MARIUS THE EPICUREAN
Much has been written, before and after the day of Walter Pater, concerning that singularly pure and yet singularly disappointing character, Marcus Aurelius, and his times. The ethical and religious ferment of the period has been described with great fullness and sympathy by Professor Dill. Yet it may be said, without fear of contradiction, that no book has ever been written, nor is likely ever to appear, which has conveyed to those who came under its spell a more intimate and familiar conception of that remarkable period and man than that which has been given by Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean.
Opinion is divided about the value of Pater’s work, and if it be true that some of his admirers have provoked criticism by their unqualified praise, it is no less true that many of his detractors appear never to have come in contact with his mind at all. Born in 1839, he spent the greater part of his life in Queen’s College, Oxford, where he died in 1894. As literary critic, humanist, and master of a thoroughly original style, he made a considerable impression upon his generation from the first; but it may be safely said that it is only now, when readers are able to look upon his work in a more spacious and leisurely way, that he and his contribution to English thought and letters have come to their own.
The family was of Dutch extraction, and while the sons of his grandfather were trained in the Roman Catholic religion, the daughters were Protestants from their childhood. His father left the Roman Catholic communion early in life, without adopting any other form of Christian faith. It is not surprising that out of so strongly marked and widely mingled a heredity there should have emerged a writer prone to symbolism and open to the sense of beauty in ritual, and yet too cosmopolitan to accept easily the conventional religious forms. Before his twentieth year he had come under the influence of Ruskin’s writings, but he soon parted from that wayward and contradictory master, whose brilliant dogmatism enslaved so thoroughly, but so briefly, the taste of young England. Ruskin, however, had awakened Pater, although to a style of criticism very different from his own, and for this service we owe him much. The environment of Oxford subjected his spirit to two widely different sets of influences. On the one hand, he was in contact with such men as Jowett, Nettleship, and Thomas Hill Green: on the other hand, with Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and the pre-Raphaelites. Thus the awakened spirit felt the dominion both of a high spiritual rationalism, and of the beauty of flesh and the charm of the earth. A visit to Italy in company with Shadwell, and his study of the Renaissance there, made him an enthusiastic humanist. The immediate product of this second awakening was the Renaissance Essays, a very remarkable volume of his early work. Twelve years later, Marius the Epicurean, his second book, appeared in 1885. In Dr. Gosse, Pater has found an interpreter of rare sympathy and insight, whose appreciations of his contemporaries are, in their own right, fine contributions to modern literature.