Sterne and Swift



NOTHING odd will do long,” said Dr. Johnson. “Tristram Shandy did not last.” And such is the awful finality of this judgment that one rereads Sterne almost with a sense of guilt, though indeed no other author’s reputation has so often survived its own obituary. In his lifetime he was almost the only writer to alienate both Goldsmith and Johnson on the one hand, and Gray and Walpole on the other, and it is easy to see how the spectacle of the sleek and winning divine arriving in London to reap the success of his annual installments must have irritated both the hard-working critics of Fleet Street and the fastidious company at Strawberry Hill.

Walpole, however, was hardly fitted to condemn Sterne as trivial, and Johnson was unaware of the lesson we learn from Proust, that in years of silence and dissipation a style can mature and an outlook ripen as easily as in a long apprenticeship to letters, Sterne in this respect comes near to his master Cervantes, and his scarcely broken silence of twenty-five years is probably, besides the vigor of his style, responsible for the dense and exasperating character of his mental undergrowth. Walpole was also the first to shy at Yorick’s dead donkey and to perceive the terrible flaw which dominated Sterne’s sensibility, the habit of luxuriating in emotion he thinks creditable, that turns his sympathy to self-congratulation and sets a smirk on all Ills tenderness. It is this fault that tainted the effects which Sterne intended to be his finest, as if he had skimmed the cream from comedy and pathos and found it turn overnight.

And perhaps the word “sentimental” would not have lost caste so early had not his work exposed so completely its luxurious, self-delighting nature. This insincerity, far more than the mischievous indecency which hurt the susceptibilities of Coleridge, has won Sterne his many enemies and turned nearly every biographer into an apologist. “I blushed in my turn, but from what movements, I leave to the few who feel to analyse,” writes Yorick, and a little afterwards, “I burst into a flood of tears — but I am as weak as a woman and I beg the world not to smile but to pity me.” One can see that he knew fairly well how the few who feel would react, and it is this irrepressible itch to commend himself, while deploring self-commendation, and to exploit his own humanity that has brought him the wrath of Thackeray, that made Coleridge call the Sentimental Journey “poor sickly stuff” and Leslie Stephen anxious to blot out even the Recording Angel’s erasing tear.

Certainly the Sentimental Journey contains Sterne’s most inexcusable lapses; yet in its conception as a book of travel it is absolutely right, though far from being the “quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of nature” that it styles itself. The irresponsibility, the exhilaration, and the frank independence of all its judgments (how right to call the French too serious) make it, however, through all its digressions, a real presentation of movement. Sterne was refreshingly seasick; wild with excitement even in Calais, he wished to find the French gallant, and did so.

He could repeat “So this is Paris. Crack! Crack! Crack!” as inanely as any traveler rejoicing at the pall of respectability that was lifting from him; he would neither “disdain nor fear to walk up a dark entry”; he would be swindled with a good grace rather than witness his host’s disappointment; and though he describes but little scenery, he is still friendly to the scantiness which he has created. He seeks for adventure and avoids his compatriots, he ignores the Alps, he understands the French while remaining English, and, what is rare in a book of travel, he enjoys himself, even at a time when Dr. Johnson noted “that there has been of late a strange turn in travellers to be displeased.”

Yet Sterne was not a man of deep feelings, and since his profession of sensibility requires him to appear so, there follow his flatteries and exhibitionism and the ill-concealed self-satisfaction that rewards a well-spent tear. His “dear sensibility,” however, that lachrymose goddess, was but a Roman sense of pietas run to seed, and the final quality of Sterne as a humorist lies in his wide sympathy, when not overstrained, for every creature that is fulfilling its function, or in finding speech for gaping and inarticulate “blind mouths" and enjoying human beings as they are. It is this Latin warmth that links him, apart from style, to Rabelais and Cervantes, and in a lesser degree to Shakespeare, and even Voltaire. Sterne was as fitted as anyone to enjoy the shepherd and his “cold thin drink out of his leathern bottle,” but the temptation to make capital out of his own emotions renders him unworthy of their perpetual company.

Within his limitations, however, his world is one of the most wayward and serene of all Utopias, and if the quality of his work is taken from the French, its material is as undoubtedly English, the England of peaceful fanatics and gaunt, unpersecuting bigots who have taken refuge from the fogs of the world in the most outrageous sanctuaries of their teeming minds, and who seem to spring up in the peaceful country as naturally as teazels and to live there as happily as rare animals in private parks: —

This strange irregularity in our climate producing so strange an irregularity in our characters doth thereby in some sort make us amends by giving us somewhat to make us merry with when the veather will not suffer us to go out of doors — that observation is my own — and was struck out by me this very rainy day, March 26th, 1759, and betwixt the hours of nine and ten in the morning.


THE intensity that Sterne lacked in emotion he retrieved in style, and there is hardly any diction in English so perverse and yet so adequately under control. The tempo of Tristram Shandy, for instance, must be the slowest of any book on record, and reminds one at times of the youthful occupation of seeing how slowly one can ride a bicycle without falling off; yet such is Sterne’s mastery, his ease and grace, that one is always upheld by a verbal expectancy; slow though the action moves, he will always keep his balance, and soon there will follow a perfect flow of words that may end with a phrase that rings like a pebble on a frozen pond.

He is continually parodying the Elizabethans and using words with a fantastic ingenuity, as of the jolting diligence: —

The thirstiest soul in the most sandy desert of Arabia could not have wished more for a cup of cold water than mine did for grave and quiet movements.

Or: —

“Where is Troy and Mycenae and Thebes and Delos and Persepolis and Agrigentuin?” continued my father, taking up his book of post-roads, which he had laid down. “What is become, brother Toby, of Nineveh and Babylon, of Cizicum and Mitylenae? The fairest towns that ever the sun rose upon are now no more. . ..”

Sterne’s control of literary emotion, the quality of Lycidas and Gray’s “Elegy,” is what is most absorbing in his work today. We can enjoy his exquisite handling of eccentricity, and appreciate Walter Shandy’s search for the “north-west passage to the intellectual world,” with Tristram as a heaven-sent subject for experiment; we can hear him dropping his voice to talk of auxiliary verbs and fixing bis listeners as securely as did the Ancient Mariner; we can see all the paradox of the household living together in uncomprehending amity while their prejudices conflict as uselessly as W’aves on granite.

But it is the strange, bitter-sweet intensity that emerges from Sterne’s most artificial sentences that he alone of his time can give and that rewards us as much as it does his own much vaunted fears. “I have never felt what the distress of plenty was in any one shape till now,” the reader can exclaim with him as he reads of Toby “cast in the rosemary with an air of disconsolation that cries through my ears,” or of Sterne’s days and hours “flying over our heads like light clouds on a windy day” before his book is finished and ready “to swim down the gutter of time along with them.”

There is no understatement in Sterne’s style; no “slow, low, dry chat five notes below the natural tone,” and his beauties are lost on those who contract intellectual hay fever from fine writing; yet the dullness of the subject, as in Flaubert, often redeems the style from cloying and enables one more to appreciate the hush of a passage like Uncle Toby’s falling in love: —

Still — still all went on heavily — the magic left the mind the weaker. Stillness, with Silence at her back, entered the solitary parlour and drew their gauzy mantle over my uncle Toby’s head; and Listlessness, with her lax fibre and undirected eye, sat quietly down beside him in his armchair. No longer Amberg and Rhinberg and Limbourg and Huy and Bonn in one year, and the prospect of Landen and Trerebach and Drusen and Dendermond in the next, hurried on the blood; no longer did saps and mines and blinds and gabions and palisadoes keep out this fair enemy of man’s repose. No longer could my uncle Toby after passing the French lines, as he ate his egg at supper, from thence break into the heart of France — cross over the Oyes and, with all Picardie open behind him, march up to the gates of Paris and fall asleep with nothing but ideas of glory. . . . Softer visions, gentler vibrations, stole sweetly in upon his slumbers; the trumpet of war fell out of his hands — he took up the lute, sweet instrument! of all others the most delicate! the most difficult! How wilt thou touch it, my dear uncle Toby?

There is no question of how it is touched here, and the haunting somnolence of the whole chapter seems almost to approach the tale of Palinurus, while as a lyric it is as complete as some of the short fragments of pastoral in the Sentimental Journey or the longer, birdlike raptures on the Town of Abdera.

The reader indeed plunges into Sterne’s work like a prince into an artificial and enchanted forest, and in a moment the path narrows and the boughs thicken, and the sounds of the hunt recede as he struggles through thickets of dusty sycamore lost in false metallic greenness before he emerges angrily from the tangled brakes into one of Sterne’s perfect sentences, which opens before him like a moss-grown ride.


THE character of Swift, though not likely to become again the bogy of a hysterical Thackeray, remains largely mysterious. For it is obvious that everything which was considered most heartless and cynical in him can be viewed as the attempts of a man with a terrible capacity for suffering to escape from it. He was determined to be tough, to face without euphoria the birthdays that brought Stella nearer ugliness and himself nearer the grave, and his much disputed “only a woman’s hair” is surely an example of the brutality with which a man covers genuine grief; the antithesis, for instance, to the way in which Sterne, a writer who could not be sure of his feelings, would have treated it.

