Pater And Prose by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

It seems only yesterday–and it is only yesteryear–since Walter Pater sat by my side in a Club garden, and listened eloquently to my after-lunch causerie, and now he is gone

To where, beyond the Voices, there is Peace.

You grasp that his eloquence was oracular, silent. He had an air. There was in him–as in his work–a suggestion of aloofness from the homespun world. I suspect he had never heard Chevalier. I should not wonder if he had never even heard of him. He was wrapped in the atmosphere of Oxford, and though “the last enchantments of the Middle Ages” in no wise threw their glamour over his thought, there was a cloistral distinction in his attitude. He reminded me of my friend the Cambridge professor, who, when the O’Shea business was filling eight columns daily of the papers that deprecate honest art, innocently asked me if there was anything new about Parnell. Pater did not probably carry detachment from the contemporary so far as that, but he was in harmony with his hedonistic creed in permitting only a select fraction of the cosmos to have the entry to his consciousness. A delightful, elegantly-furnished consciousness it was, with the latest improvements, and with every justification for exclusiveness. But there is in men of Mr. Pater’s stamp something of what might be termed the higher Pod-snappery. They put things aside with the wave of a white-gloved hand: this and that do not exist, Mr. Podsnap himself–O the irony of it!–among them. Like Mr. Podsnap, though on a different plane, they take themselves and their view of life too seriously. When I told Mr. Pater that there was a pun in his “Plato and Platonism,” he asked anxiously for its precise locality, so that he might remove it. This I could not remember, but I told him I did not see why he should remove one of the best things in the book. But my assurances that the pun was excellent did not seem to tranquillise him. Now, why should not a philosopher make a pun? Shakespeare was an incorrigible punster. Why should a man’s life be divided into little artificial sections, like the labelled heads in the phrenologist’s window? I do not want to see a man put on his Sunday clothes to talk about religion. But a congenital inelasticity is fostered in the atmosphere of common-rooms, there where solemn-footed serving-men present the port with sacerdotal ceremonies, and where, if the dons are no longer (in the classic phrase of Gibbon) “sunk in port and superstition,” the port is still a superstition. This absence of humour, this superhuman seriousness bred of heavy traditions peculiarly English, this sobriety nourished by sacerdotal port, give the victim quite a wrong sense of values and proportions. He mistakes University for Universe. His tastes become the measure of a creation of which he is the centre. Hence an abiding gravity that is ever on the brink of dulness. The Englishman cannot afford to be grave, the bore is so close at hand.

And yet, if one did not take oneself seriously, I suppose nothing would ever be done. A kindly illusion about their importance in the scheme of things is Nature’s instrument for getting work out of men. “Don’t you think Flaubert took himself too seriously?” I heard a lady novelist ask a gentleman practitioner. Certainly his correspondence with George Sand reveals an anchorite of letters, who tortured the phrase and sacrificed sleep to the adjective, and the brothers De Goncourt–themselves very serious gentlemen–have recorded how he considered his book as good as finished because he had invented the “dying falls” of the music of his periods. But if Flaubert had sufficiently contemplated the infinities, the immense indifference of things, if, like the astronomer in search of a creed, he had concentrated his vision on the point to which the whole solar system is drifting, French prose would have lost some of its most wonderful pages; and had the late Mr. Pater been less troubled by the rose-leaf of style and more by the thorns of the time, English prose would have been the poorer by harmonies and felicities unsurpassed and unsurpassable. This is to ignore Pater the Philosopher and Pater the Critic. Of these persons there will be varying estimates. They have even in a sense, through the extravagances of a disciple, been subjected to the verdict of a British jury–a sufficiently ironic revenge upon the fastidious shrinker from the Philistines; and though, of course, it was not theories of art and philosophy that were being “tried by jury,” yet these side-issues contributed to prejudice the twelve good men and true. But it is only congruous with the trend of democratic thought that everything should come under the censorship of the crowd, and the only wonder is that long ere this the vexed questions of our troubled time have not been solved by plebiscite.

A leading New York paper is commended for its patronage of literature, because it offers large prizes for stories, the prizes to be awarded by the votes of its readers. If the crowd is capable of appraising literature, there is no reason why it should not take science and art similarly into its hands, nor why the counting of heads should not replace the marshalling of arguments in philosophy and ethics. In politics the mob has a right to be heard, because it has a right to express its grievances. Could an aristocracy be trusted to do justly by Demos, democracy would have no reason to be. But this right of the many-headed monster to a control of the governmental agencies that affect its own happiness, does not involve the ability to decide less selfish problems; and when, as rarely happens, abstract problems find themselves in the witness-box, then the “Palladium of British liberty” becomes a mockery of justice. “Legal judgment of his peers,” says Magna Charta; but when an exceptional man blunders into the dock, is he ever accorded a panel of his equals? Things are no better in France. When Flaubert was arraigned for his “Madame Bovary,” he did not get a box of men of letters, though there is so much more sense of art in the citizens of Paris, that even by the bourgeois jury he was acquitted without a stain on the character of his book. The central figure of our English episode had nothing so creditable as an immoral book to his charge, but indirectly the relations of art and morality came into question, and he declared that he followed Pater, the one critic he recognised, in believing that there were no relations between art and morality, that a book could not be immoral, but might be something worse–badly written. Now, this is the favourite doctrine of Chelsea, and doubtless something may be said for it; but to put it forth, as the doctrine of Pater is a libel–almost a criminal libel–on that great writer. These young men who live for the Beautiful have only understood as much of Pater as would justify epicurean existence.

Let us examine this pretension of the prophet of the importance of being flippant, to be a disciple of Pater.

No doubt Pater was something of an Impressionist in his philosophy of life. An eloquent expounder of the Heracletian flux, [Greek: panta rei], of the relativity of systems of thought and conduct, and of the duty of seizing the flying moments–“failure in life is to form habits,”–he did not omit, like his one-sided disciples, to consider the quality of those moments. It was the highest quality you were to give to your moments as they passed; to fail to do this was “on this short day of frost and sun to sleep before evening.” (“The Renaissance.”) “Marius the Epicurean” was not an Epicurean in the sense in which the doctrines of Epicurus have been travestied through the ages: he turned away sickened from the barbarities of the gladiatorial combats, longing for the time when the forces of the future would create a heart that would make it impossible to be thus pleasured. If “Carpe diem” is Pater’s motto, the hour is not to be plucked ignobly; if style is his watchword in art, style alone cannot make great Art, though it may make good Art. The distinction, between good Art and great Art depends immediately not on its form but on its matter. “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 Miserables,’ the English Bible, are great art.” (“Essay on Style.”) Your Chelsea manikin would never dream of these things as great art: his whole soul is expressed in ballads and canzonets, in strange esoteric contes, in nocturnes and colour-symphonies, in the bric-a-brac of aesthetics. Furthermore let the soi-disant disciples ponder this explicit statement of the Master: “Given the conditions I haye 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 also be great Art.” Yes, if Pater protested against “the vulgarity which is dead to form,” he was no less contemptuous of “the stupidity which is dead to the substance.” (“Postscript to Appreciations.”) If he fought shy of the Absolute, if he denied “fixed principles,” and repudiated “every formula less living and flexible than life” (“Essay on Coleridge”), he could still sympathise passionately with Coleridge’s hunger for the Eternal.

So much for the literary art. But even in painting, where the self-sufficiency of style is proclaimed somewhat more speciously, the purveyor of Chelsea ware will find scant countenance in the adored Master. Nowhere can I find him preaching “Art for Art’s sake,” in the jejune sense of the empty-headed acolytes of the aesthetic. With him the formula was for the spectator of art; it has been misapplied to the maker of art. Pater’s studies of the great pictures of the Renaissance are, if anything, rather too much taken up with their intellectual content, and their latent revelation of the temper of the time and the artist. No, these young men are no disciples of Pater. In their resoluteness to live in the Beautiful (which is not always distinguishable from the Bestial), they have forgotten the other items of the trinity of Goethe, they have lost sight of the True and the Whole. It is Whistler who is the prophet of the divorce of Art from Life, of the antithesis of Art and Nature. When Whistler said, “Another foolish sunset,” he spake the word that called into being all these “degenerate” paradoxes, though I am not sure but what Mr. Sydney Grundy was before him in creating a stage-manager who thinks meanly of the moons and the scenic backgrounds of real life. It is a good joke, this of Nature paling before Art, or reduced to plagiarising Art,–“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows?”–but as the basis of a philosophy of Art it palls. The germ of truth in it is that metaphysically these effects may be said not to have existed till artists taught us to see and to look for them. But, after all, wise old Shakespeare has the last word:

Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean: so o’er that Art,
Which you say adds to Nature, is an Art
That Nature makes.

