Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), ch. xxiv

It was in this place my poor Olivia first met her seducer, and every object served to recall her sadness. But that melancholy which is excited by objects of pleasure, or inspired by sounds of harmony, soothes the heart instead of corroding it. Her mother, too, upon this occasion, felt a pleasing distress, and wept, and loved her daughter as before. "Do, my pretty Olivia," cried she, "let us have that little melancholy air your papa was so fond of. Your sister Sophy has already obliged us. Do, child; it will please your old father." She complied in a manner so exquisitely pathetic as moved me.

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom--is to die.

The narrator observes that the "melancholy which is excited by objects of pleasure ... soothes the heart." Olivia takes issue in her song--or does she? The second stanza seems to answer the first by saying that death is the only soothing agent. The chain of connection follows:
(Charm to soothe melancholy) = (Art to wash away guilt) = (Art to cover guilt) = (Death).
Melancholy, in Olivia's song, is that which needs to be soothed, but we are told before the song that a certain kind of melancholy does not corrode the heart, but soothes it. Olivia's song, in fact, is itself staged as that soothing strain. Of course, if Olivia's song acknowledges the therapeutic possibilities of melancholy, the song itself will not be melancholic--it will be useless. As melancholy is healing/correcting/erasing itself, then, it must lie about the nature of its own productivity. This passage directly challenges the mimetic possibility of sensibility. A salutary sensible result is achievable in response to a dirge which itself rejects salutary sensibility.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography