Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reaction to Saintsbury in Pater's Formulation of Ideas on Prose Style

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reaction to Saintsbury in Pater's Formulation of Ideas on Prose Style

Article excerpt

The ideas expressed by Pater in "Style" were developed between 1886 and 1888 in four related works, the first of which was his review of Specimens of English Prose Style from Malory to Macaulay, by George Saintsbury, his younger contemporary, acquaintance, and advocate of art for art's sake, who was fast becoming the leading English authority on prose style. Reaction to Saintsbury's ideas in "English Prose Style" (the introduction to the book), prompted Pater, already recognized as a stylist, to enunciate opposing ideas that would establish himself as a theorist on style. Fundamentally, he posed his particular formulation of "the style is the man" against Saintsbury's principle of the separability of form and matter in literature.

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Most readers of late nineteenth-century British literature know that from the beginning of his career Walter Pater was recognized as a prose stylist, but none has made a point of saying that he did not expound a theory of prose style until his career was two decades old. Before 1886 Pater's comments on prose style had been limited to brief characterizations of the styles of individual writers. He had judged Coleridge's Aids to Reflection and The Friend to be remarkably lacking in "classical form," so much so as to be "bundles of notes"; had called Pico della Mirandola's style "figured"; had judged Du Bellay's prose to be "transparent, flexible and chaste"; had described John Addington Symonds' style as "energetic, flexible, eloquent, full of various illustration," but lacking in "reserve" in "turns of expression" and in "the choice sometimes of detail and metaphor." (1) In "The Character of the Humourist. Charles Lamb," he had analyzed Lamb's sensibility without explaining his mode of expression; however, in that essay he had attributed to Lamb the perception, which seems to have been an assumption of his own, that in Sir Thomas Browne's works the "elements of the man" were "the real source of style." (2) Finally, in describing Flavian's "literary art" in poetry, in Marius the Epicurean, Pater had seemed to describe his own "care for style" in writing prose--"patience of execution," "stately and regular word-building," and "minute culture of form"--a care the purpose of which was the exact expression of "certain strong personal intuitions, certain visions or apprehensions of things as being, with important results, in this way rather than in that." (3) Later in the novel, Marius transfers Flavian's literary ideal of "direct relationship of thought and expression" to prose: "with him [Marius] words should be indeed things--the word, the phrase, valuable in exact proportion to the transparency with which it conveyed to others the apprehension, the emotion, the mood, so vividly real within himself." Further, he expresses, for once, a principle regarding style, the assumption upon which this ideal is based: "a right understanding of oneself being the first precept of genuine style." (4)

In 1886, Pater the stylist reviewed in The Guardian a book by George Saintsbury, who was fast becoming a leading critic of prose style: Specimens of English Prose Style from Malory to Macaulay, selections from ninety-six authors, with annotations, introduced by an essay, "English Prose Style." (5) In this essay Pater found a challenge to some of his basic assumptions about prose style and a challenge in Saintsbury's different and more fully formulated perspective upon the subject, and it was in his commentary upon this essay that Pater first addressed the subject of prose style as such. His discussion of style in the review of Saintsbury is the first of four closely-linked discussions, the other three appearing in "Sir Thomas Browne," published in Macmillan's Magazine in May 1886; "Peach Blossom and Wine," Chapter 4 of Gaston de Latour, published in Macmillan's Magazine in September 1888; and "Style," published in the Fortnightly Review in December 1888 and reprinted the next year as the Introduction to Appreciations. …

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