But these things are not for the British jury. Pater, the literary artist, however, one is more driven to praise than to appraise. This exquisite care for words has something of moral purity–as well as physical daintiness in it. There is indeed something priestly in this consecration of language, in this reverent ablution of the counters of thought, those poor counters so overcrusted with the dirt of travel, so loosely interchangeable among the vulgar; the figure of the stooping devotee shows sublime in a garrulous world. What a heap of mischief M. Jourdain has done by his discovery that he was talking prose all his life! Prose, indeed! Moliere has much to answer for. The rough, shuffling, slipshod, down-at-heel, clipped, frayed talk of every-day life bears as much relation to prose as a music-hall ditty to poetry. The name “prose” must be reserved for the fine art of language–that fine art whose other branch is poetry. It is a grammarians’ term, “prose,” and belongs not to the herd. They do not need it, and it would never have come into M. Jourdain’s head or out of his mouth, had he not taken a tutor. And yet the delusion is common enough–even with those to whom Moliere is Greek–that prose is anything which is not poetry. As well say that poetry is anything which is not prose. Of the two branches of the art of language, prose is the more difficult. This is not the opinion of those who know nothing about it. They fancy a difficulty about rhymes and metres. ‘T is all the other way. Rhymes are the rudders of thought; they steer the poet’s bark. He cannot get to Heaven itself without striking “seven,” or mixing up his meaning with foreign “leaven.” His shifts to avoid these shifts are pathetic to a degree. He flounders about twixt “given” and “levin,” and has been known to snatch desperately at “reaven.” Of all fraudulent crafts commend me to the poet’s. He is a paragon of deceit and quackery, a jingling knave. ‘T is a game of bouts rimes, and he calls it “inspiration.” No wonder Plato would have none of him in his Republic, even though Plato’s poets were guiltless of rhyme and slaves only to metre. But the metre of verse, too, is a friend to thought, and its enemy. It is like wheels to a cart; not unsagaciously is Pegasus figured with wings. He flies away with you, and you are lulled by the regular flap, flap of his pinions, and his goal concerns you little. The swing and the rush of the verse compensate for reason, and it is wonderful how far a little sense will fly when tricked out with fine feathers. Even in stately, rhymeless decasyllabics the march and music of the verse help a limping thought along like a sore-footed soldier striding to the band. But the prose-writer has none of these advantages. He is like an actor without properties. His thoughts do not go along with a flutter of flags and a blare of trombones. Nor do they glide upon castors. They must needs lumber on after a fashion of their own, and if there is a music to their ambulation it must be individual, neither in common nor in three-eight time, but winding and quickening at will, with no strait symmetry of antiphonal bars. There is nothing to tell you the writer has made “prose”–as the spacing and the capital letters invite you to look for poetry. He has to depend only upon himself. This is why blank verse–which approaches prose most nearly–is so much more difficult to write than rhymed verse, though it looks so much easier and more tempting to the amateur. Are we not justified, then, in taking the logical step further, and saying that prose, which strips itself of the last rags of adventitious ornament, and which tempts the amateur most of all, is the highest of all literary forms, the most difficult of all to handle triumphantly? May we not compare the music of it–that music which we get in Ruskin and in Pater–to the larger rhythms to which the savage drum-beat has developed? Rhythm is undoubtedly an instinct, but civilisation brings complexity. From the tom-tom to the tune, from the tune to the symphony. In the vaster reaches and sweeps of the rhythm of prose there is a massive music as of Wagnerian orchestras. Anybody can enjoy the castanet-play of rhymes; half your popular proverbs clash at the ends; “the jigging of our rhyming mother-wits” is on everybody’s lips. But for the blank verse of “Paradise Lost” there is only “audience fit, though few”; and as for the music of prose, so little is it understood that critics vaguely aware of it had to invent the term “prose poet” when they found the stress of passion and imagination effervescing into resonant utterance. On the other hand, there are those who do not acknowledge Pope as a poet. The essence of the long-standing quarrel is a confusion. From the point of view of form there is only one kind of writer to be recognised–the artist in words. Of him there are two varieties: the artist who uses rhyme and metre, and the artist who–wilfully or through impotence–dispenses with them. From the point of view of matter there is the artist with “soul” and the artist without “soul.” “Soul” is shorthand for that mysterious something the absence of which urges people to deny Pope the title of poet. They feel the intangible something is not there, “the consecration and the poet’s dream.” But with the conventional distinctions, there is no name left for Pope, if he is not a poet. The truth is that he was an artist in words–as masterly as the Mantuan himself, though without that golden cadence and charm which keep Virgil a poet by any classification. On the other hand, Carlyle, who had such scorn of the rhyming crew, was himself a poet to the popular imagination, though to us he will be an artist in prose plus soul. There are, thus, really two classes of writers:

