By H.D. Traill

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Chapter XI: Creative and Dramatic Power


Subtle as is Sterne’s humour, and true as, in its proper moods, is his pathos, it is not to these but to the parent gift from which they sprang, and perhaps to only one special display of that gift, that he owes his immortality. We are accustomed to bestow so lightly this last hyperbolic honour–hyperbolic always, even when we are speaking of a Homer or a Shakspeare, if only we project the vision far enough forward through time–that the comparative ease with which it is to be earned has itself come to be exaggerated. There are so many “deathless ones” about–if I may put the matter familiarly–in conversation and in literature, that we get into the way of thinking that they are really a considerable body in actual fact, and that the works which have triumphed over death are far more numerous still. The real truth, however, is, that not only are “those who reach posterity a very select company indeed,” but most of them have come much nearer missing their destiny than is popularly supposed. Of the dozen or score of writers in one century whom their own contemporaries fondly decree immortal, one-half, perhaps, may be remembered in the next; while of the creations which were honoured with the diploma of immortality a very much smaller proportion as a rule survive. Only some fifty per cent, of the prematurely laurel-crowned reach the goal; and often even upon their brows there flutter but a few stray leaves of the bay. A single poem, a solitary drama–nay, perhaps one isolated figure, poetic or dramatic–avails, and but barely avails, to keep the immortal from putting on mortality. Hence we need think it no disparagement to Sterne to say that he lives not so much in virtue of his creative power as of one great individual creation. His imaginative insight into character in general was, no doubt, considerable; his draughtsmanship, whether as exhibited in the rough sketch or in the finished portrait, is unquestionably most vigorous; but an artist may put a hundred striking figures upon his canvas for one that will linger in the memory of those who have gazed upon it; and it is, after all, I think, the one figure of Captain Tobias Shandy which has graven itself indelibly on the memory of mankind. To have made this single addition to the imperishable types of human character embodied in the world’s literature may seem, as has been said, but a light matter to those who talk with light exaggeration of the achievements of the literary artist; but if we exclude that one creative prodigy among men, who has peopled a whole gallery with imaginary beings more real than those of flesh and blood, we shall find that very few archetypal creations have sprung from any single hand. Now, My Uncle Toby is as much the archetype of guileless good nature, of affectionate simplicity, as Hamlet is of irresolution, or Iago of cunning, or Shylock of race-hatred; and he contrives to preserve all the characteristics of an ideal type amid surroundings of intensely prosaic realism, with which he himself, moreover, considered as an individual character in a specific story, is in complete, accord. If any one be disposed to underrate the creative and dramatic power to which this testifies, let him consider how it has commonly fared with those writers of prose fiction who have attempted to personify a virtue in a man. Take the work of another famous English humourist and sentimentalist, and compare Uncle Toby’s manly and dignified gentleness of heart with the unreal “gush” of the Brothers Cheeryble, or the fatuous benevolence of Mr. Pickwick. We do not believe in the former, and we cannot but despise the latter. But Captain Shandy is reality itself, within and without; and though we smile at his naïveté, and may even laugh outright at his boyish enthusiasm for his military hobby, we never cease to respect him for a moment. There is no shirking or softening of the comic aspects of his character; there could not be, of course, for Sterne needed him more, and used him more, for his purposes as a humourist than for his purposes as a sentimentalist. Nay, it is on the rare occasions when he deliberately sentimentalizes with Captain Shandy that the Captain is the least delightful; it is then that the hand loses its cunning, and the stroke strays; it is then, and only then, that the benevolence of the good soldier seems to verge, though ever so little, upon affectation. It is a pity, for instance, that Sterne should, in illustration of Captain Shandy’s kindness of heart, have plagiarized (as he is said to have done) the incident of the tormenting fly, caught and put out of the window with the words “Get thee gone, poor devil! Why should I harm thee? The world is surely large enough for thee and me.” There is something too much of self-conscious virtue in the apostrophe. This, we feel, is not the real Uncle Toby of Sterne’s objective mood; it is the Uncle Toby of the subjectifying sentimentalist, surveying his character through the false medium of his own hypertrophied sensibilities. These lapses, however, are, fortunately, rare. As a rule we see the worthy Captain only as he appeared to his creator’s keen dramatic eye, and as he is set before us in a thousand exquisite touches of dialogue–the man of simple mind and soul, profoundly unimaginative and unphilosophical, but lacking not in a certain shrewd common-sense; exquisitely naïf, and delightfully mal-à-propos in his observations, but always pardonably, never foolishly, so; inexhaustibly amiable, but with no weak amiability; homely in his ways, but a perfect gentleman withal; in a word, the most winning and lovable personality that is to be met with, surely, in the whole range of fiction.

It is, in fact, with Sterne’s general delineations of character as it is, I have attempted to show, with his particular passages of sentiment. He is never at his best and truest–as, indeed, no writer of fiction ever is or can be–save when he is allowing his dramatic imagination to play the most freely upon his characters, and thinking least about himself. This is curiously illustrated in his handling of what is, perhaps, the next most successful of the uncaricatured portraits in the Shandy gallery–the presentment of the Rev. Mr. Yorick. Nothing can be more perfect in its way than the picture of the “lively, witty, sensitive, and heedless parson,” in chapter x. of the first volume of Tristram Shandy. We seem to see the thin, melancholy figure on the rawboned horse–the apparition which could “never present itself in the village but it caught the attention of old and young,” so that “labour stood still as he passed, the bucket hung suspended in the middle of the well, the spinning-wheel forgot its round; even chuck-farthing and shuffle-cap themselves stood gaping till he was out of sight.” Throughout this chapter Sterne, though describing himself, is projecting his personality to a distance, as it were, and contemplating it dramatically; and the result is excellent. When in the next chapter he becomes “lyrical,” so to speak; when the reflection upon his (largely imaginary) wrongs impels him to look inward, the invariable consequence follows; and though Yorick’s much bepraised death-scene, with Eugenius at his bed-side, is redeemed from entire failure by an admixture of the humorous with its attempted pathos, we ask ourselves with some wonder what the unhappiness–or the death itself, for that matter–is “all about.” The wrongs which were supposed to have broken Yorick’s heart are most imperfectly specified (a comic proof, by the way, of Sterne’s entire absorption in himself, to the confusion of his own personal knowledge with that of the reader), and the first conditions of enlisting the reader’s sympathies are left unfulfilled.

But it is comparatively seldom that this foible of Sterne obtrudes itself upon the strictly narrative and dramatic parts of his work; and, next to the abiding charm and interest of his principal figure, it is by the admirable life and colour of his scenes that he exercises his strongest powers of fascination over a reader. Perpetual as are Sterne’s affectations, and tiresome as is his eternal self-consciousness when he is speaking in his own person, yet when once the dramatic instinct fairly lays hold of him there is no writer who ever makes us more completely forget him in the presence of his characters–none who can bring them and their surroundings, their looks and words, before us with such convincing force of reality. One wonders sometimes whether Sterne himself was aware of the high dramatic excellence of many of what actors would call his “carpenter’s scenes"–the mere interludes introduced to amuse us while the stage is being prepared for one of those more elaborate and deliberate displays of pathos or humour, which do not always turn out to be unmixed successes when they come. Sterne prided himself vastly upon the incident of Le Fevre’s death; but I dare say that there is many a modern reader who would rather have lost this highly-wrought piece of domestic drama, than that other exquisite little scene in the kitchen of the inn, when Corporal Trim toasts the bread which the sick lieutenant’s son is preparing for his father’s posset, while “Mr. Yorick’s curate was smoking a pipe by the fire, but said not a word, good or bad, to comfort the youth.” The whole scene is absolute life; and the dialogue between the Corporal and the parson, as related by the former to his master, with Captain Shandy’s comments thereon, is almost Shakspearian in its excellence. Says the Corporal:

  “When the lieutenant had taken his glass of sack and toast he
  felt himself a little revived, and sent down into the kitchen to let me
  know that in about ten minutes he should be glad if I would step
  upstairs, I believe, said the landlord, he is going to say his prayers,
  for there was a book laid on the chair by the bed-side, and as I
  shut the door I saw him take up a cushion. I thought, said the curate,
  that you gentlemen of the army, Mr. Trim, never said your prayers
  at all. I heard the poor gentleman say his prayers last night,
  said the landlady, very devoutly, and with my own ears, or I could
  not have believed it. Are you sure of it? replied the curate. A
  soldier, an’ please your reverence, said I, prays as often (of his own
  accord) as a parson; and when he is fighting for his king, and for
  his own life, and for his honour too, he has the most reason to pray
  to God of any one in the whole world. ’Twas well said of thee, Trim,
  said my Uncle Toby. But when a soldier, said I, an’ please your
  reverence, has been standing for twelve hours together in the trenches,
  up to his knees in cold water–or engaged, said I, for months together
  in long and dangerous marches; harassed, perhaps, in his rear today;
  harassing others to-morrow; detached here; countermanded
  there; resting this night out upon his arms; beat up in his shirt the
  next; benumbed in his joints; perhaps without straw in his tent to
  kneel on, [he] must say his prayers how and when he can. I believe,
  said I–for I was piqued, quoth the Corporal, for the reputation
  of the army–I believe, an’t please your reverence, said I, that when
  a soldier gets time to pray, he prays as heartily as a parson–though
  not with all his fuss and hypocrisy. Thou shouldst not have said
  that, Trim, said my Uncle Toby; for God only knows who is a hypocrite
  and who is not. At the great and general review of us all,
  corporal, at the day of judgment (and not till then) it will be seen
  who have done their duties in this world and who have not, and we
  shall be advanced, Trim, accordingly. I hope we shall, said Trim.
  It is in the Scripture, said my Uncle Toby, and I will show it thee in
  the morning. In the meantime, we may depend upon it, Trim, for our
  comfort, said my Uncle Toby, that God Almighty is so good and just
  a governor of the world, that if we have but done our duties in it, it
  will never be inquired into whether we have done them in a red coat
  or a black one. I hope not, said the Corporal. But go on, said my
  Uncle Toby, with thy story.”

We might almost fancy ourselves listening to that noble prose colloquy between the disguised king and his soldiers on the night before Agincourt, in Henry V. And though Sterne does not, of course, often reach this level of dramatic dignity, there are passages in abundance in which his dialogue assumes, through sheer force of individualized character, if not all the dignity, at any rate all the impressive force and simplicity, of the “grand style.”

Taken altogether, however, his place in English letters is hard to fix, and his tenure in human memory hard to determine. Hitherto he has held his own, with the great writers of his era, but it has been in virtue, as I have attempted to show, of a contribution to the literary possessions of mankind which is as uniquely limited in amount as it is exceptionally perfect in quality. One cannot but feel that, as regards the sum of his titles to recollection, his name stands far below either of those other two which in the course of the last century added themselves to the highest rank among the classics of English humour. Sterne has not the abounding life and the varied human interest of Fielding; and, to say nothing of his vast intellectual inferiority to Swift, he never so much as approaches those problems of everlasting concernment to man which Swift handles with so terrible a fascination. Certainly no enthusiastic Gibbon of the future is ever likely to say of Sterne’s “pictures of human manners” that they will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of the House of Austria. Assuredly no one will ever find in this so-called English antitype of the Curé of Meudon any of the deeper qualities of that gloomy and commanding spirit which has been finely compared to the “soul of Rabelais habitans in sicco.” Nay, to descend even to minor aptitudes, Sterne cannot tell a story as Swift and Fielding can tell one; and his work is not assured of life as Tom Jones and Gulliver’s Travels, considered as stories alone, would be assured of it, even if the one were stripped of its cheerful humour, and the other disarmed of its savage allegory. And hence it might be rash to predict that Sterne’s days will be as long in the land of literary memory as the two great writers aforesaid. Banked, as he still is, among “English classics,” he undergoes, I suspect, even more than an English classic’s ordinary share of reverential neglect. Among those who talk about him he has, I should imagine, fewer readers than Fielding, and very much fewer than Swift. Nor is he likely to increase their number as time goes on, but rather, perhaps, the contrary. Indeed, the only question is whether with the lapse of years he will not, like other writers as famous in their day, become yet more of a mere name. For there is still, of course, a further stage to which he may decline. That object of so much empty mouth-honour, the English classic of the last and earlier centuries, presents himself for classification under three distinct categories. There is the class who are still read in a certain measure, though in a much smaller measure than is pretended, by the great body of ordinarily well-educated men. Of this class, the two authors whose names I have already cited, Swift and Fielding, are typical examples; and it may be taken to include Goldsmith also. Then comes the class of those whom the ordinarily well-educated public, whatever they may pretend, read really very little or not at all; and in this class we may couple Sterne with Addison, with Smollett, and, except, of course, as to Robinson Crusoe–unless, indeed, our blasé boys have outgrown him among other pleasures of boyhood–with Defoe. But below this there is yet a third class of writers, who are not only read by none but the critic, the connoisseur, or the historian of literature, but are scarcely read even by them, except from curiosity, or “in the way of business.” The type of this class is Richardson; and one cannot, I say, help asking whether he will hereafter have Sterne as a companion of his dusty solitude. Are Tristram Shandy and the Sentimental Journey destined to descend from the second class into the third–from the region of partial into that of total neglect, and to have their portion with Clarissa Harlowe and Sir Charles Grandison? The unbounded vogue which they enjoyed in their time will not save them; for sane and sober critics compared Richardson in his day to Shakspeare, and Diderot broke forth into prophetic rhapsodies upon the immortality of his works which to us in these days have become absolutely pathetic in their felicity of falsified prediction. Seeing, too, that a good three-fourths of the attractions which won Sterne his contemporary popularity are now so much dead weight of dead matter, and that the vital residuum is in amount so small, the fate of Richardson might seem to be but too close behind him. Yet it is difficult to believe that this fate will ever quite overtake him. His sentiment may have mostly ceased–it probably has ceased–to stir any emotion at all in these days; but there is an imperishable element in his humour. And though the circle of his readers may have no tendency to increase, one can hardly suppose that a charm, which those who still feel it feel so keenly, will ever entirely cease to captivate; or that time can have any power over a perfume which so wonderfully retains the pungent freshness of its fragrance after the lapse of a hundred years.

The End.


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

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Laurence Sterne
By H. D. Traill
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