By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
The diminished appetite of the public for the humours of Mr. Shandy and his brother is, perhaps, not very difficult to understand. Time was simply doing its usual wholesome work in sifting the false from the true–in ridding Sterne’s audience of its contingent of sham admirers. This is not to say, of course, that there might not have been other and better grounds for a partial withdrawal of popular favour. A writer who systematically employs Sterne’s peculiar methods must lay his account with undeserved loss as well as with unmerited gain. The fifth and sixth volumes deal quite largely enough in mere eccentricity to justify the distaste of any reader upon whom mere eccentricity had begun to pall. But if this were the sole explanation of the book’s declining popularity, we should have to admit that the adverse judgment of the public had been delayed too long for justice, and had passed over the worst to light upon the less heinous offences. For the third volume, though its earlier pages contain some good touches, drifts away into mere dull, uncleanly equivoque in its concluding chapters; and the fifth and sixth volumes may, at any rate, quite safely challenge favourable comparison with the fourth–the poorest, I venture to think, of the whole series. There is nothing in these two later volumes to compare, for instance, with that most wearisome exercise in double entendre, Slawkenbergius’s Tale; nothing to match that painfully elaborate piece of low comedy, the consultation of philosophers and its episode of Phutatorius’s mishap with the hot chestnut; no such persistent resort, in short, to those mechanical methods of mirth-making upon which Sterne, throughout a great part of the fourth volume, almost exclusively relies. The humour of the fifth is, to a far larger extent, of the creative and dramatic order; the ever-delightful collision of intellectual incongruities in the persons of the two brothers Shandy gives animation to the volume almost from beginning to end. The arrival of the news of Bobby Shandy’s death, and the contrast of its reception by the philosophic father and the simple-minded uncle, form a scene of inimitable absurdity, and the “Tristrapaedia,” with its ingenious project for opening up innumerable “tracks of inquiry” before the mind of the pupil by sheer skill in the manipulation of the auxiliary verbs, is in the author’s happiest vein. The sixth volume, again, which contains the irresistible dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy on the great question of the “breeching of Tristram,” and the much-admired, if not wholly admirable, episode of Le Fevre’s death, is fully entitled to rank beside its predecessors. On the whole, therefore, it must be said that the colder reception accorded to this instalment of the novel, as compared with the previous one, can hardly be justified on sound critical grounds. But that literary shortcomings were not, in fact, the cause of Tristram’s declining popularity may be confidently inferred from the fact that the seventh volume, with its admirably vivid and spirited scenes of Continental travel, and the eighth and ninth, with their charming narrative of Captain Shandy’s love affair, were but slightly more successful. The readers whom this, the third instalment of the novel, had begun to repel, were mainly, I imagine, those who had never felt any intelligent admiration for the former; who had been caught by the writer’s eccentricity, without appreciating his insight into character and his graphic power, and who had seen no other aspects of his humour than those buffooneries and puerilities which, after first amusing, had begun, in the natural course of things, to weary them.
Meanwhile, however, and with spirits restored by the Southern warmth to that buoyancy which never long deserted them, Sterne had begun to set to work upon a new volume. His letters show that this was not the seventh but the eighth; and Mr. Fitzgerald’s conjecture, that the materials ultimately given to the world in the former volume were originally designed for another work, appears exceedingly probable. But for some time after his arrival at Toulouse he was unable, it would seem, to resume his literary labours in any form. Ever liable, through his weakly constitution, to whatever local maladies might anywhere prevail, he had fallen ill, he writes to Hall Stevenson, “of an epidemic vile fever which killed hundreds about me. The physicians here,” he adds, “are the arrantest charlatans in Europe, or the most ignorant of all pretending fools. I withdrew what was left of me out of their hands, and recommended my affairs entirely to Dame Nature. She (dear goddess) has saved me in fifty different pinching bouts, and I begin to have a kind of enthusiasm now in her favour and my own, so that one or two more escapes will make me believe I shall leave you all at last by translation, and not by fair death.” Having now become “stout and foolish again as a man can wish to be, I am,” he says, “busy playing the fool with my Uncle Toby, whom I have got soused over head and ears in love.” Now, it is not till the eighth volume that the Widow Wadman begins to weave her spells around Captain Shandy’s ingenuous heart; while the seventh volume is mainly composed of that series of travel-pictures in which Sterne has manifestly recorded his own impressions of Northern France in the person of the youthful Tristram. It is scarcely doubtful, therefore, that it is these sketches, and the use which he then proposed to make of them, that he refers to, when speaking in this letter of “hints and projects for other works.” Originally intended to form a part of the volume afterwards published as the Sentimental Journey, it was found necessary–under pressure, it is to be supposed, of insufficient matter–to work them up instead into an interpolated seventh volume of Tristram Shandy. At the moment, however, he no doubt as little foresaw this as he did the delay which was to take place before any continuation of the novel appeared. He clearly contemplated no very long absence from England. “When I have reaped the benefit of the winter at Toulouse, I cannot see I have anything more to do with it. Therefore, after having gone with my wife and girl to Bagnères, I shall return from whence I came.” Already, however, one can perceive signs of his having too presumptuously marked out his future. “My wife wants to stay another year, to save money; and this opposition of wishes, though it will not be as sour as lemon, yet ’twill not be as sweet as sugar.” And again: “If the snows will suffer me, I propose to spend two or three months at Barége or Bagnères; but my dear wife is against all schemes of additional expense, which wicked propensity (though not of despotic power) yet I cannot suffer–though, by-the-bye, laudable enough. But she may talk; I will go my own way, and she will acquiesce without a word of debate on the subject. Who can say so much in praise of his wife? Few, I trow.” The tone of contemptuous amiability shows pretty clearly that the relations between husband and wife had in nowise improved. But wives do not always lose all their influence over husbands’ wills along with the power over their affections; and it will be seen that Sterne did notmake his projected winter trip to Bagnères, and that he did remain at Toulouse for a considerable part of the second year for which Mrs. Sterne desired to prolong their stay. The place, however, was not to his taste; and he was not the first traveller in France who, delighted with the gaiety of Paris, has been disappointed at finding that French provincial towns can be as dull as dulness itself could require. It is in the somewhat unjust mood which is commonly begotten of disillusion that Sterne discovers the cause of his ennui in “the eternal platitude of the French character,” with its “little variety and no originality at all.” “They are very civil,” he admits, “but civility itself so thus uniform wearies and bothers me to death. If I do not mind I shall grow most stupid and sententious.” With such apprehensions it is not surprising that he should have eagerly welcomed any distraction that chance might offer, and in December we find him joyfully informing his chief correspondent of the period, Mr. Foley–who to his services as Sterne’s banker seems to have added those of a most helpful and trusted friend–that “there are a company of English strollers arrived here who are to act comedies all the Christmas, and are now busy in making dresses and preparing some of our best comedies.” These so-called strollers were, in fact, certain members of the English colony in Toulouse, and their performances were among the first of those “amateur theatrical” entertainments which now-a-days may be said to rival the famous “morning drum-beat” of Daniel Webster’s oration, in marking the ubiquity of British boredom, as the reveil does that of British power over all the terrestrial globe. “The next week,” writes Sterne, “with a grand orchestra, we play The Busybody, and the Journey to London the week after; but I have some thought of adapting it to our situation, and making it the Journey to Toulouse, which, with the change of half-a-dozen scenes, may be easily done. Thus, my dear Foley, for want of something better we have recourse to ourselves, and strike out the best amusements we can from such materials.” “Recourse to ourselves,” however, means, in strict accuracy, “recourse to each other;” and when the amateur players had played themselves out, and exhausted their powers of contributing to each others’ amusement, it is probable that “recourse to ourselves,” in the exact sense of the phrase, was found ineffective–in Sterne’s case, at any rate–to stave off ennui. To him, with his copiously if somewhat oddly furnished mind, and his natural activity of imagination, one could hardly apply the line of Persius,
“Tecum habita et noris quam sit tibi curta supellex;”
but it is yet evident enough that Sterne’s was one of that numerous order of intellects which are the convivial associates, rather than the fireside companions, of their owners, and which, when deprived of the stimulus of external excitement, are apt to become very dull company indeed. Nor does he seem to have obtained much diversion of mind from his literary work–a form of intellectual enjoyment which, indeed, more often presupposes than begets good spirits in such temperaments as his. He declares, it is true, that he “sports much with my Uncle Toby” in the volume which he is now “fabricating for the laughing part of the world;” but if so he must have sported only after a very desultory and dilatory fashion. On the whole one cannot escape a very strong impression that Sterne was heartily bored by his sojourn in Toulouse, and that he eagerly longed for the day of his return to “the dalliance and the wit, the flattery and the strife,” which he had left behind him in the two great capitals in which he had shone.
His stay, however, was destined to be very prolonged. The winter of 1762 went by, and the succeeding year had run nearly half its course, before he changed his quarters. “The first week in June,” he writes in April to Mr. Foley, “I decamp like a patriarch, with all my household, to pitch our tents for three months at the foot of the Pyrenean hills at Bagnères, where I expect much health and much amusement from all corners of the earth.” He talked too at this time of spending the winter at Florence, and, after a visit to Leghorn, returning home the following April by way of Paris; “but this,” he adds, “is a sketch only,” and it remained only a sketch. Toulouse, however, he was in any case resolved to quit. He should not, he said, be tempted to spend another winter there. It did not suit his health, as he had hoped: he complained that it was too moist, and that he could not keep clear of ague. In June, 1763, he quitted it finally for Bagnères; whence after a short, and, as we subsequently learn, a disappointed, sojourn, he passed on to Marseilles, and later to Aix, for both of which places he expressed dislike; and by October he had gone again into winter quarters at Montpellier, where “my wife and daughter,” he writes, “purpose to stay at least a year behind me.” His own intention was to set out in February for England, “where my heart has been fled these six months.” Here again, however, there are traces of that periodic, or rather, perhaps, that chronic conflict of inclination between himself and Mrs. Sterne, of which he speaks with such a tell-tale affectation of philosophy. “My wife,” he writes in January, “returns to Toulouse, and proposes to spend the summer at Bagnères. I, on the contrary, go to visit my wife the church in Yorkshire. We all live the longer, at least the happier, for having things our own way. This is my conjugal maxim. I own ’tis not the best of maxims, but I maintain ’tis not the worst.” It was natural enough that Sterne, at any rate, should wish to turn his back on Montpellier. Again had the unlucky invalid been attacked by a dangerous illness; the “sharp air” of the place disagreed with him, and his physicians, after having him under their hands more than a month, informed him coolly that if he stayed any longer in Montpellier it would be fatal to him. How soon after that somewhat late warning he took his departure there is no record to show; but it is not till the middle of May that we find him writing from Paris to his daughter. And since he there announces his intention of leaving for England in a few days, it is a probable conjecture that he had arrived at the French capital some fortnight or so before.
