Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker (1771), pp. 96-97

I no sooner got home, than I sent for Doctor Ch--, who assured me I need not be alarmed, for my swooning was entirely occasioned by an accidental impression of fetid effluvia upon nerves of uncommon sensibility. I know not how other people's nerves are constructed; but one would imagine they must be made of very coarse materials, to stand the shock of such a horrid assault. It was, indeed, a compound of villainous smells, in which the most violent stinks, and the most powerful perfumes, contended for the mastery. Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank armpits, sweating feet, running sores and issues, plasters, ointments, and embrocations, hungry-water, spirit of lavender, assafoetida drops, musk, hartshorn, and sal volatile; besides a thousand frowzy steams, which I could not analyse. Such, O Dick! is the fragrant aether we breathe in the polite assemblies of Bath--Such is the atmosphere I have exchanged for the pure, elastic, animating air of the Welsh mountains. . . [-Matt Bramble]

For my part, I am very thankful for the coarseness of my organs, being in no danger of ever falling a sacrifice to the delicacy of my nose. Mr. Bramble is extravagantly delicate in all his sensations, both of soul and body. [-Jery Melford]

To call Bramble's raillery a picture of extreme sensibility seems to miss the point. Sensibility surely can't be so easily sublimated to wit, and Jery's attribution of Bramble's response to delicacy should alarm us. Something is missing from Bramble's diatribe. Perhaps this is the point where the idea of sensibility as social refinement takes hold. Insofar as Matt Bramble's description itself has a social intent (meaning, that he is aware of audience), he can't mean what he says. His terms are too ridiculous to convey a sensible impression. No matter how strongly these sensations have affected him, Bramble must find an expression not of corresponding violence, but corresponding strength--meaning, of some refinement. If he were mad, infantile, or perhaps moved beyond all bounds of deliberate expression (none of which is the case), his ranting would COUNT as sensibility.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography