Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Hard Gemlike Flame

Homosexual Desire in the Life and Work of Walter Pater

Introduction by Winston Leyland

Walter Horatio Pater (1830–1894), English critic and essayist, celebrated for the fastidious delicacy of his style, was born in London. Educated at Queen's College, Oxford, he settled in Oxford and tutored private pupils. In 1864 he was elected to a fellowship at Brasenose College. Pater then began to write for the reviews, and his essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, and Michelangelo, with others of the same kind, were collected in 1873 in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (later called simply Studies in the Renaissance or just The Renaissance). The volume had a Conclusion which promulgated a sort of aesthetic gospel. The Conclusion reads (in part):

“The service of philosophy, of speculative culture towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it into sharp and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, – for that moment only. 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 may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus here the greatest numger of vital rorces unit in their purest energy?
          “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. . . . While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. . . .
          “Well, we are all condamne´s, as Victor Hugo says, we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve – less hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among 'the children of this world,' in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrows of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion – that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the hghest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.”

The publication of this volume made Pater the center of a small group in Oxford. He had relations with the Pre-Raphaelites, of whom he was to some extent the heir, and he began to insinuate something of their spirit into his academic world. by the time his book Marius the Epicurean appeared in 1885 Pater had a following of disciples. Marius is his most substantial work. It is a romance of ideas in which Pater's ideal of an aesthetic and religious life is elaborately set forth.

Pater's life was almost all spent in Oxford, and he died there in 1894. He wrote with difficulty, correcting and recorrecting with infinite care. There is a reserve and reticence about his writing, maintained also in his personal life. The primary influence on his mind was his classical study, colored by a highly individual kind of Christianity, pursued largely as a source of refined artistic sensations. Oscar Wilde, George Moore, and the aesthetes of the 1890s were among his followers.
                                                                — Winston Leland

Photograph of Walter Pater

Homosexual Desire in the Life and Work of Walter Pater

In a remarkable anecdote, Frank Harris records that during a visit to see Walter Pater at Brasenose College, Oxford, Pater “seemed at times half to realize his own deficiency: 'Had I so-and-so's courage and hardihood,' he cried once, 'I'd have —.' Suddenly the mood changed, the light in his eyes died out, the head dropped forward again, and with a half-smile he added, 'I might have been a criminal – heh, heh,' and he moved with little careful steps acros the room to his chair, and sat down.”

Could Walter Pater – one of the most influential art critics in English history – have been a criminal? His more conventional contemporaries regarded his aesthetic vision as the product of an immoral imagination, and in this respect he was certainly a criminal in the field of art. One wonders about his life as well, though, of course, like Jean Genet, Pater would have been a saintly criminal, an archetypal high priest – dressed in robes of saffron, with purple grapes pressing against his pale temples – officiating at a sacred ritual of, say, castration. He would no doubt have admired the delicate crescent blade wielded by the transgender priests of Cybele, the Phrygian goddess of frenzy and voluptuous langour. An orgiastic dream may well lie beneath the hard surface of Pater's gemline flame.

If we look at Pater outside the context of the schoolbooks – look at him squarely in the eyes as a man, a poet, an aesthete, a treasurer of things foreign to English soil, rather than as the “father” of a school of thought – we cannot, in all honesty, be quite certain that his sensibility would have blanched at perusing the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. And we must bear in mind that in one of his Greek Studies, Pater appreciates, however coyly, not only the Divine Marquis, but also Gilles de Rais, that notorious ravisher of boys.

It is, in fact, quite probable that Walter Pater was in reality a criminal in Victorian England: i.e., a practicing homosexual.

Mark Pattison, in his diary for May 5, 1878, records that he went “to Pater's to tea, where [I saw] Oscar Browning, who was more like Socrates than ever. He conversed in one corner with 4 feminine looking youths 'paw-dandling' there in one fivesome, while the Miss Paters & I sat looking on in another corner – Presently Walter Pater, who, I had been told, was 'upstairs' appeared, attended by 2 more youths of similar appearances.” Query: Was the threesome upstairs also “paw-dandling”?

