WALTER PATER, English scholar and intellectual born (d: 1894); Pater was once considered one of the greatest prose stylists in English literature, although no one reads him anymore. Tradition has it that he sought for the right word, the way Flaubert did for le mot juste. The result, to modern taste at any rate, is a prose so over-polished that it is hardly the art that conceals art.
Pater’s eyes were focused entirely on aesthetic subjects – particularly ancient Rome and the Renaissance – have been called “reconstructions of the past toward which he turned his eyes away from the present.”
His greatest follower, among many, was Oscar Wilde, who has been called an unleashed version of Pater’s repressed self. Wilde’s favorite work by Pater was Studies in the History of the Renaissance: “It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written.”
Wilde used to tell the story (quoted in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes) in which he delineated both Pater’s repressed character and his fondness for picturesque words. One morning before beginning his lecture, Pater asked a young man named Sanctuary to remain behind at the end. The student felt uncomfortable, but when they were left alone together, it was the professor who looked nervous. After a period of embarrassment, the young man said: “You asked me to stay behind, sir, did you not?” Pater pulled himself together: “Oh yes, Mr. Sanctuary. I…I wanted to say you…what a very beautiful name you have got.”