His short stay in Paris was marked by two incidents–trifling in themselves, but too characteristic of the man to be omitted. Lord Hertford, the British Ambassador, had just taken a magnificent hotel in Paris, and Sterne was asked to preach the first sermon in its chapel. The message was brought him, he writes, “when I was playing a sober game of whist with Mr. Thornhill; and whether I was called abruptly from my afternoon amusement to prepare myself for the business on the next day, or from what other cause, I do not pretend to determine; but that unlucky kind of fit seized me which you know I am never able to resist, and a very unlucky text did come into my head.” The text referred to was 2 Kings XX. 15–Hezekiah’s admission of that ostentatious display of the treasures of his palace to the ambassadors of Babylon for which Isaiah rebuked him by prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Judah. Nothing, indeed, as Sterne protests, could have been more innocent than the discourse which he founded upon the mal-à-propos text; but still it was unquestionably a fair subject for “chaff,” and the preacher was rallied upon it by no less a person than David Hume. Gossip having magnified this into a dispute between the parson and the philosopher, Sterne disposes of the idle story in a passage deriving an additional interest from its tribute to that sweet disposition which had an equal charm for two men so utterly unlike as the author of Tristram Shandy and the author of the Wealth of Nations. “I should,” he writes, “be exceedingly surprised to hear that David ever had an unpleasant contention with any man; and if I should ever be made to believe that such an event had happened, nothing would persuade me that his opponent was not in the wrong, for in my life did I never meet with a being of a more placid and gentle nature; and it is this amiable turn of his character which has given more consequence and force to his scepticism than all the arguments of his sophistry.” The real truth of the matter was that, meeting Sterne at Lord Hertford’s table on the day when he had preached at the Embassy Chapel, “David was disposed to make a little merry with the parson, and in return the parson was equally disposed to make a little merry with the infidel. We laughed at one another, and the company laughed with us both.” It would be absurd, of course, to identify Sterne’s latitudinarian bonhomie with the higher order of tolerance; but many a more confirmed and notorious Gallio than the clerical humourist would have assumed prudish airs of orthodoxy in such a presence, and the incident, if it does not raise one’s estimate of Sterne’s dignity, displays him to us as laudably free from hypocrisy.
But the long holiday of somewhat dull travel, with its short last act of social gaiety, was drawing to a close. In the third or fourth week of May Sterne quitted Paris; and after a stay of a few weeks in London he returned to the Yorkshire parsonage, from which he had been absent some thirty months.
Unusually long as was the interval which had elapsed since the publication of the last instalment of Tristram Shandy, the new one was far from ready; and even in the “sweet retirement” of Coxwold he seems to have made but slow progress with it. Indeed, the “sweet retirement” itself became soon a little tedious to him. The month of September found him already bored with work and solitude; and the fine autumn weather of 1764 set him longing for a few days’ pleasure-making at what was even then the fashionable Yorkshire watering-place. “I do not think,” he writes, with characteristic incoherence, to Hall Stevenson–"I do not think a week or ten days’ playing the good fellow (at this very time) so abominable a thing; but if a man could get there cleverly, and every soul in his house in the mind to try what could be done in furtherance thereof, I have no one to consult in these affairs. Therefore, as a man may do worse things, the plain English of all which is, that I am going to leave a few poor sheep in the wilderness for fourteen days, and from pride and naughtiness of heart to go see what is doing at Scarborough, steadfully meaning afterwards to lead a new life and strengthen my faith. Now, some folks say there is much company there, and some say not; and I believe there is neither the one nor the other, but will be both if the world will have patience for a month or so.” Of his work he has not much to say: “I go on not rapidly but well enough with my Uncle Toby’s amours. There is no sitting and cudgelling one’s brains whilst the sun shines bright. ’Twill be all over in six or seven weeks; and there are dismal weeks enow after to endure suffocation by a brimstone fireside.” He was anxious that his boon companion should join him at Scarborough; but that additional pleasure was denied him, and he had to content himself with the usual gay society of the place. Three weeks, it seems, were passed by him in this most doubtfully judicious form of bodily and mental relaxation–weeks which he spent, he afterwards writes, in “drinking the waters, and receiving from them marvellous strength, had I not debilitated it as fast as I got it by playing the good fellow with Lord Granby and Co. too much.” By the end of the month he was back again at Coxwold, “returned to my Philosophical Hut to finish Tristram, which I calculate will be ready for the world about Christmas, at which time I decamp from hence and fix my headquarters at London for the winter, unless my cough pushes me forward to your metropolis” (he is writing to Foley, in Paris), “or that I can persuade some gros milord to make a trip to you." Again, too, in this letter we get another glimpse at that thoroughly desentimentalized “domestic interior” which the sentimentalist’s household had long presented to the view. Writing to request a remittance of money to Mrs. Sterne at Montauban–a duty which, to do him justice, he seems to have very watchfully observed–Sterne adds his solicitation to Mr. Foley to “do something equally essential to rectify a mistake in the mind of your correspondent there, who, it seems, gave her a hint not long ago ’that she was separated from me for life.’ Now, as this is not true, in the first place, and may fix a disadvantageous impression of her to those she lives amongst, ’twould be unmerciful to let her or my daughter suffer by it. So do be so good as to undeceive him; for in a year or two she purposes (and I expect it with impatience from her) to rejoin me.”
