Mr. Pater's Minor Essays

MR. PATER is the first of those few contemporary writers who obey the literary spirit. Literature has not merely supplied him with his culture, but has taken possession of him and energizes his thought. Even when he deals with art or religion he employs the method of literature, and regards them mainly as records of expression cognate with books.

A predominant sense of beauty in form, of charm in the spirit, of truth in the matter, whatever may be the particular object of his criticism, characterizes his work; a constant regard for the imagination as the master-faculty goes along with this; and the special notes of his temperament as a writer — the value he sets upon inwardness of spirit, collectedness of mind, contemplativeness as an habitual mood, and customary and local associations as the natural setting of enduring emotions — are ever emerging on his page.

He is interested, as only the lover of pure literature is, in humanity, to which everything else is subsidiary; and yet more narrowly, it may be said, he is less concerned with the life of man on its mortal and individual side than with man’s spirit, the capacities of the soul and its moods in history, the spiritual ideal. This is the secret of his great attractiveness for many refined and serious-minded readers, to whom he brings a breath of " the ampler ether, the diviner air,” more with the intimacy and immediateness of poetry than after the sober manner of prose. It is true that, although he often employs the methods of imagination, he is essentially a critic of life; in his most original work the result is at last, criticism; but it is of a sort so peculiar that he stands apart and by himself, and is not to be classed with critics in general. In the present volume,1 however, he approaches more nearly the ordinary genus. In it he has collected several essays which have appeared at rare intervals during the last fifteen years, and are a part of his less laborious work. The subjects are all from English literature, except the opening and concluding papers, which are concerned with general definitions about style and the two phases of literary art, the classical and romantic. It is, on the whole, of less interest than his other volumes, but it is not less informed by that literary spirit and that preoccupation with the ideal which distinguish and lend charm to his style.

It is sometimes objected to his work that it is over-refined and too curiously wrought both in matter and manner; that it seeks for exquisiteness too carefully ; that, in a word, he has the vice of preciosity. This impression was made by his earliest essays, but the fault of excessive sensibility and high culture in an æsthetic direction has steadily grown less with years, and what now remains of it contributes more to the excellence than it detracts from the perfect taste of his work. He is not unconscious of the trait in his temperament which these critics dwell upon, and in this volume he plays with their objection in a delightful paper upon Shakespeare’s Biron, in which character he plainly recognizes something of his own likeness; but the analysis of good literature in general with which he begins the book should convince the reluctant critics that Mr. Pater’s canons are as sound, severe, and universal as the most doctrinaire of them can fairly wish. He divides literature into its two provinces of science and belles-lettres, — of knowledge and power, according to De Quincey’s formula,— by the distinction that in one department the fact is recorded, in the other the author’s particular sense of fact; and he is careful to observe that mind counts for most in the structure of a work of literary art, and soul for most in its tone, its charm, its peculiar winning power. There is nothing original in this, but the restatement is cleverly put, with a freshness of phrase and a firm, logical, Aristotelian stiffness in the thought; and the essential point of good literary art, which is absolute correspondence between word and idea, together with that economy in the use of words which forbids all surplusage, is kept in view through the whole discussion.

Great art, however, differs from good art. “ It is,” he says, “ on the quality of the matter it informs or controls, its compass, its variety, its alliance to great ends, or the depth of the note of revolt, or the largeness of hope in it, that the greatness of literary art depends ; ” and he explains his meaning more clearly by adding that, in order to be great as well as excellent, literary art must be “ devoted to the increase of men’s happiness, to the redemption of the oppressed, or the enlargement of our sympathies with each other, or to such presentment of new or old truth about ourselves and our relation to the world as may ennoble and fortify us in our sojourn here, or, immediately, as with Dante, to the glory of God.” In words like these there is nothing of that “preciosity ” which is urged as a fatal fault in Mr. Pater, and which is hardly to be counted as a vice, if it does not lock up the soul in the isolation of an unshared æsthetic pleasure, such as Tennyson has depicted in a famous poem.

In fact, so far from resulting in that narrowness of appreciation and scornful temper toward all that is not choice and exquisite, which belong to the vice of preciosity in taste, Mr. Pater’s sensibility has made him an unusually catholic critic. The welcome which he accords to different types of mind which he passes in review is not the conventional acceptance of the fame and worth of names already listed in literature; but he takes genuine and cordial delight in the qualities of the men he writes of; he betrays an understanding of them, a liking for their human traits, a real interest in their lives, and sympathy with them.

