Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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trary, M. Stapfer insists on the sincerity of his
preaching. He believed what he taught. "I do
not say," continues our critic, " that he practised
what he preached — that is quite another matter:
but he believed it. Hypocrisy never entered into
his nature, and however odd such a minister of
religion may seem, nothing would be falser than to
represent him as a Tartufe, nor would it be much
more exact to imagine him simply as a joker.
Sterne in his pulpit, clad in the black gown of the
Protestant preacher, was still an artist and a phi-
losopher, a wit and a sentimentalist, an enemy of
quacks and pedants, of superannuated methods and
commonplace ideas. He was also an enemy of
gravity, because it is nine times out of ten affected,
interested, and false : and a friend of pleasantry in
season and out of season. Yet, again, he was an
irregular personality, liable to sudden changes of
humor, gay one moment and the next serious or
even sad ; an optimist now, and anon a misan-


thrope ; the most whimsical of writers and of men
in his ways of thinking, feeling, and writing."

I may interrupt myself here to remark that while
we make acquaintance with Sterne we also make
acquaintance Avith M. Paul Stapfer, his critic and
biographer, and that this young author's book has
already commended itself to me by more than one
trait of exact and delicate observation.^

Rousseau became an author at thirty-seven:
Sterne was forty-seven when he published the two
first volumes of " Tristram Shandy." It is difficult
to understand inspiration so late in the day, but
it was written that everything about our author
should be unique. Anyhow, his success was imme-
diate and very great. Though the volumes appeared
modestly enough at York, two hundred copies were
sold in two days, and when, a short time afterwards,
Sterne went to London, he found himself famous.
Everybody wanted to see him : he was invited
everywhere, and to secure him it was necessary to
take steps two months beforehand. The name of
" Tristram Shandy " was given to a new salad, to a
new game of cards, to several racehorses. The
book lay on all tables : it was pirated and imitated,
attacked and defended. A peer, Lord Palconberg,

1 [I hope it is not impertinent to add another interruption.
M. Stapfer, who, at the time M. Scherer wrote these words, was
a friend and colleague of my own, and whose doctoral thesis is
the subject of this essay, has since held Professorships in Letters
at Grenoble and Bordeaux, and has produced capital work on
Shakespeare, Rabelais, and other subjects.— Tv-ans.]


thought he could not show his admiration for the
author better than by bestowing on him a benefice
worth a hundred guineas a year ; a bookseller for
his part offered him 650L for two new volumes.

From this time Sterne passed a considerable part
of his time in London — in the drawing rooms that
pulled caps for him, with the wits of the time, in
the gardens of Eanelagh, and behind the scenes of
Drury Lane. Nor was he less well received in
Paris, whither Englishmen were then fond of com-
ing to have their renown ratified. I do not know
how it happened that our eighteenth-century letters
and memoirs preserve hardly any trace of his pas-
sages there. Garat, however, has drawn him in a
few lines, and shows him to us as we already know
him, " always and everywhere the same : never
influenced by plans, and always carried away by
impressions ; at the theatre, in the drawing room,
on the bridge, always somewhat at the mercy of
things and persons ; always ready to be amorous or
pious, burlesque or sublime." He was at Paris
when he burst a bloodvessel in his chest, and his
health, already delicate, was henceforth wholly
precarious. In vain he sought a cure in the south
of France and in Italy ; consumption, without van-
quishing his levity or his gaiety, held him between
life and death. The "Sentimental Journey"
appeared in February, 1768, and three weeks
afterAvards its author died at London in furnished
lodgings. It has been asserted that his corpse was


stolen by resurrection men, that lie was dissected,
and that one of his friends coming in during the
demonstration recognized the body, and swooned
with a shriek of horror.

No one can have a complete or even a sufficient
idea of Sterne who does not know what a pitch, both
of passion and fickleness, he had reached. Never
was there a more inflammable heart. "I must,"
he wrote, "positively have some Dulcinia in my
head. It is a condition of moral harmony for me.
I am firmly persuaded that, if ever I do a base
thing, it can only be in the interval between one
passion and another." As a matter of fact he went
from one Dulcinia to another, without taking any
trouble to engineer the transitions. It is said that
he included the whole sex in his passion. " After
all the weaknesses I have seen in women, and all
the satires I have read against them," wrote Sterne
towards the end of his life, " I love them still, per-
suaded that the man who has not a kind of affec-
tion for the entire sex is incapable of loving a
single woman as he ought." His very marriage
was nothing but a love passage, and he dealt with
it no otherwise. We possess the letters which he
wrote to "his Lumley," as he called his betrothed,
full of sentimental assurances and of tears ; but we
possess also a letter in dog Latin which he wrote
twenty years later to his friend Stevenson " Sum
fatigatus et aegrotus de raea uxore plus quam
unquam." His second passion was for Catherine


