Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by H. D. Traill
Laurence Sterne (17131768)
[Laurence Sterne was born at Clonmel on the 24th of November 1713. His father, Roger Sterne, was an ensign of Foot, who had served in the great war which was brought to a close by the treaty of Utrecht, and whose regiment had just been disbanded on its arrival in Ireland a day or two before the infants birth took place. After some months of enforced idleness his regiment was again embodied, and for the first ten years of his life Laurence accompanied his father and mother in their continual movements, under military orders, from place to place. In the autumn of 1723, however, or the spring of the following year, the boy was sent to Halifax Grammar School, whence, after a stay of about eight years, near the end of which period his father died, he was sent, at the charges of a cousin on the paternal side, to Cambridge, where he obtained a sizarship at Jesus and duly proceeded to his B.A. degree. Dr. Jacques Sterne, an elder brother of his fathers, now undertook the advancement of his fortunes; and immediately on his taking priests orders procured for him the Yorkshire living of Sutton in the Forest, into which he was inducted in 1738, and which he held in complete obscurity for upwards of twenty years. In 1759, in consequence, as he alleged, of a coolness having arisen between him and his uncle, for whose advantage he had, according to his own account, been employing his brain and his pen without adequate recognition, he turned author on his own account. The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy appeared in 1760; and Sterne leaped at one bound into fame. The book became the rage of London, and the author the lion of its fashionable society. One of his aristocratic patrons, Lord Fauconberg, presented him to the living of Coxwold in Yorkshire, whither he retired after his London triumph, and whence in the following year he sent forth the third and fourth volumes of this famous extravaganza of fiction. About the middle of 1761, however, the health of the author, never very robust, began to fail; and during the six following years the remaining volumes V. to IX., appeared at irregular intervals determined by Sternes repeated visits to and prolonged sojourns in France and Italy. The ninth, and as it proved, the last volume of Tristram Shandy appeared in January 1767, and was followed in February of the next year by the Sentimental Journey. A month later, on the 18th March 1768, Sterne died of pleurisy at his lodgings in Bond Street.]
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 recognised 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 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. Sternes truly hideous FrenchFrench at which even the average English tourist would stand aghastis 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 Sternes 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 Sternes sentences, as we are, for very different reasons, for the meaning of one of Macaulays. 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. Sternes 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.
It is by the latter of these qualitiesthough he had the former in almost equal abundancethat he lives. No doubt he valued himself no less, perhaps even more highly, on his sentiment, and was prouder of his acute sensibility to the sorrows of mankind, than of his keen eye for their absurdities, and his genially satiric appreciation of their foibles. But posterity has not confirmed Sternes judgment of himself. His passages of pathos, sometimes genuine and deeply moving, too often on the other hand only impress the modern reader with their artificial and overstrained sentimentalism. The affecting too often degenerates into the affected. To trace the causes of this degeneration would be a work involving too complex a process of analysis to be undertaken in this place. But the sum of the whole matter seems to be that the sentiment on which Sterne so prided himselfthe acute sensibilities which he regarded with such extraordinary complacencywere in reality the weakness and not the strength of his pathetic style. When Sterne the artist is uppermost, when he is surveying the characters with that penetrating eye of his, and above all when he is allowing his subtle and tender humour to play around them unrestrained, he can touch the cords 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 and not those of his personages, his cunning fails him altogether. In other words he is at his best in pathos when he is most the humourist; or rather, we may almost say, his pathos is never true unless when it is closely interwoven with his humour.
Still it is comparatively seldom that this foible of Sterne obtrudes itself upon the strictly narrative and dramatic part of his work. It is, generally speaking, in the episodical passages, such, for instance, as the story of the distraught Maria of Moulines, or that incident of the dead donkey of Nampont which Thackeray so mercilessly, though not unfairly, ridiculed, that Sterne most lays himself out to be pathetic; it is in these digressions, as they may almost be called, that he becomes lugubrious of malice aforethought, so to say; and it is therefore only in such exceptional cases that the expectation is disappointed, and the critical judgment offended, by the failures of the kind above described. On the main road of his storyif it can be said to have a main roadhe is usually saved from such lapses of artistic taste by his strong dramatic instinct. Perpetual as are his affectations, and tiresome as his eternal self-consciousness, when he is speaking in his own person, often becomes, yet when once this dramatic instinct fairly lays hold of him there is no writer who can make 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.
But if he makes us see them thus clearly, and thus plainly hear them, it is of course because of the matchless vigour and truth of touch with which their figures are first made to stand forth upon his canvass. And it is in fact the union with Sternes other rare intellectual and artistic qualities of this rarest gift of all which has won for him his unique place in our literature. Neither wit, nor humour, nor creative power, nor skill of dramatic handling, would have done that for him if it had stood alone. They might, any of them, have made him famous in his time; but, except in conjunction, they could not have raised him to the rank he holds among the classics of English prose fiction. The extravagant Rabelaisian drollery that revels through the pages of Tristram Shandy, the marvellous keenness of eye, the inimitable delicacy of touch to which we owe the exquisite vignettes of the Sentimental Journey, would hardly of themselves have secured the place for Sterne. But it is for ever assured to him in right of that combination of subjective and personal with objective and dramatic humour in which he has never been excelled by any one save the creator of Falstaff. In Mr. Shandy and his wife, in Corporal Trim, in Yorick, and above all in that masterpiece of mirthful, subtle, tenderly humorous portraiture, My Uncle Toby, Sterne has created imperishable types of character and made them remarkably his own.