Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey (1768), pp. 72-3

The bird in his cage pursued me into my room; I sat down close to my table, and leaning my head upon my hand, I begun to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. I was in a right frame for it, and so I gave full scope to my imagination.

I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting the picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitude of sad groups in it did but distract me.--

I took a single captive, and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then look'd through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture.

I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was which arises from hope deferr'd. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years the western breeze had not fan n'd his blood--he had seen no sun, no moon in all that time--nor had the voice of a friend or kinsman breathed through the lattice--his children--

--But here my heart began to bleed--and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait.

He was sitting upon the ground upon a little straw, in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and bed: a little calendar of small sticks were laid at the lead notch'd all over with the dismal days and nights he had pass'd there--he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap. As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye to the door, then cast it down--shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs, as he turn'd his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle--He gave a deep sigh--I saw the iron enter into his soul--I burst into tears--I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn--I started up from my chair, and calling La Fleur, I bid him bespeak me a remise, and have it ready at the door of the hotel by nine in the morning.

Yorick's imaginative construction of a prisoner in his cell illustrates one current in the tradition of sensibility, in which painful emotions are cultivated by the man of feeling. Yorick's imagination is so strong that the "sight" of this prisoner drives him to tears.

In spite of the fact that the prisoner is a pure fiction, this passage also illustrates an unpleasant tendency in the practice of indulging in sympathetic responses to emotional pain in others. Throughout the passage, Yorick's language indicates that he works to increase the prisoner's suffering, for the purpose of heightening his own experience of it. He treats the prisoner as a mere source of stimuli for his personal project of feeling. Similarities between this scene and, for example, the Maria episode later in the novel, create a moral tension around the latter episode.

Nevertheless, this passage also indicates the educative potential of sensibility. Yorick learns more about the horrors of imprisonment from his feelings, coupled with and enhanced by his imagination. The experience drives him to specific, external action. Of course, the action is one of self-preservation, but the link between imagined suffering and action holds out a hope that sensibility can break out of solipsism into chastened or educated communal action.

This passage should be compared with the excerpt from Dugald Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, listed under "imagination."

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography