Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Walter Pater (PAYT-ur) is principally remembered as a critic. His most influential work, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873; revised as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1877, 1888, 1893), decisively changed the Victorian conception of art as a vehicle for the expression of uplifting sentiments or edifying ideals. Pater, whose unnamed antagonist was John Ruskin, argued that art is preeminently concerned with the dextrous elaboration of its own sensuous ingredients. Form, color, balance, and tone: These are the elements of which art is constituted. Hence, the imposition of a moral upon a painting, a poem, or a musical composition subverts the integrity of the work and distorts the function of criticism. The genuine critic begins with an analysis of the impression that a painting or a poem communicates and then endeavors to trace that impression to the structural elements of which the work is composed. Ultimately, as the notorious conclusion to The Renaissance makes clear, art is chiefly to be cherished as a means of enhancing, expanding, and enlarging the faculties of sensuous apprehension and as a catalyst in the pursuit of more varied, exquisite, and complex sensations. In the last analysis, Pater was inclined to evaluate and judge life itself as an aesthetic phenomenon.
Pater qualified this position in his later works, however, and since Marius the Epicurean—his one completed novel—was expressly written to revise and reevaluate the conclusion of The Renaissance, it is necessary to acquire some preliminary understanding of Pater’s earlier...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Walter Pater’s achievement as a novelist and a critic is central to the modern vision of art. Though he was not always edified by the scandalous manner in which his disciples interpreted his message, nor gratified by the distortion of his ideas by an entire generation of aesthetes and decadents, Pater, when he is fully understood, emerges as a figure of incalculable importance in the evolution of twentieth century literature. In the first place, he did away with much of the fustian approach that obscured the appreciation of art in his own day, and he left a critical legacy, which extended into the twentieth century in the works of Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry. Moreover, as Harold Bloom observes of Pater’s most memorable character, “Marius, more than any fictional character of our age, is the representative modern poet as well as the representative man of literary culture who remains the only audience for that poet.”
As a stylist, too, Pater was wonderfully suggestive and original. Adapting the rich and ornate cadences of Ruskin to his more subtle purpose, Pater evolved a style that is the last word in delicacy, refinement, and understated eloquence. His sentences are characterized by elaborate parentheses, delicately wrought rhythms, and mannered circumlocutions—annoying to some readers—and his malleable prose matches with minute accuracy the uncertainties, doubts, and deliberations of a mind in debate with itself, a mind fastidiously alive to the full complexity of human experience and scrupulously intent upon a verbal music that, in its hesitant rhythms, remains faithful to that experience. In this regard, he clearly anticipates Marcel Proust.
It is not, however, on the level of style alone that Pater’s influence has been indelible. Marius the Epicurean, in the role that it assigns to memory, its tone of melancholy retrospect, its analysis of a highly developed sensibility enamored of perfection yet resigned to uncertainty, anticipates, to a remarkable degree, the structural, tonal, and thematic underpinnings of Proust’s novels. When one adds to this Pater’s lasting influence on Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, André Gide, and William Butler Yeats—the last of whom claimed that Marius the Epicurean is “the only great prose in modern English”—one is compelled to admit that Pater was one of the first major sensibilities of the modern age.