Alas poor Yorick! Remembering Laurence Sterne

The death-stalked life of the Clonmel-born author of ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’, who died 250 years ago today

Sterne and Death (1768). Portrait of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) by Thomas Patch. Photograph: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Sterne and Death (1768). Portrait of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) by Thomas Patch. Photograph: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images


This year brings two notable anniversaries in the life of the Revd Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on February 27th, 1768, he published A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. By Mr. Yorick. Less than three weeks later, on March 18th, aged just 54, he died.

Born in Clonmel on November 24th, 1713, Sterne lived much of his life in the shadow of death. As a boy, he spent time in Wicklow town, Annamoe, Dublin, and at the home of a relative, Brigadier-General Robert Sterne, in Tullynally Castle in Co Westmeath. During that period, two younger brothers and two of his three sisters died. Once he left Ireland, aged nine, for school in Yorkshire, he would never again see his much-loved soldier father, who died in Jamaica when Sterne was 17.

Sterne himself experienced the first alarming symptoms of the illness – consumption or pulmonary tuberculosis – that would eventually kill him, as a student at Cambridge, when a blood vessel in his lungs burst: “It happen’d in the night, and I bled the bed full.”

Death is never absent for long in Sterne’s comic masterpiece. In the first volume of Tristram Shandy, Parson Yorick – a fictionalised self-portrait of the author – dies. Three words inscribed on a plain marble slab marking his grave serve as ‘epitaph and elegy’: ‘Alas, poor YORICK!’ In Sterne’s novel, this all-too-familiar lament faces a wholly unfamiliar black leaf: a gesture towards the mystery of death.

By the novel’s end, Tristram’s brother Bobby, his mother Elizabeth, and even that favourite of Victorian readers, uncle Toby, have also died. So too the courageous soldier, Le Fever, the story of whose death, reprinted in The Beauties of Sterne (1782), was long regarded as one of the writer’s most sublimely touching achievements.

Engraved portrait of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), the novelist and Anglican clergyman. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Engraved portrait of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), the novelist and Anglican clergyman. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Despite constant bodily frailty, Sterne fought long and hard against his mortal illness, continuing all the while to develop the fiction that brought him European-wide fame. Volume VII of Tristram Shandy opens with the hero’s memorable flight from death:

NO – I think, I said, I would write two volumes every year, provided the vile cough which then tormented me, and which to this hour I dread worse than the devil, would but give me leave …

NOW as for my spirits, little have I to lay to their charge … in no one moment of my existence … have ye once deserted me … and when DEATH himself knocked at my door – ye bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission –

”– There must certainly be some mistaken in this matter,” quoth he.

(Tristram Shandy, VII, i)

Sterne himself travelled to France in search of health. After lingering in Paris, where he revelled in the social and literary acclaim he also enjoyed in London, he journeyed south to Montpellier, before residing in Toulouse throughout the winter of 1763-4. Sterne made comedy of the flight from death, portraying Tristram as determined to gallop without looking once behind me to the banks of the Garonne; and if I hear him clattering at my heels – I’ll scamper away to mount Vesuvius – from thence to Joppa, and from Joppa to the world’s end, where, if he follows me, I pray God he may break his neck – (TS, VII, i).

On his return to England, Sterne was more sober, reporting that he was ‘bleeding to death at York, of a small vessel in my lungs – the duce take these bellows of mine’. A second attempt to prolong his life by avoiding the rigours of an English winter took him to France and Italy from the autumn of 1765 to the early summer of the following year. Sterne would make this journey the basis of Yorick’s narrative in A Sentimental Journey. The fact of the author’s death so soon after that work was published gives the very title of A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy an added poignancy, for Yorick gets no further than a ‘little decent kind of an inn by the road side’ on the French side of the Alps, ready to make an ascent he will never commence.

Sterne himself did better, visiting Turin, Milan, and Florence. It was in the Tuscan capital that the English painter Thomas Patch portrayed the gaunt clergyman as Tristram Shandy bowing to Death, who has just knocked on his door. From Florence, Sterne travelled to Rome and, finally, Naples. ‘We have a jolly carnival of it – nothing but operas – festinos and masquerades’ he wrote, adding ‘[H]ere I am, happy as a king after all, growing fat, sleek, and well liking – not improving in stature, but in breadth’.

