Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations. II. By Edmond Scherer
If you will believe him, the suffering of friends at such a moment, nay, the last offices of affection, would torment his soul and suffice to kill him. “Thank God!” he cries, “for my sensibility; though it has often caused me suffering, I would not give it for all the pleasures of coarse sensualists.” We can now understand what Sterne means by a “Sentimental Journey.” The traveler à la Sterne is a man who troubles himself but little about the goal for which he is making, or the regions which he traverses. He hardly visits remarkable monuments, he says nothing of the beauty of places; his objects of search are sweet and affectionate emotions. Everything becomes to him matter for sympathy: a caged bird, a donkey sinking under ill treatment, a poor child, an old monk. A sort of universal benevolence makes him take his share of all small sorrows, not exactly for the purpose of consolation, but to enter into them, to taste their savor, and, if I may say so, to extract the picturesque from them. Sentimentalism is perfectly compatible with a certain strain of egotism, and the sentimental traveler is at bottom much more his own master than is thought. It is for this reason that he paints so excellently, for this also that he so often exaggerates and strikes into falsetto. The history of Father Lorenzo is an example of these exaggerations. Lorenzo had given Sterne his snuffbox, and some months afterward our traveler, revisiting Calais, learns that the poor monk is dead. He “burst into tears” at the tomb. Well and good, but there are too many of these tears in Sterne. I like him better when his tenderness keeps better measure, or when he contents himself with a simple humane impulse. In this style of touching simplicity, he has told stories which are, and deserve to be, famous, being pure masterpieces, such as the story of Le Fevre, the death of Yorick, the two donkeys, the dead donkey of Naimport, and him of the pastry cook. Did Sterne ever write anything more exquisite than Uncle Toby’s fly? Is not the hero of the siege of Namur all in this trait?
To sum up, Sterne is a tale-teller of the first order and excellent in sentimental scenes. But he has the faults of his style: he abuses the trick of interesting the heart in trifles; he enlarges little things too much; he scarcely ever declaims, but he sometimes whimpers.…
Without going about to do so, we have just drawn the portrait of Sterne. He had neither ill nature nor egotism; but (which is much more human) he had weakness and levity. His, says M. Stapfer, was a kind of optimism which believed in the good of human nature and the moral government of the world, without denying the evil and the disorder in both—I should add, especially without taking either tragically or troubling himself much about them. He writes, “’Tis a good little world, the world in which we live. I take Heaven to witness, after all my jesting, my heart is innocent, and the sports of my pen just like those of my infancy when I rode cockhorse on a stick.” And elsewhere: “Vive la bagatelle! O my humor, never has thou painted in black the objects I met in my way. In danger thou hast gilt my horizon with hope, and when death itself knocked at my door, thou didst tell him to call again with so gay an air of careless indifference that he doubted his mission.”
There we have him—a light and easy humor, a man who looks at once with amusement and sympathy at human affairs, who loves the world without forming too high an idea of it. And we have, as the result, a kindly satire, where bitterness is replaced by good-humor, contempt by affection, the spirit of detraction by sensibility, a satire which inspires us with interest and even affection for the very persons of whom it makes fun.—From “Laurence Sterne, or the Humorist,” in “Essays on English Literature,” translated by George Saintsbury.