Surely we know what the fivesome in the corner was contemplating, for Oscar Browning three years earlier had been dismissed from his mastership at Eton under grave suspicions of pederasty. Concerning this dismissal, Pater had written to Browning in October 1875, that he was “very glad to hear, not for your own sake only, but on public grounds, that you had decided not to leave Eton without a struggle.” Struggle he did, but dismissed he was nevertheless – only to become a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. The visit that Pattison described had occurred in the tenth year of the close friendship between Pater and Browning – to whom Pater had been introduced in 1868 by John Burnell Payne. It was Payne, a close friend of the homosexual artist Simeon Solomon, who drew some fine charcoal portraits of both Pater and Solomon.

Walter Pater is not known to have had more than a passing acquaintance with any women except for his sisters Hester and Clara (with whom he lived all his life) and Violet Paget, lesbian poetess (alias “Vernon Lee”). Most of Pater's friends were young and handsome men and boys, many of whom, like himself, died bachelors, and many of whom were practicing homosexuals. The closest friend of his adolescence was J. R. McQueen. Unfortunately, we know little about the specific nature of their friendship other than the fact that it was “very close,” for the numerous letters that Walter wrote to Mark from 1858 to 1862 were suppressed by the Misses Paters when Thomas Wright was preparing the first biography in 1907. Wright was allowed to examine some of the letters, but was forbidden to quote directly or to paraphrase too closely their contents. But the half-words that remain in his biography suggest an intimacy that it would have been impolite to have delved into in 1907. The letters have since been destroyed.

The closest friend of Pater's adult life was Charles Lancelot Shadwell (born in 1840, one year before Pater), who became Pater's private pupil at Christ Church College in 1863. In 1874 Pater published Diaphaneite, which was modeled upon Shadwell's rare spirit, a portrait of an ethereal youth. In the summer of 1865, Pater and Shadwell, master and pupil, together toured Italy – Ravenna, Pisa, Florence – without the company of Clara and Hester. Shadwell spent nearly his entire life studiously engaged in painstaking research into the history of Christ College, Oxford, of which he was a fellow and later became Provost. He is the “C.L.S.” to whom Pater dedicated his Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873. Shadwell died in 1919, a bachelor.

Rupert Croft-Cooke, in his book Feasting with Panthers, tells of two close male friendships which Pater had in the later part of his life:

“In 1877, when Pater was a year or two short of forty, that dangerous age at which Wilde met Alfred Douglas, Pater met a man twelve years younger than he named Richard Jackson. Jackson believed himself a poet; he was also rich. He became devoted to Pater in a sentimental if not a passionate way and this devotion lasted for many years. Wright [Pater's early biographer] believed that he was the original of Marius and in old age Jackson seemed to have claimed this quite seriously. If it is true it is shocking to know what the writings of Mariuis would have been like, for this is a quatrain which Jackson wrote at Pater's request as a song for his birthday –
          Your darling soul I say is inflamed with love for me;
          Your very eyes do move I cry with sympathy:
          Your darling feet and hands are blessings ruled by love,
          As forth was sent from out the Ark a turtle dove.

'I am glad to write about you,' he added, 'for owing to you my life has been enriched, its minstrelsy swelled . . .'
          “Jackson introduced his young friends to Pater . . . [One of these] was Walter Blackburn Harte whom Pater first saw as an acolyte wearing a scarlet cassock in the chapel of St. Austin's. He seems to have been irresistible to all who met him, having literary ambitions and a cockney sense of humour. Pater said he had 'a darling personality' and asked him down to Oxford, but most of Harte's time was spent at Jackson's Camberwell home, for he found Pater's dull dreary rooms at Oxford 'a great disappointment. . . .' A portrait shows a beautiful youth with curling lips, deep expressive eyes and a fine profile.”

Harte later emigrated to America and became in the 1890s a successful journalist.