Yet less than 12 months after returning to England, Sterne knew that his flight from death offered only a short reprieve. His letters, especially those known as the Journal to Eliza, tell of the remorseless progress of his illness. To Eliza Draper, the young married woman with whom he had become infatuated, he wrote:

I have been within the gates of death. – I was ill the last time I wrote to you; and apprehensive of what would be the consequence. – My fears were but too well founded; for in ten minutes after I dispatched my letter, this poor, fine-spun frame of Yorick’s gave way, and I broke a vessel in my breast, and could not stop the loss of blood till four this morning. I have filled all thy India handkerchiefs with it. – It came, I think, from my heart!

Working for eight months on A Sentimental Journey, Sterne was still forced to publish his final work in two short volumes, instead of the advertised four.

In his Life and Opinions, Tristram Shandy averred:

Were I in a condition to stipulate with death … I should certainly declare against submitting to it before my friends; and therefore … wish that it happen not to me in my own house – but rather in some decent inn – at home I know it, – the concern of my friends, and the last services of wiping my brows and smoothing my pillow, which the quivering hand of pale affection shall pay me, will not so crucify my soul, that I shall die of a distemper which my physician is not aware of: but in an inn, the few cold offices I wanted, would be purchased with a few guineas, and paid me with an undisturbed, but punctual attention – (TS, VII, xii).

Laurence Sterne died in just such circumstances: in lodgings in Old Bond Street, with no friends present, but properly attended by a nurse.

In the final volume of Tristram Shandy, published scarcely a year before he died, Sterne had reflected seriously on death, addressing his ‘dear, dear Jenny’, a fictional embodiment of the many women with whom he enjoyed sentimental and, perhaps, carnal relationships:

Time wastes too fast, and every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more – every thing presses on – whilst thou are twisting that lock, – see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make. –

– Heaven have mercy on us both! (TS, IX, viii).

True to the facetious tendencies that enliven his writing, the following chapter of Tristram’s life and opinions is a memorably short one:


NOW, for what the world thinks of that ejaculation – I would not give a groat.

Shortly before his death, Sterne had written to his cousin, the Bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, declaring defiantly, in a reminiscence of a passage in the fifth volume of Tristram Shandy: ‘I brave evils et quand Je serai mort, on mettra mon nom dans le liste de ces Heros, qui sont Morts en plaisantant; [and when I am dead, my name will be placed in the list of those heroes who died in a jest]’.

In the end, death had the laugh on him. Sterne’s funeral took place on March 22nd in the fashionable church of St George’s, Hanover Square. His body was buried in the church’s new graveyard, beyond Tyburn, only to be stolen by body snatchers and taken to Sterne’s old university, Cambridge, where it was dissected by the professor of anatomy, Charles Collignon. One of those attending the dissection recognised Sterne, and his body was subsequently returned to London for clandestine reburial.

In 1969, when the burial ground was scheduled for redevelopment, his admirer, Kenneth Monkman, located Sterne’s bones and had them reinterred next to St Michael’s Church, Coxwold. After two decades of making the best of things in precarious financial circumstances in poorer Yorkshire parishes, Sterne was grateful enough for the Coxwold living the local magnate, the earl of Fauconberg, bestowed on him, following the extraordinary success of Tristram Shandy.

All the same, Sterne would, for the remainder of his life, leave Coxwold as often as possible, to revel in the celebrity he enjoyed in London for, as he asserted, ‘I wrote not [to] be fed, but to be famous’. Today, his remains lie across the road from his parsonage house in an otherwise obscure Yorkshire village far distant from the English metropolis. Sterne would have recognized and, perhaps, enjoyed the irony.

Ian Campbell Ross is author of Laurence Sterne: a life (OUP) and edited Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the Oxford World’s Classics. He is Emeritus Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies and Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin. A longer version of this article appeared in The Public Domain Review earlier this month.

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