Lichfield, Dec. 5, 1787.
And now, Sir, our day of combat is come. — You deny Sterne originality — and say that no classic ear can endure his style. These assertions more than surprise — they astonish me. What! — that imagination, which I have always thought of such exquisite, such original colouring! — that penetration which seems to have an hundred eyes with which to look into the human heart! — that happy, thrice happy, mixture of the humorous and the pathetic, in which he stands alone amongst all other writers out of the dramatic scale; resembling none, and whom not one, amongst his numerous imitators, have attempted to copy, without proving, by their total failure, the difficulty of acquiring a manner so singularly, so curiously original. Like ether, its spirit is too subtile and volatile to become the vehicle of any other person's ideas. And then that frolic fancy! — that all-atoning wit! — that style which my ear finds so natural, easy, animated, and eloquent! — how could you thus scorn them?
My dear Sir, why are they from whom he has borrowed? Some slight, very slight, resemblance perhaps exists between the best sallies of Swift's humour and Sterne's: but Swift has not any of Sterne's pathos, and Sterne has none of the filthiness of Swift, — though too apt to sport licentiously with comic double-meanings. His fault, in that respect, however justly censurable, has no tendency to injure the minds of his readers by inflaming their passions. Swift and Rabelais, whom be is also accused of copying, never interest the affections, while Sterne guides, turns, and precipitates them into any channel he pleases.
I can believe that he took the hint of character for his sub-acid philosopher from the Martinus Scriblerius of Pope, Swift, and Arbutbnot.; but there is an immense superiority in the vividness with which he has coloured his Shandy; in the dramatic spirit he has infused into the character; in the variety of situations in which be has placed the hypothesis-monger, — all natural, probable, and exquisitely humorous. We see and hear the little domestic group at Shandy-hall; nor can we help an involuntary conviction, not only that they all existed, but that they had been of our acquaintance; and where may be found even the most shadowy prototype in books, of uncle Toby and his Trim, of Mrs. Shandy and Dr. Slop?
At last this note of your's in your great work against Sterne — this note,
At which my very locks have stood on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine,
Confirms anew an observation of mime, long since made; — that I never knew a man or woman of letters, however ingenious, ingenuous, and judicious, as to their general taste, but there was some one fine writer, at least, to which their "Lynx's beam became the mole's dim curtain." Mason, Hayley, and Boothby, are moles to Ossian. Gray was a mole to Rousseau. — Darwin is a mole to Milton, and that you will say is indeed a "molism." Envy made Johnson a mole to all our best poets, except Dryden and Pope. You are a mole to Sterne; — and I — for why should not my portly self run in amongst you intellectually greater folk? — I am a mole to Spencer, so far at least, that, though I perceive the power of his genius in the mass, and infinitely admire particular passages, I could never read a book of the Fairy-Queen through, without being ennuied past bearing by the Hydra-headed allegories.
But molism of this kind always existed. Plato was a mole to Homer. — You are no mole to me, however, for, in truth, you have looked at the little stars of my imagination, through Mr. Herschel's last optic-glass.
Proceeding through your Lowth, often have I, in imagination, enjoyed the pleasures that must result to you from the consciousness of having honourably completed so great a work — the reputation of which must increase as time rolls on. May health, and domestic happiness, be added to the sunny glow of that consciousness!