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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LIFE of the Reverend Laurence Sterne was as inconsistent with his profession as with his writings. Reading these, no one would for a moment believe that he was a clergyman. Such a career as his would not be possible to-day; but to a Church of England parson of the eighteenth century, extraordinary moral latitude was allowed, and toward him extraordinary tolerance was exercised. Although Sterne’s sermons were clever, they were very peculiar. His contemporaries thought of him only as a literary man, and it is doubtful if he took himself seriously as a cleric. He was a humorist to the marrow, and had all the vagaries of his natural predilection. Although in his day the English Church was chosen for a calling, like the army, the navy, or the law, and the revenue from a benefice was fitly named a living, it is not likely that he voluntarily selected his profession.  1
  He was the great-grandson of Dr. Richard Sterne, Archbishop of York; and the recollection of his distinguished ancestor, with considerations of family influence, must have decided his vocation. His father, a younger son, was an ensign of the 34th Regiment, with which he served in Flanders, taking part in the sieges of Lisle and Douay. His mother was Agnes Hebert, widow of a captain of good connections. The ensign and his wife went to Clonmel, in Ireland, at the close of the war; and there, in barracks, Laurence was born, November 24th, 1713; his parents and all his progenitors being English. His father having been recalled into active service, the child was carried from barracks to transport, from Ireland to England, and was familiar with the shifts, hardships, and vulgarities of a vagabond military life, until he reached his tenth year. This happy-go-lucky existence, with its fun, its extravagance, and its pinching poverty, no doubt influenced his character, and affected his ways of thinking. At the age of ten he was fortunately rescued from it by a good-natured cousin, Squire Sterne, and sent first to school at Halifax, and then to Jesus College, Cambridge, of which the archiepiscopal great-grandfather had been master. He was entered as a sizar; and in exchange for his free commons and free tuition, had to render such services as Goldsmith gave a few years later,—sweeping the courts, carrying up the dishes to the fellows’ dining-hall, and pouring the ale. The position involved some mortifications, and the little beneficiary, already half an invalid, was unequal to much hard work. But he seems to have accepted all the conditions of life with a good-natured philosophy that made him popular.  2
  After ordination he procured, through another kinsman, Dr. Jaques Sterne, the vicarage of Sutton in Yorkshire, and in time a prebendal stall in York Cathedral. Marrying at twenty-eight, he received from a friend of his wife the living of Stillington, in the immediate neighborhood of Sutton. The churchman had been fortunate from his boyhood; and that supposed good luck continued which led to physical and moral deterioration, and his premature death at fifty-four. For nearly twenty years he led a free-and-easy life in the country,—reading, painting, fiddling, fishing, shooting, dining, but writing nothing save his regular sermons, with occasional political squibs and paragraphs for a Whig newspaper. He had gained, however, a local reputation for wit and story-telling, and was much quoted in York for smart sayings, not at all sacerdotal. His disposition was extremely gay, and the kind of gayety he preferred was expensive. His income proving inadequate, he began to run in debt,—a habit which increased with his years. He had published a few sermons which found admirers; but on the first day of January, 1760, being then forty-six years of age, he burst on an astonished world with two volumes of ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent.’  3
  Though printed in the provincial town of York, the story gave him instantaneous renown. York was immensely scandalized at the satirical levity of its prebend; but London was taken captive by the cleverness and the unconventionality of the new free-lance. The book was republished under the pen-name of Yorick; Yorick being a character in ‘Tristram Shandy,’—a sporting parson, who claims descent from the king’s jester in ‘Hamlet.’ Everybody, however, soon knew the author to be no other than Laurence Sterne. Eager to enjoy his triumph, he visited London, and was received with an enthusiasm wholly beyond his fondest anticipations. He was honored and flattered as few authors have been; he was feasted, courted, caressed; he became at once the talk and the lion of the town. It was a distinction to have seen, much more to have spoken to, Laurence Sterne. He was classed with Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett as a master of prose fiction. Praise was exhausted on his humor, his invention, his learning, his originality. Lord Falconbridge conferred on him the living of Coxwould; the arrogant Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, presented him with a purse of gold; Reynolds painted his portrait; Dodsley offered him seven hundred pounds for two more volumes of ‘Tristram Shandy,’ and a second edition. He was invited to dine with the most noted men of the metropolis, three weeks in advance; and the most fashionable game of cards was named after his hero. Such incense, as welcome as intoxicating to Sterne, turned his head, ruined his fragile constitution, and undermined such moral principles as he still professed. Having once enjoyed the stimulus, the diversity, the delightful adulation of London, he could not content himself in the provinces. He took a house in York for his wife and daughter Lydia, to whom he was much attached; but passed most of his own time in the capital, or on the Continent.  4
  The third and fourth volumes of ‘Tristram Shandy’ appeared in 1761; the fifth and sixth in 1762. Sterne was “fully determined to write as hard as could be,” and was sure that he could give the public “two volumes of Shandyism every year for forty years to come.” Too much feasting, however, too late hours, and perhaps too constant application, wore him out. From birth he had been delicate,—a tendency to consumption sapping his nervous energies, paralyzing his will, and vitiating perhaps his moral impulses. A hemorrhage, a cough, and increasing weakness drove him to France for a sojourn of more than two years. There he met the warmest reception from literary and fashionable circles, and wrote to Garrick from Paris:—“’Tis comme à Londres. I have just now a fortnight’s dinners and suppers on my hands. Be it known I Shandy it away fifty times more than I was ever wont,—talk more nonsense than ever you heard me talk in all your days, and to more sorts of people.” When society would let him, he still worked at the history of the Shandy family; and in 1765, after his return to England (very little better for the sort of health journey he had undertaken), he brought out the fourth installment of two volumes. The later issues only deepened and intensified the impression made by the first two. He was universally regarded not only as a writer of rare genius, but as one of the most original of humorists, and compared with Rabelais and Cervantes. His novel was accepted on its face in that uncritical age, and not impartially judged till after his death. But in Dr. Ferriar’s ‘Illustrations of Sterne,’ published in 1812, that ingenious gentleman took pains to track the humorist’s phrases and inventions to their source in Rabelais and other old French authors; to Burton, from whose ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ much of his erudition is “lifted”; to Bishop Hall, Dr. Donne, Dr. Arbuthnot, and many more. Yet Dr. Ferriar admitted that these appropriations were of material only; that Sterne, like Shakespeare, bettered what he took, and that his reputation as a great literary artist is not in the least affected by this habit of spoliation. Indeed, he was strikingly original,—as such characters as Walter Shandy, Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, Dr. Slop, and the Widow Wadman abundantly testify.  5
  ‘Tristram Shandy’ is in no strict sense a novel. Such story as there is is constantly interrupted by episodes, digressions, absurdities, affectations, and incongruities. In more than one volume the whole movement is suspended while the author introduces a discourse, a journey, or any other irrelevant personal experience. But he knew his own tendencies, and declared that he had reconciled “digressive motion with progressive.”  6
  Longing to spin out the tawdry life of excitement and pleasure that seemed so fine to him, yet racked by his cough and hampered by weakness, Sterne went to Italy in 1765, hoping to improve in a milder climate. Again he gained little in health; but he managed to bring out the concluding volume of ‘Tristram Shandy’ in 1767. This was received with hardly diminished favor, and edition after edition of the completed story was sold. To the taste of to-day it makes little appeal,—its premeditated quaintness, its pervading coarseness, and its archaisms repel the general reader; yet for its higher qualities it retains almost unequaled charm to a minority of cultivated minds, and even children can fall under its spell with a lasting enchantment. The ‘Sentimental Journey through France and Italy’ was projected as a long story, but Sterne’s strength was unequal to his resolution. In 1767 he brought out the first part—and the last; full of fine description and admirable pathos. This work was partly undertaken to ridicule Smollett’s ‘Travels through France and Italy’ (1766): one of its most quoted phrases, “I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry ‘’Tis all barren,’” is directly aimed at the too sincere Scotchman, whom he patently nicknames Smelfungus.  7
  At the height of his fame, just after the publication of the ‘Sentimental Journey,’ Sterne died in lodgings, “at the sign of the Silk Bag” in Old Bond Street, alone but for the presence of a hired nurse. He had desired to end his life at an inn, and his desire was fulfilled. Although he had earned much money, he died in debt; and a collection of eight hundred pounds was made at the York races for his wife and daughter.  8
  Sterne has been accused of gross vices. He has been called a man overflowing with sentiment on paper, but devoid of real feeling; a weeper over dead asses, and a discarder of the common ties of humanity. His late biographers have defended him stoutly, declaring his memory to have been maligned. But his own correspondence, published posthumously, convicts him of many offenses. It has been said by one of his fairest critics that though in any just estimation of him, censure must be lost in pity, yet the fact remains that Sterne is one of the very few men of real genius, who, however faulty in their lives, have in their writings not sought to be faithful to the highest truth they knew. Concerning his work there is but one verdict: that whatever its superficial defects, and however unattractive its quality to modern taste, its art is exquisite; and that by reason of this its author is entitled to a place with the great masters of literature.  9
 
 
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