Another important figure in Pater's life was Charles Algernon Swinburne, with whom Pater became friendly in 1858. Swinburne is notorious for his desires to be whipped by prostitutes, but his biographers insist he hired only female prostitutes for such purposes. On one occasion, however, Swinburne asked Simeon Solomon to draw for him a set of pictures showing schoolmasters flogging boys. [When I investigated this in 1974, they were unpublished and locked up in the British Museum; the Trustees of the Museum would allow only Solomon's descendants to view them – but since Solomon doesn't have any descendants, one supposes they would be locked up forever.] At least two poems in Swinburne's Whippingham Papers lovingly describe the flogging of boys, “Arthur's Floggings” and “A Boy's First Flogging”. Pater, Swinburne, and Solomon were members of the Old Mortality Club, a society for budding literarti and a haven for homosexuals.

In 1861 Swinburne became acquainted with Lord Houghton, whose own collected poems contain passages not entirely heteroerotic. Swinburne borrowed from this gentleman's extensive library of erotica the complete works of the Marquis de Sade. Simeon Solomon, who at the time was residing as a guest at Fryston, Lord Houghton's country house in Yorkshire, was there introduced by Swinburne to Oscar Browning. Simeon and Oscar struck up a match, and together toured Italy in the summers of 1867, 1868, and 1869 – without the company of Swinburne.

Love Talking to Boys by Simeon Solomon

In the early 1860s Solomon had been friends with the homosexual artist Edward Poynter, and had specially designed for him a series of homoerotic allegorical drawings. One of the better ones is a pen and ink drawing of “Love Talking to Boys,” dated 1865, showing several lovely lads embracing while Eros (rather disconcertingly portrayed as Cupid in an Edwardian silk waiscoat with wings) encourages them. Most of the drawings have been lost – or locked up.

Portrait of Walter Pater by Simeon Solomon In 1865, the date of “Love Talking to Boys,” Swinburne went up to Oxford and introduced his friend Pater to his friend Solomon. Solomon then and there drew a very good portrait of Pater, gave it to him, and decided to stay the night, and the next night, and the next. For the next several years he would return frequently to share Pater's rooms “upstairs” at Brasenose, and then at London. As a measure of what solomon's company may have been like: in 1866 he and Swinburne visited Dante Gabriel Rosetti in Cheyne Walk, and for a time disturbed Rosetti's work by chasing each other naked up and down the staircase.

Simeon Solomon (1841–1905) is often regarded as the central tragic hero-victim of the Age of Decadence. At the age of eighteen he had already exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy. This, however, was the neight of his career, and his fall was slow and painful. In a letter dated August 20, 1917, Edmund Gosse (who incidentally was a repressed if not practicing homosexual; he contributed the essay on Pater for the Dictionary of National Biography as well as the biography of the homosexual Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield) reminisced to Robert Ross (one-time lover of Oscar Wilde) that Solomon “sometime during 1870” was threatened with legal proceedings for certain unspecified sexual activities, and that he had been forced to fly to Italy. Gosse's recollection is probably a bit faulty, for this likely refers to Solomon and Browning's hurried departure for Italy in 1869. In 1870 there was another scandal, and William Cory, Oscar Browning's former master, was forced to resign from Eton – for the same reasons as his pupil.

In 1873 Solomon was arrested for “indecently molesting” a man named Roberts in a public urinal north of Oxford Street. He was sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment in Clerkenwell House of Correction, but the sentence was suspended and he was placed under the supervision of the police. In a letter dated June 6, 1873, Swinburne wrote to the Welsh squire George Powell that “I saw and spoke with a great friend of Simeon, Pater of Brasenose. Do you – I do not – know any detail of the matter at first hand? Pater, I imagine, did.” In Gosse's recollection to Ross, Swinburne had dashed off to Oxford “to discuss Solomon with his [i.e. Solomon's] friend Walter Pater.” We don't quite know what the discussions were, but in any event Pater was certainly informed of the facts (if he didn't know them before), and he nevertheless remained friends with Solomon for several more years, even welcoming him “upstairs.” There is no hint in his correspondence or elsewhere that he was startled by Solmon's behavior. There is only a discreet silence.