Early in November the two new volumes of Shandy began to approach completion; for by this time Sterne had already made up his mind to interpolate these notes of his French travels, which now do duty as Vol. VII. “You will read,” he tells Foley, “as odd a tour through France as was ever projected or executed by traveller or travel-writer since the world began. ’Tis a laughing, good-tempered satire upon travelling–as puppies travel.” By the 16th of the month he had “finished my two volumes of Tristram,” and looked to be in London at Christmas, “whence I have some thoughts of going to Italy this year. At least I shall not defer it above another.” On the 26th of January, 1765, the two new volumes were given to the world.
Shorter in length than any of the preceding instalments, and filled out as it was, even so, by a process of what would now be called “book-making,” this issue will yet bear comparison, I think, with the best of its predecessors. Its sketches of travel, though destined to be surpassed in vigour and freedom of draftsmanship by the Sentimental Journey, are yet excellent, and their very obvious want of connexion with the story–if story it can be called–is so little felt that we almost resent the head-and-ears introduction of Mr. Shandy and his brother, and the Corporal, in apparent concession to the popular prejudice in favour of some sort of coherence between the various parts of a narrative. The first seventeen chapters are, perhaps, as freshly delightful reading as anything in Sterne. They are literally filled and brimming over with the exhilaration of travel: written, or at least prepared for writing, we can clearly see, under the full intoxicant effect which a bewildering succession of new sights and sounds will produce, in a certain measure, upon the coolest of us, and which would set a head like Sterne’s in an absolute whirl. The contagion of his high spirits is, however, irresistible; and, putting aside all other and more solid qualities in them, these chapters are, for mere fun–for that kind of clever nonsense which only wins by perfect spontaneity, and which so promptly makes ashamed the moment spontaneity fails–unsurpassed by anything of the same kind from the same hand. How strange, then, that, with so keen an eye for the humorous, so sound and true a judgment in the highest qualities of humour, Sterne should think it possible for any one who has outgrown what may be called the dirty stage of boyhood to smile at the story which begins a few chapters afterwards–that of the Abbess and Novice of the Convent of Andouillets! The adult male person is not so much shocked at the coarseness of this story as astounded at the bathos of its introduction. It is as though some matchless connoisseur in wine, after having a hundred times demonstrated the unerring discrimination of his palate for the finest brands, should then produce some vile and loaded compound, and invite us to drink it with all the relish with which he seems to be swallowing it himself. This story of the Abbess and Novice almost impels us to turn back to certain earlier chapters, or former volumes, and re-examine some of the subtler passages of humour to be found there–in downright apprehension lest we should turn out to have read these “good things,” not “in,” but “into,” our author. The bad wine is so very bad, that we catch ourselves wondering whether the finer brands were genuine, when we see the same palate equally satisfied with both. But one should, of course, add that it is only in respect of its supposed humour that this story shakes its readers’ faith in the gifts of the narrator. As a mere piece of story-telling, and even as a study in landscape and figure-painting, it is quite perversely skilful. There is something almost irritating, as a waste of powers on unworthy material, in the prettiness of the picture which Sterne draws of the preparations for the departure of the two religieuses–the stir in the simple village, the co-operating labours of the gardener and the tailor, the carpenter and the smith, and all those other little details which bring the whole scene before the eye so vividly that Sterne may, perhaps, in all seriousness, and not merely as a piece of his characteristic persiflage, have thrown in the exclamation, “I declare I am interested in this story, and wish I had been there.” Nothing, again, could be better done than the sketch of the little good-natured, “broad-set" gardener, who acted as the ladies’ muleteer, and the recital of the indiscretions by which he was betrayed into temporary desertion of his duties. The whole scene is Chaucerian in its sharpness of outline and translucency of atmosphere: though there, unfortunately, the resemblance ends. Sterne’s manner of saying what we now leave unsaid is as unlike Chaucer’s, and as unlike for the worse, as it can possibly be.
Still, a certain amount of this element of the non nominandum must be compounded for, one regrets to say, in nearly every chapter that Sterne ever wrote; and there is certainly less than the average amount of it in the seventh volume. Then, again, this volume contains the famous scene with the ass–the live and genuinely touching, and not the dead and fictitiously pathetic, animal; and that perfect piece of comic dialogue–the interview between the puzzled English traveller and the French commissary of the posts. To have suggested this scene is, perhaps, the sole claim of the absurd fiscal system of the Ancien régime upon the grateful remembrance of the world. A scheme of taxation which exacted posting-charges from a traveller who proposed to continue his journey by water, possesses a natural ingredient of drollery infused into its mere vexatiousness; but a whole volume of satire could hardly put its essential absurdity in a stronger light than is thrown upon it in the short conversation between the astonished Tristram and the officer of the fisc, who had just handed him a little bill for six livres four sous:
“’Upon what account?’ said I.
