Controversial Aspects of Pater's "Style"

By Coates, John | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Controversial Aspects of Pater's "Style"


Coates, John, Papers on Language & Literature


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 may be 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 Merimee 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).

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