Beranger de Eourmentelle, a girl of French extrac-
tion, who lived at York with her mother. For her
Sterne does not in the least beat about the bush ;
he ardently desires that Grod may soon relieve him
of his wife, so that "his Kitty" may at last be
wholly his. " There is only one hindrance to our
happiness," he writes to Kitty, "and what that is
you know as well as I. God will open a gate which
will allow us to be one day much nearer each other."
This attachment, which was to be eternal, lasted
but a year. The success of "Tristram Shandy"
put everything out of Sterne's head, and when the
poor woman left York to join him in London, he
could not find time even to see her.

I fancy that M. Stapfer does not pretend to be
exhaustive on this subject. It is impossible to
enumerate all the conflagrations which successively
devoured this celebrated humorist. " 'Tis like the
stars in the sky," said Sainte-Beuve to me once,
speaking of Chateaubriand's attachments ; " the
more you look at them, the more you discover." So
it is with poor Yorick. In 1764, Sterne was at
Paris on his return from a two years' stay in the
south of France, and it is easy to guess what kept
him there for eight weeks ; he writes to Stevenson,
" I have been under the yoke of the tenderest pas-
sion whose empire heart ever underwent." But the
most famous of his affairs of the heart was that
which made Eliza Draper immortal. Eliza had
been born in India. As she was consumptive, her


husband had sent her to England for medical care,
and though she had not been cured, she was on the
point of returning to Bombay when Sterne made
her acquaintance. She was a young woman who
seems to have possessed in the highest degree the
grace and indefinable charm of languor. Eaynal
celebrated her in one of those pompous apostrophes
which we cannot read nowadays without a fit of
laughter. " territory of Ajinga ! thou art naught,
but thou hast given birth to Eliza ! A day will
come when the marts of commerce founded by
Europeans on the Asian coasts will exist no longer.
Grass will hide them, or the Indian, at last avenged,
will build upon their ruins. But if my writings
have any life, the name of Ajinga will abide in the
memory of man," and so forth. Sterne's own letters
to Eliza are less burlesque, but not less enthusiastic.
Alas ! they had at last to separate ; Eliza went to
join Mr. Draper, and Sterne remained at London.
It is impossible, is it not, to refrain from pitying
them ? We imagine the immense and lasting deso-
lation :

Que le deuil de mon ame gtait lugubre et sombre !
Que de nuits sans pavots ! Que de jours sans soleil !

Why, to think so would be to know nothing at all
of Yorick's nature ! Eliza had not been three weeks
gone when Sterne wrote another declaration to
another beauty : — '' Beloved fair ! What a dish-
clout hast thou made of my soul ! Less than an


hour ago I fell on my knees. I swore never to
come near thee again, and after saying the Lord's
Prayer for the sake of the end, ' Lead us not into
temptation,' I rose up like a Christian soldier,
ready to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil,
and assured of trampling all these foes beneath my
feet. But now that I am so near you, a mere stone's
throw from your house, I feel myself seized with a
giddiness which turns my brain upside down."
Diamond cut diamond ! It is but too clear that
Sterne, as Warburton said, was an incorrigible
blackguard. But Eliza Draper, for her part, was
nothing but a coquette, for she had kept Sterne's
letters, and it was she who published them.


It is time to come to the works of an author who
has been depicted to us as so bizarre and capricious.
We have already seen that he did not take pen in
hand till very late, when he was forty-seven years
old. He died nine years afterwards, and within
this short space of time he published the nine vol-
umes of "Tristram Shandy," the "Sentimental
Journey," and the "Sermons." Both the novel
and the " Journey " were left unfinished ; but had
their completion ever been intended ? Por taking
your hero, as the author does, so many months be-
fore his birth, for halting so long on the steps of a
staircase, for discussing so learnedly noses, knots,


and moustaclies, would even the forty volumes that
the biographer promised have sufficed ? Is not the
sudden dropping of the story and the reader the
necessary climax of all the practical jokes which
the writer has arranged for us ? We have no right
to complain of anything when we go on board with
such a shipmate imless he happens to bore us, for
the buffoon is condemned to be always amusing.
It must be confessed that Sterne has not paid quite
attention enough to this law of the style. He is
tedious, lengthy, wearisome, obscure, repellent, to
such an extent that his books, " Tristram Shandy "
especially, are little read nowadays. And yet
" Tristram " is a masterpiece : the characters of
my Uncle Toby and of Corporal Trim are real
creations. There is nothing more original, nothing
more thoroughly worked out, in any literature ; but
nothing less than these admirable portraits and
some charming passages could have succeeded in
saving Sterne's books. The mere style which he
created, and to which his name remains in some
sort attached, the style of humorous fantasy, would
not have sufficed to do it.