Self-portrait by Simeon Solomon

Over the period of the next twenty-five years, Solomon got into more trouble because of sexual escapades, was imprisoned, and was incarcerated in an insane asylum by his concerned relatives. They relented and tried to arrange for him to escape, but he knew the doors had been unlocked for this purpose. So he went and locked them rather than play their game. He wasn't insane, and upon his official release he became a professional vagabond and hack artist. He sold Swinburne's erotic correspondence with him in order to make money. Every so often he returned home to get a new set of clothing, which he promptly sold and returned to his rags. For most of the remainder of his life he literally lived in the gutter, became a drunken pavment artist in Brompton Road and Bayswater, and sold matches and shoe laces in Mile End Road.

Pater's masterwork, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, was published in March 1873, several months after the scandal of Solomon's arrest. A number of people quietly murmured that there was an affinity between the hedonism advocated by Pater in his “Conclusion” to the study, and the pleasure-seeking of his “degenerate friend.” Pater was seriously distressed by the imputation that the “Conclusion” would subvert the moral fibre of the young men who read it, and he responded by suppressing it in the 1877 edition, and in the 1888 edition he stated that the “Conclusion” was omitted because “it might possibly mislead some of those into whose hands it might fall.” Privately, he told a friend in 1890 that he had suppressed this essay because “there were things in it, which some people, pious souls! thought profane, yes! profane!”

Mark André Raffalovich records that the art critic Sidney Colvin warned Raffalovich “to avoid making the acquaintance of men such as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds.” Symonds was generally recognized by his contemporaries as a homosexual – and this warning implies that Pater was similarly recognized. Raffalovich, himself homosexual (his lover, poet John Gray, is said to have been the original model for Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray), ignored Colvin's advice and became friends not only with Symonds and Pater, but with Oscar Wilde and Simeon Solomon as well.

Pater may well have been regarded by his contemporaries as a dangerous influence upon young men in the same way that Socrates was so regarded. In W. H. Mallock's The New Republic (1877) Pater is satirized as “Mr. Rose,” who plays a role similar to that of the pederastic Pausanius in Plato's Symposium. The most damaging part of Mallock's satire was not his portrayal of Pater/Rose as a languid espouser of Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism, but his portrayal of Pater/Rose as a passionate apologist for boy-love. Mr. Rose delivers a eulogy, for example, upon “life as a chamber, which we decorate as we would decorate the chamber of the woman or the youth [emphasis mine] that we love, tinting the walls of it in symphoies of subdued colour.” Mr. Rose refers in passing to “the boyhood of Bathyllus” (the boyfriend of Anacreon), to “Narcissus, that soft boy,” to “lean Aquinas in his cell,” and to “a boy of eighteen whose education I may myself claim to have had some share in direccting.” Indeed. Mr. Rose rises to sublime eloquence when it comes to a defense of “passionate friendship” in a passage quoted almost verbatim from Pater's own essay on the friendships of the homosexual art critic Winckelmann: “Think of the immortal dramas which history sets before us; of the keener and profounder passions which it reveals to us, of nobler mould than ours – Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, our English Edward [sc. King Edward II] and the fair Piers Gaveston, or, above all, those two [i.e. Socrates and Phaedrus, in Plato's Phaedrus] by the agnus castus and the plane-tree where Ilyssus flowed.”

All these pairs of men and youths are mentioned in Pater's own essays, and Mallock correctly recognized them as homosexual pairs. Mallock's work was one of the most popular books of the day, and part of its popularity lay in people's recognition therein of the pederastic Mr. Pater. It seems more than likely that at least a hint of this suspicion lay behind a general ill-will towards Pater. His “decent” contemporaries simply refused to grant him his just rewards. In 1874, the year following Solomon's arrest, Pater was passed over for the Junior Proctorship, a post which should normally have been his by right of seniority. In 1876 he was forced to withdraw his candidacy for Professorship of Poetry, because of the “immorality” of Studies in the History of the Renaissance and for other reasons still unclear. In 1877 he was satirized by Mallock and almost physically shrank away in pain and hurt. In 1885 he was defeated in his candidacy for Professorship of Fine Arts, even though he was by now regarded by many as the foremost critic of fine art in his time. In fact, Pater met everywhere with a series of rebuffs and frustrations to such an extent that in the late 1870s he had noticeably developed, in the view of Laurence Evans, editor of his letters, “a guarded, evasive manner, a style or strategy of polite accommodation, a strategy of studied blandness.”

