Controversial Aspects of Pater’s “Style”

Controversial Aspects of Pater’s “Style”

Coates, John

In his late essay “Style” (1888), reprinted a year later in Appreciations, Walter Pater set out to explore the possibilities of prose as the special art of the modern world and to justify his own literary practice. Considering how rarely he theorized about the art of writing, “Style” ought to be important. Oddly, it has disappointed several critics. One notes that, after displaying his hauteur in an “absurd attack on Dryden” (Donoghue 222), Pater launches into a “desultory” discussion that “does not clarify its themes” (224). In addition to the intellectual confusion this writer detects, another commentator blames Pater for timidity. He is “being defensive in this rather convoluted essay,” attempting to guard himself against “hovering charges of corrupting aestheticism or amorality” (Ward 73-74).

Critics have sought explanations for the perceived weakness of “Style” in Pater’s relationship to his two current literary mentors, Flaubert and Newman. Pater reviewed the first volume of Flaubert’s Correspondence for the Pall Mall Gazette (August 25, 1888), and “Style” appeared in the Fortnightly Review (December 1, 1888). A quotation from Flaubert’s letter to “Madame X” (Louise Colet) appears towards the end of Pater’s essay. It seems reasonable, then, to assume that Pater expanded a review of Flaubert’s Correspondence into the essay “Style,” “often considered a crystallizing and rationalizing of his theories and habits as a writer” (Monsman 148). Yet, it has been suggested, Pater’s grasp of Flaubert was inadequate. He failed to see that, although he and the French writer were both seeking le mot juste, their aims were completely different. Pater wished to objectify an inner vision. Flaubert (it is alleged) “sought a passionless reproduction of facts” (Iser 48).

David de Laura has shown the degree to which Newman’s “Literature” influenced Pater’s views in “Style” (334). Newman supposedly provided Pater with a warrant for his emphasis on style as an expression of “soul,” an inner individual essence of the writer’s personality. Newman’s influence maybe at work, too, in Pater’s demand for ascesis, the constant self-denial involved in the writer’s craft. Some critics, however, seem as irritated by Pater’s putative relationship to Newman as others are by his supposed borrowings from Flaubert. For instance, Denis Donoghue remarks disdainfully of the religious concept of style he thinks Pater assumed from Newman: Pater takes “upon himself the curse of labor and sweat. It is edifying I suppose” (229). Apparently several critics do not feel that connections made between “Style” and the work of Flaubert or Newman serve to explain Pater’s essay or to rescue it from charges of incoherency.

There is a neglected aspect of the context of “Style,” however, that may clarify Pater’s aims. As in other of his writings, a submerged controversial intention is the clue to the development of Pater’s argument. Polite and circumspect in his tone, oblique though at times ironic in the manner in which he sapped beliefs he opposed, Pater nevertheless was quietly inexorable. His method of dealing with Arnold’s and Renan’s idealized versions of Spinoza and of Marcus Aurelius, with the Goncourts’ sentimental account of Watteau, or with the “impersonal” art of Prosper Merimée suggests a vigilant awareness of the weak points of attitudes or beliefs he rejected. These and other examples provide evidence that Pater did not ignore material he felt deserved criticism and that he possessed a variety of techniques to make his comments effective.

Given his habitually gentle and guarded approach, we should not be misled by Pater’s reference in a footnote in “Style” to George Saintsbury’s Specimens of English Prose from Malory to Macaulay. The comment seems to be highly complimentary, though with a hint that Saintsbury’s approach is one particular to himself, with which, perhaps, not everyone will agree. Saintsbury, Pater remarks, “has succeeded in tracing, through successive English prose-writers, the tradition of that severer beauty in them, of which this admirable scholar of our literature is known to be a lover” ( Works 5:12,). This is not an example of caressing where one means to strike. Rather it is the deliberate removal of any suspicion of personal hostility from what is nonetheless to be a thorough critique. Clearly, Pater disciplined himself to erase any trace of ill-temper or unpleasantness from his speech and writing. As one acquaintance remarked, Pater cultivated “a wise, grave passiveness, a gentle susceptibility, a kind of soft impressionability . . . I never remember a single unkind criticism or remark” (Benson 175). An indulgence in the combative manner nineteenth-century reviewers often adopted (under the influence of Macaulay, among others) would have shattered a state of mind needed to cultivate moments of aesthetic delight, like the one Marius experienced in the sunlit garden (Works 3:68-73) or those Pater himself recommended to his readers in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance. He had “no sort of desire to label with contemptuous names those who must have appeared to him deaf and blind to the subtle and beautiful effects that made the substance of his own life” (Benson 182-83). It is clear, however, that his aversion to direct contradiction or argument did not imply that Pater was willing to surrender his convictions or that he would not seek to defend and propagate them. As his other controversial writings suggest, such a defense would be oblique.

It is easy to see what Pater must have found objectionable in Saintsbury’s Specimens of English Prose Style from Malory to Macaulay. The premise of Saintsbury’s introduction is that English verse and prose have diverged since the national literature “took a durable form in the sixteenth century.” “Whatever may be its merits and defects” English prose style has been “different by the extent of the whole heaven of language from English verse style.” Even when undertaken by writers who have included “some of genius,” attempts to “make prose like verse” have been “radically mistaken.” In fact, prose and verse diverge more markedly in English than they do in other languages. Hugo’s and “to a lesser extent” Goethe’s prose and verse are “remarkably similar in all but the most arbitrary differences” (xv). By contrast, Shelley’s and Coleridge’s poetry and prose “are radically different in all points of their style and verbal power” (xvi).

Saintsbury’s brief sketch of the development of English prose has the qualities of a good university lecture. It is lucid, energetic, and easy to follow, providing a broad outline of the subject, a map the student can retain. Saintbury’s preface offers a plausible sketch of the historical development of English prose and tells a clear story that has explanatory power. Readers need have no doubt what makes good prose and should be well-informed about the processes that brought it to fruition.

