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Sterne by H.D. Traill

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translated). "Is it not better to be freed from cares and agues, love
and melancholy, and the other hot and cold fits of life, than, like a
galled traveller who comes weary to his inn, to be bound to begin his
journey afresh?" Then, closing his Burton and opening his Bacon at the
_Essay on Death_; he adds: "There is no terror, brother Toby, in its
(Death's) looks but what it borrows from groans and convulsions, and"
(here parody forces its way in) "the blowing of noses, and the wiping
away of tears with the bottoms of curtains in a sick man's bed-room;"
and with one more theft from Burton, after Seneca: "Consider, brother
Toby, when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not," this
extraordinary cento of plagiarisms concludes.

Not that this is Sterne's only raid upon the quaint old writer of whom
he has here made such free use. Several other instances of word
for word appropriation might be quoted from this and the succeeding
volumes of _Tristram Shandy_. The apostrophe to "blessed health,"
in c. xxxiii. of vol. v. is taken direct from the _Anatomy of
Melancholy_; so is the phrase, "He has a gourd for his head and a
pippin for his heart," in c. ix.; so is the jest about Franciscus
Ribera's computation of the amount of cubic space required by the
souls of the lost; so is Hilarion the hermit's comparison of his body
with its unruly passions to a kicking ass. And there is a passage in
the _Sentimental Journey_, the "Fragment in the Abderitans," which
shows, Dr. Ferriar thinks--though it does not seem to me to show
conclusively--that Sterne was unaware that what he was taking from
Burton had been previously taken by Burton from Lucian.

There is more excuse, in the opinion of the author of the
_Illustrations_, for the literary thefts of the preacher than for
those of the novelist; since in sermons, Dr. Ferriar observes drily,
"the principal matter must consist of repetitions."

But it can hardly, I think, be admitted that the kind of "repetitions"
to which Sterne had recourse in the pulpit--or, at any rate,
in compositions ostensibly prepared for the pulpit--are quite
justifiable. Professor Jebb has pointed out, in a recent volume of
this series, that the description of the tortures of the Inquisition,
which so deeply moved Corporal Trim in the famous Sermon on
Conscience, was really the work of Bentley; but Sterne has pilfered
more freely from a divine more famous as a preacher than the great
scholar whose words he appropriated on that occasion. "Then shame and
grief go with her," he exclaims in his singular sermon on "The Levite
and his Concubine;" "and wherever she seeks a shelter may the hand of
Justice shut the door against her!" an exclamation which is taken,
as, no doubt, indeed, was the whole suggestion of the somewhat strange
subject, from the _Contemplations_ of Bishop Hall. And so, again, we
find in Sterne's sermon the following:

"Mercy well becomes the heart of all Thy creatures! but most of
Thy servant, a Levite, who offers up so many daily sacrifices to Thee
for the transgressions of Thy people. But to little purpose, he would
add, have I served at Thy altar, where my business was to sue for
mercy, had I not learned to practise it."

And in Hall's _Contemplations_ the following:

"Mercy becomes well the heart of any man, but most of a Levite.
He that had helped to offer so many sacrifices to God for the multitude
of every Israelite's sins saw how proportionable it was that man
should not hold one sin unpardonable. He had served at the altar
to no purpose, if he (whose trade was to sue for mercy) had not at all
learned to practise it."

Sterne's twelfth sermon, on the Forgiveness of Injuries, is merely
a diluted commentary on the conclusion of Hall's "Contemplation of
Joseph." In the sixteenth sermon, the one on Shimei, we find:

"There is no small degree of malicious craft in fixing upon a season
to give a mark of enmity and ill will: a word, a look, which at
one time would make no impression, at another time wounds the
heart, and, like a shaft flying with the wind, pierces deep, which,
with its own natural force, would scarce have reached the object
aimed at."

This, it is evident, is but slightly altered, and by no means for the
better, from the more terse and vigorous language of the Bishop:

"There is no small cruelty in the picking out of a time for mischief:
that word would scarce gall at one season which at another
killeth. The same shaft flying with the wind pierces deep, which
against it can hardly find strength to stick upright."

But enough of these _pieces de conviction_. Indictments for plagiarism
are often too hastily laid; but there can be no doubt, I should
imagine, in the mind of any reasonable being upon the evidence here
cited, that the offence in this case is clearly proved. Nor, I
think, can there be much question as to its moral complexion. For the
pilferings from Bishop Hall, at any rate, no shadow of excuse can,
so far as I can see, be alleged. Sterne could not possibly plead any
better justification for borrowing Hall's thoughts and phrases and
passing them off upon his hearers or readers as original, than
he could plead for claiming the authorship of one of the Bishop's
benevolent actions and representing himself to the world as the doer
of the good deed. In the actual as in the hypothetical case there is
a dishonest appropriation by one man of the credit--in the former
case the intellectual, in the latter the moral credit--belonging to
another: the offence in the actual case being aggravated by the fact
that it involves a fraud upon the purchaser of the sermon, who pays
money for what he may already have in his library. The plagiarisms
from Burton stand upon a slightly different though not, I think, a
much more defensible footing. For in this case it has been urged
that Sterne, being desirous of satirizing pedantry, was justified in
resorting to the actually existent writings of an antique pedant of
real life; and that since Mr. Shandy could not be made to talk more
like himself than Burton talked like _him_, it was artistically
lawful to put Burton's exact words into Mr. Shandy's mouth. It makes
a difference, it may be said, that Sterne is not here speaking in his
own person, as he is in his _Sermons_, but in the person of one of his
characters. This casuistry, however, does not seem to me to be sound.
Even as regards the passages from ancient authors, which, while
quoting them from Burton, he tacitly represents to his readers
as taken from his own stores of knowledge, the excuse is hardly
sufficient; while as regards the original reflections of the author of
the _Anatomy of Melancholy_ it obviously fails to apply at all. And in
any case there could be no necessity for the omission to acknowledge
the debt. Even admitting that no more characteristic reflections could
have been composed for Mr. Shandy than were actually to be found in
Burton, art is not so exacting a mistress as to compel the artist
to plagiarize against his will. A scrupulous writer, being also as
ingenious as Sterne, could have found some means of indicating the
source from which he was borrowing without destroying the dramatic
illusion of the scene.

But it seems clear enough that Sterne himself was troubled by no
conscientious qualms on this subject. Perhaps the most extraordinary
instance of literary effrontery which was ever met with is the passage
in vol. v.c. 1, which even that seasoned detective Dr. Ferriar is
startled into pronouncing "singular." Burton had complained that
writers were like apothecaries, who "make new mixtures every day," by
"pouring out of one vessel into another." "We weave," he said, "the
same web still, twist the same rope again and again." And Sterne
_incolumi gravitate_ asks: "Shall we forever make new books as
apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into
another? Are we forever to be twisting and untwisting the same rope,
forever on the same track, forever at the same pace?" And this he
writes with the scissors actually opened in his hand for the almost
bodily abstraction of the passage beginning, "Man, the most excellent
and noble creature of the world!" Surely this denunciation of
plagiarism by a plagiarist on the point of setting to work could only
have been written by a man who looked upon plagiarism as a good joke.

