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Sterne and Sterneana : The sermons of Mr. Yorick. Vol. 1

Sterne, Laurence 1713-1768

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>The first two volumes of <i>The Sermons of Mr Yorick</i> (1760) appeared a few months after the initial appearance of the innovative, comic and sometimes bawdy fiction <i>The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,</i> in a similar octavo format. As Sterne had calculated, his literary and public celebrity helped ensure a substantial return for the collection of fifteen sermons, both from the publisher Robert Dodsley and through around 660 subscribers listed in the early pages, who included numerous members of the nobility and church hierarchy as well as literary notables.</p><p>The sermons, conservative and didactic in the Latitudinarian Anglican manner of the eighteenth century, were very different from Sterne's fiction and highly derivative of earlier sermons written by others, a common practice of the time. The sermons of Bishop Hall and John Tillostson were favourite sources from which Sterne freely borrowed. They employ passages from Scripture to teach moral lessons, such as the tempering of the passions, the need to exercise benevolence, and the importance of faith, mixed in with occasional remarks against Catholicism. Sterne undoubtedly delivered many of his published sermons, in some form or other, over his twenty-year career as a priest in North Yorkshire. His titles include such standard topics as 'Inquiry after Happiness' and 'Philanthropy Recommended'.</p><p>The sermons' appearance caused some outrage, however, as the author of Tristram Shandy had not been known to be a clergyman. Sterne himself plays with this duality by including two title pages (one listing 'Mr Yorick', hearkening to the parson in <i>Tristram Shandy,</i> the other bearing his name) as well as an engraved plate with his portrait by Joshua Reynolds that depicts the author in a black cassock, slightly bemused. Owen Ruffhead echoed a general objection to this mixture of fact and provocative fiction when he blustered in the <i>Monthly Review</i> that 'the manner of [the sermons'] publication' was 'the greatest outrage against Sense and Decency, that has been offered since the first establishment of Christianity'.</p><p>The initial furore surrounding the sermons, and their links with Sterne's contentious fiction, spurred creative responses which often reflected these wider criticisms. Satirical pamphlets such as the <i>Clockmakers Outcry</i> (1760), which appeared almost as soon as <i>Tristram Shandy's</i> first two volumes, anticipates the sermons' publication with wry amusement: it mentions the '<i>dramatic</i> epitaph' of 'the name of Yorick' mentioned in advertisements for the first two volumes of the <i>Dramatick Sermons of Mr Yorick</i> (although not the title Sterne eventually used). The pamphlet's anonymous author goes on to comment 'let it not be thought we allude to Sermons of the same nature having been promised to us: its having been omitted in some late advertisements, &c. is some sign of grace and becoming diffidence'. <i>Yorick's Meditations upon Various Interesting and Important Subjects</i> (1760) similarly points to the blend of fact and fiction by linking the sermons with the 'indecent' <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, remarking with irony that 'all the works of Yorick are as chaste as his sermons'.</p><p>Visual satire surrounding the sermons and Sterne's authorial identity also proliferated in this early period of the volumes' reception, and equally drew a link between his fiction's bawdy humour and his supposedly suspect morality. <i>Sterne in Ranelagh Gardens soliciting 'Subscriptions for Yorick's Sermons'</i> (1760) depicts Sterne in clerical dress carousing with fashionable ladies while 'soliciting' subscribers for his work. <i>The Scheming Triumvirate</i> (1760) suggests financial motives for the sermons' publication: Sterne is shown standing in a pulpit, but he holds a bag labelled 'Magnus Cash' in one hand and a copy of <i>Tristram Shandy</i> in another. He is flanked by George Whitefield, representing the dangerous enthusiasm of Methodism, who is also associated with financial motives (his bag of cash is labelled 'Maxim'), and Samuel Foote, whose play <i>The Minor</i> satirises Methodism. The semi-obscene print <i>Tristram Shandy's Implements</i> (1761) shows the author in the pose depicted by Reynolds, with a copy of the sermons on the table beside him.</p><p>Despite this initial virulent response to Sterne's sermons they were highly popular, admired for their fine writing and moralistic instruction. Seven more editions of Sterne's first two volumes appeared over the next eight years. An additional two volumes, including twelve more sermons, were published in 1766. Three further volumes, with eighteen sermons gathered by Sterne's daughter Lydia, were published posthumously in 1769; Sterne had in fact mentioned the 'sweepings of the Author's study' which he thought could help support his family after his death. In general, sermons were popular reading material in the eighteenth century, and they formed a significant part of Sterne's posthumous reputation as an author of instructive sensibility, who delicately amused while conveying moralising precepts. Anthologies of extracts - typically designed with sensible instruction in mind - often included excerpts from the <i>Sermons.</i></p><p>Critical discussion of Sterne's <i>Sermons</i> examine their theological significance, sources, and affective language as well as links to his fictions. Melvyn New, editor of the authoritative Florida edition of Sterne's <i>Sermons,</i> argues for their centrality to understanding the author's oeuvre, and for his sometimes maligned religious sincerity: 'Preaching from "the heart" is, for Sterne, the preaching of received religion, the Word inscribed within the Anglican establishment'.</p><p>W. B. Gerard</p><p><b>References:</b></p><p>Gerard, W. B. <i>Divine Rhetoric: Essays on the Sermons of Laurence Sterne</i> (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010)</p><p><i>The Sermons of Laurence Sterne: The Text</i>, ed. Melvyn New. The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne, vol. 4 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1996)</p><p><i>The Sermons Laurence Sterne: The Notes</i>, ed. Melvyn New. The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne, vol. 5 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1996)</p></p>

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