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Short poem

Walter Pater (1839-1894)

Style (1888)

{{Page 1}} {{Chapter 1}}


§1 SINCE all progress of mind consists for the most part in differentiation, in the resolution of an obscure and complex object into its component aspects, it is surely the stupidest of losses to confuse things which right reason has put asunder, to lose the sense of achieved distinctions, the distinction between poetry and prose, for instance, or, to speak more exactly, between the laws and characteristic excellences of verse and prose composition. §2 On the other hand, those who have dwelt most emphatically on the distinction between prose and verse, prose and poetry, may sometimes have been tempted to limit the proper functions of prose too narrowly ; and this again is at least false economy, as being, in effect, the renunciation of a certain means or faculty, in a world where after all we must needs make the most of things. §3 Critical efforts to limit art a priori , by anticipations regarding the natural incapacity of the material with which this or that artist works, as the sculptor with solid form, or the prose-writer with the {{Page 2}} ordinary language of men, are always liable to be discredited by the facts of artistic production ; and while prose is actually found to be a coloured thing with Bacon, picturesque with Livy and Carlyle, musical with Cicero and Newman, mystical and intimate with Plato and Michelet and Sir Thomas Browne, exalted or florid, it may be, with Milton and Taylor, it will be useless to protest that it can be nothing at all, except something very tamely and narrowly confined to mainly practical ends -- a kind of "good round-hand ;" as useless as the protest that poetry might not touch prosaic subjects as with Wordsworth, or an abstruse matter as with Browning, or treat contemporary life nobly as with Tennyson. §4 In subordination to one essential beauty in all good literary style, in all literature as a fine art, as there are many beauties of poetry so the beauties of prose are many, and it is the business of criticism to estimate them as such ; as it is good in the criticism of verse to look for those hard, logical, and quasiprosaic excellences which that too has, or needs. §5 To find in the poem, amid the flowers, the allusions, the mixed perspectives, of Lycidas for instance, the thought, the logical structure : -- how wholesome! how delightful ! as to identify in prose what we call the poetry, the imaginative power, not treating it as out of place and a kind of vagrant intruder, but by way of {{Page 3}} an estimate of its rights, that is, of its achieved powers, there.

§6 Dryden, with the characteristic instinct of his age, loved to emphasise the distinction between poetry and prose, the protest against their confusion with each other, coming with somewhat diminished effect from one whose poetry was so prosaic. §7 In truth, his sense of prosaic excellence affected his verse rather than his prose, which is not only fervid, richly figured, poetic, as we say, but vitiated, all unconsciously, by many a scanning line. §8 Setting up correctness, that humble merit of prose, as the central literary excel1ence, he is really a less correct writer than he may seem, still with an imperfect mastery of the relative pronoun. §9 It might have been foreseen that, in the rotations of mind, the province of poetry in prose would find its assertor ; and, a century after Dryden, amid very different intellectual needs, and with the need therefore of great modifications in literary form, the range of the poetic force in literature was effectively enlarged by Wordsworth. §10 The true distinction between prose and poetry he regarded as the almost technical or accidental one of the absence or presence of metrical beauty, or, say ! metrical restraint ; and for him the opposition came to be between verse and prose of course ; but, as the essential dichotomy in this matter, between imaginative and unimaginative {{Page 4}} writing, parallel to De Quincey's distinction between "the literature of power and the literature of knowledge," in the former of which the composer gives us not fact, but his peculiar sense of fact, whether past or present.

§11 Dismissing then, under sanction of Wordsworth, that harsher opposition of poetry to prose, as savouring in fact of the arbitrary psychology of the last century, and with it the prejudice that there can be but one only beauty of prose style, I propose here to point out certain qualities of all literature as a fine art, which, if they apply to the literature of fact, apply still more to the literature of the imaginative sense of fact, while they apply indifferently to verse and prose, so far as either is really imaginative -- certain conditions of true art in both alike, which conditions may also contain in them the secret of the proper discrimination and guardianship of the peculiar excellences of either.

§12 The line between fact and something quite different from external fact is, indeed, hard to draw. §13 In Pascal, for instance, in the persuasive writers generally, how difficult to define the point where, from time to time, argument which, if it is to be worth anything at all, must consist of facts or groups of facts, becomes a pleading -- a theorem no longer, but essentially an appeal to the reader to catch the {{Page 5}} writer's spirit, to think with him, if one can or will -- an expression no longer of fact but of his sense of it, his peculiar intuition of a world, prospective, or discerned below the faulty conditions of the present, in either case changed somewhat from the actual world. §14 In science, on the other hand, in history so far as it conforms to scientific rule, we have a literary domain where the imagination may be thought to be always an intruder. §15 And as, in all science, the functions of literature reduce themselves eventually to the transcribing of fact, so all the excellences of literary form in regard to science are reducible to various kinds of painstaking ; this good quality being involved in all "skilled work" whatever, in the drafting of an act of parliament, as in sewing. §16 Yet here again, the writer's sence of fact, in history especially, and in all those complex subjects which do but lie on the borders of science, will still take the place of fact, in various degrees. §17 Your historian, for instance, with absolutely truthful intention, amid the multitude of facts presented to him must needs select, and in selecting assert something of his own humour, something that comes not of the world without but of a vision within. §18 So Gibbon moulds his unwieldy material to a preconceived view. §19 Livy, Tacitus, Michelet, moving full of poignant sensibility amid the records of the past, each, after his own sense, modifies -- who can tell where {{Page 6}} and to what degree ? -- and becomes something else than a transcriber ; each, as he thus modifies, passing into the domain of art proper. §20 For just in proportion as the writer's aim, consciously or unconsciously, comes to be the transcribing, not of the world, not of mere fact, but of his sense of it, he becomes an artist, his work fine art ; and good art (as I hope ultimately to show) in proportion to the truth of his presentment of that sense ; as in those humbler or plainer functions of literature also, truth -- truth to bare fact, there -- is the essence of such artistic quality as they may have. §21 Truth ! there can be no merit, no craft at all, without that. §22 And further, all beauty is in the long run only fineness of truth, or what we call expression, the finer accommodation of speech to that vision within.

