skip to content

Sterne and Sterneana : Yorick's skull or, college oscitations. With some remarks on the writings of Sterne, and a specimen of the Shandean Sti...

Combe, William 1742-1823

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>This collection of eleven whimsical essays includes an extended essay (number Five) on 'the writings of Yorick' (namely Sterne), the first three paragraphs of which appear in Alan B. Howe's <i>Sterne: The Critical Heritage</i> (1971). The author says of <i>Tristram Shandy</i> that it is 'an admirable caricature of history' rather than 'an exact portrait of private life' (34) - a distinction characteristically unelaborated upon. His assessment of Sterne's achievement implies an undeveloped aesthetic theory: Sterne creates 'alluring deceptions, beyond the bounds of probability' (for example the behaviour of Toby and Trim concerning Le Fever, or the Amours of Widow Wadman), which 'never did or will have existence, but in the brain' (34-5). However, through his 'knowledge of disposition and character,' Sterne 'carr[ies] us beyond our usual feelings' in order to teach us 'that the human heart is capable of the greatest improvement' (35). The aesthetic here depends upon contradictions. Empirical 'probability' is outdone by 'deception' but in service to an abstract truth of human nature, which is itself not fixed, but 'capable of ... improvement.' Although casually expressed, this is an astute reading of Sterne: by a trick of improbability, we gain insight into a 'beyond' which implies an infinite potentiality for the human heart.</p><p>The author, as is characteristic for his era, is invested in a vision of Sterne as sentimentalist, even as his observation about Sterne's method depends upon ironies. His subsequent comments on Sterne confirm the sentimental reading, demonstrating by a parodic sample chapter the error of imitating Sterne's 'buffoonery' (especially what he calls the 'parenthesis'd chapters'): the parody includes exaggerations of the Shandean style, such as free-association and misogyny toward the female reader. Halfway through the parody chapter, he interrupts himself, '----- Here sentiment took the reins---' (41), and produces a clichéd meditation upon a burning candle as emblem for human life, with a parody of Le Fever's death (42-3). Both the 'buffoonery' and the 'sentiment' are recognizably Shandean, but no one would mistake it for Sterne.</p><p>Other elements of these essays, some of which take inspiration from the <i>Spectator</i> (on diffidence; on the miscellany as literary form; on critical reviewers; on social injustice; on the benevolent landowner; on coffee-house culture; on flattery), also reproduce aspects of Sterne's style, such as an intensity of incidental detail, a mercurial authorial identity, allusions and quotations, and specific details one might have collected by reading Sterne's work (e.g., the eccentricity of Venus, or the sentimental value of a soldier's sword, and even lighting a fire with a volume of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>).</p><p>The author - ostensibly a twenty-one-year-old university student - demonstrates a consistent disregard for philosophy, openly preferring to be a careless dabbler. Indeed, self-deprecation is his preferred mode: his epigraph from Pope's <i>Dunciad</i> (IV.605) initially appears to be a self-judgment: 'MORE SHE HAD SPOKE, BUT YAWN'D.' There are extended sentimental elements: narratives of dying fathers, humble peasants, maternal sacrifice; a sentimental landscape description reminiscent of Thomas Gray; a gothic poem that might reflect Gray's Bard, or Ossian.</p><p>Ultimately, the author's envoi picks up on the epigraph from Pope, as he defends his book: 'every person among ye would find his time much better bestowed in this manner, than in grinning in coffee-houses, yawning in window seats, or gaping at print-shops' (112).</p><p>Christopher Fanning</p></p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , and information about sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: