By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
Chapter X: Style and General Characteristics
HUMOUR AND SENTIMENT.
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, Molière, 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 quantitativecomparison 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 relationsand 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 reverse.
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 Père 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; 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 Shandyand 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 follows:
“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 Virgin.”
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 scene.
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.