In the later Victorian period there were two great prose-writers—Newman and Pater. Newman was the central figure of the Oxford Movement, while Pater was an aesthete, who inspired the leaders of the Aesthetic Movement in English poetry.
(a) Newman and the Oxford Movement
The Oxford Movement was an attempt to recover a lost tradition. England had become a Protestant country in the 16th century under the reign of Elizabeth, and had her own Church, called the Anglican Church, which became independent of the control of the Pope at Rome. Before that England was a Catholic country. The Anglican Church insisted on simplicity, and did not encourage elaborate ceremonies. In fact it became too much rational having no faith in rituals and old traditions. Especially in the eighteenth century in England religion began to be ruthlessly attacked by philosophers as well as scientists. The protagonists of the Oxford Movement tried to show that the Middle Ages had qualities and capacities which the moderns lacked. They wished to recover the connection with the continent and with its own past which the English Church had lost at the Reformation in the sixteenth century. They recognised in the medieval and early Church a habit of piety and genius of public worship which had both disappeared. They, therefore, made an attempt to restore those virtues by turning the attention of the people to the history of the Middle Ages, and by trying to recover the rituals and art of the medieval Church.
From another point of view the Oxford Movement was an attempt to meet the rationalist attack by emphasising the importance of tradition, authority, and the emotional element in religion. It sought to revive the ancient rites, with all their pomp and symbolism. It exalted the principle of authority the hierarchy and dogmatic teaching. Instead of being inspired by the doctrines of liberalism which were being preached in the Victorian period, it resumed its connection with the medieval tradition. It was favourable to mystery and miracles and appealed to the sensibility and imagination which during the eighteenth century had been crushed by the supremacy of intellect.
The aesthetic aspect of the Oxford Movement, or the Catholic Reaction, had a much wider appeal. Even those who were not convinced by the arguments advanced by the supporters of the Movement, were in sympathy with its aesthetic side. The lofty cathedrals aglow with the colours of painting, stately processions in gorgeous robes , and all the pomp and circumstance of a ceremonial religion, attract even such puritanic minds as Milton’s and are almost the only attraction to the multitudes whose God must take a visible shape and be not too far removed from humanity. Thus many who were only alienated by the arguments in favour of the Catholic Reaction, were in sympathy with this aspect of the reaction, with the bringing back of colour and beauty into religious life, with the appeal to the imagination and the feelings.
The germ of the Oxford Movement is to be found in 1822 in Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sketches. Although Wordsworth here showed himself a follower Catholic past which survived there. He regretted the suppressions of the ritual, lamented the dissolution of the monasteries, the end of the worship of saints and the virgin, the disappearance of the ancient abbeys, and admired the splendours of the old Cathedrals. It was one of Wordsworth’s disciples, John Kelile, professor of poetry at Oxford, who some years later started the Oxford Movement. The first impulse towards reaction was given by his sermon on ‘national apostasy’ in 1833. In this movement which Keble heralded there were two phases. The first was the High Church revival within the framework of the Anglican Church. The second was reverting to Roman Catholicism. But both laid emphasis on ceremonies, dogmatism and attachment to the past.
Others who took up this movement were E. B. Pusey and John Henry Newman, both belonging to Oxford. (In fact this movement was called the Oxford Movement, because its main supports came from Oxford.) To explain their point of view they wrote pamphlets called Tracts for the Times (1833-41) whence the movement got its name the ‘Tractarian Movement’ E.B. Pusey (1800-82) who was a colleague of Keble originated ‘Puseyism’, the form of Anglicanism which came nearest to Rome without being merged into Romanism.
John Henry Newman (1801-90) who joined later, became soon the moving force in the movement. He was, in fact, the once great man, the one genius, of Oxford Movement. Froude calls him the ‘indicating number’, all the rest but as ciphers. This judgment is quite sound. It was he who went to the length of breaking completely with Protestantism and returning to the bosom of the Roman Church. Newman, the most important personality of the movement, is also its most conspicuous writer. He dreamt of a free and powerful Church, and aspired to a return to the spirit of the Middle Ages. At first he believed that this reform could be accomplished by Anglicanism, but he was distressed to find lack of catholicity in the Anglican Church. Universality and the principle of authority he could find only in Rome. So after a period of hesitation he was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. In 1879 he was made a Cardinal.
Newman was great writer of prose and verse. His greatest contribution to English prose is his Apologia, in which he set forth the reasons for his conversion. This fascinating book is the great prose document of the Oxford Movement, and it is eminently and emphatically literature. From first to last it is written in pure, flawless and refined prose. His style is a clear reflection of his character. Refinement, severity, strength, sweetness, all of these words are truly descriptive of the style as well as of the character of Newman. Another special characteristic of Newman’s style is its wide range. He can express himself in any manner he pleases, and that most naturally and almost unconsciously. In his writings sarcasm, biting irony glowing passion are seen side by side, and he can change from one to the other without effort. His art of prose writing is, therefore, most natural and perfectly concealed.
(b) Walter Pater (1839 – 1894)
Pater belongs to the group of great Victorian critics like Ruskin and Arnold, though he followed a new line of criticism, and was more akin to Ruskin than to Arnold. He was also the leader of the Aesthetes and Decadents of the later part of the nineteenth century. Like Ruskin, Pater was an Epicurean, a worshipper of beauty, but he did not attach much importance to the moral and ethical side of it as Ruskin did. He was curiously interested in the phases of history; and chiefly in those, like the Renaissance and the beginnings of Christianity, in which men’s minds were driven by a powerful eagerness, or stirred by proud conflicts. He thus tried to trace the history of man through picturesque surroundings as his life developed, and he laid great stress on artistic value. From these studies – Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Greek Studies and others – it becomes clear that Pater considered that the secret principle of existence that actually possesses and rules itself is to gather as many occasions of psychial intensity which life offers to the knowing, and to taste them all at their highest pitch, so that the flame of consciousness should burn with its full ardour. Far from giving itself away, it shall suck in the whole world and absorb it for its own good. Pater’s most ambitious and, on the whole, his greatest work, Marius the Epicurean, the novel in which most of his philosophy is to be found also spiritualises the search for pleasure. Pater’s aestheticism was thus spent in tasting and intensifying the joys to be reaped from the knowledge of the past and the understanding of the human soul.
As a critic Pater stands eminent. His method is that impressionism which Hazlitt and Lamb had brilliantly illustrated. His approach is always intuitional and personal, and, therefore, in his case one has to make a liberal allowance for the ‘personal equation’. His studies are short ‘appreciations’ rather than judgments. But few writers have written more wisely upon style, and the sentence in which he concentrates the essence of his doctrine is unimpeachable: “Say what you have to say, what you have a will to say, in the simplest, the most direct and exact manner possible, and with no surplusage; there is the justification of the sentence so fortunately born, entire, smooth and round, that it needs no punctuation, and also (that is the point) of the most elaborate period, if it be right in its elaboration.” Few again have more wisely discriminated between the romantic and classical elements in literature. According to him the essential elements of the romantic spirit are “curiosity and the love of beauty,” that of the classical spirit – “a comely order”. He believes that “all good art was romantic in its day”, and his love for and affinity to the romantic spirit is obvious. But he attempts to make romantic more classical, to superimpose the “comely order” upon beauty, so that its strangeness may be reduced. His point of view, therefore, is similar to that of Arnold, but he lacks Arnold’s breadth of outlook, and his attitude is more of a recluse who has no part to play in the world.
As a writer of prose, Pater is of the first rank, but he does not belong to the category of the greatest, because there is such an excess of refinement in his style that the creative strength is impoverished. Moreover, he does not possess the capacity of producing the impression of wholeness in his work. His chief merit, however, lies in details, in the perfection of single pages, though occasionally some chapters or essays are throughout remarkable for the robustness of ideas. Like a true romanticist Pater gives flexibility to his prose which beautifully corresponds to his keen sensitive perception and vivid imagination. He is capable of producing more intense and acute effects in his poetic prose than other great masters of this art – Sir Thomas Browne, De Quincey and Ruskin. And more than any other prose-writer he brushed aside the superficial barrier between prose and poetical effects and he clothed his ideas in the richly significant garb of the most harmonious and many-hued language.