive response to beauty to the sober steadfastness of a mind that recognizes “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” This conversion, if such it may be called, does not, for Marius, issue in the renunciation of his former pleasures, but rather a deepening awareness of their ultimate origin and tendency.

In brief, Marius comes to dwell consciously in the presence of a spirit that is implied in his first naïve responses to nature and beauty. Hence, the pagan ceremonies, which solicit Marius’s devotion and awe, already foreshadow “certain heavy demands” that will not become apparent to the lad until he acquires the mature self-consciousness of adulthood. It is then, on the level of discursive thought, that he will begin to recognize “some ampler vision, which should take up into itself and explain this world’s delightful shows.” White Nights is, therefore, as Pater suggests, not only a domestic dwelling place but also a state of mind peculiar to youth and prior to the self-dedication that maturity exacts.

In any event, it is not long before Marius is obliged to abandon the “world’s delightful shows” in the pursuit of a more bracing conception of beauty. To cure a childhood illness, Marius is sent to the Temple of Aesculapius. The process of healing is complemented by meditations on Platonic texts. While these constitute a cherishable legacy for Marius, the boy reacts against a world of abstract essences. The impalpable ideas of Plato attract him only insofar as they fuse with the world of spatiotemporal objects, “green fields, for instance, or children’s faces.” Here, Pater is clearly attempting to revise the “impressionism” of his youth, itself a recrudescence of the Heraclitean theory of perpetual flux, with a Symbolist theory of correspondences. Beauty will no longer be an end in itself but “an outward imagery identifying itself with unseen moralities.” While Marius does not achieve such an identification at once or without great difficulty, Pater clearly intends that the boy’s unthinking empiricism should be shaken and unsettled. In a word, the exhortation “to burn with a hard gem-like flame,” which Pater formerly enunciated in The Renaissance, is now being duly qualified by an obligation “to discriminate, ever more and more fastidiously, select form and colour in things from what was less select.”

Pater is avid to demonstrate, through his hero Marius, the correct application of the aesthetic theory to life, an application that requires a transvaluation of the concept “beauty” to include “not pleasure, but fulness of life, and insight as conducting to that fulnesswhatever form of human life, in short, might be heroic, impassioned, ideal.” Marius’s stay at the temple initiates an intellectual or moral awakening, a search for a hieratic order of conduct and beauty that is truly serviceable to that ideal. Dissatisfied with the abstractness of the Platonic method, Marius rejects the world of ideal forms in the pursuit of its equivalent in a living community, a veritable body of fellow aspirants. His search for this community determines the subsequent shape of the novel.

Immediately prior to his departure from the temple, Marius is vouchsafed a distant view of a city that appears to be an earthly incarnation of the Platonic archetype he is seeking. This first glimpse of Rome kindles in Marius the illusion that it, perhaps, is that “new city coming down ’like a bride out of heaven,’” of which Plato discoursed so eloquently. Accordingly, Marius takes practical steps to bring him closer to “the most religious city in the world.” He moves next to Pisa, preparing for his future obligations as secretary to the emperor Aurelius. He is soon befriended by an aspiring youth of literary ambitions by the name of Flavian—a character who clearly represents one aspect of Marius’s own divided consciousness.

Flavian’s function in the novel is to bear involuntary witness to the limitations of aesthetic hedonism. Pater clearly intends through this subordinate character to disabuse his devotees of the notion that burning with a hard, gemlike flame is equivalent to self-indulgent dissipation. Beneath “the perfection of form” that Flavian achieves in his bearing and his poetry, Marius recognizes “a depth of corruption,” which compels him to follow his friend only so far. Pater anticipates, here, to a remarkable degree the theme of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912): the awareness that an exclusive preoccupation with artistic form may have the effect of neutralizing both good and evil by reducing them to complementary colors, lights, and shades in a composition. Nevertheless, Flavian performs a vital role in the drama of Marius’s development, for it is he who introduces Marius to the “golden book” of Apuleius.

At this point, Pater reproduces in full Apuleius’s tale of Cupid and Psyche. Through subtle and strategic modifications of the original, Pater conceives of the tale as a presentiment of Marius’s spiritual development. Evoking the solemn harmonies of the King James version of the Bible and softening the racy idiom of Apuleius, Pater endows the story of Cupid and Psyche with a “gentle idealism” and facilitates its interpretation as an allegory. Just as Psyche, symbol of the human soul, is redeemed from death by the intervention of Cupid, so Marius—bewildered, distracted, and divided by the contradictory sects and philosophical schools of decadent Rome—is presumably redeemed from despair by the appearance of a community that claims to satisfy the deepest needs of the human spirit. The road to that community is, however, difficult, uncertain, and devious.

Flavian’s life is prematurely ended by an outbreak of plague. Marius, who remains, as ever, faithful to the evidence of his senses, is convinced of “nothing less than the soul’s extinction.” It may be parenthetically observed that despite his later sympathy with the Christian response to suffering, Marius never fully abandons those scruples “which can make no sincere claim to have apprehended anything beyond the veil of immediate experience.” With his departure for Rome, he remains in a state of suspended judgment with regard to the ultimate destiny appointed for the human soul.

The actual journey to the capital of the ancient world includes a number of incidents that undermine the philosophical detachment of the young Marius. Notwithstanding the glory of the Roman campagna, the many idyllic details of which Marius, with his habitual eye for...

(The entire section is 4300 words.)