“’’Tis upon the part of the King,’ said the commissary, heaving up his shoulders.
“’My good friend,’ quoth I, ’as sure as I am I, and you are you–’
“’And who are you?’ he said.
“’Don’t puzzle me,’ said I. ’But it is an indubitable verity,’ I continued, addressing myself to the commissary, changing only the form of my asseveration,’ that I owe the King of France nothing but my good-will, for he is a very honest man, and I wish him all the health and pastime in the world.’
“’Pardonnez-moi,’ replied the commissary. ’You are indebted to him six livres four sous for the next post from hence to St. Fons, on your route to Avignon, which being a post royal, you pay double for the horses and postilion, otherwise ’twould have amounted to no more than three livres two sous.’
“’But I don’t go by land,’ said I.
“’You may if you please,’ replied the commissary.
“’Your most obedient servant,’ said I, making him a low bow.
“The commissary, with all the sincerity of grave good-breeding, made me one as low again. I never was more disconcerted by a bow in my life. ’The devil take the serious character of these people,’ said I, aside; ’they understand no more of irony than this.’ The comparison was standing close by with her panniers, but something sealed up my lips. I could not pronounce the name.
“’Sir,’ said I, collecting myself, ’it is not my intention to take post.’
“’But you may,’ said he, persisting in his first reply. ’You may if you choose.’
“’And I may take salt to my pickled herring if I choose. But I do not choose.’
“’But you must pay for it, whether you do or no.’
“’Ay, for the salt,’ said I, ’I know.’
“’And for the post, too,’ added he.
“’Defend me!’ cried I. ’I travel by water. I am going down the Rhone this very afternoon; my baggage is in the boat, and I have actually paid nine livres for my passage.’
“’C’est tout égal–’tis all one,’ said he.
“’Bon Dieu! What! pay for the way I go and for the way I do not go?’
“’C’est tout égal,’ replied the commissary.
“’The devil it is!’ said I. ’But I will go to ten thousand Bastilles first. O, England! England! thou land of liberty and climate of good-sense! thou tenderest of mothers and gentlest of nurses!’ cried I, kneeling upon one knee as I was beginning my apostrophe–when the director of Madame L. Blanc’s conscience coming in at that instant, and seeing a person in black, with a face as pale as ashes, at his devotions, asked if I stood in want of the aids of the Church.
“’I go by water,’ said I, ’and here’s another will be for making me pay for going by oil.’”
[Footnote 1: It is the penalty–I suppose the just penalty–paid by habitually extravagant humourists, that meaning not being always expected of them, it is not always sought by their readers with sufficient care. Anyhow, it may be suspected that this retort of Tristram’s is too often passed over as a mere random absurdity designed for his interlocutor’s mystification, and that its extremely felicitous pertinence to the question in dispute is thus overlooked. The point of it, of course, is that the business in which the commissary was then engaged was precisely analogous to that of exacting salt dues from perverse persons who were impoverishing the revenue by possessing herrings already pickled.]
The commissary, of course, remains obdurate, and Tristram protests that the treatment to which he is being subjected is “contrary to the law of nature, contrary to reason, contrary to the Gospel:”
“’But not to this,’ said he, putting a printed paper into my hand.
“’De par le Roi.’ ’’Tis a pithy prolegomenon,’ quoth I, and so read on.... ’By all which it appears,’ quoth I, having read it over a little too rapidly, ’that if a man sets out in a post-chaise for Paris, he must go on travelling in one all the days of his life, or pay for it.’
“’Excuse me,’ said the commissary, ’the spirit of the ordinance is this, that if you set out with an intention of running post from Paris to Avignon, &c., you shall not change that intention or mode of travelling without first satisfying the fermiers for two posts further than the place you repent at; and ’tis founded,’ continued he, ’upon this, that the revenues are not to fall short through your fickleness.’
“’O, by heavens!’ cried I, ’if fickleness is taxable in France, we have nothing to do but to make the best peace we can.’
“And so the peace was made.”
And the volume ends with the dance of villagers on “the road between Nismes and Lunel, where is the best Muscatto wine in all France"–that charming little idyll which won the unwilling admiration of the least friendly of Sterne’s critics.
With the close of this volume the shadowy Tristram disappears altogether from the scene; and even the clearly-sketched figures of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy recede somewhat into the background. The courtship of my Uncle Toby forms the whole motif and indeed almost the entire substance, of the next volume. Of this famous episode in the novel a great deal has been said and written, and much of the praise bestowed upon it is certainly deserved. The artful coquetries of the fascinating widow, and the gradual capitulation of the Captain, are studied with admirable power of humorous insight, and described with infinite grace and skill. But there is, perhaps, no episode in the novel which brings out what may be called the perversity of Sterne’s animalism in a more exasperating way. It is not so much the amount of this element as the time, place, and manner in which it makes its presence felt. The senses must, of course, play their part in all love affairs, except those of the angels–or the triangles; and such writers as Byron, for instance, are quite free from the charge of over-spiritualizing their description of the passion. Yet one might safely say that there is far less to repel a healthy mind in the poet’s account of the amour of Juan and Haidee than is to be found in many a passage in this volume. It is not merely that one is the poetry and the other the prose of the sexual passion: the distinction goes deeper, and points to a fundamental difference of attitude towards their subject in the two writers’ minds.