Apart, however, from the moralities of the matter, it must in fairness
be admitted that in most cases Sterne is no servile copyist. He
appropriates other men's thoughts and phrases, and with them, of
course, the credit for the wit, the truth, the vigour, or the learning
which characterizes them; but he is seldom found, in _Tristram
Shandy_, at any rate, to have transferred them to his own pages out
of a mere indolent inclination to save himself the trouble of
composition. He takes them less as substitutes than as groundwork for
his own invention--as so much material for his own inventive powers
to work upon; and those powers do generally work upon them with
conspicuous skill of elaboration. The series of cuttings, for
instance, which he makes from Burton, on the occasion of Bobby
Shandy's death, are woven into the main tissue of the dialogue with
remarkable ingenuity and naturalness; and the bright strands of his
own unborrowed humour fly flashing across the fabric at every transit
of the shuttle. Or, to change the metaphor, we may say that in almost
every instance the jewels that so glitter in their stolen setting were
cut and set by Sterne himself. Let us allow that the most expert of
lapidaries is not justified in stealing his settings; but let us still
not forget that the _jewels_ are his, or permit our disapproval of his
laxity of principle to make us unjust to his consummate skill.



To talk of "the style" of Sterne is almost to play one of those tricks
with language of which he himself was so fond. For there is hardly any
definition of the word which can make it possible to describe him as
having any style at all. It is not only that he manifestly recognized
no external canons whereto to conform the expression of his thoughts,
but he had, apparently, no inclination to invent and observe--except,
indeed, in the most negative of senses--any style of his own. The
"style of Sterne," in short, is as though one should say "the form
of Proteus." He was determined to be uniformly eccentric, regularly
irregular, and that was all. His digressions, his asides, and his
fooleries in general would, of course, have in any case necessitated
a certain general jerkiness of manner; but this need hardly have
extended itself habitually to the structure of individual sentences,
and as a matter of fact he can at times write, as he does for the most
part in his _Sermons_, in a style which is not the less vigorous for
being fairly correct. But as a rule his mode of expressing himself is
destitute of any pretensions to precision; and in many instances it
is a perfect marvel of literary slipshod. Nor is there any ground for
believing that the slovenliness was invariably intentional. Sterne's
truly hideous French--French at which even Stratford-atte-Bowe would
have stood aghast--is in itself sufficient evidence of a natural
insensibility to grammatical accuracy. Here there can be no suspicion
of designed defiance of rules; and more than one solecism of rather
a serious kind in his use of English words and phrases affords
confirmatory testimony to the same point. His punctuation is fearful
and wonderful, even for an age in which the _rationale_ of punctuation
was more imperfectly understood than it is at present; and this,
though an apparently slight matter, is not without value as an
indication of ways of thought. But if we can hardly describe Sterne's
style as being in the literary sense a style at all, it has a very
distinct _colloquial_ character of its own, and as such it is nearly
as much deserving of praise as from the literary point of view it is
open to exception. Chaotic as it is in the syntactical sense, it is
a perfectly clear vehicle for the conveyance of thought: we are as
rarely at a loss for the meaning of one of Sterne's sentences as we
are, for very different reasons, for the meaning of one of Macaulay's.
And his language is so full of life and colour, his tone so animated
and vivacious, that we forget we are reading and not _listening_, and
we are as little disposed to be exacting in respect to form as though
we were listeners in actual fact. Sterne's manner, in short, may
be that of a bad and careless writer, but it is the manner of a
first-rate talker; and this, of course, enhances rather than detracts
from the unwearying charm of his wit and humour.

To attempt a precise and final distinction between these two
last-named qualities in Sterne or any one else would be no very
hopeful task, perhaps; but those who have a keen perception of either
find no great difficulty in discriminating, as a matter of feeling,
between the two. And what is true of the qualities themselves is
true, _mutatis mutandis_, of the men by whom they have been most
conspicuously displayed. Some wits have been humourists also; nearly
all humourists have been also wits; yet the two fall, on the whole,
into tolerably well-marked classes, and the ordinary uncritical
judgment would, probably, enable most men to state with sufficient
certainty the class to which each famous name in the world's
literature belongs. Aristophanes, Shakspeare, Cervantes, Moliere,
Swift, Fielding, Lamb, Richter, Carlyle: widely as these writers
differ from each other in style and genius, the least skilled reader
would hardly need to be told that the list which includes them all
is a catalogue of humourists. And Cicero, Lucian, Pascal, Voltaire,
Congreve, Pope, Sheridan, Courier, Sydney Smith--this, I suppose,
would be recognized at once as an enumeration of wits. Some of these
humourists, like Fielding, like Richter, like Carlyle, are always, or
almost always, humourists alone. Some of these wits, like Pascal,
like Pope, like Courier, are wits with no, or but slight, admixture
of humour; and in the classification of these there is of course
no difficulty at all. But even with the wits who very often give us
humour also, and with the humourists who as often delight us with
their wit, we seldom find ourselves in any doubt as to the real and
more essential affinities of each. It is not by the wit which he has
infused into his talk, so much as by the humour with which he has
delineated the character, that Shakspeare has given his Falstaff an
abiding place in our memories. It is not the repartees of Benedick and
Beatrice, but the immortal fatuity of Dogberry, that the name of _Much
Ado About Nothing_ recalls. None of the verbal quips of Touchstone
tickle us like his exquisite patronage of William and the fascination
which he exercises over the melancholy Jaques. And it is the same
throughout all Shakspeare. It is of the humours of Bottom, and Launce,
and Shallow, and Sly, and Aguecheek; it is of the laughter that treads
upon the heels of horror and pity and awe, as we listen to the
Porter in _Macbeth_, to the Grave-digger in _Hamlet_, to the Fool in
_Lear_--it is of these that we think when we think of Shakspeare in
any other but his purely poetic mood. Whenever, that is to say, we
think of him as anything but a poet, we think of him, not as a wit,
but as a humourist. So, too, it is not the dagger-thrusts of the
_Drapier's Letters_, but the broad ridicule of the _Voyage to Laputa_,
the savage irony of the _Voyage to the Houyhnhnms_, that we associate
with the name of Swift. And, conversely, it is the cold, epigrammatic
glitter of Congreve's dialogue, the fizz and crackle of the fireworks
which Sheridan serves out with undiscriminating hand to the most
insignificant of his characters--it is this which stamps the work of
these dramatists with characteristics far more marked than any which
belong to them in right of humorous portraiture of human foibles or
ingenious invention of comic incident.

