Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations. III. By Professor Saintsbury
THE WAY in which his scenes, sometimes corrected and finished as punctiliously as a steel engraving, sometimes shaded off on all sides into a sort of halo of mist, impress themselves on the mind is unique. Dickens had one of not the least of his flashes of genius when he made such an apparently unlikely person as Sam Weller speak of “the gentleman in the black silk smalls as knowed the young ’ooman as kept a goat.” This dramatic-pictorial faculty is, in combination, very rare, and its effectiveness depends no doubt to some extent on the want of continuity in Sterne—on the way in which the shapes arise, grow vivid, flicker, faint, and disappear, speaking all the time, when they do speak, in strictest conformity with their presentation. Probably the effectiveness is also due in part to the fact that there is after all very little of it. Although “Tristram” was actually and originally dribbled out over a long series of years, and of cunningly small and widely printed volumes, both it and the “Sentimental Journey” will go, without “diamond” type, into four still smaller—two of moderate size, and even one somewhat but not excessively “squeezed.” The stuff which they contain could not, in fact, be hastily produced, and probably could not have been produced at all except in Sterne’s actual “twenty years of shooting, fishing, playing the flute,” and occasionally performing the light duties of an eighteenth-century parson, followed by nearly half the time of travel, society, and what not. Nor could he, as probably, have produced much more if longer life had been granted him, nor will any wise person wish that he had done so. Of the good strong ale, and generous port, and subtly flavored claret, and wisdom-giving amontillado, and inspiring champagne, and ineffable burgundy of Fielding and Scott and Miss Austen and Dickens and Thackeray and other great novelists, one never can have too much. But Sterne is not a drink or a wine either of barley or grape—he is a liqueur—agreeable, but not perhaps exactly wholesome, artistic but certainly artificial. And it is only a yokel who wants kümmel or goldwasser, chartreuse or curaçoa “in a moog.”—From “The Peace of the Augustans” (1916).