Pater, in his introduction to The Renaissance, sets out to define the function of the critic of art. He determines that the art critic does not need to define beauty in the abstract; he needs only to recognize the sensations that various forms of beauty create within him, and to isolate the causes of these sensations from their immediate surroundings. In the case of an artistic text, such as a poem or novel, this process becomes a kind of extraction, a separation of the aesthetic quality, or what Pater calls the "active principle," from the strict language of the text. In the following passage, Pater gives an example of how this critical method might be applied to a work by Wordsworth.
Few artists, not Goethe or Byron even, work quite cleanly, casting off debris, and leaving us only what the heat of their imagination has wholly fused and transformed. Take, for instance, the writings of Wordsworth. The heat of his genius, entering into the substance of his work, has crystallised a part, but only a part, of it; and in that great mass of verse there is much which might well be forgotten. But scattered up and down it, sometimes fusing and transforming entire compositions, like the Stanzas on Resolution and Independence, or the Ode on the Recollections of Childhood, sometimes, as if at random, depositing a fine crystal here or there, in a matter it does not wholly search through and transmute, we trace the action of his unique, incommunicable faculty, that strange, mystical sense of a life in natural things, and of man's life as part of nature, drawing strength and colour and character from local influences, from the hills and streams, and from natural sights and sounds. Well! that is the virtue, the active principle in Wordsworth's poetry; and then the function of the critic of Wordsworth is to follow up that active principle, to disengage it, to mark the degree in which it penetrates his verse.
Pater describes the "active priniciple" of Wordsworth's poems as an index of the poet's "unique, incommunicable faculty." Is Pater thus equating the active principle of poetry or writing with authorial intent?
The art critic's unique ability to immediately recognize the beauty of a poem or any piece or art places him in an elevated position from the rest of society, similar to that of a sage writer or wisdom speaker. Does his social power exceed that of the author or artist? How much does Pater himself assume the role of a critic in the passage on Wordsworth?
Why does Pater choose the example of Wordsworth? Oscar Wilde, Pater's disciple, ridicules Wordsworth's naturalism in his "Decay of Lying." Why the two aesthetes take such opposing views of the poet?
Last modified May 2003