This opening essay suggests how Saintsbury succeeded in transforming himself from a journalist “in middle age into the most venerable of professors” and why “for generations of students he was the supreme exponent of Eng. Lit.” (Gross 156). His persona is sensible and genial, his range of information wide and well-deployed. A deliberate disavowal of any attempt to “lay down didactically the principles” (Saintsbury xviii) of prose writing provides him with an excellent basis to do exactly that. He is quite open about his credentials. In the ten years since John Morley asked him to undertake the study of modern prose in The Fortnightly Review, he has “reviewed many hundreds of new books, and . . . read again, or for the first time, many hundreds of old ones.” The public can obviously have confidence in his pronouncements. Since Saintsbury’s immense reading of old and new prose has not changed his opinions (“I do not know that the two processes have altered my views much” [xvii]), ordinary readers may feel that their impulses to breezily dismiss experimental or unfamiliar kinds of writing are fully endorsed.

For Saintsbury, the difference between prose and verse determines the quality of prose writing. The experiments of the later nineteenth century blur this fundamental distinction: “In our day prose style has become somewhat disarranged.” Those who “have any pretence to style at all,” however, understand that the merits of prose stem from a recognition of the utterly separate aims of the prose writer and the poet. Saintsbury concedes that during the ten years he has been studying the subject “considerable attention has undoubtedly been given by English writers to style.” In his view, this effort has not led to any “distinct improvement in the quality of the product.” The faults he detects in contemporary prose may be summed up under the two headings of the “Aniline style” and “the style of Marivaudage.” Like a synthetic dye, the first deals in “a gorgeous and glaring vocabulary.” The second, resembling the delicate verbiage hostile critics attributed to Marivaux, offers “unexpected turns and twists of thought or phrase . . . long-winded description of incident and . . . finical analysis of motive” (xvii).

The fragile and arbitrary nature of these criticisms seems obvious. What Saintsbury describes in pejorative terms might easily be characterized in other ways. To a sympathetic eye, gorgeous and glaring phraseology might seem opulent and stimulating. The “finical analysis of motive” could appear as psychological analysis pursued in unusual and rewarding detail. “Unexpected turns and twists of thought” might well enliven prose.

Saintsbury strongly dislikes “unexpectedness” in itself and chooses some interesting examples of this defect:

When we hear that a bar of music has “veracity,” that there is a finely-executed “passage” in a marble chimney-piece, that someone is “part of the conscience of a nation,” that the “andante” of a sonnet is specially noteworthy, the quest for the unexpected has become sufficiently evident, (xvii-xviii)

Saintsbury clearly objects to the transference of terms from one field or art into the discussion of another. Yet, obviously, such transference might quicken interest and offer other ways of thinking about a subject. The fact the expressions Saintsbury condemns as incorrect (someone as “the conscience of a nation,” for example) would now pass without notice suggests a process of experiment in language he does not envisage. For him, the faults of “English aestheticism” are affectations “perfectly well-known to critics and admired by the uncritical in the days of Hilpa and Shalum.” The experiments of Aestheticism are not risks worth taking in the interests of new perception but perennially recurring errors of taste (“We shall find other things remarkably like them in the history of the past”). For Saintsbury, “there is nothing new in art except its beauties” (xviii), but he does not suggest how, without experiment, writers are likely to achieve them.

The preface to Specimens of English Prose Style gives a confident account of the history of English prose. For all its great successes, sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century writing had been flawed and uneven. The Elizabethan pamphleteers, such as Greene, Nashe, Harvey, or Dekker, had produced a curious mixture of “slang and learning, of street repartees and elaborate coterie preciousness” (xix). More sober writers “attempted to write English as if it was Latin” thus falling into “inelegancies and obscurities.” Although “detached phrases, sentences, even long passages of Milton, of Taylor, of Browne” (xx) excel anything in English prose, these writers and others of the same period produced much that was involved and ungainly, “Out of mere wantonness” (xix) ; they often preferred “a single sentence jointed and rejoined, parenthesised and post scripted” until it expressed as much as a paragraph to “a succession of orderly sentences” each expressing “a simple or moderately complex thought” (xix-xx). In fact, all the authors of the period are full of “wilful and gratuitous obscurities, cacophonies, breaches of sense and grammar” which sometimes “actually vitiate their sense” (xxi). Great as many of them were, they “were not thoroughly masters of their instrument” (xxi). The reason Saintsbury offers for their technical incompetence is interesting: “Most of these writers had a great deal to say” (xx). Presumably, they were disabled by the depth and originality of their thought.

The Restoration remedied the uncouth and uneven quality of English prose by introducing “the study and comparison of French.” Far less removed than Latin from English, French had “already gone through its own reforming process with signal success.” Lacking an equivalent of the French Academy, English prose might benefit by proxyfrom its work. Fortunately, too, “the period of original and copious thought ceased in England for a time,” which was helpful since “men having less to say became more careful in saying it.” Saintsbury is quite resigned to the loss of outstanding originality since he prefers talent “well-furnished with its weapons” (xxii). Throughout his life “a constant critical student of language and style,” Dryden was the chief reformer who, together with Halifax and Temple, “left little to be done.” Saintsbury’s objection to literary changes brought about by intellectual or artistic minorities leads him to praise the (supposed) reform of the Restoration as having “hardly anything that was pedantic about it.” Rather, it was the “ordinary English of the streets” that helped Restoration writers to “reform the long sentence” (xxiii) of their predecessors.

With the coming of the “Queen Anne men,” Addison, Steel, and Arbuthnot, we reach the Golden Age of English prose, which set the standard for all succeeding times. Not merely great in itself, this era was “the schoolmaster of all the periods to follow. It settled what the form, the technical form of English prose was to be, and settled it once for all” (xxv).

The standard Saintsbury believed had been set in the early eighteenth century had two notable features. Firstly, prose had been drilled into correct and appropriate behavior, neatness, and punctuation. (The term “schoolmaster” is obviously significant.) Although examples of the “old slovenliness” remained, even in Dryden, by the reign of Queen Anne writers were producing correct compositions. “There is hardly anything in the structure of their clauses, their sentences or their paragraphs which is in any way obsolete.” Their “more frequent use of the full-stop” is particularly praiseworthy (xxii).

