Walter Pater as a Literary Critic -an innovator in aesthetics who celebrated the pleasurable effects of art on the viewer or reader

Walter Pater (1839-1894) is the eminent English essayist and critic both of art as well as literature. His first book—Studies in the History of Renaissance is a criticism of the art. Among his critical writings may be mentioned the volume known as Applications and Shakespearian Studies. “These essays are critical of art as well as of literature—and, essentially, Pater belongs to the history of criticism.” (Hugh Walker)

Pater is a follower of Longinus. His critical process consists of three stages, as stated by him in his Preface to Renaissance- “To feel the virtue of the poet, or the painter, to disengage it, to set it fourth—these are the three stages of the critics’ duty.”  He concentrated on interpreting to his age the art and literature of the Renaissance, through historical novels, stories, and, mainly, essays. His attention to elaborate, exquisite phrasing reveals his preoccupation with perfecting prose style without neglecting depth of subject matter. Pater is not guided by any precepts or judgment from a historical point of view in his criticism. It is entirely subjective and impressionistic. However, Pater has a number of weaknesses as a critic. Firstly his criticism is not based on any rules or precepts but his impressions. Hence they are neither complete nor accurate. According to Cazamian, ‘‘Pater’s critical studies do not aim at completeness, nor at a cautious and unexceptionable accuracy; do they seize upon moral, and thus usually subtle and hidden. He has a lack of technical knowledge also. He is interested in interpreting cover and does not go into the technical details of a work. He concentrates mainly on the poetic appeal. Lastly he is diligent in the historical sense also.

Pater is remembered primarily as an innovator in aesthetics who celebrated the pleasurable effects of art on the viewer or reader. “Art for art's sake,” a phrase taken from his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), was Peter's credo and became a rallying cry for the aesthetic movement of the 1880s. However, Pater’s language lacks lucidity and simplicity. He has used long stretched sentences. It is his drawback. In his style there are more involved sentences and parenthetical expressions. Sometimes due to the compression of phrases the whole passage acquires obscurity. His style is individual in its own way. It has both drawbacks and good qualities.

Sainsbury has summed up his position in the following words- ‘‘to assert too positively that Mr. Walter Pater was the most important English critic of the last generation in a relation resembling those of Coleridge to the first and Arnold to the latter part of the second—would no doubt cause grumbles. The kingdom of criticism has been of old compared to that of Poland and perhaps there is no closer point of resemblance than the way in which critics like Ploacks, cling to the Ne Poywalan . So, respecting this Jus Plonioe let us say that those are fair reasons for advancing Pater to such a position, while admitting that he is somewhat less than either of his forerunners. While Aldington remarks— Fundamentally Pater was neither prose poet nor critic, but something in between the two, with the critic or l any rate the man of letters predominating. Cazamian also regards Pater ‘‘eminent as critic”. Notably, his hedonist philosophy greatly influenced his younger contemporary, the Irish-born writer Oscar Wilde. Pater is best known for his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), a study of the “sensations and ideas” of a young 2nd century Roman confronting Christianity.

  According to Compton Rickett: — ‘‘as a stylist, we may regard in the first place, Pater’s theories; in the second place, his practice.’’ He has, himself, explained his views in his fine essay on style as follows- ‘‘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 surplus age.’’ But his practice is quite deferent from his theory as his sentences are full of long parenthetical clauses and words making his sentences neither simple nor direct quite opposed to his own theory.

Pater has some points of similarities with Lamb, Dequincy, Newman and Ruskin.  Pater’s Appreciations: with an Essay on Style (1889), which includes discerning essays on the work of such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and others, helped to define Pater's position as an influential man of letters. According to Benson ‘‘He was akin to Charles Lamb in the delicacy of touch, the subtle flavour of language; and still more in ‘virtuous tender observation, his love of interior domestic life.”