Pater's blandness is really the perfectly composed lassitude of a fallen maenad. Nearly all of his criticism and fiction moves with the ritual frenzy of a Dionysian ceremony at whose center is the death of a beautiful boy. It is a theme with a “dark message” that doesn't quite fit into the Gay Liberation (or even humanistic) scheme of things; but it nevertheless happens to be the central image of what might almost be called the homosexual aesthetics. The theme is found not only in Pater's Marius the Epicurean, and in ancient literature such as the Greek Anthology, but in a great deal of modern homosexual literature as well, with variations: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Tennessee Williams' Desire and the Black Masseur and Suddenly Last Summer, James Baldwin's Another Country and Giovanni's Room, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Jean Genet's Funeral Rites, even Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Sunny Him), and Yukio Michima's Forbidden Colors – in which there is a passage referring explicitly to Walter Pater – not to mention a host of homosexual poems on the dying Adonis or Narcissus or St. Sebastian in 1970s gay periodicals such as Manroot and Gay Sunshine.

In A Study of Dionysus, published posthumously and edited by Shadwell, Walter Pater leads us by careful insinuation and subtle seduction, from the sunny groves of Arcady to a dark glade in Thessaly where we may feast upon a fair youth. The raison d'être for this study is to apprehend the fullest possible meaning of a primordial fact, “That the sacred women of Dionysus [the maenads] ate, in mystical ceremony, raw flesh and drank blood, to commemorate the actual sacrifice of a fair boy deliberately torn to pieces.” Pater repeatedly glances at the edges of this rite that he dare not name too directly. He refers, for example, to “the decliate, fresh, farm-lad we may still actually see sometimes, like a graceful field-flower among the corn,” without quite acknowledging that Triptolemus, to whom this farm-lad is compared, was a corn-spirit of homosexual cannibalistic rites made more explicit much later in the Centipede Rites in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Pater refers to Neptune devouring the ivory-white shoulder of his boyfriend Pelops. He lusciously hints at “the dark and shameful secret society described by Livy, in which Dionysus' worship ended at Rome, afterwards abolished by solemn act of the Senate” – without explicity mentioning that this was a homosexual secret society. Nowhere does Pater actually come out and tell us that his favorite deity Dionysus, whom he acknowledges was “somewhat womanly” and appeals to “feminine souls,” was (and is) the most homosexual of all the gods.

Dionysus and Satyr. Roman Copy, 120-140 CE

Pater's praise of “virile youth” and “passionate friendship” in his studies of The Golden Youth of Lacedaemon, The Age of Athletic Prizemen, and Winckelmann is a bit guarded, but nevertheless clearly homosexual. And the content of two short stories is almost explicitly homosexual – “Denys L'Aurroix,” in which a Dionysus figure is literally torn to pieces, and “Apollo in Picardy,” in which a boy is accidentally killed by his lover just as Apollo killed Narcissus. These two stories are, in fact, quite bold when we realize that Genet and Burroughs had not yet taken up the theme.