The human element is stronger, perhaps, in this volume than in others from his pen. Lamb and Sir Thomas Browne are portrayed by the hand of a true lover, in whom the literary critic seems secondary; and although Wordsworth and Coleridge are less openly and completely sympathized with, there is in the treatment of them a nearness of appreciation beyond the reach of mere intellectual or literary interest; while Morris and Rossetti are dealt with, as a matter of course, as one would deal with friends. This more familiar touch with life itself in its weaknesses and littleness as it was actually lived, in its whims and incidents and sad circumstances, brings Mr. Pater’s more slight essays of this sort to a lower but not less pleasing level than that of his ideal sketches in imagination, or the serene ideal life portrayed in his single great work, the career of Marius. But beside this more human element felt in his tone, there remains the really important thing, which is his thought about Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shakespeare, about their genius, their performance and its utility to men, and the suggestions he derives from their study with respect to the life of the spirit of man in history.

The essay upon Wordsworth is of most value. The poet himself was so great in his moments of inspiration, and at the same time so prosaic when he was not visited by the divine power on whose coming he waited so passively, and his work is so blended of prose and poetry, that it is a misfortune for him when his critics share his own defects, as many Wordsworthians do. On the other hand, a critic who comes to him, making those æsthetic requirements which Mr. Pater does, feeling with him only when he is really inspired, can do great service to his fame. Such a critic points out most unerringly that line which separates the poet’s from the moralist’s work. This is what Mr. Pater has in effect done. He suppresses all of Wordsworth except the poet, and concentrates attention upon that. With much of Wordsworth’s temperament he is in entire sympathy. On many points, indeed, he is especially attracted by qualities which none values more highly. No poet, to be explicit, has illustrated that “tacitness of spirit” in expectation of the religious mood, which Mr. Pater has often dwelt upon as a trait of the finest souls in literature. To Wordsworth it was matter of the common round of life; he was always waiting for that visitation which seemed to him to be the vital source of his Muse. Wordsworth, too. valued very highly the sentiments and homeemotions of the country people, closely attached to the places that they loved, and amid which the associations of their experience were bred ; and for this primitive mood of the soul Mr. Pater has often expressed a kind of awe. Inwardness, too, to use one of the critic’s favorite words, the turning of the spirit upon itself in thought and feeling, the contemplation by the soul of its own life, was more characteristic of Wordsworth than of any other secular poet of England. The pastoral scene, also, attracts a taste cultivated by classical study, and at the same time touched by the regard for the humble and poor which belongs to the modern age.

In these and in other ways Mr. Pater has the open secret of Wordsworth ready to his eye, and he comes to an appreciation of Wordsworth’s poetical achievement which is singularly free from the disturbance and perplexity occasioned by the prosaic portion of the poet’s work.

The essay upon Coleridge is more noticeable for its clear definition of his place as a reactionist in the age ; for the plainness with which it brings out both his influence upon those who wished to go along with him in his attempt at a transcendental renovation of English theology, and also the gradual failure and extinction of that influence, because the trend of the century was antagonistic to the mode of thought. He was, Mr. Pater thinks, born for poetry, and lost lo it; and certainly the critic does full justice to what Coleridge accomplished in poetry,— he goes further in his appreciation than it seems to us is warranted by the work done. Lamb and Sir Thomas Browne are treated with more particularity, and somewhat in a biographical way. The author makes many finely critical remarks upon them, however; and if his hand seems trammeled, especially in the last essay, by his adherence to temporal matters, there is compensation in the greater prominence of Browne’s own character, which is so thoroughly penetrated by the curiosity and understanding of the critic. In the brief essays upon some of Shakespeare’s characters, Mr. Pater comes again upon that ideal ground where he works with most ease and possibly most pleasure, and in writing of Richard II. and Claudio shows once more the special attractiveness which “ golden youth ” has always had for him ; and he adds here, as his manner is, a background of the general life, which he sums up in the “ irony ” of situation in Shakespeare’s kings, and in the vigorous desire for existence at Shakespeare’s Vienna, on which Angelo’s story is relieved. The concluding paper deals with definitions of classicism and romanticism, with the purpose of showing that these are names of two phases of the literary spirit in all ages, in ancient times as well as in the modern world.

The volume has thus a wide range of subject, and gives scope to the varied culture which distinguishes its author; and it may be hoped that it will extend somewhat further the too narrow circle of his readers.

  1. Appreciations, with an Essay on Style. By WALTER PATER. New York: Macmillan & Co. 1889.