There are three things to distinguish in Sterne —
his sentiment, his humor, and his method ; for there
is deliberate method in this writer. Sentiment and
pleasantry flow freely and at first hand from him ;
but mannerism mixes with them at the last, and
hurts the first inspiration.

Sterne is a sentimentalist: in the same way as


the whole eighteenth century was, as Diderot is in
his passionate apostrophes, as the whole of France
became in the following of Eousseau. Men talked
of virtue and sentiment just as they wore powder
and matches. Virtue, for her part, held her ground
till far into the Revolution, and supplied the mate-
rial of endless harangues, those of Eobespierre in
particular. Sensibility was not so long lived; ^ she
gave place to the heroism of Brutus and his kind.
Yet Madame Eoland was still a " sensible " woman,
and Olympe de Gouges, when she wrote to the Con-
vention asking for permission to defend Louis XVI.,
spoke of examples which had " excited her heroism
and aroused her sensibility." Sterne is at once
tender-hearted and sentimental ; that is to say,
naturally susceptible of sympathetic emotions, and
inclined at the same time to invite them for the
pleasure that he feels in them, and the credit they
gain him. He was very early familiar with the
tone of tenderness. See how he describes the soli-
tude in which "his Lumley " has left him. "A
solitary plate," he writes to her, " only one knife,
one fork, one glass ! I bestowed a thousand pensive
and penetrating glances on the chair that you have
so often adorned with your graceful person in our
tranquil and sentimental repasts." He insists that

1 [I think M. Scherer brings tlie abhorred shears to Sensibil-
ity too early : but as I could only refer to an essay of my own on
the subject, it is, perhaps, better to confine myself to this simple
remark. — Trans.l


when his time comeS; he will die alone, far from
home, in some inn.^ 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 sensi-
bility ; though it has often caused me suffering, I
would not give it for all the pleasures of coarse sen-
sualists." We can now understand what Sterne
means by a "Sentimental Journey.''^ The traveller
d 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 ]3ictur-
esque from them. Sentimentalism is perfectly com-
patible with a certain strain of egotism, and the
sentimental traveller is at bottom much more his
own master than is thought. It is for this reason

1 [It is fair to observe that he did. Few persons of sensibility
thus kept their word. — Trans.]

2 [Here M. Scherer quotes, in a note, the well-known pas-
sages from the Journey as to " the man who goes from Dan to
Beersheba " and the " quiet journey of the heart." — Trans.]


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 snuff-
box, and some months afterwards our traveller,
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 Eevre, the death of Yorick,
the two donkeys, the dead donkey of JSTaimpont,
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 ISTamur all in this
trait ? 1

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.

Let us go on to the form of his pleasantry. Sterne
is a humorist. Humor is so distinctly the character-
istic of his writings that they have been useful in

1 [These celebrated passages are translated in the original.
— Trans.']


fixing the sense of the word. But if Sterne re-
niciins the type of humor, he is, notwithstanding,
by no means the sole representative of it : antiquity,
it has been observed, knew it not : the Latin peo-
ples appear less capable of the feelings which it
implies than the Germanic nations. Yet Spain has
Cervantes and France Rabelais. Germany pos-
sesses Jean Paul ; in England Shakespeare is full of
this kind of wit, and Carlyle has taken great
trouble to inoculate himself with it.

What, then, is humor ? In other words, what
have the writers whom we have just mentioned in
common ? M. Stapf er has devoted the whole of an
excellent chapter to the subject. He fixes for his
own part on a definition according to which the
humorist is the tragi-comic painter of humanity
and of human absurdity. That is pretty exact, save
that it is subject to the drawback of not telling us
very much. I think it is possible to go somewhat
deeper ; for humor seems to be an idea in aesthetics
which admits, as well as another, of analysis and
definition. Let us start from laughter, since laugh-
ter is a thing familiar to us. It is excited by a
sense of the ridiculous, and the ridiculous arises
from the contradiction between the use of a thing
and its intention. A man falls on his back : we
cannot help laughing unless it so happens that his
fall is dangerous, and so one sentiment is driven
out by another. The terrors of Sancho, the brags
of Falstaff, the rascalities of Scapin, amuse us be-


cause of their disproportion with the circumstances,
or their disagreement with facts. Such is the law
as well of the finest wit as of the coarsest pun-
ning : at bottom of the pleasure we experience when-
ever we laugh there is the surprise produced by a
disparity. As for the physical effect determined
by this surprise, it is sufficiently well known for
there to be no need of describing it : in our amaze-
ment and amusement we experience a slight spasm
of the muscles of the face and the vocal organs.
That is the analysis of laughter ; it is complete ;
we have the whole pheuomenon before us.