The misanthropy of Swift is, in fact, one side of the romantic dichotomy. No one is born a Diogenes, or enters the world complaining of a raw deal. One cannot hate humanity to that extent unless one has believed in it; one must have thought man a little lower than the angels before one can concentrate on the organs of elimination.

What is mysterious about Swift is that we know much less of the cause of his disillusion and of what he was like before it than is the case with other romantics and disappointed idealists. We know, to take some examples, the effect of Lesbia’s infidelity on Catullus, of the Great War on Céline, of the Catholic Church on Joyce, of disease on Baudelaire, but we do not know what happened to the lovable young man who wrote the charming dedication to the Tale of a Tub. The shock of exile, and of losing power, terrible though it was, came late in life; he was not jilted or betrayed, nor was his faith of the kind whose loss would create an upheaval. The causes which turned him against mankind, which made him hate its guts, must, therefore, be sought in his ten years at the upper servants’ table as a secretary.

There can be nothing more galling for a young man than to find himself part of the scheme of autosuggestion by which an old man justifies his existence. And when the latter was Sir William Temple, the amateur philosopher, the wise old Polonius in retirement, the M. de Norpois of his age, the pressure must have been intolerable. No philosophy is more suspect than the Epicurean, in spite of its attract ion for waning powers.

For the doctrine that pleasure is the absence of pain, that happiness can only be found by practicing moderation in a garden, is contrary to all we know of the aat ure of the passions, and, like Christianity, is provocative enough to instill a deep contempt for selfdeception in those who have to listen to it constantly oreached, and behold it as inconstantly practiced. It s interesting to note that Swift wrote his grim “Resolutions When I Come to be Old” at Sir William Temple’s, and that he mentions in his obituary of Stella that “she understood the Platonic and Epicurean philosophy and judged very well the defects of the latter.” One of the most curious of these is that it is the essayist’s creed, favoring mild eccentricities and apologies, the fear of life, and the enumeration of one’s possessions.

It must have been too close an acquaintance with the style of Sir William Temple (a style essentially false, for it revealed not what he felt but what he would like to feel) that precipitated the prose of Swift into its rightful form, vigorous, mature, lucid, and earthy. One wonders how many times he heard the sage repeat that “a good plum is certainly better than an ill peach,” and the phrase beginning “When all is done, Human Life is, at the greatest and the best, but like a froward child,” which still hoaxes so many as it goes ringing down the anthologies.

But if Swift learned his horror of the bétise, his hatred of pretensions, at Moor Park, he also underwent an emotional disillusionment. It is clear that he warmly admired and liked Temple at first and suffered agony from the slights which that spoiled and peevish mediocrity put upon him. He must finally have felt that he was being deliberately kept down; that Prospero was afraid of Caliban; that the world punished sensibility as unjustly as it repressed intelligence. “Don’t you remember,” he writes to Stella, “how I used to be in pain when Sir William Temple would look cold and out of humour for three or four days and I used to suspect a hundred reasons? I have plucked up my spirit since then; faith, he spoiled a fine gentleman.” He told Harley of such treatment that “it was what I would hardly bear from a crowned head.”

One thing was needed finally to embitter a man whose youth had been passed in subservience to an inferior in mind and heart, to a Struldbrug, and that was a taste of political power, supreme political power, a drug so potent that it keeps insensitive statesmen sweating and scheming for it till they drop in their tracks, and which, in the slightest quantity, is fatal to the peace of mind of an imaginative writer. It was withdrawn, and the lack of it occasioned “the desiderium which of all things maketh life uneasy.”

One has only to read a page of the Journal to Stella to see in what a state of intoxication the author was at the time; and because of the clumsy boasting, the facetiousness and sentimentality of the messages to Stella, deepening into the frenzied incantations of the little language, it is the most unpleasant, the most morbid of his writings. But even without those moments of triumph the tragedy of Swift would have been that of all those who feel too deeply, and who cannot tolerate fools and will not mend their ways. What renders it so terrible is the strength, the ingrowing pride, of the victim who took twenty years dying “in a rage like a poisoned rat in a hole.”

In the works of Joyce, Baudelaire, Céline, the hatred of the breath, stench, and complacency of humanity is accompanied by a certain squeamishness, an impression of neurotic weakness; the sufferers escape into night, into satanism, into silence. Even Flaubert, who by the robustness of his mind and his horror of the bêtise most resembles Swift (how close Polite Conversation and Directions to Servants are to Bouvard et Pécuchet!), is able to fall back on the religion of art for art’s sake. But in Swift the fierce indignation never rises into a scream or is mitigated by any consolation. In the loneliness which so frightened Thackeray he continued to the end, punishing and taking punishment.