The place of Sterne is unmistakably among writers of the former class.
It is by his humour--his humour of character, his dramatic as distinct
from his critical descriptive _personal_ humour--though, of course,
he possesses this also, as all humourists must--that he lives and
will live. In _Tristram Shandy_, as in the _Sermons_, there is a
sufficiency of wit, and considerably more than a sufficiency of
humorous reflection, innuendo, and persiflage; but it is the actors
in his almost plotless drama who have established their creator in his
niche in the Temple of Fame. We cannot, indeed, be sure that what has
given him his hold upon posterity is what gave him his popularity with
his contemporaries. On the contrary, it is, perhaps, more probable
that he owed his first success with the public of his day to
those eccentricities which are for us a little too consciously
eccentric--those artifices which fail a little too conspicuously in
the _ars celandi artem_. But however these tricks may have pleased in
days when such tricks were new, they much more often weary than divert
us now; and I suspect that many a man whose delight in the Corporal
and his master, in Bridget and her mistress, is as fresh as ever,
declines to accompany their creator in those perpetual digressions
into nonsense or semi-nonsense the fashion of which Sterne borrowed
from Rabelais, without Rabelais's excuse for adopting it. To us of
this day the real charm and distinction of the book is due to the
marvellous combination of vigour and subtlety in its portrayal of
character, and in the purity and delicacy of its humour. Those last
two apparently paradoxical substantives are chosen advisedly, and
employed as the most convenient way of introducing that disagreeable
question which no commentator on Sterne can possibly shirk, but which
every admirer of Sterne must approach with reluctance. There is, of
course, a sense in which Sterne's humour--if, indeed, we may bestow
that name on the form of jocularity to which I refer--is the very
reverse of pure and delicate: a sense in which it is impure and
indelicate in the highest degree. On this it is necessary, however
briefly, to touch; and to the weighty and many-counted indictment
which may be framed against Sterne on this head there is, of course,
but one possible plea--the plea of guilty. Nay, the plea must go
further than a mere admission of the offence; it must include an
admission of the worst motive, the worst spirit as animating the
offender. It is not necessary to my purpose, nor doubtless congenial
to the taste of the reader, that I should enter upon any critical
analysis of this quality in the author's work, or compare him in this
respect with the two other great humourists who have been the
worst offenders in the same way. In one of those highly interesting
criticisms of English literature which, even when they most
conspicuously miss the mark, are so instructive to Englishmen, M.
Taine has instituted an elaborate comparison--very much, I need hardly
say, to the advantage of the latter--between the indecency of Swift
and that of Rabelais--that "good giant," as his countryman calls him,
"who rolls himself joyously about on his dunghill, thinking no evil."
And no doubt the world of literary moralists will always be divided
upon the question--one mainly of national temperament--whether mere
animal spirits or serious satiric purpose is the best justification
for offences against cleanliness. It is, of course, only the former
theory, if either, which could possibly avail Sterne, and it would
need an unpleasantly minute analysis of this characteristic in his
writings to ascertain how far M. Taine's eloquent defence of Rabelais
could be made applicable to his case. But the inquiry, one is glad
to think, is as unnecessary as it would be disagreeable; for,
unfortunately for Sterne, he must be condemned on a _quantitative_
comparison of indecency, whatever may be his fate when compared
with these other two great writers as regards the quality of their
respective transgressions. There can be no denying, I mean, that
Sterne is of all writers the most permeated and penetrated with
impurity of thought and suggestion; that in no other writer is its
latent presence more constantly felt, even if there be any in whom
it is more often openly obtruded. The unclean spirit pursues him
everywhere, disfiguring his scenes of humour, demoralizing his
passages of serious reflection, debasing even his sentimental
interludes. His coarseness is very often as great a blot on his art as
on his morality--a thing which can very rarely be said of either Swift
or Rabelais; and it is sometimes so distinctly fatal a blemish from
the purely literary point of view, that one is amazed at the critical
faculty which could have tolerated its presence.

But when all this has been said of Sterne's humour it still remains
true that, in another sense of the words "purity" and "delicacy,"
he possesses humour more pure and delicate than, perhaps, any other
writer in the world can show. For if that humour is the purest and
most delicate which is the freest from any admixture of farce,
and produces its effects with the lightest touch, and the least
obligations to ridiculous incident, or what may be called the
"physical grotesque," in any shape--then one can point to passages
from Sterne's pen which, for fulfilment of these conditions, it would
be difficult to match elsewhere. Strange as it may seem to say this
of the literary Gilray who drew the portrait of Dr. Slop, and of the
literary Grimaldi who tormented Phutatorius with the hot chestnut,
it is nevertheless the fact that scene after scene may be cited from
_Tristram Shandy_, and those the most delightful in the book, which
are not only free from even the momentary intrusion of either the
clown or the caricaturist, but even from the presence of "comic
properties" (as actors would call them) of any kind: scenes of which
the external setting is of the simplest possible character, while the
humour is of that deepest and most penetrative kind which springs
from the eternal incongruities of human nature, the ever-recurring
cross-purposes of human lives.

Carlyle classes Sterne with Cervantes among the great humourists of
the world; and from one, and that the most important, point of view
the praise is not extravagant. By no other writer besides Sterne,
perhaps, since the days of the Spanish humourist, have the vast
incongruities of human character been set forth with so masterly a
hand. It is in virtue of the new insight which his humour opens to
us of the immensity and variety of man's life that Cervantes makes
us feel that he is _great_: not delightful merely--not even eternally
delightful only, and secure of immortality through the perennial human
need of joy--but _great_, but immortal, in right of that which makes
Shakspeare and the Greek dramatists immortal, namely, the power, not
alone over the pleasure-loving part of man's nature, but over that
equally universal but more enduring element in it, his emotions of
wonder and of awe. It is to this greater power--this control over a
greater instinct than the human love of joy, that Cervantes owes his
greatness; and it will be found, though it may seem at first a hard
saying, that Sterne shares this power with Cervantes. To pass from
Quixote and Sancho to Walter and Toby Shandy involves, of course, a
startling change of dramatic key--a notable lowering of dramatic
tone. It is almost like passing from poetry to prose: it is certainly
passing from the poetic in spirit and surroundings to the profoundly
prosaic in fundamental conception and in every individual detail.
But those who do not allow accidental and external dissimilarities to
obscure for them the inward and essential resemblances of things, must
often, I think, have experienced from one of the Shandy dialogues the
same _sort_ of impression that they derive from some of the most nobly
humorous colloquies between the knight and his squire, and must have
been conscious through all outward differences of key and tone of a
common element in each. It is, of course, a resemblance of _relations_
and not of personalities; for though there is something of the Knight
of La Mancha in Mr. Shandy, there is nothing of Sancho about his
brother. But the serio-comic game of cross-purposes is the same
between both couples; and what one may call the irony of human
intercourse is equally profound, and pointed with equal subtlety,
in each. In the Spanish romance, of course, it is not likely to be
missed. It is enough in itself that the deranged brain which takes
windmills for giants, and carriers for knights, and Rosinante for a
Bucephalus, has fixed upon Sancho Panza--the crowning proof of its
mania--as the fitting squire of a knight-errant. To him--to this
compound of somnolence, shrewdness, and good nature--to this creature
with no more tincture of romantic idealism than a wine-skin, the
knight addresses, without misgiving, his lofty dissertations on the
glories and the duties of chivalry--the squire responding after
his fashion. And thus these two hold converse, contentedly
incomprehensible to each other, and with no suspicion that they are as
incapable of interchanging ideas as the inhabitants of two different
planets. With what heart-stirring mirth, and yet with what strangely
deeper feeling of the infinite variety of human nature, do we follow
their converse throughout! Yet Quixote and Sancho are not more
life-like and human, nor nearer together at one point and farther
apart at another, than are Walter Shandy and his brother. The squat
little Spanish peasant is not more gloriously incapable of following
the chivalric vagaries of his master than the simple soldier is of
grasping the philosophic crotchets of his brother. Both couples are
in sympathetic contact absolute and complete at one point; at another
they are "poles asunder" both of them. And in both contrasts there
is that sense of futility and failure, of alienation and
misunderstanding--that element of underlying pathos, in short, which
so strangely gives its keenest salt to humour. In both alike there is
the same suggestion of the Infinite of disparity bounding the finite
of resemblance--of the Incommensurable in man and nature, beside which
all minor uniformities sink into insignificance.