Secondly, Saintsbury singles out as the special virtues of this model prose “order, lucidity and proportion,” “ease and well-bred loquacity,” the ability to tell a story or set a scene in “so sober and yet so vivid a manner” (xxiv). It is prose operating within fairly strict limits, ordered, urbane, and well balanced. One could be talkative but one must also be polite. A clear intense vision might be acceptable if it was also restrained. Saintsbury also values its elegant conversational rhythm.

His attempt to define effective prose rhythm technically is one of the most curious and interesting parts of his preface. Although, unlike poetry, prose does not have an “equivalence of feet within the clause answering to the line,” perfect prose rhythm does admit “of vindication by quantity marks and even by division into feet.” The rhythm is a “harmony of perfectly modulated speech” (xxxix).

Saintsbury concedes that the eighteenth-century writers he admires had lost powers their Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors possessed: “Unrivalled in vigour, not easily to be beaten in sober grace, abundantly capable of wit . . . as a rule they lacked magnificence.” Apparently, however, this was a price worth paying for so desirable a result. In order to obtain formal grace, prose writers had to lessen their ambitions. If the authors Saintsbury admires “spoiled nothing they touched” it was because they generally “omitted to touch subjects for which their style was not suited” (xxiv). Here and elsewhere in his essay, Saintsbury suggests that prose improves when not overloaded with novel thought. The “bald, dull, plebeian style” (xxiv) of Locke or the “curious and inimitable badness” (xxvi) of Butler’s writing offers cautionary examples of an excess of intellectual substance.

Saintsbury praises especially the practice that “began with Dryden and was perfected in Gibbon, of balancing and proportioning the sentence” (xxvii). The reason for his praise is intriguing. Much of what the generality of writers have to say is dull and inept, so that it is fortunate English prose has developed a method for making their pronouncements at least sound graceful. Since the formal cadences of eighteenth-century prose passed out of fashion and “every man became a law unto himself,” the quantity of “foolish speech and writing in the world has not appreciably diminished” (xxviii). It would have been better to have retained the old balancing and proportion in which a platitude “seems as if it might have some meaning and at any rate sounds well as sound” (xxviii). Saintsbury’s willingness to see formally accomplished prose as a means to camouflage empty thought is disconcerting. It suggests a nothing-new-under-the-sun refusal to accept the possibility of change or discovery and a preference for form over substance.

The significance of his preferences becomes clearer in Saintsbury’s account of nineteenth-century prose. He narrows the reasons for the growth of a “laboured and ornate manner” (xxvii) to purely literary (and negative) factors. The growing “neglect of a regular and orderly style” is due to “increasing specialisation” (the “increasing subdivision of the subjects of literature”), the decline of Greek and Latin as “main instruments of education,” and the unfortunate example of some great writers who have encouraged a “return of individualism” (xxvi).

Significantly, Saintsbury ignores the possibility of any link between changes in prose and changes in religious belief, in the nature and distribution of political power, in economic conditions, or in social mores. The revived fashion for “numerous” prose was in its origins “partial and casual,” resulting from the efforts of “one man of genius, Thomas de Quincey,” whose example others followed “without much of a set purpose” (xxx).

The oddity of Saintsbury’s view may be easily seen in particular instances. It is perverse, for example, to describe Carlyle as a writer who introduced “Germanisms” and broke down the traditional “sobriety” of English prose out of some mere whim. However one rates Carlyle’s success, his style was a deliberate rejection of eighteenth-century norms of polite discourse and of the moral and social values those norms embodied. His verbal disruptions, abrupt changes of tone and register, turbulence, passion, and caustic irony were chosen as the appropriate medium in which to describe the French Revolution or the onset of an industrialized economy. De Quincey’s theorizings about prose in “Rhetoric” (1828), “Style” (1840), and “Language” (probably 1840) develop a view that a particular style (such as the one he arrived at), planning and orchestrating its effects, weaving together in connected sentences a web of sonorous images, was the natural medium for the “enormous power and splendour” that had followed the last “volcanic eruption” of British genius “since the year 1793” (De Quincey 10: 240). Such prose was appropriate to an age of national peril and heroic achievement. One might question De Quincey’s success in what he attempted, as one might question Carlyle’s, but it is clear that, in both cases, style was an instrument chosen for serious and specific reasons.

Given the tendentious nature of Saintsbury’s views, it is appropriate to ask what standing they would have had when Pater encountered them. Would he have felt such arguments about the nature of English prose worth challenging? Although his preface was published nine years before Saintsbury’s appointment to the Regius Chair of English at Edinburgh (1895), marking his establishment as “the nearest thing to Critic Laureate” (Gross 159), his star was certainly in the ascendant. Saintsbury’s scholarship and the sheer range of his reading would be bound to command general approval. His forthright, amiably assertive manner perhaps appealed to some readers. It must have been his opinions, however, that won over so many of his influential contemporaries. (“Mr Balfour let slip a complimentary reference in his Romanes lecture, Lord Morley paid tribute in his presidential address to the English Association, the universities began bestowing honorary degrees” [Gross 159].) The notion of a standard, set in the eighteenth century, of urbane, clear, and well-mannered writing, uncluttered with novel ideas or too much individual perception (unless it was charming eccentricity) clearly recommended itself. Whatever its other advantages, it put the brakes on innovation and provided a means to deprecate stylistic experiments. Saintsbury’s conception of good English prose is sympathetic to the aims of an educational system that at the public schools and universities of the day promoted “losing one’s angles” as a desirable end. (One remembers Chesterton’s comment on Edwardian Oxford that a desire to retain one’s angles was “common to all those human beings who do not set their ultimate hopes on looking like Humpty Dumpty” [93].)