The success of this instalment of Tristram Shandy appears to have been slightly greater than that of the preceding one. Writing from London, where he was once more basking in the sunshine of social popularity, to Garrick, then in Paris, he says (March 16, 1765): “I have had a lucrative campaign here. Shandy sells well,” and “I am taxing the public with two more volumes of sermons, which will more than double the gains of Shandy. It goes into the world with a prancing list de toute la noblesse, which will bring me in three hundred pounds, exclusive of the sale of the copy.” The list was, indeed, extensive and distinguished enough to justify the curious epithet which he applies to it; but the cavalcade of noble names continued to “prance” for some considerable time without advancing. Yet he had good reasons, according to his own account, for wishing to push on their publication. His parsonage-house at Button had just been burnt down through the carelessness of one of his curate’s household, with a loss to Sterne of some 350_l. “As soon as I can,” he says, “I must rebuild it, but I lack the means at present.” Nevertheless, the new sermons continued to hang fire. Again, in April he describes the subscription list as “the most splendid list which ever pranced before a book since subscription came into fashion;” but though the volumes which it was to usher into the world were then spoken of as about to be printed “very soon,” he has again in July to write of them only as “forthcoming in September, though I fear not in time to bring them with me” to Paris. And, as a matter of fact, they do not seem to have made their appearance until after Sterne had quitted England on his second and last Continental journey. The full subscription list may have had the effect of relaxing his energies; but the subscribers had no reason to complain when, in 1766, the volumes at last appeared.
The reception given to the first batch of sermons which Sterne had published was quite favourable enough to encourage a repetition of the experiment. He was shrewd enough, however, to perceive that on this second occasion a somewhat different sort of article would be required. In the first flush of Tristram Shandy’s success, and in the first piquancy of the contrast between the grave profession of the writer and the unbounded license of the book, he could safely reckon on as large and curious a public for any sermons whatever from the pen of Mr. Yorick. There was no need that the humourist in his pulpit should at all resemble the humourist at his desk, or, indeed, that he should be in any way an impressive or commanding figure. The great desire of the world was to know what he did resemble in this new and incongruous position. Men wished to see what the queer, sly face looked like over a velvet cushion, in the assurance that the sight would be a strange and interesting one, at any rate. Five years afterwards, however, the case was different. The public then had already had one set of sermons, and had discovered that the humorous Mr. Sterne was not a very different man in the pulpit from the dullest and most decorous of his brethren. Such discoveries as these are instructive to make, but not attractive to dwell upon; and Sterne was fully alive to the probability that there would be no great demand for a volume of sermons which should only illustrate for the second time the fact that he could be as commonplace as his neighbour. He saw that in future the Rev. Mr. Yorick must a little more resemble the author of Tristram Shandy, and it is not improbable that from 1760 onwards he composed his parochial sermons with especial attention to this mode of qualifying them for republication. There is, at any rate, no slight critical difficulty in believing that the bulk of the sermons of 1766 can be assigned to the same literary period as the sermons of 1761. The one set seems as manifestly to belong to the post-Shandian as the other does to the pre-Shandian era; and in some, indeed, of the apparently later productions the daring quaintness of style and illustration is carried so far that, except for the fact that Sterne had no time to spare for the composition of sermons not intended for professional use, one would have been disposed to believe that they neither were nor were meant to be delivered from the pulpit at all. Throughout all of them, however, Sterne’s new-found literary power displays itself in a vigour of expression and vivacity of illustration which at least serve to make the sermons of 1766 considerably more entertaining reading than those of 1761. In the first of the latter series, for instance–the sermon on Shimei–a discourse in which there are no very noticeable sallies of unclerical humour, the quality of liveliness is very conspicuously present. The preacher’s view of the character of Shimei, and of his behaviour to David, is hardly that, perhaps, of a competent historical critic, and in treating of the Benjamite’s insults to the King of Israel he appears to take no account of the blood-feud between the house of David and the clan to which the railer belonged; just as in commenting on Shimei’s subsequent and most abject submission to the victorious monarch, Sterne lays altogether too much stress upon conduct which is indicative, not so much of any exceptional meanness of disposition, as of the ordinary suppleness of the Oriental put in fear of his life. However, it makes a more piquant and dramatic picture to represent Shimei as a type of the wretch of insolence and servility compact, with a tongue ever ready to be loosed against the unfortunate, and a knee ever ready to be bent to the strong. And thus he moralizes on his conception:
[Footnote 1: Mr. Fitzgerald, indeed, asserts as a fact that some at least of these sermons were actually composed in the capacity of littérateur and not of divine–for the press and not for the pulpit.]
“There is not a character in the world which has so bad an influence upon it as this of Shimei. While power meets with honest checks, and the evils of life with honest refuge, the world will never be undone; but thou, Shimei, hast sapped it at both extremes: for thou corruptest prosperity, and ’tis thou who hast broken the heart of poverty. And so long as worthless spirits can be ambitious ones ’tis a character we never shall want. Oh! it infests the court, the camp, the cabinet; it infests the Church. Go where you will, in every quarter, in every profession, you see a Shimei following the wheels of the fortunate through thick mire and clay. Haste, Shimei, haste! or thou wilt be undone forever. Shimei girdeth up his loins and speedeth after him. Behold the hand which governs everything takes the wheel from his chariot, so that he who driveth, driveth on heavily. Shimei doubles his speed; but ’tis the contrary way: he flies like the wind over a sandy desert.... Stay, Shimei! ’tis your patron, your friend, your benefactor, the man who has saved you from the dunghill. ’Tis all one to Shimei. Shimei is the barometer of every man’s fortune; marks the rise and fall of it, with all the variations from scorching hot to freezing cold upon his countenance that the simile will admit of. Is a cloud upon thy affairs? See, it hangs over Shimei’s brow! Hast thou been spoken for to the king or the captain of the host without success? Look not into the Court Calendar, the vacancy is filled in Shimei’s face. Art thou in debt, though not to Shimei? No matter. The worst officer of the law shall not be more insolent. What, then, Shimei, is the fault of poverty so black? is it of so general concern that thou and all thy family must rise up as one man to reproach it? When it lost everything, did it lose the right to pity too? Or did he who maketh poor as well as maketh rich strip it of its natural powers to mollify the heart and supple the temper of your race? Trust me you have much to answer for. It is this treatment which it has ever met with from spirits like yours which has gradually taught the world to look upon it as the greatest of evils, and shun it as the worst disgrace. And what is it, I beseech you–what is it that men will not do to keep clear of so sore an imputation and punishment? Is it not to fly from this that he rises early, late takes rest, and eats the bread of carefulness? that he plots, contrives, swears, lies, shuffles, puts on all shapes, tries all garments, wears them with this or that side outward, just as it may favour his escape?”
And though the sermon ends in orthodox fashion, with an assurance that, in spite of the Shimeis by whom we are surrounded, it is in our power to “lay the foundation of our peace (where it ought to be) within our own hearts,” yet the preacher can, in the midst of his earlier reflections, permit himself the quaintly pessimistic outburst: “O Shimei! would to Heaven, when thou wast slain, that all thy family had been slain with thee, and not one of thy resemblance left! But ye have multiplied exceedingly, and replenished the earth; and if I prophesy rightly, ye will in the end subdue it.”
[Footnote 1: Which are not many in the case of a barometer.]
Nowhere, however, does the man of the world reveal himself with more strangely comical effect under the gown of the divine than in the sermon on “The Prodigal Son.” The repentant spendthrift has returned to his father’s house, and is about to confess his follies. But–
“Alas! How shall he tell his story?
“Ye who have trod this round, tell me in what words he shall give in to his father the sad items of his extravagance and folly: the feasts and banquets which he gave to whole cities in the East; the costs of Asiatic rarities, and of Asiatic cooks to dress them; the expenses of singing men and singing women; the flute, the harp, the sackbut, and all kinds of music; the dress of the Persian Court how magnificent! their slaves how numerous! their chariots, their homes, their pictures, their furniture, what immense sums they had devoured! what expectations from strangers of condition! what exactions! How shall the youth make his father comprehend that he was cheated at Damascus by one of the best men in the world; that he had lent a part of his substance to a friend at Nineveh, who had fled off with it to the Ganges; that a whore of Babylon had swallowed his best pearl, and anointed the whole city with his balm of Gilead; that he had been sold by a man of honour for twenty shekels of silver to a worker in graven images; that the images he had purchased produced him nothing, that they could not be transported across the wilderness, and had been burnt with fire at Shusan; that the apes and peacocks which he had sent for from Tharsis lay dead upon his hands; that the mummies had not been dead long enough which he had brought from Egypt; that all had gone wrong from the day he forsook his father’s house?”
All this, it must be admitted, is pretty lively for a sermon. But hear the reverend gentleman once more, in the same discourse, and observe the characteristic coolness with which he touches, only to drop, what may be called the “professional” moral of the parable, and glides off into a train of interesting, but thoroughly mundane, reflections, suggested–or rather, supposed in courtesy to have been suggested–by the text. “I know not,” he says, “whether it would be a subject of much edification to convince you here that our Saviour, by the Prodigal Son, particularly pointed out those who were sinners of the Gentiles, and were recovered by divine grace to repentance; and that by the elder brother he intended manifestly the more forward of the Jews,” &c. But, whether it would edify you or not, he goes on, in effect, to say, I do not propose to provide you with edification in that kind. “These uses have been so ably set forth in so many good sermons upon the Prodigal Son that I shall turn aside from them at present, and content myself with some reflections upon that fatal passion which led him–and so many thousands after the example–to gather all he had together and take his journey into a far country." In other words, “I propose to make the parable a peg whereon to hang a few observations on (what does the reader suppose?) the practice of sending young men upon the Grand Tour, accompanied by a ’bear-leader,’ and herein of the various kinds of bear-leaders, and the services which they do, and do not, render to their charges; with a few words on society in Continental cities, and a true view of ’letters of introduction.’” That is literally the substance of the remainder of the sermon. And thus pleasantly does the preacher play with his curious subject:
“But you will send an able pilot with your son–a scholar. If wisdom can speak in no other tongue but Greek or Latin, you do well; or if mathematics will make a man a gentleman, or natural philosophy but teach him to make a bow, he may be of some service in introducing your son into good societies, and supporting him in them when he had done. But the upshot will be generally this, that on the most pressing occasions of addresses, if he is not a mere man of reading, the unhappy youth will have the tutor to carry, and not the tutor to carry him. But (let us say) you will avoid this extreme; he shall be escorted by one who knows the world, not only from books but from his own experience; a man who has been employed on such services, and thrice ’made the tour of Europe with success’–that is, without breaking his own or his pupil’s neck; for if he is such as my eyes have seen, some broken Swiss valet de chambre, some general undertaker, who will perform the journey in so many months, ’if God permit,’ much knowledge will not accrue. Some profit, at least: he will learn the amount to a halfpenny of every stage from Calais to Rome; he will be carried to the best inns, instructed where there is the best wine, and sup a livre cheaper than if the youth had been left to make the tour and the bargain himself. Look at our governor, I beseech you! See, he is an inch taller as he relates the advantages. And here endeth his pride, his knowledge, and his use. But when your son gets abroad he will be taken out of his hand by his society with men of rank and letters, with whom he will pass the greatest part of his time.”
So much for the bear-leader; and now a remark or two on the young man’s chances of getting into good foreign society; and then–the benediction:
“Let me observe, in the first place, that company which is really good is very rare and very shy. But you have surmounted this difficulty, and procured him the best letters of recommendation to the most eminent and respectable in every capital. And I answer that he will obtain all by them which courtesy strictly stands obliged to pay on such occasions, but no more. There is nothing in which we are so much deceived as in the advantages proposed from our connexions and discourse with the literati, &c., in foreign parts, especially if the experiment is made before we are matured by years or study. Conversation is a traffic; and if you enter it without some stock of knowledge to balance the account perpetually betwixt you, the trade drops at once; and this is the reason, however it may be boasted to the contrary, why travellers have so little (especially good) conversation with the natives, owing to their suspicion, or perhaps conviction, that there is nothing to be extracted from the conversation of young itinerants worth the trouble of their bad language, or the interruption of their visits.”
Very true, no doubt, and excellently well put; but we seem to have got some distance, in spirit at any rate, from Luke xv. 13; and it is with somewhat too visible effect, perhaps, that Sterne forces his way back into the orthodox routes of pulpit disquisition. The youth, disappointed with his reception by “the literati,” &c., seeks “an easier society; and as bad company is always ready, and ever lying in wait, the career is soon finished, and the poor prodigal returns–the same object of pity with the prodigal in the Gospel.” Hardly a good enough “tag,” perhaps, to reconcile the ear to the “And now to,” &c., as a fitting close to this pointed little essay in the style of the Chesterfield Letters. There is much internal evidence to show that this so-called sermon was written either after Sterne’s visit to or during his stay in France; and there is strong reason, I think, to suppose that it was in reality neither intended for a sermon nor actually delivered from the pulpit.
No other of his sermons has quite so much vivacity as this. But in the famous discourse upon an unlucky text–the sermon preached at the chapel of the English Embassy, in Paris–there are touches of unclerical raillery not a few. Thus: “What a noise,” he exclaims, “among the simulants of the various virtues!... Behold Humility, become so out of mere pride; Chastity, never once in harm’s way; and Courage, like a Spanish soldier upon an Italian stage–a bladder full of wind. Hush! the sound of that trumpet! Let not my soldier run!’ tis some good Christian giving alms. O Pity, thou gentlest of human passions! soft and tender are thy notes, and ill accord they with so loud an instrument.”
Here, again, is a somewhat bold saying for a divine: “But, to avoid all commonplace cant as much as I can on this head, I will forbear to say, because I do not think, that ’tis a breach of Christian charity to think or speak ill of our neighbour. We cannot avoid it: our opinion must follow the evidence,” &c. And a little later on, commenting on the insinuation conveyed in Satan’s question, “Does Job serve God for nought?” he says: “It is a bad picture, and done by a terrible master; and yet we are always copying it. Does a man from real conviction of heart forsake his vices? The position is not to be allowed. No; his vices have forsaken him. Does a pure virgin fear God, and say her prayers? She is in her climacteric? Does humility clothe and educate the unknown orphan? Poverty, thou hast no genealogies. See! is he not the father of the child?” In another sermon he launches out into quaintly contemptuous criticism of a religious movement which he was certainly the last person in the world to understand–to wit, Methodism. He asks whether, “when a poor, disconsolated, drooping creature is terrified from all enjoyment, prays without ceasing till his imagination is heated, fasts and mortifies and mopes till his body is in as bad a plight as his mind, it is a wonder that the mechanical disturbances and conflicts of an empty belly, interpreted by an empty head, should be mistook for workings of a different kind from what they are?” Other sermons reflect the singularly bitter anti-Catholic feeling which was characteristic even of indifferentism in those days–at any rate amongst Whig divines. But in most of them one is liable to come at any moment across one of those strange sallies to which Gray alluded, when he said of the effect of Sterne’s sermons upon a reader that “you often see him tottering on the verge of laughter, and ready to throw his periwig in the face of the audience.”