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LAURENCE STERNE was born, in 1713, at Clonmel in Ireland, where his father, who had served as a subaltern officer in Marlborough's wars, happened to be quartered. His brothers and sisters, with one exception, died either in infancy or in early life, and Laurence himself was of a weakly constitution. Till he was ten years old he followed with his mother the shifting quarters of his father. Then he was put to a good school at Halifax, and finally sent by an uncle to Jesus College, Cambridge, whence he took the degree of B.A. in 1736. This uncle had valuable preferment and good interest in the Diocese of York, of which Laurence's great-grandfather had been Archbishop. It was this probably that led the nephew to the clerical profession, which can scarcely have sate easily upon him. His uncle soon obtained for him the living of Sutton in the East Riding, and a prebendal stall at York. This preferment enabled him to marry (after two years' courtship) in 1741. For nearly twenty years he remained unknown to the world. Except during the period of his residence at York, he lived at the remote village of Sutton, doing the duty of that benefice as well as of a second which he held at Stillington. His friends seem chiefly to have been among the Yorkshire gentry, who commonly then lived for some part of the year in the county-town. In 1759, Lord Falconbridge gave him the living of Coxwold, a pleasant village in a valley under the Hambledon Hills, which was his home-when he was at home— for the rest of his life. In the same year he became suddenly famous by the publication of the first part of 'Tristram Shandy.' It was finished at intervals during the next six years. The
money which he made by it enabled him to live a good deal in London, where he was made a fashionable 'lion,' and to spend more than two years in France and Italy. This sojourn abroad suggested the 'Sentimental Journey,' published at the beginning of 1768, in which year he died.
Of these two exquisite works of humour, as no extracts are given from them, nothing need be said, except so far as they explain the affected style of his Sermons, from which the following passages are taken. These, it must be noticed, were preached to fashionable congregations, after he had become famous as a sentimental humourist. Thus in matter they represent an accommodation of Christian morals and religion to the requirements of an audience who expected from him laughter or the luxury of tears, and the awkwardness of this compromise appears also in the manner, which lacks the charm of his more spontaneous writing.
1. The House of Mourning and the House of Feasting.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting.
That I deny-but-let us hear the wise man's reasoning upon it,' for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart; sorrow is better than laughter:'-for a crack-brained order of Carthusian monks, I grant, but not for men of the world. For what purpose, do you imagine, has God made us? for the social sweets of the well-watered valleys, where he has planted us; or for the dry and dismal desert of a Sierra Morena? Are the sad accidents of life, and the uncheery hours which perpetually overtake us, are they not enough, but we must sally forth in quest of them,—belie our own hearts, and say, as our text would have us, that they are better than those of joy? Did the best of Beings send us into the world for this end,—to go weeping through it,—
to vex and shorten a life short and vexatious enough already? Do you think, my good preacher, that He who is infinitely happy can envy us our enjoyments? or that a Being so infinitely kind would grudge a mournful traveller the short rest and refreshments necessary to support his spirits through the stages of a weary pilgrimage? or that he would call him to a severe reckoning, because in his way he had hastily snatched at some little fugacious pleasures, merely to sweeten this uneasy journey of life, and reconcile him to the ruggedness of the road, and the many hard jostlings he is sure to meet with? Consider, I beseech you, what provision and accommodation the Author of our being has prepared for us, that we might not go on our way sorrowing-how many caravanseras of rest-what powers and faculties he has given us for taking it-what apt objects he has placed in our way to entertain us; some of which he has made so fair, so exquisitely fitted for this end, that they have power over us for a time, to charm away the sense of pain, to cheer up the dejected heart under poverty and sickness, and make it go and remember its miseries no more.
I will not contend at present against this rhetoric; I would choose rather for a moment to go on with the allegory, and say we are travellers, and, in the most affecting sense of that idea, that, like travellers, though upon business of the last and nearest concern to us, we may surely be allowed to amuse ourselves with the natural or artificial beauties of the country we are passing through, without reproach of forgetting the main errand we are sent upon; and if we can so order it as not to be led out of the way by the variety of prospects, edifices, and ruins which solicit us, it would be a nonsensical piece of saint-errantry to shut our eyes.
But let us not lose sight of the argument in pursuit of the simile.
Let us remember, various as our excursions are that we have still set our faces towards Jerusalem,—that we have a place of rest and happiness, towards which we hasten, and that the way to get there is not so much to please our hearts, as to improve them in virtue ;-that mirth and feasting are usually no friends to achievements of this kind—but that a season of affliction is in some sort a season of piety-not only because our sufferings are apt to put us in mind of our sins, but that, by the check and interruption which they give to our pursuits, they allow us what the hurry and bustle of the world too often deny us,—and that is a little time for reflection, which is all that most of us want to make us wiser and better men;-that at certain times it is so necessary a man's mind should be turned towards itself that, rather than want occasions, he had better purchase them at the expense of his present happiness.—He had better, as the text expresses it, go to the house of mourning, where he will meet with something to subdue his passions, than to the house of feasting, where the joy and gaiety of the place is likely to excite them. That whereas the entertainments and caresses of the one place expose his heart and lay it open to temptations-the sorrows of the other defend it, and as naturally shut them from it. So strange and unaccountable a creature is man! he is so framed that he cannot but pursue happiness-and yet, unless he is made sometimes miserable, how apt is he to mistake the way which can only lead him to the accomplishment of his own wishes.
This is the full force of the wise man's declaration.Sermons.
2. The good and ill of Travelling.
THE love of variety, or curiosity of seeing new things, which is the same, or at least a sister passion to it, -seems woven into the frame of every son and daughter of Adam; we usually speak of it as one of Nature's levities, though planted within us for the solid purposes of carrying forward the mind to fresh inquiry and knowledge. Strip us of it, the mind (I fear) would doze for ever over the present page, and we should all of us rest at ease with such objects as presented themselves in the parish or province where we first drew breath.
It is to this spur, which is ever in our sides, that we owe the impatience of this desire for travelling; the passion is no way bad, but, as others are, in its mismanagement or excess; -order it rightly, the advantages are worth the pursuit ;the chief of which are—to learn the languages, the laws and customs, and understand the government and interest, of other nations ;-to acquire an urbanity and confidence of behaviour, and fit the mind more easily for conversation and discourse; to take us out of the company of our aunts and grandmothers, and from the track of nursery mistakes; and by shewing us new objects, or old ones in new lights, to reform our judgments;-by tasting perpetually the varieties of Nature, to know what is good,-by observing the address and arts of man, to conceive what is sincere; and, by seeing the difference of so many various humours and manners, to look into ourselves, and form our own.
This is some part of the cargo we might return with; but the impulse of seeing new sights, augmented with that of getting clear from all lessons both of wisdom and reproof at home, carries our youth too early out to turn this venture