The pathetic element which underlies and deepens the humour is, of
course, produced in the two cases in two exactly opposite ways. In
both cases it is a picture of human simplicity--of a noble and artless
nature out of harmony with its surroundings--which moves us;
but whereas in the Spanish romance the simplicity is that of the
_incompris_, in the English novel it is that of the man with whom
the _incompris_ consorts. If there is pathos as well as humour, and
deepening the humour, in the figure of the distraught knight-errant
talking so hopelessly over the head of his attached squire's morality,
so too there is pathos, giving depth to the humour of the eccentric
philosopher, shooting so hopelessly wide of the intellectual
appreciation of the most affectionate of brothers. One's sympathy,
perhaps, is even more strongly appealed to in the latter than in the
former case, because the effort of the good Captain to understand is
far greater than that of the Don to make himself understood, and the
concern of the former at his failure is proportionately more marked
than that of the latter at _his_. And the general _rapport_ between
one of the two ill-assorted pairs is much closer than that of
the other. It is, indeed, the tantalizing approach to a mutual
understanding which gives so much more subtle a zest to the humour
of the relations between the two brothers Shandy than to that which
arises out of the relations between the philosopher and his wife.
The broad comedy of the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy is
irresistible in its way: but it _is_ broad comedy. The philosopher
knows that his wife does not comprehend him: she knows that she never
will; and neither of them much cares. The husband snubs her openly
for her mental defects, and she with perfect placidity accepts his
rebukes. "Master," as he once complains, "of one of the finest chains
of reasoning in the world, he is unable for the soul of him to get a
single link of it into the head of his wife;" but we never hear him
lamenting in this serio-comic fashion over his brother's inability to
follow his processes of reasoning. That is too serious a matter with
both of them; their mutual desire to share each other's ideas and
tastes is too strong; and each time that the philosopher shows his
impatience with the soldier's fortification-hobby, or the soldier
breaks his honest shins over one of the philosopher's crotchets, the
regret and remorse on either side is equally acute and sincere. It
must be admitted, however, that Captain Shandy is the one who the more
frequently subjects himself to pangs of this sort, and who is the more
innocent sufferer of the two.

From the broad and deep humour of this central conception of contrast
flow as from a head-water innumerable rills of comedy through many and
many a page of dialogue; but not, of course, from this source alone.
Uncle Toby is ever delightful, even when his brother is not near him
as his foil; the faithful Corporal brings out another side of his
character, upon which we linger with equal pleasure of contemplation;
the allurements of the Widow Wadman reveal him to us in yet
another--but always in a captivating aspect. There is, too, one need
hardly say, an abundance of humour, of a high, though not the highest,
order in the minor characters of the story--in Mrs. Shandy, in the
fascinating widow, and even, under the coarse lines of the physical
caricature, in the keen little Catholic, Slop himself. But it is in
Toby Shandy alone that humour reaches that supreme level which it is
only capable of attaining when the collision of contrasted qualities
in a human character produces a corresponding conflict of the emotions
of mirth and tenderness in the minds of those who contemplate it.

This, however, belongs more rightfully to the consideration of the
creative and dramatic element in Sterne's genius; and an earlier place
in the analysis is claimed by that power over the emotion of pity upon
which Sterne, beyond question, prided himself more highly than upon
any other of his gifts. He preferred, we can plainly see, to think of
himself, not as the great humourist, but as the great sentimentalist;
and though the word "sentiment" had something even in _his_ day of the
depreciatory meaning which distinguishes it nowadays from "pathos,"
there can be little doubt that the thing appeared to Sterne to be, on
the whole, and both in life and literature, rather admirable than the

What, then, were his notions of true "sentiment" in literature?
We have seen elsewhere that he repeats--it would appear
unconsciously--and commends the canon which Horace propounds to the
tragic poet in the words:

"Si vis me flere, dolendum
Primum ipsi tibi: tunc tua me infortunia laedent."

And that canon is sound enough, no doubt, in the sense in which it was
meant, and in its relation to the person to whom it was addressed. A
tragic drama, peopled with heroes who set forth their woes in frigid
and unimpassioned verse, will unquestionably leave its audience as
cold as itself. Nor is this true of drama alone. All _poetry_, indeed,
whether dramatic or other, presupposes a sympathetic unity of emotion
between the poet and those whom he addresses; and to this extent it
is obviously true that _he_ must feel before they can. Horace, who was
(what every literary critic is not) a man of the world and an observer
of human nature, did not, of course, mean that this capacity for
feeling was all, or even the chief part, of the poetic faculty. He
must have seen many an "intense" young Roman make that pathetic
error of the young in all countries and of all periods--the error of
mistaking the capacity of emotion for the gift of expression. He did,
however, undoubtedly mean that a poet's power of affecting others
presupposes passion in himself; and, as regards the poet, he was
right. But his criticism takes no account whatever of one form of
appeal to the emotions which has been brought by later art to a high
pitch of perfection, but with which the personal feeling of the artist
has not much more to do than the "passions" of an auctioneer's clerk
have to do with the compilation of his inventory. A poet himself,
Horace wrote for poets; to him the pathetic implied the ideal, the
imaginative, the rhetorical; he lived before the age of Realism and
the Realists, and would scarcely have comprehended either the men or
the method if he could have come across them. Had he done so, however,
he would have been astonished to find his canon reversed, and to have
perceived that the primary condition of the realist's success, and
the distinctive note of those writers who have pressed genius into
the service of realism, is that they do _not_ share--that they are
unalterably and ostentatiously free from--the emotions to which
they appeal in their readers. A fortunate accident has enabled us to
compare the treatment which the world's greatest tragic poet and its
greatest master of realistic tragedy have respectively applied to
virtually the same subject; and the two methods are never likely to
be again so impressively contrasted as in _King Lear_ and _Le Pere
Goriot_. But, in truth, it must be impossible for any one who feels
Balzac's power not to feel also how it is heightened by Balzac's
absolute calm--a calm entirely different from that stern composure
which was merely a point of style and not an attitude of the heart
with the old Greek tragedians--a calm which, unlike theirs, insulates,
so to speak, and is intended to insulate, the writer, to the end that
his individuality, of which only the electric current of sympathy ever
makes a reader conscious, may disappear, and the characters of the
drama stand forth the more life-like from the complete concealment of
the hand that moves them.

Of this kind of art Horace, as has been said, knew nothing, and his
canon only applies to it by the rule of contraries. Undoubtedly, and
in spite of the marvels which one great genius has wrought with it, it
is a form lower than the poetic--essentially a prosaic, and in many
or most hands an unimaginative, form of art; but for this very reason,
that it demands nothing of its average practitioner but a keen eye for
facts, great and small, and a knack of graphically recording them, it
has become a far more commonly and successfully cultivated form of
art than any other. As to the question who _are_ its practitioners, it
would, of course, be the merest dogmatism to commit one's self to any
attempt at rigid classification in such a matter. There are few if any
writers who can be described without qualification either as realists
or as idealists. Nearly all of them, probably, are realists at one
moment and in one mood, and idealists at other moments and in other
moods. All that need be insisted on is that the methods of the two
forms of art are essentially distinct, and that artistic failure must
result from any attempt to combine them; for, whereas the primary
condition of success in the one case is that the reader should feel
the sympathetic presence of the writer, the primary condition of
success in the other is that the writer should efface himself from the
reader's consciousness altogether. And it is, I think, the defiance of
these conditions which explains why so much of Sterne's deliberately
pathetic writing is, from the artistic point of view, a failure. It is
this which makes one feel so much of it to be strained and unnatural,
and which brings it to pass that some of his most ambitious efforts
leave the reader indifferent, or even now and then contemptuous. In
those passages of pathos in which the effect is distinctly sought
by realistic means Sterne is perpetually ignoring the "self-denying
ordinance" of his adopted method--perpetually obtruding his own
individuality, and begging us, as it were, to turn from the picture to
the artist, to cease gazing for a moment at his touching creation, and
to admire the fine feeling, the exquisitely sympathetic nature of the
man who created it. No doubt, as we must in fairness remember, it was
part of his "humour"--in Ancient Pistol's sense of the word--to do
this; it is true, no doubt (and a truth which Sterne's most famous
critic was too prone to ignore), that his sentiment is not always
_meant_ for serious;[1] nay, the very word "sentimental" itself,
though in Sterne's day, of course, it had acquired but a part of its
present disparaging significance, is a sufficient proof of that. But
there are, nevertheless, plenty of passages, both in _Tristram Shandy_
and the _Sentimental Journey_, where the intention is wholly and
unmixedly pathetic--where the smile is not for a moment meant to
compete with the tear--which are, nevertheless, it must be owned,
complete failures, and failures traceable with much certainty, or so
it seems to me, to the artistic error above-mentioned.

