Tuesday, March 17, 2015

First Lines Second Thoughts — Tristram Shandy

Just another cock and bull story?

First Lines Second Thoughts is a look at the first lines of well known literary works. On second thought, do these opening words stand alone as poetry? In keeping with the day's green theme we look at the work of a son of Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland — Laurence Sterne.

Tristram Shandy, properly titled, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is purported to be the autobiography of the titular character though by the end of the book the reader still knows little of Tristram himself as his thoughts tend not to stay focused on the job at hand — narrating the accounts of his life. Tristram's propensity for digression is such that the recounting of his birth does not occur until volume IV!


 I wish either my father or my mother,
or indeed both of them,
as they were in duty both equally bound to it,
had minded what they were about when they begot me;
had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;
— that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it,
but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body,
perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;
— and, for aught they knew to the contrary,
even the fortunes of his whole house
might take their turn from the humors and dispositions which were then uppermost:
— Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,
— I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world,
from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.   


— Laurence Sterne


Published in nine volumes beginning in 1759 Tristram Shandy was met with mixed reviews. It was only after the first two self-published volumes sold out that Laurence Sterne finally found a publisher.

Among those who panned the book was Dr. Samuel Johnson who famously dismissed the book in 1776 by saying, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last."

But last it has. Laurence Sterne's shaggy dog tale is now regarded alongside Cervantes' Don Quixote as among one of the greatest novel forms.

Years after Sterne's death it was found that many passages of Tristram Shandy were lifted from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy as well as the works of Francis Bacon, Rabelais and many others. Instead of cries of plagiarism, critics noted Sterne's inventiveness.