§23 -- The transcript of his sense of fact rather than the fact, as being preferable, pleasanter, more beautiful to the writer himself. §24 In literature, as in every other product of human skill, in the moulding of a bell or a platter for instance, wherever this sense asserts itself, wherever the producer so modifies his work as, over and above its primary use or intention, to make it pleasing (to himself, of course, in the first instance) there, "fine" as opposed to merely serviceable art, exists. §25 Literary art, that is, like all art which is in any way imitative or reproductive of fact -- form, or {{Page 7}} colour, or incident -- is the representation of such fact as connected with soul, of a specific personality, in its preferences, its volition and power.

§26 Such is the matter of imaginative or artistic literature -- this transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinite variety, as modified by human preference in all its infinitely varied forms. §27 It will be good literary art not because it is brilliant or sober, or rich, or impulsive, or severe, but just in proportion as its representation of that sense, that soul-fact, is true, verse being only one department of such literature, and imaginative prose, it may be thought, being the special art of the modern world. §28 That imaginative prose should be the special and opportune art of the modern world results from two important facts about the latter : first, the chaotic variety and complexity of its interests, making the intellectual issue, the really master currents of the present time incalculable -- a condition of mind little susceptible of the restraint proper to verse form, so that the most characteristic verse of the nineteenth century has been lawless verse ; and secondly, an all-pervading naturalism, a curiosity about everything whatever as it really is, involving a certain humility of attitude, cognate to what must, after all, be the less ambitious form of literature. §29 And prose thus asserting itself as the special and privileged artistic {{Page 8}} faculty of the present day, will be, however critics may try to narrow its scope, as varied in its excellence as humanity itself reflecting on the facts of its latest experience -- an instrument of many stops, meditative, observant, descriptive, eloquent, analytic, plaintive, fervid. §30 Its beauties will be not exclusively "pedestrian ": it will exert, in due measure, all the varied charms of poetry, down to the rhythm which, as in Cicero, or Michelet, or Newman, at their best, gives its musical value to every syllable. *

§31 The literary artist is of necessity a scholar, and in what he proposes to do will have in mind, first of all, the scholar and the scholarly conscience -- the male conscience in this matter, as we must think it, under a system of education which still to so large an extent limits real scholarship to men. §32 In his self-criticism, he supposes always that sort of reader who will go (full of eyes) warily, considerately, though without consideration for him, over the ground which the female conscience traverses so lightly, so amiably.

*|Mr.| Saintsbury, in his Specimens of English Prose, from Malory to Macaulay, 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. English Prose, from Mandeville to Thackeray, more recently "chosen and edited " by a younger scholar, |Mr.| Arthur Galton, of New College, Oxford, a lover of our literature at once enthusiastic and discreet, aims at a more various illustration of the eloquent powers of English prose, and is a delightful companion.

{{Page 9}} §33 For the material in which he works is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor's marble. §34 Product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues, compact of obscure and minute association, language has its own abundant and often recondite laws, in the habitual and summary recognition of which scholarship consists. §35 A writer, full of a matter he is before all things anxious to express, may think of those laws, the limitations of vocabulary, structure, and the like, as a restriction, but if a real artist will find in them an opportunity. §36 His punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium will diffuse through all he writes a general air of sensibility, of refined usage. §37 Exclusiones debitæ naturæ -- the exclusions, or rejections, which nature demands -- we know how large a part these play, according to Bacon, in the science of nature. §38 In a somewhat changed sense, we might say that the art of the scholar is summed up in the observance of those rejections demanded by the nature of his medium, the material he must use. §39 Alive to the value of an atmosphere in which every term finds its utmost degree of expression, and with all the jealousy of a lover of words, he will resist a constant tendency on the part of the majority of those who use them to efface the distinctions of language, the facility of writers often reinforcing in this respect the work of {{Page 10}} the vulgar. §40 He will feel the obligation not of the laws only, but of those affinities, avoidances, those mere preferences, of his language, which through the associations of literary history have become a part of its nature, prescribing the rejection of many a neology, many a license, many a gipsy phrase which might present itself as actually expressive. §41 His appeal, again, is to the scholar, who has great experience in literature, and will show no favour to short-cuts, or hackneyed illustration, or an affectation of learning designed for the unlearned. §42 Hence a contention, a sense of self-restraint and renunciation, having for the susceptible reader the effect of a challenge for minute consideration ; the attention of the writer, in every minutest detail, being a pledge that it is worth the reader's while to be attentive too, that the writer is dealing scrupulously with his instrument, and therefore, indirectly, with the reader himself also, that he has the science of the instrument he plays on, perhaps, after all, with a freedom which in such case will be the freedom of a master.

§43 For meanwhile, braced only by those restraints, he is really vindicating his liberty in the making of a vocabulary, an entire system of composition, for himself, his own true manner ; and when we speak of the manner of a true master we mean what is essential in his art. §44 Pedantry being only the {{Page 11}} scholarship of le cuistre (we have no English equivalent) he is no pedant, and does but show his intelligence of the rules of language in his freedoms with it, addition or expansion, which like the spontaneities of manner in a well-bred person will still further illustrate good taste. -- The right vocabulary ! §45 Translators have not invariably seen how all-important that is in the work of translation, driving for the most part at idiom or construction ; whereas, if the original be first-rate, one's first care should be with its elementary particles, Plato, for instance, being often reproducible by an exact following, with no variation in structure, of word after word, as the pencil follows a drawing under tracing-paper, so only each word or syllable be not of false colour, to change my illustration a little.

§46 Well ! that is because any writer worth translating at all has winnowed and searched through his vocabulary, is conscious of the words he would select in systematic reading of a dictionary, and still more of the words he would reject were the dictionary other than Johnson's ; and doing this with his peculiar sense of the world ever in view, in search of an instrument for the adequate expression of that, he begets a vocabulary faithful to the colouring of his own spirit, and in the strictest sense original. §47 That living authority which language needs lies, in truth, in its scholars, who {{Page 12}} recognising always that every language possesses a genius, a very fastidious genius, of its own, expand at once and purify its very elements, which must needs change along with the changing thoughts of living people. §48 Ninety years ago, for instance, great mental force, certainly, was needed by Wordsworth, to break through the consecrated poetic associations of a century, and speak the language that was his, that was to become in a measure the language of the next generation. §49 But he did it with the tact of a scholar also. §50 English, for a quarter of a century past, has been assimilating the phraseology of pictorial art ; for half a century, the phraseology of the great German metaphysical movement of eighty years ago ; in part also the language of mystical theology : and none but pedants will regret a great consequent increase of its resources. §51 For many years to come its enterprise may well lie in the naturalisation of the vocabulary of science, so only it be under the eye of a sensitive scholarship -- in a liberal naturalisation of the ideas of science too, for after all the chief stimulus of good style is to possess a full, rich, complex matter to grapple with. §52 The literary artist, therefore, will be well aware of physical science ; science also attaining, in its turn, its true literary ideal. §53 And then, as the scholar is nothing without the historic sense, he will be apt to restore not really {{Page 13}} obsolete or really worn-out words, but the finer edge of words still in use : ascertain, communicate, discover -- words like these it has been part of our " business " to misuse. §54 And still, as language was made for man, he will be no authority for correctnesses which, limiting freedom of utterance, were yet but accidents in their origin ; as if one vowed not to say "its," which ought to have been in Shakespeare ; " his" and "hers," for inanimate objects, being but a barbarous and really inexpressive survival. §55 Yet we have known many things like this. §56 Racy Saxon monosyllables, close to us as touch and sight, he will intermix readily with those long, savoursome, Latin words, rich in "second intention." §57 In this late day certainly, no critical process can be conducted reasonably without eclecticism. §58 Of such eclecticism we have a justifying example in one of the first poets of our time. §59 How illustrative of monosyllabic effect, of sonorous Latin, of the phraseology of science, of metaphysic, of colloquialism even, are the writings of Tennyson ; yet with what a fine, fastidious scholarship throughout !

§60 A scholar writing for the scholarly, he will of course leave something to the willing intelligence of his reader. §61 " To go preach to the first passer-by," says Montaigne, "to become tutor to the ignorance of the first I meet, is a thing I abhor ; " a thing, in {{Page 14}} fact, naturally distressing to the scholar, who will therefore ever be shy of offering uncomplimentary assistance to the reader's wit. §62 To really strenuous minds there is a pleasurable stimulus in the challenge for a continuous effort on their part, to be rewarded by securer and more intimate grasp of the author's sense. §63 Self-restraint, a skilful economy of means, ascêsis , that too has a beauty of its own ; and for the reader supposed there will be an æsthetic satisfaction in that frugal closeness of style which makes the most of a word, in the exaction from every sentence of a precise relief, in the just spacing out of word to thought, in the logically filled space connected always with the delightful sense of difficulty overcome.

§64 Different classes of persons, at different times, make, of course, very various demands upon literature. §65 Still, scholars, I suppose, and not only scholars, but all disinterested lovers of books, will always look to it, as to all other fine art, for a refuge, a sort of cloistral refuge, from a certain vulgarity in the actual world. §66 A perfect poem like Lycidas, a perfect fiction like Esmond, the perfect handling of a theory like Newman's Idea of a University, has for them something of the uses of a religious " retreat." §67 Here, then, with a view to the central need of a select few, those " men of a finer thread " who have formed and {{Page 15}} maintain the literary ideal, everything, every component element, will have undergone exact trial, and, above all, there will be no uncharacteristic tar-nished or vulgar decoration, permissible ornament being for the most part structural, or necessary. §68 As the painter in his picture, so the artist in his book, aims at the production by honourable artifice of a peculiar atmosphere. §69 " The artist," says Schiller, " may be known rather by what he omits" ; and in literature, too, the true artist may be best recognised by his tact of omission. §70 For to the grave reader words too are grave ; and the ornamental word, the figure, the accessory form or colour or reference, is rarely content to die to thought precisely at the right moment, but will inevitably linger awhile, stirring a long " brain- wave " behind it of perhaps quite alien associations.

§71 Just there, it may be, is the detrimental tendency of the sort of scholarly attentiveness of mind I am recommending. §72 But the true artist allows for it. §73 He will remember that, as the very word ornament indicates what is in itself non-essential, so the " one beauty " of all literary style is of its very essence, and independent, in prose and verse alike, of all removable decoration ; that it may exist in its fullest lustre, as in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, for instance, or in Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir, in a composition utterly {{Page 16}} unadorned, with hardly a single suggestion of visibly beautiful things. §74 Parallel, allusion, the allusive way generally, the flowers in the garden : -- he knows the narcotic force of these upon the negligent intelligence to which any diversion, literally, is welcome, any vagrant intruder, because one can go wandering away with it from the immediate subject. §75 Jealous, if he have a really quickening motive within, of all that does not hold directly to that, of the facile, the otiose, he will never depart from the strictly pedestrian process, unless he gains a ponderable something thereby. §76 Even assured of its congruity, he will still question its serviceableness. §77 Is it worth while, can we afford, to attend to just that, to just that figure or literary reference, just then ? -- Surplusage ! he will dread that, as the runner on his muscles. §78 For in truth all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage, from the last finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the last particle of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the finished work to be, lying somewhere, according to Michelangelo's fancy, in the rough-hewn block of stone.

§79 And what applies to figure or flower must be understood of all other accidental or removable ornaments of writing whatever ; and not of specific ornament only, but of all that latent colour and imagery which language as such carries {{Page 17}} in it. §80 A lover of words for their own sake, to whom nothing about them is unimportant, a minute and constant observer of their physiognomy, he will be on the alert not only for obviously mixed metaphors of course, but for the metaphor that is mixed in all our speech, though a rapid use may involve no cognition of it. §81 Currently recognising the incident, the colour, the physical elements or particles in words like absorb, consider, extract, to take the first that occur, he will avail himself of them, as further adding to the resources of expression. §82 The elementary particles of language will be realised as colour and light and shade through his scholarly living in the full sense of them. §83 Still opposing the constant degradation of language by those who use it carelessly, he will not treat coloured glass as if it were clear ; and while half the world is using figure unconsciously, will be fully aware not only of all that latent figurative texture in speech, but of the vague, lazy, half{\- }formed personification -- a rhetoric, depressing, and worse than nothing, because it has no really rhetorical motive -- which plays so large a part there, and, as in the case of more ostentatious ornament, scrupulously exact of it, from syllable to syllable, its precise value.

§84 So far I have been speaking of certain conditions of the literary art arising out of the medium or {{Page 18}} material in or upon which it works, the essential qualities of language and its aptitudes for contingent ornamentation, matters which define scholarship as science and good taste respectively. §85 They are both subservient to a more intimate quality of good style : more intimate, as coming nearer to the artist himself. §86 The otiose, the facile, surplusage : why are these abhorrent to the true literary artist, except because, in literary as in all other art, structure is all-important, felt, or painfully missed, everywhere ? -- that architectural conception of work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does but, with undiminished vigour, unfold and justify the first -- a condition of literary art, which, in contradistinction to another quality of the artist himself, to be spoken of later, I shall call the necessity of mind in style.