[Footnote 1: Surely it was not so meant, for instance, in the passage
about the _desobligeante_, which had been "standing so many months
unpitied in the corner of Monsieur Dessien's coach-yard. Much, indeed,
was not to be said for it, but something might; and, when a few words
will rescue Misery out of her distress, I hate the man who can be
a churl of them." "Does anybody," asks Thackeray in a strangely
matter-of-fact fashion, "believe that this is a real sentiment? That
this luxury of generosity, this gallant rescue of Misery--out of an
old cab--is genuine feeling?" Nobody, we should say. But, on the other
hand, does anybody--or did anybody before Thackeray--suggest that it
was meant to pass for genuine feeling? Is it not an obvious piece of
mock pathetic?]

In one famous case, indeed, the failure can hardly be described as
other than ludicrous. The figure of the distraught Maria of Moulines
is tenderly drawn; the accessories of the picture--her goat, her dog,
her pipe, her song to the Virgin--though a little theatrical, perhaps,
are skilfully touched in; and so long as the Sentimental Traveller
keeps our attention fixed upon her and them the scene prospers well
enough. But, after having bidden us duly note how "the tears trickled
down her cheeks," the Traveller continues: "I sat down close by her,
and Maria let me wipe them away as they fell with my handkerchief.
I then steeped it in my own--and then in hers--and then in mine--and
then I wiped hers again; and as I did it I felt such undescribable
emotions within me as, I am sure, could not be accounted for from any
combinations of matter and motion." The reader of this may well ask
himself in wonderment whether he is really expected to make a third
in the lachrymose group. We look at the passage again, and more
carefully, to see if, after all, we may not be intended to laugh, and
not to cry at it; but on finding, as clearly appears, that we actually
_are_ intended to cry at it the temptation to laugh becomes almost
irresistible. We proceed, however, to the account of Maria's
wanderings to Rome and back, and we come to the pretty passage which

"How she had borne it, and how she had got supported, she could
not tell; but God tempers the wind, said Maria, to the shorn lamb.
Shorn indeed! and to the quick, said I; and wast thou in my own
land, where I have a cottage, I would take thee to it, and shelter thee;
thou shouldst eat of my own bread and drink of my own cup; I
would be kind to thy Sylvio; in all thy weaknesses and wanderings
I would seek after thee, and bring thee back. When the sun went
down I would say my prayers; and when I had done thou shouldst
play thy evening-song upon thy pipe; nor would the incense of my
sacrifice be worse accepted for entering heaven along with that of a
broken heart."

But then follows more whimpering:

"Nature melted within me [continues Sterne] as I said this; and
Maria observing, as I took out my handkerchief, that it was steeped
too much already to be of use, would needs go wash it in the stream.
And where will you dry it, Maria? said I. I'll dry it in my bosom,
said she; 'twill do me good. And is your heart still so warm, Maria?
said I. I touched upon the string on which hung all her sorrows.
She looked with wistful disorder for some time in my face; and then,
without saying anything, took her pipe and played her service to the

Which are we meant to look at--the sorrows of Maria? or the
sensibilities of the Sentimental Traveller? or the condition of the
pocket-handkerchief? I think it doubtful whether any writer of the
first rank has ever perpetrated so disastrous a literary failure
as this scene; but the main cause of that failure appears to me not
doubtful at all. The artist has no business within the frame of the
picture, and his intrusion into it has spoilt it. The method adopted
from the commencement is ostentatiously objective: we are taken
straight into Maria's presence, and bidden to look at and to pity the
unhappy maiden as _described_ by the Traveller who met her. No attempt
is made to place us at the outset in sympathy with _him_; he, until he
thrusts himself before us, with his streaming eyes, and his drenched
pocket-handkerchief, is a mere reporter of the scene before him, and
he and his tears are as much out of place as if he were the compositor
who set up the type. It is not merely that we don't want to know how
the scene affected him, and that we resent as an impertinence the
elaborate account of his tender emotions; we don't wish to be reminded
of his presence at all. For, as we can know nothing (effectively)
of Maria's sorrows except as given in her appearance--the historical
recital of them and their cause being too curt and bald to be able to
move us--the best chance for moving our compassion for her is to
make the illusion of her presence as dramatically real as possible;
a chance which is, therefore, completely destroyed when the author of
the illusion insists on thrusting himself between ourselves and the

But, in truth, this whole episode of Maria of Moulines was, like more
than one of Sterne's efforts after the pathetic, condemned to failure
from the very conditions of its birth. These abortive efforts are
no natural growth of his artistic genius; they proceed rather from
certain morbidly stimulated impulses of his moral nature which he
forced his artistic genius to subserve. He had true pathetic power,
simple yet subtle, at his command; but it visited him unsought, and by
inspiration from without. It came when he was in the dramatic and
not in the introspective mood; when he was thinking honestly of
his characters, and not of himself. But he was, unfortunately, too
prone--and a long course of moral self-indulgence had confirmed him in
it--to the habit of caressing his own sensibilities; and the result of
this was always to set him upon one of those attempts to be pathetic
of _malice prepense_ of which Maria of Moulines is one example, and
the too celebrated dead donkey of Nampont another. "It is agreeably
and skilfully done, that dead jackass," writes Thackeray; "like M. de
Soubise's cook on the campaign, Sterne dresses it, and serves it up
quite tender, and with a very piquante sauce. But tears, and fine
feelings, and a white pocket-handkerchief, and a funeral sermon, and
horses and feathers, and a procession of mutes, and a hearse with
a dead donkey inside! Psha! Mountebank! I'll not give thee one
penny-piece for that trick, donkey and all." That is vigorous
ridicule, and not wholly undeserved; but, on the other hand, not
entirely deserved. There is less of artistic trick, it seems to me,
and more of natural foible, about Sterne's literary sentiment than
Thackeray was ever willing to believe; and I can find nothing worse,
though nothing better, in the dead ass of Nampont than in Maria of
Moulines. I do not think there is any conscious simulation of
feeling in this Nampont scene; it is that the feeling itself is
overstrained--that Sterne, hugging, as usual, his own sensibilities,
mistook their value in expression for the purposes of art. The
Sentimental Traveller does not obtrude himself to the same extent as
in the scene at Moulines; but a little consideration of the scene will
show how much Sterne relied on the mere presentment of the fact that
here was an unfortunate peasant who had lost his dumb companion, and
here a tender-hearted gentleman looking on and pitying him. As for
any attempts to bring out, by objective dramatic touches, either the
grievousness of the bereavement or the grief of the mourner, such
attempts as are made to do this are either commonplace or "one step
in advance" of the sublime. Take this, for instance: "The mourner was
sitting upon a stone bench at the door, with his ass's pannel and its
bridle on one side, which he took up from time to time, then laid them
down, looked at them, and shook his head. He then took the crust of
bread out of his wallet again, as if to eat it; held it some time
in his hand, then laid it upon the bit of his ass's bridle--looked
wistfully at the little arrangement he had made--and then gave a sigh.
The simplicity of his grief drew numbers about him," &c. Simplicity,
indeed, of a marvellous sort which could show itself by so
extraordinary a piece of acting as this! Is there any critic who
candidly thinks it natural--I do not mean in the sense of mere
every-day probability, but of conformity to the laws of human
character? Is it true that in any country, among any people, however
emotional, grief--real, unaffected, un-selfconscious grief--ever did
or ever could display itself by such a trick as that of laying a piece
of bread on the bit of a dead ass's bridle? Do we not feel that if we
had been on the point of offering comfort or alms to the mourner, and
saw him go through this extraordinary piece of pantomime, we should
have buttoned up our hearts and pockets forthwith? Sentiment,
again, sails very near the wind of the ludicrous in the reply to the
Traveller's remark that the mourner had been a merciful master to the
dead ass. "Alas!" the latter says, "I thought so when he was alive,
but now that he is dead I think otherwise. I fear the weight of
_myself and my afflictions_ have been too much for him." And the scene
ends flatly enough with the scrap of morality: "'Shame on the world!'
said I to myself. 'Did we love each other as this poor soul loved his
ass, 'twould be something.'"