We would never dare call Walter Pater a humorist, but whenever he approaches the sensuousness of beautiful boyhood with less indirection that usual, we can clearly see him camping it up, as in this description of an engraving of satyr-lads by Roberta: “Their puck noses have grown delicate, so that, with Plato's infatuated lover, you may call them winsome, if you please; and no one would wish those hairy little shanks away.” It is not insignificant that Plato's “infatuated lover,” as Pater very well knew from frequent perusal of his favorite work the Phaedruis, was not a spiritual paiderast, but a pederast pure and simple. And from a perusal of John Payne Knight's Worship of the Generative Powers Pater equally knew that the thyrsus symbolized an erect penis and the pine cone atop it symbolized the glans penis. So he coyly warns us that “our fingers must beware of the thyrsus, tossed about so wantonly by Dionysus and his chorus, and that button of a pine-cone.” Walter Pater, in his own way, created the camp style as much as did Oscar Wilde in the Importance of Being Earnest. We need to keep this in mind as we read him, to note that there is usually a sub-narrative of homoerotic reference based upon assumptions not shared by the “decent” heterosexual reader. Pater, of course, is quite serious in his art, but he's never solemn, and the word unsaid keeps echoing between the lines.

Pater's studied blandness, his seemingly ethereal rather than earthly demenor, has put his biographers off their guard, and they quite unreasonably assume that Pater was therefore chaste, cloistered, cold, and nearly a loner. But, in fact, a peripheral biography of Pater could be expanded with quite warm-blooded speculations concerning his close friendships with Arthur William Symons, bisexual poet and critical theorist of decadence; with Francis Fortescue Urquhart, strikingly handsome bachelor don nicknamed “Sligger” because of his sleek good looks, model for Pater's short story “Emerald Uthwart,” and a man who was so thoroughly a faithful friend to many young men that he should have been homosexual; with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Pater's private pupils, author of a number of fine ballads on boys bathing; with Thomas Humphrey Ward, whom he tutored in Plato for a month in 1867 in Sidmouth in a secluded cottage near the sea; with A. J. Butler, tutor to the son of the Khedive of Egypt and author of a translation of the homoerotic Greek Anthology that Pater recommended to Gosse because the latter “delights also in Greek things”; and others, including his long friendship with Oscar Wilde from 1877 to at least the early 1890s after Wilde's conviction of “gross indecency.” All the circumstantial evidence points to only one conclusion: that Walter Pater was a practicing homosexual, though after the scandal of 1873 he began to carefully guard his emotions. He may have even begun to recoil from himself because of the realization that such love can be crudely celebrated in public urinals as well as at symposums of British schoolmaters and their pupils.

The Walter Pater with whom most students are now familiar is the post-1873 Pater with bushy sideburns (a mask he grew to conceal his face), whose life, in the words of Mario Praz, “flowed monotonously in his neat and severe rooms at Brasenose College and then in London, with social contact disciplined by his flawless sense of ritual.” But what a cold view this is of the same rooms as visited by Swinburne in the late 1860s and early 1870s, as described by Edmund Gosse: “The poet [Swinburne] was a not infrequent visitor in this years to Pater's college rooms. To all young Oxvord, then, the name of Mr. Swinburne was an enchantment, and there used to be envious traditions of an upper window in Brasenose Lane thrown open to the summer night, and welling forth from it, a music of verse, which first outsang and then silenced the nightingales, protracting its harmonies until it disconcerted the lark himself at sunrise.” Praz's less romantic view is no doubt partically accurate (though Praz evidences the Italian distaste for British tidiness), but surely Pater's rooms could not have been so neat and so severe when he was visited by Oscar Browning and six lovely lads, or when he shared rooms with Simeon Solomon – even if Solomon and Pater did not chase each other naked up and down the stairs, to the disconcertment of Hester and Clara.