Let us now take matters on a larger scale, and
extend our terms. The disparity lies no longer in
the double sense of a word, between an attitude and
our usual decorum, between the madness of a moment
and the rational conduct which forms the main sub-
stance of life. It is between the man himself and
his destiny, between the whole of reality and the
ideal which, rightly or wrongly, imposes itself on
our minds as the law of things. The contrast is
glaring on all sides. We hold ourselves formed for
happiness and virtue, destined for everything that
is true, noble, and sublime ; and if we have the
least touch of sincerity, we are obliged to recognize
that we are weak, vacillating, limited, prosaic, fickle.
No one is a hero to his valet de chambre, because the
valet de chambre knows what is beneath and behind
the hero. Whence comes a great and all-pervading
comedy, the human comedy, " Vanity Fair."


Now, let us suppose that an artist has grasped
this irony of fate in all its lively qualities. Yet
the result must not be irritation or indignation.
He has learnt to be tolerant. He has no special
grudge at nature for corresponding so little to an
ideal which is perhaps, after all, arbitrary. He is
even able to bestow compassion on the strange short-
comings of our poor species. He puts up, pitifully
and even sympathetically after a fashion, with all
these examples of the mean, the base, the small, the
poor. At bottom he discovers that everything is
not so bad, that humanity is not altogether so much
to be complained of, that there are other persons
here below besides rascals and ruffians. Nay, more,
he takes pleasure in discovering every where vestiges
of an original and indefeasible nobility. Still he
knows at tlie same time that all of it has a seamy
side, and he delights in turning that side out : in
showing the tribe of narrownesses and absurdities
that accompany virtue, the grotesque that pushes
its way among things venerable and venerated. The
views of our artist are tempered by a kind of mel-
ancholy : he laughs at humanity, but with no bitter-
ness. The perception of the contrasts of human
destiny by a man who does not sever himself from
humanity, but who takes his own shortcomings and
those of his dear fellow-creatures cheerfully — that
is the essence of humor.

It is easy to understand the kind of pleasantry
which results from it — a kind of gall-less satire, a


mixture of things touching and things merry, a
mutual permeation of the comic and the sentimen-
taL But this is not alL The humorist, if he be
analyzed to the end, is a sceptic. The tolerance of
the wretchednesses of humanity by which he is char-
acterized can only come from a certain weakening
of idealism in him. He sees perfectly well that
our absurdities are often excusable or even the
cloaks of virtue ; but he sees also that our virtues
have their absurd sides, and this is hardly compat-
ible with a vigorous moral conviction. For him
the fact eclipses the ideal to which the fact corre-
sponds so imperfectly and so awkwardly. Whence
it comes that our humorist is very apt to play with
his subject : he does not take very seriously a
spectacle which to him is only a spectacle, hollow
enough, and petty enough after all. His heart is
but half in his business as a moralizer: his sin-
cerity is not unmixed : his first object is to amuse
himself and other people. And this is why he is
so very likely to exaggerate the kind of pleasantry
to which he gives himself up. He will pile on the
contrasts and the dissonances, seek oddity for
oddity's sake — find it necessary to be droll at any
price, invent what is burlesque, fall into what is
equivocal and even merely buffoonish. Yet this
does not prevent the temperament of the humorist
from being, on the whole, the happiest that a man
can bring with him into this world, and the humor-
ist's point of view the justest from which it can be


judged. The satirist grows wroth: the cynic ban-
ters : the humorist, for his part, by turns laughs
and sympathizes.

He has neither the fault of the pessimist, who
refers everything to a purely personal conception,
and is angry with reality for not being such as he
conceives it; nor that of the optimist, who shuts
his eyes to everything missing in the real world,
that he may comply with the demands of his heart
and his reason. The humorist feels the imperfec-
tions of reality and resigns himself to them with
the good humor which knows that our own satisfac-
tion is not the rule of things ; that the formula of the
universe is necessarily larger than the preferences
of a single one of the accidental beings of whom
the universe is composed. The humorist is beyond
all doubt the true philosopher — always providing
that he is a philosopher.

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 dis-
orders 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 wit-
ness, after all my jesting, my heart is innocent, and


the sports of my pen just like those of my infancy
when I rode cock-horse on a stick." And elsewhere :
" Vive la bagatelle ! my humor, never hast thou
painted in black the objects I met in my way. In
danger thou hast gilt my horizon Avith 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 sym-
pathy 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 re-
placed by good humor, contempt by affection, the
spirit of detraction by sensibility, a satire which
inspires us with interest and even affection for the

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 12 of 21)