By H.D. Traill

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Chapter IX: Sterne As a Writer


Everyday experience suffices to show that the qualities which win enduring fame for books and for their authors are not always those to which they owe their first popularity. It may with the utmost probability be affirmed that this was the case with Tristram Shandyand with Sterne. We cannot, it is true, altogether dissociate the permanent attractions of the novel from those characteristics of it which have long since ceased to attract at all; the two are united in a greater or less degree throughout the work; and this being so, it is, of course, impossible to prove to demonstration that it was the latter qualities, and not the former, which procured it its immediate vogue. But, as it happens, it is possible to show that what may be called its spurious attractions varied directly, and its real merits inversely, as its popularity with the public of its day. In the higher qualities of humour, in dramatic vigour, in skilful and subtle delineation of character, the novel showed no deterioration, but, in some instances, a marked improvement, as it proceeded; yet the second instalment was not more popular, and most of the succeeding ones were distinctly less popular, than the first. They had gained in many qualities, while they had lost in only the single one of novelty; and we may infer, therefore, with approximate certainty, that what “took the town” in the first instance was, that quality of the book which was strangest at its first appearance. The mass of the public read, and enjoyed, or thought they enjoyed, when they were really only puzzled and perplexed. The wild digressions, the audacious impertinences, the burlesque philosophizing, the broad jests, the air of recondite learning, all combined to make the book a nine days’ wonder; and a majority of its readers would probably have been prepared to pronounce Tristram Shandy a work as original in scheme and conception as it was eccentric. Some there were, no doubt, who perceived the influence of Rabelais in the incessant digressions and the burlesque of philosophy; others, it may be, found a reminder of Burton in the parade of learning; and yet a few others, the scattered students of French facetiae of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, may have read the broad jests with a feeling that they had “seen something like it before.” But no single reader, no single critic of the time, appears to have combined the knowledge necessary for tracing these three characteristics of the novel to their respective sources; and none certainly had any suspicion of the extent to which the books and authors from whom they were imitated had been laid under contribution. No one suspected that Sterne, not content with borrowing his trick of rambling from Rabelais, and his airs of erudition from Burton, and his fooleries from Bruscambille, had coolly transferred whole passages from the second of these writers, not only without acknowledgment, but with the intention, obviously indicated by his mode of procedure, of passing them off as his own. Nay, it was not till full fifty years afterwards that these daring robberies were detected, or, at any rate, revealed to the world; and, with an irony which Sterne himself would have appreciated, it was reserved for a sincere admirer of the humourist to play the part of detective. In 1812 Dr. John Ferriar published his Illustrations of Sterne, and the prefatory sonnet, in which he solicits pardon for his too minute investigations, is sufficient proof of the curiously reverent spirit in which he set about his damaging task:

  “Sterne, for whose sake I plod through miry ways
  Of antic wit, and quibbling mazes drear,
  Let not thy shade malignant censure fear,
  If aught of inward mirth my search betrays.
  Long slept that mirth in dust of ancient days,
  Erewhile to Guise or wanton Valois dear,” &c.

Thus commences Dr. Ferriar’s apology, which, however, can hardly be held to cover his offence; for, as a matter of fact, Sterne’s borrowings extend to a good deal besides “mirth;” and some of the most unscrupulous of these forced loans are raised from passages of a perfectly serious import in the originals from which they are taken.

Here, however, is the list of authors to whom Dr. Ferriar holds Sterne to have been more or less indebted: Rabelais, Beroalde de Verville, Bouchet, Bruscambille, Scarron, Swift, an author of the name or pseudonym of “Gabriel John,” Burton, Bacon, Blount, Montaigne, Bishop Hall. The catalogue is a reasonably long one; but it is not, of course, to be supposed that Sterne helped himself equally freely from every author named in it. His obligations to some of them are, as Dr. Ferriar admits, but slight. From Rabelais, besides his vagaries of narrative, Sterne took, no doubt, the idea of the Tristra-paedia(by descent from the “education of Pantagruel,” through “Martinus Scriblerus”); but though he has appropriated bodily the passage in which Friar John attributes the beauty of his nose to the pectoral conformation of his nurse, he may be said to have constructively acknowledged the debt in a reference to one of the characters in the Rabelaisian dialogue.[1]

[Footnote 1: “There is no cause but one,” said my Uncle Toby, “why one man’s nose is longer than another, but because that God pleases to have it so.” “That is Grangousier’s solution,” said my father. “’Tis He,” continued my Uncle Toby, “who makes us all, and frames and puts us together in such forms ... and for such ends as is agreeable to His infinite wisdom."–Tristram Shandy, vol. iii. c. 41. “Par ce, répondit Grangousier, qu’ainsi Dieu l’a voulu, lequel nous fait en cette forme et cette fin selon divin arbitre."–Rabelais, book i. c. 41. In another place, however (vol. viii. c. 3), Sterne has borrowed a whole passage from this French humourist without any acknowledgment at all.]

Upon Beroalde, again, upon D’Aubigné, and upon Bouchet he has made no direct and verbatim depredations. From Bruscambille he seems to have taken little or nothing but the not very valuable idea of the tedious buffoonery of vol. iii. c. 30, et sqq.; and to Scarron he, perhaps, owed the incident of the dwarf at the theatre in the Sentimental Journey, an incident which, it must be owned, he vastly improved in the taking. All this, however, does not amount to very much, and it is only when we come to Dr. Ferriar’s collations of Tristram Shandywith the Anatomy of Melancholy that we begin to understand what feats Sterne was capable of as a plagiarist. He must, to begin with, have relied with cynical confidence on the conviction that famous writers are talked about and not read, for he sets to work with the scissors upon Burton’s first page:

“Man, the most excellent and noble creature of the world, the principal and mighty work of God; wonder of nature, as Zoroaster calls him; audacis naturae miraculum, the marvel of marvels, as Plato; the abridgment and epitome of the world, as Pliny,” &c. Thus Burton; and, with a few additions of his own, and the substitution of Aristotle for Plato as the author of one of the descriptions, thus Sterne: “Who made MAN with powers which dart him from heaven to earth in a moment–that great, that most excellent and noble creature of the world, the miracle of nature, as Zoroaster, in his book [Greek: peri phuseos], called him–the Shekinah of the Divine Presence, as Chrysostom–the image of God, as Moses–the ray of Divinity, as Plato–the marvel of marvels, as Aristotle,” &c.[1] And in the same chapter, in the “Fragment upon Whiskers,” Sterne relates how a “decayed kinsman" of the Lady Baussiere “ran begging, bareheaded, on one side of her palfrey, conjuring her by the former bonds of friendship, alliance, consanguinity, &c.–cousin, aunt, sister, mother–for virtue’s sake, for your own sake, for mine, for Christ’s sake, remember me! pity me!" And again he tells how a “devout, venerable, hoary-headed man” thus beseeched her: “’I beg for the unfortunate. Good my lady, ’tis for a prison–for an hospital; ’tis for an old man–a poor man undone by shipwreck, by suretyship, by fire. I call God and all His angels to witness, ’tis to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry–’tis to comfort the sick and the brokenhearted.’ The Lady Baussiere rode on.[2]”

[Footnote 1: Tristram Shandy, vol. v.c. 1.]

[Footnote 2: Ibid.]

But now compare this passage from the Anatomy of Melancholy:

  “A poor decayed kinsman of his sets upon him by the way, in all
  his jollity, and runs begging, bareheaded, by him, conjuring him by
  those former bonds of friendship, alliance, consanguinity, &c., ’uncle,
  cousin, brother, father, show some pity for Christ’s sake, pity a
  sick man, an old man,’ &c.; he cares not–ride on: pretend sickness,
  inevitable loss of limbs, plead suretyship or shipwreck, fire,
  common calamities, show thy wants and imperfections, take God
  and all His angels to witness ... put up a supplication to him in
  the name of a thousand orphans, an hospital, a spittle, a prison, as
  he goes by  ... ride on."[1]

[Footnote 1: Burton: Anat. Mel., p. 269.]

Hardly a casual coincidence this. But it is yet more unpleasant to find that the mock philosophic reflections with which Mr. Shandy consoles himself on Bobby’s death, in those delightful chapters on that event, are not taken, as they profess to be, direct from the sages of antiquity, but have been conveyed through, and “conveyed" from, Burton.

“When Agrippina was told of her son’s death,” says Sterne, “Tacitus informs us that, not being able to moderate her passions, she abruptly broke off her work.” Tacitus does, it is true, inform us of this. But it was undoubtedly Burton (_Anat. Mel., p. 213) who informed Sterne of it. So, too, when Mr. Shandy goes on to remark upon death that “’Tis an inevitable chance–the first statute in Magna Charta–it is an everlasting Act of Parliament, my dear brother–all must die,” the agreement of his views with those of Burton, who had himself said of death, “’Tis an inevitable chance–the first statute in Magna Charta–an everlasting Act of Parliament–all must die,[2]” is even textually exact.

[Footnote 2: Ibid., p. 215.]

In the next passage, however, the humourist gets the better of the plagiarist, and we are ready to forgive the theft for the happily comic turn which he gives to it.


  “Tully was much grieved for his daughter Tulliola’s death at first,
  until such time that he had confirmed his mind by philosophical precepts;
  then he began to triumph over fortune and grief, and for her
  reception into heaven to be much more joyed than before he was
  troubled for her loss.”


“When Tully was bereft of his daughter, at first he laid it to his heart, he listened to the voice of nature, and modulated his own unto it. O my Tullia! my daughter! my child!–Still, still, still–’twas O my Tullia, my Tullia! Me thinks I see my Tullia, I hear my Tullia, I talk with my Tullia. But as soon as he began to look into the stores of philosophy, and consider how many excellent things might be said upon the occasion, nobody on earth can conceive, says the great orator, how happy, how joyful it made me.”

“Kingdoms and provinces, cities and towns,” continues Burton, “have their periods, and are consumed.” “Kingdoms and provinces, and towns and cities,” exclaims Mr. Shandy, throwing the sentence, like the “born orator” his son considered him, into the rhetorical interrogative, “have they not their periods?” “Where,” he proceeds, “is Troy, and Mycenae, and Thebes, and Delos, and Persepolis, and Agrigentum? What is become, brother Toby, of Nineveh and Babylon, of Cyzicum and Mytilene? The fairest towns that ever the sun rose upon" (and all, with the curious exception of Mytilene, enumerated by Burton) “are now no more.” And then the famous consolatory letter from Servius Sulpicius to Cicero on the death of Tullia is laid under contribution–Burton’s rendering of the Latin being followed almost word for word. “Returning out of Asia,” declaims Mr. Shandy, “when I sailed from Aegina towards Megara” (when can this have been? thought my Uncle Toby), “I began to view the country round about. Aegina was behind me, Megara before,” &c., and so on, down to the final reflection of the philosopher, “Remember that thou art but a man;” at which point Sterne remarks coolly, “Now, my Uncle Toby knew not that this last paragraph was an extract of Servius Sulpicius’s consolatory letter to Tully"–the thing to be really known being that the paragraph was, in fact, Servius Sulpicius filtered through Burton. Again, and still quoting from the Anatomy of Melancholy, Mr. Shandy remarks how “the Thracians wept when a child was born, and feasted and made merry when a man went out of the world; and with reason.” He then goes on to lay predatory hands on that fine, sad passage in Lucian, which Burton had quoted before him: “Is it not better not to hunger at all, than to eat? not to thirst, than to take physic to cure it?" (why not “than to drink to satisfy thirst?” as Lucian wrote and Burton 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 pièces 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.


Prefatory Note  •  Chapter I: Birth, Parentage, and Early Years  •  Chapter II: School and University.–halifax and Cambridge  •  Chapter III: Life At Sutton.–Marriage.–The Parish Priest  •  Chapter V: London Triumphs.–First Set of Sermons  •  (1760-1762.)  •  Chapter VI: Life in the South  •  (1762-1765.)  •  Chapter VII: France and Italy  •  (1765-1768.)  •  Chapter VIII: Last Days and Death  •  Chapter IX: Sterne As a Writer  •  Chapter X: Style and General Characteristics  •  Chapter XI: Creative and Dramatic Power  • 

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