S├ębastien Norblin, Cyparissus, 1825

A Discursive Inquiry into the Nature of Homosexual Aesthetics

As evidence that Pater's aesthetics is homosexual, I have taken the rather extreme position that the death of a beautiful boy is “the highest work of art” from a male homosexual point of view – just as the death of a beautiful woman is the highest work of art from Edgar Allen Poe's heterosexual point of view. Poe's attitude is not so strange when one considers the bulk of heteroerotic imagery linking heterosexual love, death and rape, as in all the “rapier” puns in Restoration drama. We might, however, take the more commonsense view of what constitutes a “male homosexual aesthetics,” which is probably that such an aesthetics proceeds from a male aesthete's assumption that young men embody the norm of beauty even before death. In these terms Pater's aesthetic remains quite homosexual. In the “Age of Athletic Prizemen” he puts forth a not-quite-spoken syllogism, somewhat as follows: (A) an artist always works “within the limits of the visible, the empirical world”; (B) young men in gymnastic exercise achieve “essential mastery” over, and “a full and free realisation” of, this natural world; (C) ergo, the young male figure represents the norm of artistic achievement, and the rendering of this figure is the basic activity of true art. Pater is talking about athletic prizemen such as the youths celebrated in Pindar's equally homosexual Odes, not about young maidens who might be equally gymnastic and hence artistic. These “virginal yet virile youths” who embody a “boy's potential for manhood” illustrate one of Pater's most important aesthetic concepts: ascesis, the girding of the male loins. Ascesis is a metaphysical-aesthetic concept of a Hegelian union of the opposites of motion and stasis, or, in less paradoxical terms, the potentiality illustrated by the point of balance between the two conflicting flows of energy towards Dionysian languor and Apollonian aspiration. In the artwork inspired by youthful gymnasia we repeatedly confront this “combination of motion and rest”: the Diadumenus, for example, illustrates the athlete in repose, whle containing the suggestion that at any moment he can spring forth into motion once again. Similarly the Discobulus portrays the athlete in a perfectly suspended moment of forward and backward motion just before he throws the discus. Pater's essay began with a discussion of the athletic (and homosexual) friendship of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and now the Discobulus reminds Pater of the friendships of Perseus and Acrisius, and of Apollo and Hyacinthus, also substantively homosexual. In “Apollo in Picardy” the character Apollyon at one point strips himself naked and poses in the moonlight as the Discobulus just before he “accidentally” kills his friend Hyacinth. So life, as Wilde said, becomes art.

Apollo and Hyacinthus, Andrea Appiani (1754-1817)

In Pater's study of “The Golden Youth of Lacedaemon” in Plato and Platonism, a perusal of young handsome Greek slaves, of young soldiers, of the young aristocracy, and of “the Gymnopaedia [Festival of Naked Boys] where Spartan youth danced in honour of Apollo,” leads Pater to a succinct definition of beauty is “the expression of reserved power” which supposedly is the visible form of the ethical ideal of Spartan education. Again, the essay on Wincklemann in The Renaissance – which is largely devoted to an appreciation of Wincklemann's friendships with young men (without mentioning the well-known fact that Wincklemann was homosexual and that he was murdered by a piece of rough trade), Pater notes with approval that “Greek sculpture deals almost exclusively with youth, where the moulding of the bodily organs is still as if suspended between growth and completion, indicated but not emphasized; where the transition from curve to curve is so delicate and elusive, that Winckelmann compares it to a quiet sea, which, although we understand it to be in motion, we nevertheless regard as an image of repose; where, therefore, the exact degree of development is so hard to apprehend.” I suspect that heterosexual male critics and artists who share Pater's aesthetic ideal as this metaphysics of “severity tempered by grace” will continue to protect themselves from its full implications by refusing to recognize that the word “youth” for Pater is always a synonym for “adolescent boys.” And usually they will not go so far as Pater, who admiringly quotes from a letter by Winckelmann maintaining that “supreme beauty is rather male than female.” To follow the syllogism to its logical conclusion would be to give credence to Jean Genet's homoerotic aesthetic ideal: a hustler powdered with mimosa.

Pater's work beautifully captures the two primary motifs of the male homosexual imagination: (A) the aesthetically-static (monistic) image of the beautiful boy, whether he be caught in suspended motion on the playing field, or dying, as Adonis or Hyacinthus, upon an altar-like mound of grass near a pool; and (B) the aesthetically-dynamic (dialectic) complex of a pair of friends/lovers or enemies/wrestlers, the mythological topos of Hercules and Hylas, Harmondius and Aristogeiton, Castor and Pollux, Apollo and Marsyas/Dionysus, and so on. Such pairs are found in abundance throughout Pater's works, and it is well to remember that most gymnastic games were celebrated in honor of Hercules the Wrestler. Pater appreciates the love-story of Amis et Amile as an early foreshadowing of the Renaissance spirit. It's a story of a man and his friend who dies – as is the central story of Marius the Epicurian – as are the stories of “Apollo in Picardy” and “Denys L'Auxerrois” and others. This duality is simply a clearer depiction of the “motion in reserve” aesthetic: one of the young men is usually an Apollonian type, tending towards ascesis and intellectual energia, while the other is usually a Dionysian type, tending towards emotional torpor or languor (e.g. of a fallen Maenad).

Nicolas-Rene Jollain, The Death of Hyacinth, 1769

Pater's aesthetic method develops around the poles of this duality. The “hard, gemlike flame” is the one side of this coin of the Dioscuri, while “flux” is the other: both in conjunction make up Pater's ideal mandala – a concentrated Apollonian center, and a diffuse Dionysian circumference – whose accompanying “impressions” are respectively static “awe” and frantic “frenzy,” or, in other words, a dead boy-god being devoired by maenads. It is difficult to conceive of a proper use of Pater's critical vocabulary within a heterosexual (i.e. male–female) context instead of a homoerotic or situationally homosexual (i.e. male–male) context. Among his favorite terms, “strength” is a masculine concept; “sweetness” is a faminine concept, admittedly, but it nearly always occurs in the phrase “strength and sweetness,” which gives the impression of a softened strength and male adolescence; “ascesis” is used in the sense of “girding the boy's loins”; the “virtue” of a work of art, meaning its essential idea or quality, etymologically means “that which is most essential about a man” (vir); “virtue” also refers to “the Golden mean” of the male deity Apollo and his male worshippers; “motion in reserve” is the aesthetic ideal illustrated by male athletes; even “charm” is a quality possessed by young satyrs rather than nymphs; “love” indeed is spoken of in terms of “friendship”, never in terms of heterosexual marriage or courtship; an aesthetic “impression” is an enthusiasm transmitted by art to a male critic in the same way that beauty is perceived by “Plato's infatuated lover”; “flux” might be regarded as a fairly neutral critical term, or even slightly more feminine than masculine, but it derives from the fact of Ampelos, Dionysus' boyfriend, being metamorphosed into the flow of wine in the vine; “energia,” like “ascesis,” is a masculine term; “grace” everywhere appears to be a quality possessed by the perfectcly composed lassitude of a man's hand and wrist; “enthusiasm” is a term derived from the giving-up of oneself to the transporting dreams of the frankly androgynous god Dionysus; the “vitality” of a work of art seems to be synonymous with its virility; “purity” seems to be synonymous with boyish rathuer than girlish virignity; “spiritual form,” borrowed by William Blake, is Pater's most asexual critical term, but even this seems to derive from a boy's potential for manhood; terms like “growth” and “generation” and “germination” are used by Pater to suggest not birth and female fecundation, but the educating of boys and their maturing into manhood. When Pater uses the words “profoundly amorous” or “wanton,” he is speaking not of Venus, but of Dionysus. The women who are aesthetically appreciated by Pater are neither maidens nor nymphs, but (A) vampires, such as the Mona Lisa, who has “the mouth of the eternal vampire”; (B) maenads, whose occuipation is the devouring of boys; and (c) the awe-inspiring Virgin as in the Pieta, who personifies grief for a dead god.

To summarize: (A) an investigation into Pater's biography tends to increasingly suggest homosexual possibilities rather than heterosexual ones; (B) on nearly every page of his critical writings we can discern, with a minimum of research, a veiled allusion to homosexual phenomena; (C) in virtually all of his writings a male homosexual reader will sense a kindred spirit, because of the presence of beautiful boys and suchlike; and (D) the metaphysical critical concepts that are employed seem to be more homosexual than heterosexual. Pater's aesthetic ideology is forever moving towards the homosexual ambiguity of “a beautiful strangeness.”

Copyright © 2017, 1993, 1974 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

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