The whole incident, in short, is one of those examples of the
deliberate-pathetic with which Sterne's highly natural art had
least, and his highly artificial nature most, to do. He is never so
unsuccessful as when, after formally announcing, as it were, that he
means to be touching, he proceeds to select his subject, to marshal
his characters, to group his accessories, and with painful and
painfully apparent elaboration to work up his scene to the weeping
point. There is no obviousness of suggestion, no spontaneity of
treatment about this "Dead Ass" episode; indeed, there is some reason
to believe that it was one of those most hopeless of efforts--the
attempt at the mechanical repetition of a former triumph. It is by no
means improbable, at any rate, that the dead ass of Nampont owes its
presence in the _Sentimental Journey_ to the reception met with by the
live ass of Lyons in the seventh volume of _Tristram Shandy_. And yet
what an astonishing difference between the two sketches!

"'Twas a poor ass, who had just turned in, with a couple of large
panniers upon his back, to collect eleemosynary turnip-tops and
cabbage-leaves, and stood dubious with his two fore-feet on the
inside of the threshold, and with his two hinder feet towards the
street, as not knowing very well whether he would go in or no.
Now, 'tis an animal (be in what hurry I may) I cannot bear to strike.
There is a patient endurance of sufferings wrote so unaffectedly in
his looks and carriage, which pleads so mightily for him that it
always disarms me, and to that degree that I do not like to speak
unkindly to him; on the contrary, meet him where I will, in town or
country, in cart or under panniers, whether in liberty or bondage,
I have ever something civil to say to him on my part; and, as one
word begets another (if he has as little to do as I), I generally
fall into conversation with him; and surely never is my imagination
so busy as in framing his responses from the etchings of his
countenance--and where those carry me not deep enough, in flying from
my own heart into his, and feeling what is natural for an ass to think,
as well as a man, upon the occasion.... Come, Honesty! said I, seeing
it was impracticable to pass betwixt him and the gate, art thou for
coming in or going out? The ass twisted his head round, to look up the
street. Well, replied I, we'll wait a minute for thy driver. He turned
his head thoughtfully about, and looked wistfully the opposite way. I
understand thee perfectly, answered I: if thou takest a wrong step
in this affair he will cudgel thee to death. Well, a minute is but a
minute, and if it saves a fellow-creature a drubbing, it shall not be
set down as ill spent. He was eating the stem of an artichoke as
this discourse went on, and, in the little peevish contentions of nature
betwixt hunger and unsavouriness, had dropped it out of his
mouth half a dozen times, and picked it up again. God help thee,
Jack! said I, thou hast a bitter breakfast on't, and many a bitter
blow, I fear, for its wages--'tis all, all bitterness to thee, whatever
life is to others. And now thy mouth, if one knew the truth of it, is
as bitter, I dare say, as soot (for he had cast aside the stem), and
thou hast not a friend, perhaps, in all this world that will give thee a
macaroon. In saying this I pulled out a paper of 'em, which I had
just purchased, and gave him one; and, at this moment that I am
telling it, my heart smites me that there was more of pleasantry in
the conceit of seeing how an ass would eat a macaroon, than of
benevolence in giving him one, which presided in the act. When the
ass had eaten his macaroon I pressed him to come in. The poor
beast was heavy loaded, his legs seemed to tremble under him, he
hung rather backwards, and as I pulled at his halter it broke short
in my hand. He looked up pensive in my face. 'Don't thrash me
with it; but if you will, you may.' 'If I do,' said I, 'I'll be d----d.'"

Well might Thackeray say of this passage that, "the critic who refuses
to see in it wit, humour, pathos, a kind nature speaking, and a real
sentiment, must be hard indeed to move and to please." It is, in
truth, excellent; and its excellence is due to its possessing nearly
every one of those qualities, positive and negative, which the two
other scenes above quoted are without. The author does not here
obtrude himself, does not importune us to admire his exquisitely
compassionate nature; on the contrary, he at once amuses us and
enlists our sympathies by that subtly humorous piece of self-analysis,
in which he shows how large an admixture of curiosity was contained
in his benevolence. The incident, too, is well chosen. No forced
concurrence of circumstances brings it about: it is such as any man
might have met with anywhere in his travels, and it is handled in a
simple and manly fashion. The reader is _with_ the writer throughout;
and their common mood of half-humorous pity is sustained, unforced,
but unbroken, from first to last.

One can hardly say as much for another of the much-quoted pieces from
the _Sentimental Journey_--the description of the caged starling.
The passage is ingeniously worked into its context; and if we were
to consider it as only intended to serve the purpose of a sudden
and dramatic discomfiture of the Traveller's somewhat inconsiderate
moralizings on captivity, it would be well enough. But, regarded as
a substantive appeal to one's emotions, it is open to the criticisms
which apply to most other of Sterne's too deliberate attempts at the
pathetic. The details of the picture are too much insisted on, and
there is too much of self-consciousness in the artist. Even at the
very close of the story of Le Fevre's death--finely told though, as
a whole, it is--there is a jarring note. Even while the dying man is
breathing his last our sleeve is twitched as we stand at his bedside,
and our attention forcibly diverted from the departing soldier to the
literary ingenuities of the man who is describing his end:

"There was a frankness in my Uncle Toby, not the effect of familiarity,
but the cause of it, which let you at once into his soul, and
showed you the goodness of his nature. To this there was something
in his looks, and voice, and manner, superadded, which eternally beckoned
to the unfortunate to come and take shelter under him; so that
before my Uncle Toby had half finished the kind offers he was making
to the father had the son insensibly pressed up close to his knees,
and had taken hold of the breast of his coat, and was pulling it towards
him. The blood and spirits of Le Fevre, which were waxing
cold and slow within him, and were retreating to their last citadel,
the heart, rallied back; the film forsook his eyes for a moment; he
looked up wishfully in my Uncle Toby's face, then cast a look upon
his boy--and that ligament, fine as it was, was never broken."

How excellent all that is! and how perfectly would the scene have
ended had it closed with the tender and poetic image which thus
describes the dying soldier's commendation of his orphan boy to the
care of his brother-in-arms! But what of this, which closes the scene,
in fact?

"Nature instantly ebbed again; the film returned to its place; the
pulse fluttered--stopped--went on--throbbed--stopped again--moved,
stopped. Shall I go on? No."

Let those admire this who can. To me I confess it seems to spoil a
touching and simple death-bed scene by a piece of theatrical trickery.