Saintsbury’s contemporary standing must be set in the context of the emergence of English Studies in the universities. (The Merton Professorship at Oxford was set up in 1885 and the English Honours School in 1893.) In this connection, it is interesting to note the reasons for Pater’s reservations about the establishment of English as a subject in Oxford. When invited by the Pall Mall Gazette to comment on the proposed Oxford English School in 1885, he was somewhat doubtful. Such a course of study might turn the “liberal pleasure” of English literature into a “long, pedantic mechanical discipline” (Letters 69). The remark suggests that, apart from particular reservations about Saintsbury’s attitudes, Pater, in general, was suspicious of coercive and systematizing tendencies in literary study.

Pater recorded his first impressions of Saintsbury’s opinions in a review of Specimens of English Prose Style (along with three other textbooks) published in The Guardian ( 17 February 1886), two years before the appearance of “Style.” It is worth looking at this review since it anticipates several of the points made in the later essay. The connection between the two corroborates Saintsbury’s presence as the silent adversary in “Style.” As later in “Style,” Pater begins by complimenting Saintsbury before delicately unpicking his arguments (“It takes a scholar indeed to make a good literary selection” [Essays 3-4] ). At the same time, from the outset, he relativizes Saintsbury’s claims to authority: “The making of an anthology of English prose is what must have occurred to many of its students. . . . Such an anthology . . . might well follow exclusively some special line of interest in it” (Essays 3). In effect, there are many competent readers of English prose, all with differing and plausible views of what constitutes its central tradition. Along with compliments, there are flickers of irony. Pater notes that the epigraph of the book he is reviewing has been chosen from “Dryden, the first master of the sort of prose he prefers-that is Mr Saintsbury’s burden” (Essays 4). The last word may mean theme but also carries a suggestion of the laborious. “The sort of prose he prefers” scales down Saintsbury’s prescriptive pronouncements and attempts at critical legislation to mere expressions of his personal choice.

In this review, Pater’s tactic is one he often employs in his controversial writings. Admitting the premise an opponent has offered, he then places it in a much wider context, surrounding it with qualifying considerations that make its bare assertion seem simplistic. He admits the value of that “order, precision, directness” Saintsbury had endorsed and of the distinction between poetry and prose on which he had insisted. At the same time, Pater deepens and extends the meaning of “order, precision, directness” to emphasize that these qualities “generate a specific and unique beauty.” This, he implies, is one kind of beauty among several possible ones. He attributes a concern for this distinct aesthetic quality to Saintsbury himself: “According to Mr Saintsbury there is more than just the quiet, unpretending usefulness of the bare sermopedestris” (Essays 5) within the scope of order, precision, and directness.

As often in his writing, Pater introduces a point of major significance so quietly and unassertively that it slips past the reader’s (and opponent’s) guard. Emphasizing the “specific and unique beauty of prose,” he links this beauty to a particular quality he claims for the English mind, “the imaginative impulse, which is perhaps the richest of our purely intellectual gifts.” In “tact and goodjudgement” (the literary qualities Saintsbury had seen as paramount) “we are not richer than other people” (Essays 4). In English, therefore, “the other beauty of prose” would depend on tapping that imaginative impulse. This is apparent even in the examples Saintsbury himself has chosen: “Not that reasonable prose structure as Mr Saintsbury conceives it, has been always, or even generally, the ideal, even of those writers here in evidence” (Essays 6). As Pater implies, with gentle irony, there is little point in asserting a set of laws about English prose that do not appear to have been dominant even in the instances chosen to exemplify them. Even in “his favourite Dryden” the “invasion of the legitimate sphere of prose in England by the spirit of poetry,” evidenced by the tendency to write “unconscious blank verse,” has been “commoner than Mr Saintsbury admits.” Perhaps, Pater demurely adds, Saintsbury might care to put together an anthology of specimens of English poetry “for the purpose of exhibiting the achievement of prose excellencies by it” (Essays 7). What Pater is doing is to break down the hard distinction between prose and poetry he had previously admitted. True perhaps in general theoretical terms, this distinction is refracted through the complex medium of actual practice.

Having prepared the ground by qualifying Saintsbury’s premises, Pater urges the chief point of his criticism. The early eighteenth century, which Saintsbury thought provided the exemplary model of prose, was a particular cultural phase, with its own merits and defects. Its qualities, positive and negative, stemmed from specific features of its historical, intellectual, and moral climate. It was an age “in which men’s minds must needs be limited to the superficialities of things, with a kind of narrowness amounting to a positive gift.” Pater might seem to be paraphrasing what Saintsbury has already stated, that the writers of Queen Anne’s time achieved their stylistic perfection (if such it was) by avoiding unsuitable subjects. What Saintsbury sees as discretion, however, Pater views as the almost self-maiming product of “an age of negative, or agnostic philosophy” (Essays 9). One of the most pleasing of these writers, Steele, achieves his lively, unaffected and harmonious tone because his subjects are confined by “the somewhat uncontentious, even limited soul, of an age not imaginative, and unambitious in its speculative flight” (Essays 12). Pater is condescending about an elegance that takes no risks: “To the unembarrassing matter, the unembarrassed style” (Essays 11).

The writers Saintsbury sets up as timeless models often lack the deeper grace of spontaneous self-revelation, free expression of personality, and readiness to face the troubling features of their own time. By contrast, a Romantic writer like Lamb could still keep “the charm of a serenity, a precision, unsurpassed by the quietest essayist of the preceding age” (Essaysl3-14) while, at the same time, being “borne upward” by “a rising tide of thought and feeling” (Essays 14) characteristic of the early nineteenth century. Since then, intellectual and emotional currents have grown deeper and more complex. A prose that would attempt to contain them would need to extend its range and its readiness to engage with disturbing material. Needing, also, the techniques to accomplish this, it would become of necessity, self-conscious, sophisticated, and experimental. It would simply not be feasible for it to rely on some past model of correctness: “The ever-increasing intellectual burden of our age is hardly likely to adapt itself to the exquisite, but perhaps too, delicate and limited, literary instruments of the age of Queen Anne” (Essays 14-15).

Pater’s most overt criticism of Saintsbury in this review is, at first sight, somewhat surprising: “If there be a weakness in Mr Saintsbury’s view, it is perhaps a tendency to regard style a little too independently of matter” (Essays 15). How can this comment, which takes for granted that some subjects are intrinsically significant and that art can never be entirely an affair of treatment alone, be reconciled with Pater’s earlier resolute declarations of the autonomy of aesthetic values? If there is an order of importance (however tentatively suggested) in the artist’s subject matter, how is it possible to speak of art for art’s sake?

Critics have often answered these questions by suggesting that, beleaguered by widespread disapproval, Pater retreated from the boldness of his earlier statements. His comments on Saintsbury suggest a different reason for Pater’s altered emphasis. Whether he had changed himself, the times certainly had. When Pater wrote the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance, he worked against the current of a moralism demanding that art should be edifying or socially useful. The fact that a figure like Saintsbury, widely applauded and about to dominate academic English, should, rejecting moral criteria, endorse an overt literary hedonism suggests a widespread reaction against the ideals of the previous generation. In a changing climate, Pater might well have wished to guard the subtle and discriminating aestheticism he had tried to formulate from being tainted by association with its popular, clumsy variants. The impulse behind his deprecation of Saintsbury is similar to the motive prompting his polite but definite rebuking of Wilde in a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In both cases, Pater wished to sever his own aestheticism from cruder versions.

Saintsbury’s preface to Specimens of English Prose Style and Pater’s review offer a helpful introduction to the arguments and techniques of “Style.” The essay begins by treating more fully the rigid division between prose and poetry on which Saintsbury had insisted. Again, Pater accepts an axiom on which the view he opposes had been founded. Then, instead of attempting to refute it directly, he restates it in significantly different language, setting it in other contexts and suggesting other attitudes or factors that might modify it. The distinction between prose and poetry is not a conclusion based on some premise about the nature of mind or language. It is one of the “achieved distinctions” resulting from that process of refinement by which “obscure and complex” subjects are gradually understood. Obviously, it would be the “stupidest of losses” to surrender such a distinction. It is worth noting Pater’s choice of vocabulary here. Deliberately, he brings the debate to a practical level. The division between prose and poetry is based on cumulative experience (“achieved distinctions”) and, therefore, may be modified or corrected by experience and by considerations of expediency or the sensible use of available resources. Too rigid a division between prose and poetry is “false economy … in a world where after all we must needs make the most of things” ( Works 5: 5). Pater gains an advantage by showing that, unlike his unnamed opponent, he is flexible enough to be aware of two possible dangers, that of “false economy” as well as “the stupidest of losses.” He gains, too, by appealing from the start to a practicality and suspicion of abstract theory widespread among English people: “Critical efforts to limit art apriori… are always liable to be discredited by the facts of artistic production” ( Works 5: 5-6). Pater’s examples of stylistic variety are interesting. He pairs Livy and Carlyle, Cicero and Newman, Plato and Michelet, suggesting continuities between ancient and modern writing. Variety in style clearly has the oldest and most respectable of antecedents.

One of Pater’s answers to the rigid frames of reference others have produced is to offer several more sets of terms. Each of these is plausible enough and presents another perspective on the subject. The effect of this maneuver is to weaken the authority of the axiom first offered. In this spirit, he repeats the suggestion (made in the review) that as well as poetic effects in prose, “it is the business of criticism” to “look for those hard, logical and quasi-prosaic excellencies” poetry may have or need ( Works 5: 6). He reminds his readers, too, of the Romantic theorizings Saintsbury had ignored and of their connection with “very different intellectual needs” of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth, for example, had seen the “essential dichotomy” (Works 5: 7) as one between imaginative and unimaginative writing rather than as a contrast between prose and poetry. In De Quincey’s “parallel” terms, the division had been one between the literature of power and the literature of knowledge. By suggesting such alternative frames of reference, Pater weakens the authority of a naïve but potent prejudice that poetry is a figurative and emotional medium while prose is the economical, accurate, and useful vehicle of fact. Pater then carries the gentle undermining a little further by remarking that “the line between fact and something quite different from external fact is, indeed, hard to draw.” In “persuasive writers” it is difficult to detect the point when an argument based on facts becomes a pleading, “an appeal to the reader to catch the writer’s spirit.” When examined in specific cases, the sharp distinction Saintsbury (and earlier Arnold) drew between prose and poetry becomes impossible to enforce. The distinction, in this rigid form, may be dismissed, “under the sanction of Wordsworth,” as “savouring in fact of the arbitrary psychology of the last century.” Along with it one may discard “the prejudice that there can be but one only beauty of prose style” (Works5: 8).

“The arbitrary psychology of the last century” is one of a series of needling reminders, placed throughout “Style,” of the limited and outmoded values that sustained the eighteenth-century prose Saintsbury admired. The need to controvert Saintsbury prompts Pater’s “absurd” attack on Dryden. Pater’s comment that it was odd that Dryden should set up correctness, “that humble merit of prose,” as “the central literary excellence” since he was “really a less correct writer than he may seem” is not an exhibition of hauteur ( Works 5: 8). It is important for Pater to subvert a figure Saintsbury had offered as the law-giver who cast English prose in permanent form.

Pater next draws a distinction, as old as Aristotle’s Poetics, between the transcribing of particular facts and the deeper, more philosophical truth arrived at through the generalizing imagination. He demotes specific fact, the enumeration of which, through science, is “reducible to various kinds of painstaking.” This “good quality,” he patronizingly adds, is involved in all skilled work, such as drafting an Act of Parliament or sewing. In history or in those “complex subjects which do but lie on the borders of science” ( Works 5:9), however, the writer is obliged to select from a multiplicity of facts. Such selection must be based on temperament.

Pater’s view of the functions and possibilities of prose and the nature of his defense against attacks on his own stylistic practices are inseparable from his view of knowledge and of truth. His position is one of limited skepticism. He does not deny the existence of objective facts external to the observer but stresses their sheer volume and variety. Of two types of knowledge, the enumeration of facts and imaginative and personal verity, the latter is preeminent since, to move beyond an accumulation of raw data, one must select. The artist or the prose writer pursues, in an enhanced and self-conscious form, that personal “sense of fact” present in “every other product of human skill,” even in “the moulding of a bell or a platter” ( Works 5: 10).

