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Pater And Prose
by [?]

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.