The sum, in fact, of the whole matter appears to be, that the
sentiment on which Sterne so prided himself--the acute sensibilities
which he regarded with such extraordinary complacency, were, as has
been before observed, the weakness, and not the strength, of his
pathetic style. When Sterne the artist is uppermost, when he is
surveying his characters with that penetrating eye of his, and above
all when he is allowing his subtle and tender humour to play upon them
unrestrained, he can touch the springs of compassionate emotion in
us with a potent and unerring hand. But when Sterne the man is
uppermost--when he is looking inward and not outward, contemplating
his own feelings instead of those of his personages, his cunning
fails him altogether. He is at his best in pathos when he is most
the humourist; or rather, we may almost say, his pathos is never good
unless when it is closely interwoven with his humour. In this, of
course, there is nothing at all surprising. The only marvel is, that a
man who was such a master of the humorous, in its highest and deepest
sense, should seem to have so little understood how near together
lie the sources of tears and laughter on the very way-side of man's
mysterious life.



Subtle as is Sterne's humour, and true as, in its proper moods, is
his pathos, it is not to these but to the parent gift from which they
sprang, and perhaps to only one special display of that gift, that he
owes his immortality. We are accustomed to bestow so lightly this last
hyperbolic honour--hyperbolic always, even when we are speaking of
a Homer or a Shakspeare, if only we project the vision far enough
forward through time--that the comparative ease with which it is to be
earned has itself come to be exaggerated. There are so many "deathless
ones" about--if I may put the matter familiarly--in conversation and
in literature, that we get into the way of thinking that they are
really a considerable body in actual fact, and that the works which
have triumphed over death are far more numerous still. The real truth,
however, is, that not only are "those who reach posterity a very
select company indeed," but most of them have come much nearer missing
their destiny than is popularly supposed. Of the dozen or score of
writers in one century whom their own contemporaries fondly decree
immortal, one-half, perhaps, may be remembered in the next; while of
the creations which were honoured with the diploma of immortality a
very much smaller proportion as a rule survive. Only some fifty per
cent, of the prematurely laurel-crowned reach the goal; and often even
upon _their_ brows there flutter but a few stray leaves of the bay.
A single poem, a solitary drama--nay, perhaps one isolated figure,
poetic or dramatic--avails, and but barely avails, to keep the
immortal from putting on mortality. Hence we need think it no
disparagement to Sterne to say that he lives not so much in virtue
of his creative power as of one great individual creation. His
imaginative insight into character in general was, no doubt,
considerable; his draughtsmanship, whether as exhibited in the rough
sketch or in the finished portrait, is unquestionably most vigorous;
but an artist may put a hundred striking figures upon his canvas for
one that will linger in the memory of those who have gazed upon it;
and it is, after all, I think, the one figure of Captain Tobias Shandy
which has graven itself indelibly on the memory of mankind. To have
made this single addition to the imperishable types of human character
embodied in the world's literature may seem, as has been said, but
a light matter to those who talk with light exaggeration of the
achievements of the literary artist; but if we exclude that one
creative prodigy among men, who has peopled a whole gallery with
imaginary beings more real than those of flesh and blood, we shall
find that very few archetypal creations have sprung from any single
hand. Now, My Uncle Toby is as much the archetype of guileless good
nature, of affectionate simplicity, as Hamlet is of irresolution,
or Iago of cunning, or Shylock of race-hatred; and he contrives to
preserve all the characteristics of an ideal type amid surroundings of
intensely prosaic realism, with which he himself, moreover, considered
as an individual character in a specific story, is in complete,
accord. If any one be disposed to underrate the creative and dramatic
power to which this testifies, let him consider how it has commonly
fared with those writers of prose fiction who have attempted to
personify a virtue in a man. Take the work of another famous English
humourist and sentimentalist, and compare Uncle Toby's manly and
dignified gentleness of heart with the unreal "gush" of the Brothers
Cheeryble, or the fatuous benevolence of Mr. Pickwick. We do not
believe in the former, and we cannot but despise the latter. But
Captain Shandy is reality itself, within and without; and though
we smile at his naivete, and may even laugh outright at his boyish
enthusiasm for his military hobby, we never cease to respect him for a
moment. There is no shirking or softening of the comic aspects of his
character; there could not be, of course, for Sterne needed him
more, and used him more, for his purposes as a humourist than for his
purposes as a sentimentalist. Nay, it is on the rare occasions when he
deliberately sentimentalizes with Captain Shandy that the Captain is
the least delightful; it is then that the hand loses its cunning, and
the stroke strays; it is then, and only then, that the benevolence
of the good soldier seems to verge, though ever so little, upon
affectation. It is a pity, for instance, that Sterne should, in
illustration of Captain Shandy's kindness of heart, have plagiarized
(as he is said to have done) the incident of the tormenting fly,
caught and put out of the window with the words "Get thee gone, poor
devil! Why should I harm thee? The world is surely large enough for
thee and me." There is something too much of self-conscious virtue in
the apostrophe. This, we feel, is not the real Uncle Toby of
Sterne's objective mood; it is the Uncle Toby of the subjectifying
sentimentalist, surveying his character through the false medium
of his own hypertrophied sensibilities. These lapses, however, are,
fortunately, rare. As a rule we see the worthy Captain only as he
appeared to his creator's keen dramatic eye, and as he is set before
us in a thousand exquisite touches of dialogue--the man of simple mind
and soul, profoundly unimaginative and unphilosophical, but lacking
not in a certain shrewd common-sense; exquisitely _naif_, and
delightfully _mal-a-propos_ in his observations, but always
pardonably, never foolishly, so; inexhaustibly amiable, but with no
weak amiability; homely in his ways, but a perfect gentleman withal;
in a word, the most winning and lovable personality that is to be met
with, surely, in the whole range of fiction.

It is, in fact, with Sterne's general delineations of character as
it is, I have attempted to show, with his particular passages of
sentiment. He is never at his best and truest--as, indeed, no writer
of fiction ever is or can be--save when he is allowing his dramatic
imagination to play the most freely upon his characters, and thinking
least about himself. This is curiously illustrated in his handling
of what is, perhaps, the next most successful of the uncaricatured
portraits in the Shandy gallery--the presentment of the Rev. Mr.
Yorick. Nothing can be more perfect in its way than the picture of the
"lively, witty, sensitive, and heedless parson," in chapter x. of the
first volume of _Tristram Shandy_. We seem to see the thin, melancholy
figure on the rawboned horse--the apparition which could "never
present itself in the village but it caught the attention of old and
young," so that "labour stood still as he passed, the bucket hung
suspended in the middle of the well, the spinning-wheel forgot its
round; even chuck-farthing and shuffle-cap themselves stood gaping
till he was out of sight." Throughout this chapter Sterne, though
describing himself, is projecting his personality to a distance, as it
were, and contemplating it dramatically; and the result is excellent.
When in the next chapter he becomes "lyrical," so to speak; when the
reflection upon his (largely imaginary) wrongs impels him to look
inward, the invariable consequence follows; and though Yorick's much
bepraised death-scene, with Eugenius at his bed-side, is redeemed
from entire failure by an admixture of the humorous with its attempted
pathos, we ask ourselves with some wonder what the unhappiness--or the
death itself, for that matter--is "all about." The wrongs which were
supposed to have broken Yorick's heart are most imperfectly specified
(a comic proof, by the way, of Sterne's entire absorption in himself,
to the confusion of his own personal knowledge with that of the
reader), and the first conditions of enlisting the reader's sympathies
are left unfulfilled.