Pursuing this common act of selection in a more strenuous manner, the writer moves from the “transcript of mere fact” to that of fact “modified by human preference in all its infinitely varied forms.” The more his aim comes to be “the transcribing not of the world, not of mere fact” but of “his sense of it” the closer he comes to being “an artist, his work fine art”( Works 5: 10-11). An essential requirement of good prose is an ability to draw authentically on the resources of the inner self. Certain temperaments or points of view are more potent and engaging than others.

Prose rooted in “soul fact” and “human preference” is the “special and opportune art of the modern world” ( Works 5: 11). Here, Pater separates himself most decisively from Saintsbury’s canon of tasteful and effective communication. Pater’s view of the character and temper of the world in which he lived and of the needs to which his own prose was intended to cater led him to reject notions of writing as “good form.” Saintsbury’s view of prose belongs to a late Victorian or Edwardian code of gentlemanly manners that prizes the right tone and accent, and, especially, the subduing of the personality along with such original ideas as one might possess. Pater rejects Saintsbury’s requirement that the intellectual content of prose be tempered and the volume of thought it contains kept level and not too demanding. Unlike Saintsbury, he is prepared to acknowledge that he lives in a time characterized by “the chaotic variety and complexity of its interests” and by “an all-pervading naturalism, a curiosity about everything whatever as it really is.” It is not enough to respond to this with the prose equivalent of dressing for dinner, even (or especially) if one dresses in the costume of Queen Anne’s day. Since Pater is convinced he is living in an age whose ultimate meaning and character are as yet unknown, whose “master currents” and “intellectual issue” remain “incalculable,” it is wrong to try to clothe thought in garments chosen because they are tasteful and familiar. So complex and enigmatic a time requires a prose “as varied in its excellence as humanity itself reflecting on the facts of its latest experience.” Pater’s ideal style is flexible and adroit, alert to a changing, mysterious scene. Of necessity, it must be “an instrument of many stops, meditative, observant, descriptive, eloquent, analytic, plaintive, fervid.” Implicitly denying Arnold’s claims for poetry, Pater asserts that it is prose which has become “the special and privileged artistic faculty of the present day” ( Works 5: 11).

Given the claims Pater makes for prose, Saintsbury’s emphasis on ease and lucidity holds little appeal for him. Instead, he chooses the term “contention” (Works 5: 13) to describe the relationship between the scrupulous writer and the careful reader. The suggestion of emulation, even strife, is a deliberate challenge to Saintsbury’s notions of prose as (basically) pleasant conversation, drawing its strength from colloquial English. Pater proposes quite a different model. The writer’s “self-restraint and renunciation” offer a “challenge for minutest consideration” to the “susceptible reader” (Works 5: 14). Overmuch cultivation of an affable, accessible style is patronizing. The writer should “leave something to the willing intelligence of his reader.” As Montaigne put it, one ought not to seek to become a “tutor to the ignorance” of the first comer. Given that one seeks intelligent readers, it is condescending to offer them “uncomplimentary assistance.” Unlike Saintsbury, Pater envisages a tension between the writer and his audience: “To really strenuous minds there is a pleasurable stimulus in the challenge for a continuous effort on their part, to be rewarded by a securer and more intimate grasp of the author’s sense.” In accepting such a challenge, the reader obtains a closer engagement with the writer than the conversational model of prose could give.

A main reason for the aesthetic pleasure a highly self-conscious style may achieve lies in the struggle, scrupulously waged and carried to success, of the writer with his meaning. “Self-restraint, skilful economy of means,” self-denial, and “that frugal closeness of style which makes the most of a word” (Works5: 17) have a beauty of their own. It is a beauty intimately connected with the sense of difficulty overcome.

In an intelligent and plausible defense of self-conscious style, Pater must break the hold, so firmly fixed in many minds and endorsed by Saintsbury, of a belief that prose is either simple and natural or else overdecorated, mannered, and striving for effect. For Pater, such an alternative is naïve and historically illinformed. In the later phases of a culture prose cannot be natural and simple, the transparent medium of thought. It comes to the writer as “no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble” ( Works 5: 12). Since it is the “product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues” it is full of “obscure and minute association” and governed by “often recondite laws” (Works 5:12). Pater would not have felt the reproach that he wrote English like a dead language. In his view, writing in English required a cultivated and learned sensitivity to the context and the historical associations of words.

“Style” sketches a portrait of the literary artist as scholar, the main purpose of which is to rehabilitate the whole notion of self-consciousness in writing. Pater has to dispel notions that a self-conscious style is artificial, showy, or rhetorical in the pejorative sense. He must challenge the view that the main (perhaps only) requirement of good writing is to have something to say and to say it directly and energetically. If in addition to directness one also aspired to grace, then one would (on this view) choose some standard model, like Saintsbury’s early eighteenth-century prose. For Pater, however, “the literary artist” is of necessity selfcritical and wary because he writes for a reader “full of eyes” (Works 5:12). The writer-reader relationship is obviously crucial. Pater does not differ from Saintsbury in rejecting unnecessary ornament or flowers of speech, well-aware that his discriminating readers would find them meretricious. In fact, he goes further than Saintsbury. Even for a writer who avoids “tarnished or vulgar decoration” ( Works 5: 18) there is a problem in the very literariness of language formed by a sophisticated culture. A well-read writer and his readers will share a fund of direct or submerged quotation and verbal memories, “parallel, allusion, the allusive way generally.” There is, no doubt, a pleasure to be had by participating in a common cultural or educational tradition. For Pater, however, such pleasure is a “vagrant intruder,” a “diversion” which acts with “narcotic force” on the “negligent intelligence” ( Works5:l9). It beguiles minds that are more than ready, at any time, to wander away from a demanding argument or subject.