§87 An acute philosophical writer, the late Dean Mansel (a writer whose works illustrate the literary beauty there may be in closeness, and with obvious repression or economy of a fine rhetorical gift) wrote a book, of fascinating precision in a very obscure subject, to show that all the technical laws of logic are but means of securing, in each and all of its apprehensions, the unity, the strict identity with itself, of the apprehending mind. §88 All the laws of {{Page 19}} good writing aim at a similar unity or identity of the mind in all the processes by which the word is associated to its import. §89 The term is right, and has its essential beauty, when it becomes, in a manner, what it signifies, as with the names of simple sensations. §90 To give the phrase, the sentence, the structural member, the entire composition, song, or essay, a similar unity with its subject and with itself : -- style is in the right way when it tends towards that. §91 All depends upon the original unity, the vital wholeness and identity, of the initiatory apprehension or view. §92 So much is true of all art, which therefore requires always its logic, its comprehensive reason -- insight, foresight, retrospect, in simultaneous action -- true, most of all, of the literary art, as being of all the arts most closely cognate to the abstract intelligence. §93 Such logical coherency may be evidenced not merely in the lines of composition as a whole, but in the choice of a single word, while it by no means interferes with, but may even prescribe, much variety, in the building of the sentence for instance, or in the manner, argumentative, descriptive, discursive, of this or that part or member of the entire design. §94 The blithe, crisp sentence, decisive as a child's expression of its needs, may alternate with the long-contending, victoriously intricate sentence ; the sentence, born with the integrity of a single word, relieving the {{Page 20}} sort of sentence in which, if you look closely, you can see much contrivance, much adjustment, to bring a highly qualified matter into compass at one view. §95 For the literary architecture, if it is to be rich and expressive, involves not only foresight of the end in the beginning, but also development or growth of design, in the process of execution, with many irregularities, surprises, and afterthoughts ; the contingent as well as the necessary being subsumed under the unity of the whole. §96 As truly, to the lack of such architectural design, of a single, almost visual, image, vigorously informing an entire, perhaps very intricate, composition, which shall be austere, ornate, argumentative, fanciful, yet true from first to last to that vision within, may be attributed those weaknesses of conscious or unconscious repetition of word, phrase, motive, or member of the whole matter, indicating, as Flaubert was aware, an original structure in thought not organically complete. §97 With such foresight, the actual conclusion will most often get itself written out of hand, before, in the more obvious sense, the work is finished. §98 With some strong and leading sense of the world, the tight hold of which secures true composition and not mere loose accretion, the literary artist, I suppose, goes on considerately, setting joint to joint, sustained by yet restraining the productive ardour, retracing the negligences of his first sketch, {{Page 21}} repeating his steps only that he may give the reader a sense of secure and restful progress, readjusting mere assonances even, that they may soothe the reader, or at least not interrupt him on his way ; and then, somewhere before the end comes, is burdened, inspired, with his conclusion, and betimes delivered of it, leaving off, not in weariness and because he finds himself at an end, but in all the freshness of volition. §99 His work now structurally complete, with all the accumulating effect of secondary shades of meaning, he finishes the whole up to the just proportion of that ante-penultimate conclusion, and all becomes expressive. §100 The house he has built is rather a body he has informed. §101 And so it happens, to its greater credit, that the better interest even of a narrative to be recounted, a story to be told, will often be in its second reading. §102 And though there are instances of great writers who have been no artists, an unconscious tact sometimes directing work in which we may detect, very pleasurably, many of the effects of conscious art, yet one of the greatest pleasures of really good prose literature is in the critical tracing out of that conscious artistic structure, and the pervading sense of it as we read. §103 Yet of poetic literature too ; for, in truth, the kind of constructive intelligence here supposed is one of the forms of the imagination.

§104 That is the special function of mind, in style. §105 {{Page 22}} Mind and soul : -- hard to ascertain philosophically, the distinction is real enough practically, for they often interfere, are sometimes in conflict, with each other. §106 Blake, in the last century, is an instance of preponderating soul, embarrassed, at a loss, in an era of preponderating mind. §107 As a quality of style, at all events, soul is a fact, in certain writers -- the way they have of absorbing language, of attracting it into the peculiar spirit they are of, with a subtlety which makes the actual result seem like some inexplicable inspiration. §108 By mind, the literary artist reaches us, through static and objective indications of design in his work, legible to all. §109 By soul, he reaches us, somewhat capriciously perhaps, one and not another, through vagrant sympathy and a kind of immediate contact. §110 Mind we cannot choose but approve where we recognise it ; soul may repel us, not because we misunderstand it. §111 The way in which theological interests sometimes avail themselves of language is perhaps the best illustration of the force I mean to indicate generally in literature, by the word soul. §112 Ardent religious persuasion may exist, may make its way, without finding any equivalent heat in language : or, again, it may enkindle words to various degrees, and when it really takes hold of them doubles its force. §113 Religious history presents many remarkable instances in which,through no mere phrase {{Page 23}} worship, an unconscious literary tact has, for the sensitive, laid open a privileged pathway from one to another. §114 " The altar-fire," people say, " has touched those lips ! " §115 The Vulgate, the English Bible, the English Prayer-Book, the writings of Swedenborg, the Tracts for the Times : -- there, we have instances of widely different and largely diffused phases of religious feeling in operation as soul in style. §116 But something of the same kind acts with similar power in certain writers of quite other than theological literature, on behalf of some wholly personal and peculiar sense of theirs. §117 Most easily illustrated by theological literature, this quality lends to profane writers a kind of religious influence. §118 At their best, these writers become, as we say sometimes, " prophets " ; such character depending on the effect not merely of their matter, but of their matter as allied to, in " electric affinity " with, peculiar form, and working in all cases by an immediate sympathetic contact, on which account it is that it may be called soul, as opposed to mind, in style. §119 And this too is a faculty of choosing and rejecting what is congruous or otherwise, with a drift towards unity -- unity of atmosphere here, as there of design -- soul securing colour (or perfume, might we say ?) as mind secures form, the latter being essentially finite, the former vague or infinite, as the influence of a living person {{Page 24}} is practically infinite. §120 There are some to whom nothing has any real interest, or real meaning, except as operative in a given person ; and it is they who best appreciate the quality of soul in literary art. §121 They seem to know a person, in a book, and make way by intuition : yet, although they thus enjoy the completeness of a personal information, it is still a characteristic of soul, in this sense of the word, that it does but suggest what can never be uttered, not as being different from, or more obscure than, what actually gets said, but as containing that plenary substance of which there is only one phase or facet in what is there expressed.