I. Prose-Artists.
II. Verse-Artists.

Each of these splits up into two kinds, according as the writer has or lacks “soul.” Or, if you think “soul” the more important differentia, we will say there are artists with “soul” and artists without “soul,” and that some of each sort work in prose and some in verse. But the classification is a crass one, and the English language unfortunately does not possess words to express the distinctions, while the ambiguous associations of the word “prose” increase the difficulty of inventing them. We do not even possess any equivalent of the French “prosateur,” though I see no reason why “prosator” should not be used. Without neologisms, and avoiding the ambiguous adjective “prosaic,” and using “poetic” to express “soulfulness” and not the handling of metres, we get

1. Poetic Verse-Artists. (Poets.)

2. Non-Poetic Verse-Artists. (Verse-Writers.)

3. Poetic Prose-Artists. (Prose Poets.)

4. Non-Poetic Prose-Artists. (Prose Writers.)

Keats is a verse poet, Pope a verse writer, Buskin a prose poet, and Hallam a prose writer.

* * * * *

The two great writers of our day who have sinned most against the laws of writing are Browning and Meredith, the one in verse, the other in prose. I speak not merely of obscurities, to perpetrate which is in every sense to stand in one’s own light, but of sheer fatuities, tweakings-of-the-nose to our reverend mother-tongue, as either might have expressed it. But what I am most concerned to suggest here is that the distinction between prose and poetry (using prose to mean artistically wrought language) will not survive investigation. The popular instinct has long ago seen that the vital thing is the matter–that it is profanity to call that “poetry” which is only verse; it remains to be recognised that even the distinction of form rests only on the non-recognition of the rhythm of “prose,”–a rhythm that is not metre in so far as metre has the sense of regular measure, but may for all that have laws of its own, which await the discoverer and the systematiser.

The affinity of prose-rhythms is, I have hinted, with the higher developments of music, which, compared with the simple tunes of the street, are as apparently lawless and unlicensed as is prose compared to verse. And as it is not poets who follow laws, but precede them–as trochee and iambic, alcaic and hexameter, are the inventions of grammarians following on the trail of genius–so it behoves the Aristotle who would discover the laws of the rhythm of prose to study the masters of the art, masters by instinct and a faultless ear and the grace of God, and endeavour by patient induction to wrest from their sentences the secrets of their harmonies. Who will write the prosody of prose?

It is sad to have to declare that the bulk of contemporary writers lie outside all these classifications. They are artists neither in prose nor verse, and though they may have “soul,” they cannot make it visible. For “soul” may be expressed equally through painting and sculpture and music and acting, audits dimly discerned presence can scarcely convert slipshod writing into literature. No one would accept as art a picture in which a gleam of imagination struggled against the draughtsmanship of the schoolboy to whom arms are toasting-forks, or applaud an actor who might be brimming over with sensibility but could command neither his voice nor his face. No one has any business to come before the public who has not studied the medium through which he proposes to exhibit his “soul”: unfortunately this is the age and England is the country of the amateur, and in every department we are deluged with the crude. The fault lies less with the amateur than with the public before which he presents himself, and which, incompetent to distinguish art from amateurishness, is as likely to bless the one as the other. Of all forms of art literature suffers most; for the pity is, and pity’tis’t is true, everybody learns to talk and write at an early age. This makes the transition to literature so fatally easy. Facilis descensus Averni! To paint, one must at least know how to mix colours and handle a brush; to compose, one must be familiar with the meaning of strayed spiders’ legs on curious parallel bars, and there are strange disconcerting rumours of “orchestration.” But to produce literature you have simply to dip pen in ink or open your mouth and see what God will give you. Hence particularly the flood of novels, hence the low position of the novel; although, as Theodore Watts has pointed out, it is practically the modern Epic. I have met distinguished students of Greek texts who have never conceived of the novel as a work of art, or as anything beyond the amusement of an idle hour–something for the women and the children. One such told me he would not read “The Mill on the Floss” because it ended unhappily. I must conclude he has only read Aeschylus for his examinations. Acting stands next to literature in its seductiveness. The actor’s instrument is his body, and everybody has a body. If, in addition to a “body,” the creature conceives himself to possess a “soul,” the odds are there will be laughter for the “gods.” I tremble for the time when the popular educationist shall have had his way and every child be seised of the rudiments of drawing. We shall see sights then. At present, despite the horrors of the galleries and the widespread ignorance of art, painting cannot compete with literature as a misunderstood art. For the public–which is the only critic that counts in the long run–does not demand grammar, much less style; and the novel of the season may bristle with passages that could be set for correction at examinations in English. It is a little thing, but it seems to me significant, that the announcement of terms of the local branch of Mudie’s, in the little town at which I am writing these lines, runs thus:

The subscription for one set entitles the subscriber to one complete work at a time, whether in one, two, or three volumes, and can be exchanged as often as desired.

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