Pater’s defense of “honourable artifice” (Works 5: 18) or studied effect in writing is predicated on an assumption of the writer’s own scrupulous moral standards. The starting point of writing that aims at beauty is exacting self-exploration. Sincerity and deep self-knowledge are required in order to eradicate “unreasoned and really uncharacteristic caprices” (Works 5: 36) and “involuntary or affected” movements on the surface of the mind that prevent the writer from achieving “his plenary sense of what he has to say, his sense of the world” ( Works 5: 35). (Pater’s criteria would clearly rule out posturing, role-playing, performance, or that facile, if beguiling, adoption of attitudes without cost or consequence advocated by Wilde in “The Critic as Artist.”) If writing is the expression of the deepest self, it requires from the writer not the striking of attitudes but an “absolutely sincere apprehension of what is most real to him.” There is a crucial difference between this communion with the inner self and “the subjectivity, the mere caprice of the individual” (Works 5: 36) that often degenerates into mannerism. Before the writer’s employment of literary skill and tact must come the “original unity, the vital wholeness or identity, of the initiatory apprehension or view.” Sincerity and self-knowledge are the preconditions for the seizing and retention of such a “vital wholeness.”

Pater’s stress in the relation between the “unity, the strict identity with itself of the apprehending mind” and the organic unity of the piece of prose it produces again draws on Romantic theorizing. There is an affinity between Coleridge’s praise of the organic form of Shakespeare’s drama, developing itself from within, and Pater’s description of the “logic” of literary art, “its comprehensive reason-insight, foresight, retrospect, in simultaneous action” (Works 5: 22). The “real artist” (Works 5: 13) find an “opportunity” in the “limitations of vocabulary” ( Works5:12) and structure imposed upon him. His “punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium” gives a “general air of sensibility” to his writing. Constantly alert to the danger of slipshod usage or a “loss of the distinctions of language” ( Works 5: 13), he is on his guard against novel coinages or apparently picturesque terms (“many a gipsy phrase”) that offer themselves as expressive.

Apart from his own conscience, the writer will be curbed from falling into mannerism and affectation by the nature of his audience and, often, by the significance of what he has to say. He writes under the stimulus and restraint of knowing that he will be read by “the sensitive” and by those who “have intelligence” (Works 5: 36). At the same time, he struggles with his meaning because what he has to say matters to him and, he feels, ought to be significant to his readers: “The chief stimulus of a good style is to possess a full, rich, complex matter to grapple with” (Works5: 16).

The writer is rewarded for his care and conscience by acquiring a power of self-determination. This is a crucial point. Pater is keen to emphasize that, once he has “the science of the instrument he plays on,” the prose-artist will possess the “freedom of a master.” He will enjoy this liberty by “making a vocabulary, an entire system of composition for himself and by discovering “his own true manner” (Works 5: 14). More importantly, he will use the freedom he has earned to adapt his writing to new thought. Here Pater is strongest in his opposition to Saintsbury’s assumptions and arguments: “None but pedants will regret” the great increases in the “resources” (Works 5: 16) of the English language during the nineteenth century. For a quarter of a century English has been “assimilating the phraseology of pictorial art,” Earlier the “great German metaphysical movement of eighty years ago,” and the “language of mystical theology” ( Works 5: 16), added to the range and expressiveness of its vocabulary. (Pater is referring to the philosophy of Hegel and Fichte and, presumably, to the Oxford Movement.) Pater strongly refuses to hark back to some notional standard of good taste. Instead, he proposes a role for the scholar-artist in dealing sensitively with the innovations in the structure of prose and the choice of words that are inevitable, given that language “must needs change with the changing thoughts of a living people” (Works 5: 15). He foresees as the next interesting development the “liberal naturalisation of the ideas of science” ( Works 5: 16). Pater took a robust and hopeful view of at least some of the new intellectual currents of the age and, unlike Saintsbury, did not see prose as a tasteful uniform designed to disguise men’s perennially foolish statements.

The writer’s liberty confers further benefits on him. As long as he retains a “logical coherency” in “the lines of composition as a whole” he may (perhaps should) display “much variety” in sentence structure and manner moving, where appropriate, between the “argumentative, descriptive, discursive” (Works 5: 22). Rich and expressive literary architecture is often reared upon “many irregularities, surprises, and afterthoughts” ( Works 5: 23). One remembers here how critical Saintsbury was of the varieties of tone and vocabulary in Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. Instead, and probably deliberately, Pater emphasizes that surprise and variety are a necessary part of the writer’s range of effects. Where Saintsbury values the “balancing of the sentence,” Pater praises varied sentence structure. The “blithe crisp sentence, decisive as a child’s” might alternate with the “longcontending, victoriously intricate sentence,” A sentence full of “contrivance” may be relieved by one “born with the integrity of a single word” ( Works 5:23).

Interestingly, Pater points to two factors operating within prose upon the reader’s mind. “Hard to ascertain philosophically” though they may be, “mind” and “soul” are “real enough practically.” In fact, “mind” encompasses most of what Pater specifically says about style in his essay. All the features of “mind,” the “static and objective indications of design” in apiece of writing are “legible” to everyone and are “approved where they are recognised” ( Works 5: 25) (“Static” suggests an equilibrium of forces within a perfectly cast piece of work.) “Soul,” however, does not seek embodiment in form or in an equilibrium of forces. Instead, it reaches the reader “through a vagrant sympathy and a kind of immediate contact” ( Works 5: 25). Where mind, working through the stylistic devices Pater has explored, is finite in its operations, the effect of soul, like “the influence of a living person,” is impossible to limit. We are bound to admire the feats of “mind,” its demonstrations of accomplished literary skill. On the contrary, “soul may repel us, not because we misunderstand it” (Works5: 27).

In “soul,” Pater points to an irreducibly spiritual dimension in writing, the expression of an “immediate sympathetic contact” ( Works 5:26) or, it may be, a repulsion not to be explained by any technical failure in the writer or any misapprehension on the reader’s part. “Soul” is that “plenary substance” of which what is actually expressed can only offer “one phase or facet.” “Soul,” suggesting spiritual qualities of attraction and repulsion, which affect individual readers in mysterious, impalpable ways, takes the discussion of prose into an area fundamentally different from the one to which Saintsbury’s essentially conversational model points. In such communication, the reader seems to know the author as a “person” and “by way of intuition” ( Works 5: 27) rather than by the verbal equivalent of social ease.

