Pater's is a serious essay (neither farce nor satire, as were Swift's satirical essays) that is itself a critical comment on Stendhal's essay, "Racine et Shakespeare." In it, Stendhal initiates the idea that "romanticism" is not an isolated artistic movement of a specific cultural time period but rather a component of every artistic movement in every cultural time period. Pater describes and supports Stendhal's position in an intellectual tone objectively presenting and considering a sound analysis that creates a mood of crisp and sober reflection.
Alternating paragraphs, written in high diction with allusions to Greek and Roman works and authors, discuss classical arts then romantic arts until the ending paragraphs in which the two are compared side by side, for example, as when Pater writes:
The romantic or classical character of a picture, a poem, a literary work, depends, then, on the balance ... in this sense, a very real distinction may be drawn between good classical and good romantic work.
Pater's thesis is that Stendhal is correct in saying that romanticism exists in every cultural period and is, in any age, evident in the new, the surprising, the innovative, the iconoclastic, all of which become, over time and in later ages, the classical. Pater's objective is to provide fresh insight into the terms "romantic" and "classical" in order to advance a fresh understanding of the requirements of the arts in any given cultural era and particularly in Pater's own era. In presenting these, he defines the "opposition" between "classical" and "romantic," then presents what he sees as the genuine opposition, or "contention":
For, in truth, the legitimate contention is, not of one age or school of literary art against another, but of all successive schools alike, against stupidity which is dead to substance and vulgarity which is dead to form.
A possible weakness of Stendhal's argument and Pater's support of Stendhal's argument is that Romanticism, as begun in Germany with Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, advocated an abandonment of reason and an embrace of emotionalism as epitomized in literature by Werther's death by suicide. This extreme element has not been evident in every cultural era thus signifying a dichotomy in definitions of terms.