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The Difficult Art of Prose by Thomas Wright

In academia, Europe, history of art, literature, universities, writers on November 1, 2012 at 14:00

From: The Difficult Art of Prose by Thomas Wright, The Oxonian Review, http://www.oxonianreview.org

Wilde made another extravagant advance at Oxford—in the art of English prose. It was Walter Pater, the Brasenose Classics tutor, and sinless master of purple aesthetic prose, who influenced him in this context, as in so many others. “Why do you always write poetry?” the diffident don asked the Magdalen undergraduate at their first meeting, “Why do you not write prose? Prose is so much more difficult”. Wilde later confessed that he “did not quite comprehend what Mr. Pater really meant,” having always supposed, from his reading of Carlyle and Ruskin, that prose sprang “from enthusiasm rather than from art. I did not [know],” he admitted, “that even prophets correct their proofs.” “And it was not,” he remembered, “until I carefully studied [Pater’s own] beautiful and suggestive essays on the Renaissance that I fully realised what a wonderful self-conscious art the art of English prose-writing really is. Pater’s essays became to me ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty’.”

Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)— the book that, as Wilde famously remarked, had “such a strange influence over [his] life”—contains essays on philosophers, poets, and artists of the Renaissance such as Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. Pater enters into a work of art imaginatively, elucidating the impression it makes on him and defining its especial character. He calls this the “true truth” about an artwork, next to which the factual truths concerning its production and history are insignificant. Pater developed a distinctive impressionistic, and unashamedly subjective style, in which he could at once convey these ‘true truths’, vividly evoke the works of art under discussion, and also celebrate the ecstasy of the “aesthetic experience”, art offering, in his view, a heightened form of sensual and spiritual pleasure rather than moral or intellectual instruction. The baroque prose poems Pater carved with such fastidious care were aimed at a cultivated general readership, rather than at scrupulous Oxford scholars, who were not slow to point out their inaccuracies.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: The Oxonian Review

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