Introduction: On reading Pater

Gerald Monsman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Reviewing Walter Pater’s 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Mrs Mark Pattison complained that its title was “misleading” because “the historical element is precisely that which is wanting, and its absence makes the weak place of the whole book.” The work, she found, lacked “true scientific method” and “is in no wise a contribution to the history of the Renaissance.”1 Mrs Pattison implicitly assumed here an intrinsic distinction between imaginative fiction and nonfictional prose, the latter having an obligation to convey factual material objectively. As history, Pater’s Studies was clearly nonfiction-thus Pattisonian objectivity, prosaic and nonpoetic, must be its special form of Truth. But for Pater, prose and fiction did not deal in different sorts of truths. Taking his stance on a radical relativity (one lesson he clearly did learn from modern science), Pater denied any form of absolute or wholly objective knowledge. No historical account ever can be scientifically objective; no description ever will capture reality whole. Pater’s relativistic, anti-mimetic stance grounded itself in a subjective poetics of prose which insists that all literary use of language will be self-expressive. Although Pater did not require an aesthetic response from nonliterary texts-scientific-technical writing, newspaper journalism, or ‘antiquarian’ research-he did imply that literary prose, like fiction, uses language expressively and imaginatively. Inevitably, Pater’s self-expressive stance dictated those art-for-art’s-sake (or art-for-the-artist’s-sake) theories in The Renaissance that elevated the aesthetic-expressive qualities of language above the ostensible argument and its external referents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWalter Pater An Imaginative Sense of Fact
Subtitle of host publicationA Collection of Essays.
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)0203988000, 9781135780241
ISBN (Print)0714631833, 9780714631837
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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