Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Walter Pater (18391894)
[The life of Walter Horatio Pater (who in his later work signed Walter Pater only) was even more destitute of remarkable outward events than that of most men of letters. Born in London in 1839, he went to the Kings School, Canterbury, and then to Queens College, Oxford. He was elected to a fellowship at Brasenose in 1862; and there or in London spent all his remaining years, dying in August 1894. He had early acquired a reputation at Oxford for careful attention to literature, and contributed some essays to periodicals. But it was not till 1873 that he collected and refashioned these in a book called Studies in the History of the Renaissance (in its later and slightly altered form The Renaissance only). This collection was received with warm approval in some quarters, with equally warm disapproval in others; and Mr. Paters fastidiousness or his doubts induced him, it was said, to cancel a second volume, most of the intended contents of which, however, appeared later. He did not actually publish anything of bulk for twelve years; but then, in 1885, the remarkable philosophical romance of Marius the Epicurean (2 vols.) appeared. It was followed in 1887 by Imaginary Portraits, a not wholly happy attempt to embody the authors views in symbolic-fictitious form; in 1889 by Appreciations, a fresh collection of essays which drew its contents from the work of nearly five-and-twenty years; and later by Greek Studies. But death had taken the author meanwhile, and his uncollected remains have not even yet been completely published.]
MR. PATERS work (which perhaps requires, for the complete comprehension and appreciation of its nature, either some personal acquaintance with its author, or more biographical detail than has yet been given to the public) has two characteristics which usually, if not always, impart distinction. It was full of personal note without any personal intrusion, and it was also full of a certain note of the time. Further, it was capable of being regarded from at least three rather different points of view: as containing an ethical theory, as giving a certain appreciation of literature, and as literature itself, marked by qualities of style rather than of matter. From the ethical side we need not here consider it at any length; it is perhaps sufficient to say that it usually illustrated, and sometimes inculcated directly, a sort of intellectual Hedonisma neo-Cyrenaicism, as its author preferred to call it, in treatments half-critical, half-expositorywhich was, scarcely with more accuracy than kindness, called by some literary Paganism. Its critical as distinguished from its ethical note was, as distinctly and now not at all contentiously, Hedonistthat is to say, it recommended and exemplified what may be called the intellectual degustation of styles, periods, and literary manners, with the object of extracting from them the greatest possible amount of intelligent enjoyment. It was objected by some that the periods and examples which seemed most to Mr. Paters tastethe late and curious classical time which exhibits, so to speak, reflections of Oriental and anticipations of mediæval sentiment and thought, the Renaissance, the remoter and more mystical exercitations of the modern Romantic movementall had in them something morbid.
It is not necessary to take sides on either of these questions here, though it may be fairly said that Mr. Paters views were, if not entirely shared, yet understood, and the expression of them admired, by persons who certainly have no sympathy with Paganism or with morbidity. But what is less contentious, and fortunately more germane, is the peculiarity, and, according to some tastes at least, the excellence of his style. This, style, which is shown at its best in the Renaissance studies and in Marius the Epicurean, with some passages of Appreciations (for in Imaginary Portraits it is extremely unequal, and sometimes even slipshod), has no pretension to please or to be praised if the judge is wedded either to an exceedingly simple and natural style, or to one which, though ornate, observes the traditions of English prose as fashioned between 1660 and 1800. But for those who do not rule out Corinthian or even Composite from their list of orders of rhetorical architecture, Mr. Paters style at its best had from the first an extreme attraction, and has not lost it in nearly a quarter of a centurys acquaintance.
In one point indeed Mr. Pater may challenge the respect of even the severest critics who do not allow their dislike in other matters to obscure their vision in this. No writer since the revolutionary movement in English prose at the beginning of this century, not even Landor, has paid such extraordinary and successful attention to the architecture of the sentence. As against the snipsnap shortness of some writers, the lawless length of others, and the formlessness of a third class, his best sentences are arranged with an almost mathematical precision of clause-building, while their rhythm, though musical, is rarely poetic. Yet it must be acknowledged that this elaborate construction never became a perfectly learnt art with him; and that his sentences in his later work were sometimes apt to waver and wander. Still, on the whole, Mr. Pater, as an exponent in prose of the tendencies of which in verse Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne have been the chief masters, deserves a rank which it is impossible for any careful and impartial critic to ignore or to refuse. Few writers are fortunate in their imitators, and he has been especially unfortunate. His theories sometimes, his style often, have been the victims of a following not seldom silly, and not very seldom disgusting. But it would be unjust to charge this on the author himself. In himself, though owing a little, and not always happily, to Matthew Arnold and more to Newman, he is an extremely careful and on the whole a distinctly original producer of literature, who has chosen to make literature itself the main subject of his production, and has enforced views distinct in kind in a manner still more distinct. It is possible that Oxford men may be sometimes disposed to undervalue Mr. Pater, and sometimes to overvalue him, for the exact reason that he has not merely conveyed to outsiders much of the special flavour and ethos of Oxford teaching for some generations past, but has perhaps over-flavoured it with essences of his own. But from the expressions of the more intelligent among such outsiders it may be not obscurely gathered that he has partially effected the conveyancewhich, if in a more aristocratic age capable of being regarded as sacrilege, is in a democratic one perhaps a public service. And, apart from these disputable points, he is, as must be once more said, a remarkable, a very remarkable writer as such.
The least contentious, and, to the classical scholar at any rate, not the least satisfactory documents of his powers may perhaps be found in the masterly paraphrases of Cupid and Psyche, of the Pervigilium Veneris, and of Lucians Hermotimus to be found in Marius the Epicurean. But it has seemed better and fairer, in the present selection, to take things more purely original. The passages given below have been chosen with a view to exhibit Mr. Pater, not so much at his most florid, as at the perfection of the peculiar mood of ornate literary quietismof delicate appreciation of shades of thought and visionof which he was, as it seems to the present writer, the great exponent, and which he would probably not have disclaimed. The defect of this mood, in substance as in expression, is its extreme one-sidedness, and its consequent liability to topple over into the positively unhealthy and deformed. But if we take things at their best, it is worthy, not indeed of an unqualified, but of a decided admiration.