My Dead Poet’s Society: Walter Pater

1 Mar
Walter Pater

Walter Pater

T.S Eliot coined the phrase the dead poet’s society when he wanted to try and articulate the impact of the accumulated heritage of writers, artists and poets on the literary and poetic traditions of his day. In coining this phrase he was attempting to deal with how the past impacts on the present. How all our influences coalesce within us, and within the culture that surrounds us, and informs what we make shape and do. Reading about this  has inspired me to look back and see who and what has most influenced me. I’ve written a little sequence of blogs on each and this is one of them. A little taster of a man who not only had a magnificent moustache but who also influenced the whole tradition of aestheticism; and who was was very much appreciated by Oscar Wilde. On a personal level, Pater has influenced the way I try and approach everything in my life whether it be creative or otherwise.  

Walter Horatio Pater (1839-1894) was a Victorian aesthete and writer with a deep love of nature and art. He questioned the nature of life and art in relationship to the individual and not to morality or the morays of society. Art for beauty and for itself. Meaning was to be found in the moment of perception as it goes by. These precious moments must not be missed. Now I can totally see the problematics of this take on life. It dismisses context, promotes idealism. But there’s something there that hooks me to him every time nevertheless. I came to him as an undergraduate; and I think it was the way in which he described his ideal that did it for me. I pencilled in the quote below on the inside of one of my college exercise books and it is a quote that goes with me everywhere. It might not be 100% achievable but it will take you a long way:

‘Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us…Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life..How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in the purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame is to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’ (The Renaissance (1872)

Although Pater is all about movement and flux and being part of the ebb and flow of life, he also wants you to be right at the centre of that flow; right in the middle of it all. It’s not about being dead to things, or ignoring life, or being noncommittal. It’s about being there. Now, he wrote the  paragraph above in the conclusion of a book of essays about art (see The Renaissance) but I think, the aesthetic ideal outlined can be stretched beyond anything intellectual and used as guideline for life; or, at least that’s how I’ve used it. Pater for me is about grasping and seeing things and doing everything with your whole being. Or, at least, having that as your ideal. Nothing wrong with that, I think.

To Experience and to burn; to burn, to experience and to maintain that experience that became my goal as soon as I’d really absorbed Pater’s words, and I have always attempted to let that feed every creative project I’ve ever done.  Of course it’s impossible to maintain the ‘ecstasy’. You can’t always be up there and in there- but the notion, the notion of being here, in the now, experiencing what your experiencing vividly and with a whole heart is a brilliant one.  We can use it like a guiding light, to root and to move us towards what we can be. Even if we shoot off in different directions.

He also qualified and brought to my attention the essential charge energy can bring to your life. The joy of energy and all that it can expose. Energy can shape and shift and move you forward. It is, however, something you have to fan like a fire, and dedicate yourself to if the fuel tank is low. It’s energy that can feed creativity.  In a world where so much is being forced upon us in a controlling, prescriptive way to have Pater’s words slap bang in the middle of my consciousness is a way to keep optimism and openness to experience right in the centre of me. The flame can extinguish itself, but it always, always can be re-lit again. It maybe an ideal but it can take you a long, long way in real terms.

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