§122 If all high things have their martyrs, Gustave Flaubert might perhaps rank as the martyr of literary style. In his printed correspondence, a curious series of letters, written in his twenty-fifth year, records what seems to have been his one other passion -- a series of letters which, with its fine casuistries, its firmly repressed anguish, its tone of harmonious grey, and the sense of disillusion in which the whole matter ends, might have been, a few slight changes supposed, one of his own fictions. §123 Writing to Madame X. certainly he does display, by "taking thought " mainly, by constant and delicate pondering, as in his love for literature, a heart really moved, but still more, and as the pledge {{Page 25}} of that emotion, a loyalty to his work. §124 Madame X., too, is a literary artist, and the best gifts he can send her are precepts of perfection in art, counsels for the effectual pursuit of that better love. §125 In his love-letters it is the pains and pleasures of art he insists on, its solaces : he communicates secrets, reproves, encourages, with a view to that. §126 Whether the lady was dissatisfied with such divided or indirect service, the reader is not enabled to see ; but sees that, on Flaubert's part at least, a living person could be no rival of what was, from first to last, his leading passion, a somewhat solitary and exclusive one.

§127 " I must scold you," he writes, " for one thing, which shocks, scandalises me, the small concern, namely, you show for art just now. §128 As regards glory be it so : there, I approve. §129 But for art ! -- the one thing in life that is good and real -- can you compare with it an earthly love ? -- prefer the adoration of a relative beauty to the cultus of the true beauty ? §130 Well ! I tell you the truth. §131 That is the one thing good in me: the one thing I have, to me estimable. §132 For yourself, you blend with the beautiful a heap of alien things, the useful, the agreeable, what not ? --

§133 " The only way not to be unhappy is to shut yourself up in art, and count everything else as nothing. §134 Pride takes the place of all beside when it is established on a large basis. §135 Work ! God wills it. §136 That, it seems to me, is clear. --

§137 " I am reading over again the Æneid, certain verses of which I repeat to myself to satiety. §138 There are phrases there {{Page 26}} which stay in one's head, by which I find myself beset, as with those musical airs which are for ever returning, and cause you pain, you love them so much. §139 I observe that I no longer laugh much, and am no longer depressed. §140 I am ripe. §141 You talk of my serenity, and envy me. §142 It may well surprise you. §143 Sick, irritated, the prey a thousand times a day of cruel pain, I continue my labour like a true working man, who, with sleeves turned up, in the sweat of his brow, beats away at his anvil, never troubling himself whether it rains or blows, for hail or thunder. §144 I was not like that formerly. §145 The change has taken place naturally, though my wil1 has counted for something in the matter. --

§146 " Those who write in good style are sometimes accused of a neglect of ideas, and of the moral end, as if the end of the physician were something else than healing, of the painter than painting -- as if the end of art were not, before all else, the beautiful."

§147 What, then, did Flaubert understand by beauty, in the art he pursued with so much fervour, with so much self-command ? §148 Let us hear a sympathetic commentator : --

§149 " Possessed of an absolute belief that there exists but one way of expressing one thing, one word to call it by, one adjective to qualify, one verb to animate it, he gave himself to superhuman labour for the discovery, in every phrase, of that word, that verb, that epithet. §150 In this way, he believed in some mysterious harmony of expression, and when a true word seemed to him to lack euphony still went on seeking another, with invincible patience, certain that he had not yet got hold of the unique word.... §151 A thousand preoccupations would beset him at the same moment, always with this desperate {{Page 27}} certitude fixed in his spirit : Among all the expressions in the world, all forms and turns of expression, there is but one -- one form, one mode -- to express what I want to say."

§152 The one word for the one thing, the one thought, amid the multitude of words, terms, that might just do : the problem of style was there ! -- the unique word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, essay, or song, absolutely proper to the single mental presentation or vision within. §153 In that perfect justice, over and above the many contingent and removable beauties with which beautiful style may charm us, but which it can exist without, independent of them yet dexterously availing itself of them, omnipresent in good work, in function at every point, from single epithets to the rhythm of a whole book, lay the specific, indispensable, very intellectual, beauty of literature, the possibility of which constitutes it a fine art.

§154 One seems to detect the influence of a philosophic idea there, the idea of a natural economy, of some pre- existent adaptation, between a relative, somewhere in the world of thought, and its correlative, somewhere in the world of language -- both alike, rather, somewhere in the mind of the artist, desiderative, expectant, inventive -- meeting each other with the readiness of " soul and body reunited," in Blake's rapturous design ; and, in fact, Flaubert was fond of giving his theory philosophical expression. --

{{Page 28}} §155 " There are no beautiful thoughts," he would say, " without beautiful forms, and conversely. §156 As it is impossible to extract from a physical body the qualities which really constitute it -- colour, extension, and the like -- without reducing it to a hollow abstraction, in a word, without destroying it ; just so it is impossible to detach the form from the idea, for the idea only exists by virtue of the form."