The fact that Pater borrows the concept of “soul” from Newman may not seem illicit or parasitic if we remember why he admired Newman. He remarks at the end of his review of Saintsbury’s anthology that in a “manner as classical, as idiomatic, as easy and elegant, as Steele’s” Newman had dealt “with all the perturbing influences of our century” (Essays 16). As well as the formal graces of his prose, it is Newman’s engagement with subjects that caused his readers most anguish, which wins Pater’s admiration. In this connection, it is interesting that he should mention in “Style,” as an example of “soul,” Newman’s Tracts for the Times.

Some commentators have reacted in a puzzled or hostile way to the last section of “Style.” Donoghue complains that Pater’s account of Flaubert does not quote from his fiction and says less about his work than Henry James managed to say in a sentence (227). Harold Bloom cannot see how the last paragraph of “Style” is to be reconciled “either with the rest of the essay or with the greater part of Pater’s writings.” A profound anxiety about the general response to his work caused Pater to “falsify his vision” (Bloom 125).

It may be easier to understand Pater’s brief discussion of Flaubert by placing it in the context of submerged controversy that elucidates much of the rest of “Style.” Clearly, Pater does not intend to offer a detailed discussion of Flaubert’s work. Probably he felt an attempt to demonstrate the scale of Flaubert’s achievement would be otiose and would, in any case, take up too much space in a short essay devoted to another topic. Rather, he intends to offer Flaubert as an exemplary figure of the scholarartist and to vindicate him from a charge, sometimes leveled, of morbidity. Pater’s controversial intention is clear from the outset. Flaubert did not, like “false Ciceronians,” search for “the smooth or winsome, or forcible word as such.” Ciceronianism, a term as old as Erasmus’s satire Ciceronianus, describesjust that pedantic and restrictive historical model of good taste Pater has been condemning throughout “Style.” Flaubert’s achievement was based on a “first condition” upon which Pater has already dwelt, “to know yourself, to have ascertained your own sense exactly” and, secondly, on the search for the “unique term” (Works 5: 31), the “true word” which would enable his reader to see exactly what he saw.

For Pater, there is something heroic in this “lifelong contention against facile poetry, facile art-art facile and flimsy” ( Works 5: 32). (It is interesting that Benson records as one of the very few times when Pater could loose his habitual composure and “occasionally fire up” [185] an instance when someone spoke disparagingly of Flaubert. ) Pater is keen to emphasize that there was nothing neurotic or unhealthy in the French writer’s search for the mot juste. He distinguishes Flaubert’s integrity from his health problems. His almost endless hesitation had “much to do with diseased nerves,” and his anxiety in seeking the right phrase was aggravated by a “physical condition” ( Works 5: 32). This condition, however, did not prompt and does not invalidate Flaubert’s necessary struggle against the meretricious and on behalf of “the one indispensable beauty . . . truth” ( Works 5:34).

Pater saw no contradiction between his own pursuit of an inner vision and what has been called Flaubert’s concentration on objective fact. He felt that both he and Flaubert believed in a “pre-existent adaptation” between the “relative” in “the world of thought” and “its correlative, somewhere in the world of language.” (He quotes Flaubert’s statement that there “are no beautiful thoughts without beautiful words” [Works 5: 30] as justification for his own interpretation.) Pater would not have accepted that Flaubert was seeking a passionless reproduction of fact, a view, in any case, by no means dominant among commentators on Flaubert’s work.

The final paragraph of “Style” is certainly more overtly moral than is customary in Pater’s writings. Yet its assertion that “great” as opposed to “good” art is so because it increases men’s happiness, helps to redeem the oppressed, enlarges the range of our sympathies, or offers us new truths about ourselves and the world is cognate with the arguments of “Style” as a whole. The bulk of the essay has been given over to asserting moral qualities in the making of effective prose. Pater has deprecated the notion that form is an end in itself. He has stressed the prose-writers’ need for austerity, self-exploration, self-knowledge, and the submission of personal judgment to that of sensitive and intelligent readers. He has emphasized the paramount importance of “soul,” the underlying spiritual meaning in writing, and dwelt on the writer’s stylistic quest as a search for truth. The last paragraph of “Style” may extend but hardly contradicts the arguments and spirit of what has gone before.

In “Style,” Pater does not directly attack Saintsbury. Here, as in his criticisms of Arnold and Ruskin, he is oblique and deliberately unconfrontational. When “Style” is set against Saintsbury’s preface, which Pater had recently reviewed, however, its arguments grow clearer. In several specific instances, the points Pater makes challenge or answer Saintsbury’s views. “Style” gains in force and significance if one sees it as a defense of what Pater valued and tried to practice in writing against the formidable and authoritative pronouncements of a dominant figure in the rise of English Studies.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Selected Writings of Walter Pater. New York: New American Library, 1974.

Chesterton, Gilbert K. “Oxford from Without.” 1908. Essays and Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.

De Quincey, Thomas. De Quincey’s Works. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1882. 14 vols.

Donoghue, Denis. Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Iser, Wolfgang. Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment. Trans David H Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Laura, David de. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England. London: London UP, 1969.

Monsman, Gerald. Walter Pater. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Pater, Walter. Essays from the Guardian. London: Macmillan, 1901.

____. Letters of Walter Pater. Ed. Lawrence Evans. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

____. The Works of Walter Pater. London: Macmillan, 1900-01. 8 vols.

Saintsbury, George. Preface. Specimens of English Prose Style from Malory to Macaulay. Ed. George Saintsbury. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1885.

Ward, J.P. “An Anxiety of No Influence: Walter Pater on William Wordsworth.” Pater in the 1990’s. Ed. Laurel Brake and Ian Small. Greenboro: E.L.T Press, 1991.

Until his retirement, JOHN COATES (M.A. Cambridge, Ph.D. Exeter) was a lecturer at the University of Hull, UK. He has published books on Chesterton, Kipling, and Elizabeth Bowen, and articles mainly on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century subjects.

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