But it is comparatively seldom that this foible of Sterne obtrudes
itself upon the strictly narrative and dramatic parts of his work;
and, next to the abiding charm and interest of his principal figure,
it is by the admirable life and colour of his scenes that he exercises
his strongest powers of fascination over a reader. Perpetual as
are Sterne's affectations, and tiresome as is his eternal
self-consciousness when he is speaking in his own person, yet when
once the dramatic instinct fairly lays hold of him there is no writer
who ever makes us more completely forget him in the presence of his
characters--none who can bring them and their surroundings, their
looks and words, before us with such convincing force of reality.
One wonders sometimes whether Sterne himself was aware of the high
dramatic excellence of many of what actors would call his "carpenter's
scenes"--the mere interludes introduced to amuse us while the stage is
being prepared for one of those more elaborate and deliberate displays
of pathos or humour, which do not always turn out to be unmixed
successes when they come. Sterne prided himself vastly upon the
incident of Le Fevre's death; but I dare say that there is many a
modern reader who would rather have lost this highly-wrought piece of
domestic drama, than that other exquisite little scene in the kitchen
of the inn, when Corporal Trim toasts the bread which the sick
lieutenant's son is preparing for his father's posset, while "Mr.
Yorick's curate was smoking a pipe by the fire, but said not a word,
good or bad, to comfort the youth." The whole scene is absolute life;
and the dialogue between the Corporal and the parson, as related by
the former to his master, with Captain Shandy's comments thereon, is
almost Shakspearian in its excellence. Says the Corporal:

"When the lieutenant had taken his glass of sack and toast he
felt himself a little revived, and sent down into the kitchen to let me
know that in about ten minutes he should be glad if I would step
upstairs, I believe, said the landlord, he is going to say his prayers,
for there was a book laid on the chair by the bed-side, and as I
shut the door I saw him take up a cushion. I thought, said the curate,
that you gentlemen of the army, Mr. Trim, never said your prayers
at all. I heard the poor gentleman say his prayers last night,
said the landlady, very devoutly, and with my own ears, or I could
not have believed it. Are you sure of it? replied the curate. A
soldier, an' please your reverence, said I, prays as often (of his own
accord) as a parson; and when he is fighting for his king, and for
his own life, and for his honour too, he has the most reason to pray
to God of any one in the whole world. 'Twas well said of thee, Trim,
said my Uncle Toby. But when a soldier, said I, an' please your
reverence, has been standing for twelve hours together in the trenches,
up to his knees in cold water--or engaged, said I, for months together
in long and dangerous marches; harassed, perhaps, in his rear today;
harassing others to-morrow; detached here; countermanded
there; resting this night out upon his arms; beat up in his shirt the
next; benumbed in his joints; perhaps without straw in his tent to
kneel on, [he] must say his prayers how and when he can. I believe,
said I--for I was piqued, quoth the Corporal, for the reputation
of the army--I believe, an't please your reverence, said I, that when
a soldier gets time to pray, he prays as heartily as a parson--though
not with all his fuss and hypocrisy. Thou shouldst not have said
that, Trim, said my Uncle Toby; for God only knows who is a hypocrite
and who is not. At the great and general review of us all,
corporal, at the day of judgment (and not till then) it will be seen
who have done their duties in this world and who have not, and we
shall be advanced, Trim, accordingly. I hope we shall, said Trim.
It is in the Scripture, said my Uncle Toby, and I will show it thee in
the morning. In the meantime, we may depend upon it, Trim, for our
comfort, said my Uncle Toby, that God Almighty is so good and just
a governor of the world, that if we have but done our duties in it, it
will never be inquired into whether we have done them in a red coat
or a black one. I hope not, said the Corporal. But go on, said my
Uncle Toby, with thy story."

We might almost fancy ourselves listening to that noble prose colloquy
between the disguised king and his soldiers on the night before
Agincourt, in _Henry V._ And though Sterne does not, of course, often
reach this level of dramatic dignity, there are passages in abundance
in which his dialogue assumes, through sheer force of individualized
character, if not all the dignity, at any rate all the impressive
force and simplicity, of the "grand style."

Taken altogether, however, his place in English letters is hard to
fix, and his tenure in human memory hard to determine. Hitherto he has
held his own, with the great writers of his era, but it has been in
virtue, as I have attempted to show, of a contribution to the literary
possessions of mankind which is as uniquely limited in amount as it is
exceptionally perfect in quality. One cannot but feel that, as regards
the sum of his titles to recollection, his name stands far below
either of those other two which in the course of the last century
added themselves to the highest rank among the classics of English
humour. Sterne has not the abounding life and the varied human
interest of Fielding; and, to say nothing of his vast intellectual
inferiority to Swift, he never so much as approaches those problems of
everlasting concernment to man which Swift handles with so terrible
a fascination. Certainly no enthusiastic Gibbon of the future is ever
likely to say of Sterne's "pictures of human manners" that they will
outlive the palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of the
House of Austria. Assuredly no one will ever find in _this_ so-called
English antitype of the Cure of Meudon any of the deeper qualities of
that gloomy and commanding spirit which has been finely compared to
the "soul of Rabelais _habitans in sicco_." Nay, to descend even to
minor aptitudes, Sterne cannot tell a story as Swift and Fielding
can tell one; and his work is not assured of life as _Tom Jones_ and
_Gulliver's Travels_, considered as stories alone, would be assured
of it, even if the one were stripped of its cheerful humour, and the
other disarmed of its savage allegory. And hence it might be rash to
predict that Sterne's days will be as long in the land of literary
memory as the two great writers aforesaid. Banked, as he still is,
among "English classics," he undergoes, I suspect, even more than an
English classic's ordinary share of reverential neglect. Among those
who talk about him he has, I should imagine, fewer readers than
Fielding, and very much fewer than Swift. Nor is he likely to increase
their number as time goes on, but rather, perhaps, the contrary.
Indeed, the only question is whether with the lapse of years he will
not, like other writers as famous in their day, become yet more of a
mere name. For there is still, of course, a further stage to which he
may decline. That object of so much empty mouth-honour, the English
classic of the last and earlier centuries, presents himself for
classification under three distinct categories. There is the class who
are still read in a certain measure, though in a much smaller measure
than is pretended, by the great body of ordinarily well-educated men.
Of this class, the two authors whose names I have already cited, Swift
and Fielding, are typical examples; and it may be taken to include
Goldsmith also. Then comes the class of those whom the ordinarily
well-educated public, whatever they may pretend, read really very
little or not at all; and in this class we may couple Sterne with
Addison, with Smollett, and, except, of course, as to _Robinson
Crusoe_--unless, indeed, our _blase_ boys have outgrown him among
other pleasures of boyhood--with Defoe. But below this there is yet a
third class of writers, who are not only read by none but the critic,
the connoisseur, or the historian of literature, but are scarcely read
even by them, except from curiosity, or "in the way of business." The
type of this class is Richardson; and one cannot, I say, help asking
whether he will hereafter have Sterne as a companion of his dusty
solitude. Are _Tristram Shandy_ and the _Sentimental Journey_ destined
to descend from the second class into the third--from the region of
partial into that of total neglect, and to have their portion with
_Clarissa Harlowe_ and _Sir Charles Grandison?_ The unbounded vogue
which they enjoyed in their time will not save them; for sane and
sober critics compared Richardson in his day to Shakspeare, and
Diderot broke forth into prophetic rhapsodies upon the immortality of
his works which to us in these days have become absolutely pathetic
in their felicity of falsified prediction. Seeing, too, that a good
three-fourths of the attractions which won Sterne his contemporary
popularity are now so much dead weight of dead matter, and that the
vital residuum is in amount so small, the fate of Richardson might
seem to be but too close behind him. Yet it is difficult to believe
that this fate will ever quite overtake him. His sentiment may have
mostly ceased--it probably has ceased--to stir any emotion at all in
these days; but there is an imperishable element in his humour. And
though the circle of his readers may have no tendency to increase, one
can hardly suppose that a charm, which those who still feel it feel so
keenly, will ever entirely cease to captivate; or that time can have
any power over a perfume which so wonderfully retains the pungent
freshness of its fragrance after the lapse of a hundred years.


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