§157 All the recognised flowers, the removable ornaments of literature (including harmony and ease in reading aloud, very carefully considered by him) counted certainly ; for these too are part of the actual value of what one says. §158 But still, after all, with Flaubert, the search, the unwearied research, was not for the smooth, or winsome, or forcible word, as such, as with false Ciceronians, but quite simply and honestly, for the word's adjustment to its meaning. §159 The first condition of this must be, of course, to know yourself, to have ascertained your own sense exactly. §160 Then, if we suppose an artist, he says to the reader, -- I want you to see precisely what I see. §161 Into the mind sensitive to " form," a flood of random sounds, colours, incidents, is ever penetrating from the world without, to become, by sympathetic selection, a part of its very structure, and, in turn, the visible vesture and expression of that other world it sees so steadily within, nay, already with a partial conformity thereto, to be refined, enlarged, corrected, at a hundred points ; and it is just there, just at those doubtful {{Page 29}} points that the function of style, as tact or taste, intervenes. §162 The unique term will come more quickly to one than another, at one time than another, according also to the kind of matter in question. §163 Quickness and slowness, ease and closeness alike, have nothing to do with the artistic character of the true word found at last. §164 As there is a charm of ease, so there is also a special charm in the signs of discovery, of effort and contention towards a due end, as so often with Flaubert himself - - in the style which has been pliant, as only obstinate, durable metal can be, to the inherent perplexities and recusancy of a certain diffficult thought.

§165 If Flaubert had not told us, perhaps we should never have guessed how tardy and painful his own procedure really was, and after reading his confession may think that his almost endless hesitation had much to do with diseased nerves. §166 Often, perhaps, the felicity supposed will be the product of a happier, a more exuberant nature than Flaubert's. §167 Aggravated, certainly, by a morbid physical condition, that anxiety in " seeking the phrase," which gathered all the other small ennuis of a really quiet existence into a kind of battle, was connected with his lifelong contention against facile poetry, facile art -- art, facile and flimsy ; and what constitutes the true artist is not the slowness or quickness of the process, but {{Page 30}} the absolute success of the result. §168 As with those labourers in the parable, the prize is independent of the mere length of the actual day's work. §169 " You talk," he writes, odd, trying lover, to Madame X. --

§170 " You talk of the exclusiveness of my literary tastes. §171 That might have enabled you to divine what kind of a person I am in the matter of love. §172 I grow so hard to please as a literary artist, that I am driven to despair. §173 I shall end by not writing another line."

§174 "Happy," he cries, in a moment of discouragement at that patient labour, which for him, certainly, was the condition of a great success -- §175 " Happy those who have no doubts of themselves ! who lengthen out, as the pen runs on, all that flows forth from their brains. §176 As for me, I hesitate, I disappoint myself, turn round upon myself in despite: my taste is augmented in proportion as my natural vigour decreases, and I afflict my soul over some dubious word out of all proportion to the pleasure I get from a whole page of good writing. §177 One would have to live two centuries to attain a true idea of any matter whatever. §178 What Buffon said is a big blasphemy : genius is not long- continued patience. §179 Still, there is some truth in the statement, and more than people think, especially as regards our own day. §180 Art ! art ! art ! bitter deception ! phantom that glows with light, only to lead one on to destruction."

§181 Again --

§182 " I am growing so peevish about my writing. §183 I am like a man whose ear is true but who plays falsely on the violin : his fingers refuse to reproduce precisely those sounds of which he {{Page 31}} has the inward sense. §184 Then the tears come rolling down from the poor scraper's eyes and the bow falls from his hand."

§185 Coming slowly or quickly, when it comes, as it came with so much labour of mind, but also with so much lustre, to Gustave Flaubert, this discovery of the word will be, like all artistic success and felicity, incapable of strict analysis : effect of an intuitive condition of mind, it must be recognised by like intuition on the part of the reader, and a sort of immediate sense. §186 In every one of those masterly sentences of Flaubert there was, below all mere contrivance, shaping and afterthought, by some happy instantaneous concourse of the various faculties of the mind with each other, the exact apprehension of what was needed to carry the meaning. §187 And that it fits with absolute justice will be a judgment of immediate sense in the appreciative reader. §188 We all feel this in what may be called inspired translation. §189 Well ! all language involves translation from inward to outward. §190 In literature, as in all forms of art, there are the absolute and the merely relative or accessory beauties ; and precisely in that exact proportion of the term to its purpose is the absolute beauty of style, prose or verse. §191 All the good qualities, the beauties, of verse also, are such, only as precise expression.

§192 In the highest as in the lowliest literature, then, the {{Page 32}} one indispensable beauty is, after all, truth : -- truth to bare fact in the latter, as to some personal sense of fact, diverted somewhat from men's ordinary sense of it, in the former ; truth there as accuracy, truth here as expression, that finest and most intimate form of truth, the vraie vérité. §193 And what an eclectic principle this really is ! employing for its one sole purpose -- that absolute accordance of expression to idea -- all other literary beauties and excellences whatever : how many kinds of style it covers, explains, justifies, and at the same time safeguards ! §194 Scott's facility, Flaubert's deeply pondered evocation of "the phrase," are equally good art. §195 Say what you have to say, what you have a will to say, in the simplest, the most direct and exact manner possible, with no surplusage : -- there, is the justification of the sentence so fortunately born, "entire, smooth, and round," that it needs no punctuation, and also (that is the point !) of the most elaborate period, if it be right in its elaboration. §196 Here is the office of ornament : here also the purpose of restraint in ornament. §197 As the exponent of truth, that austerity (the beauty, the function, of which in literature Flaubert understood so well) becomes not the correctness or purism of the mere scholar, but a security against the otiose, a jealous exclusion of what does not really tell towards the pursuit of relief, of life and vigour in the portraiture of one's sense. {{Page 33}} §198 License again, the making free with rule, if it be indeed, as people fancy, a habit of genius, flinging aside or transforming all that opposes the liberty of beautiful production, will be but faith to one's own meaning. §199 The seeming baldness of Le Rouge et Le Noir is nothing in itself ; the wild ornament of Les Misérables is nothing in itself ; and the restraint of Flaubert, amid a real natural opulence, only redoubled beauty -- the phrase so large and so precise at the same time, hard as bronze, in service to the more perfect adaptation of words to their matter. §200 Afterthoughts, retouchings, finish, will be of profit only so far as they too really serve to bring out the original, initiative, generative, sense in them.

§201 In this way, according to the well-known saying, " The style is the man," complex or simple, in his individuality, his plenary sense of what he really has to say, his sense of the world ; all cautions regarding style arising out of so many natural scruples as to the medium through which alone he can expose that inward sense of things, the purity of this medium, its laws or tricks of refraction : nothing is to be left there which might give conveyance to any matter save that. §202 Style in all its varieties, reserved or opulent, terse, abundant, musical, stimulant, academic, so long as each is really characteristic or expressive, finds thus its justification, the sumptuous good taste of Cicero {{Page 34}} being as truly the man himself, and not another, justified, yet insured inalienably to him, thereby, as would have been his portrait by Raffaelle, in full consular splendour, on his ivory chair.

§203 A relegation, you may say perhaps -- a relegation of style to the subjectivity, the mere caprice, of the individual, which must soon transform it into mannerism. §204 Not so ! since there is, under the conditions supposed, for those elements of the man, for every lineament of the vision within, the one word, the one acceptable word, recognisable by the sensitive, by others " who have intelligence " in the matter, as absolutely as ever anything can be in the evanescent and delicate region of human language. §205 The style, the manner, would be the man, not in his unreasoned and really uncharacteristic caprices, involuntary or affected, but in absolutely sincere apprehension of what is most real to him. §206 But let us hear our French guide again. --

§207 "Styles," says Flaubert's commentator, "Styles, as so many peculiar moulds, each of which bears the mark of a particular writer, who is to pour into it the whole content of his ideas, were no part of his theory. §208 What he believed in was Style: that is to say, a certain absolute and unique manner of expressing a thing, in all its intensity and colour. §209 For him the form was the work itself. §210 As in living creatures, the blood, nourishing the body, determines its very contour and external aspect, just so, to his mind, the matter, the basis, in a work of art, {{Page 35}} imposed, necessarily, the unique, the just expression, the measure, the rhythm -- the form in all its characteristics."

§211 If the style be the man, in all the colour and intensity of a veritable apprehension, it will be in a real sense " impersonal."

§212 I said, thinking of books like Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, that prose literature was the characteristic art of the nineteenth century, as others, thinking of its triumphs since the youth of Bach, have assigned that place to music. §213 Music and prose literature are, in one sense, the opposite terms of art ; the art of literature presenting to the imagination, through the intelligence, a range of interests, as free and various as those which music presents to it through sense. §214 And certainly the tendency of what has been here said is to bring literature too under those conditions, by conformity to which music takes rank as the typically perfect art. §215 If music be the ideal of all art whatever, precisely because in music it is impossible to distinguish the form from the substance or matter, the subject from the expression, then, literature, by finding its specific excellence in the absolute correspondence of the term to its import, will be but fulfilling the condition of all artistic quality in things everywhere, of all good art.

§216 Good art, but not necessarily great art ; the distinction between great art and good art depend- {{Page 36}} ing immediately, as regards literature at all events, not on its form, but on the matter. §217 Thackeray's Esmond , surely, is greater art than Vanity Fair, by the greater dignity of its interests. §218 It is 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, as The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Les Misérables, The English Bible, are great art. §219 Given the conditions I have tried to explain as constituting good art ; -- then, if it be devoted further 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, it will be also great art ; if, over and above those qualities I summed up as mind and soul -- that colour and mystic perfume, and that reasonable structure, it has something of the soul of humanity in it, and finds its logical, its architectural place, in the great structure of human life.


Copytext: Appreciations (London: Macmillan and Co., and New York, 1890): 1-36.
Source: the same.
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).

Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Other works by Walter Pater