Laurence Sterne

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Only the brave know how to forgive... A coward never forgave; it is not in his nature.

Laurence Sterne (24 November 171318 March 1768) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics.


  • Only the brave know how to forgive...A coward never forgave; it is not in his nature.
    • Sermons, Vol. I, No. 12 (1760).

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-1767)[edit]

  • 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.
    • Book I (1760), Ch. 1.
  • "Pray, my dear," quoth my mother, "have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" — "Good G—!" cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?"
    • Book I, Ch. 1.
  • As we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short do any thing—only keep your temper.
  • So long as a man rides his hobbyhorse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him — pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?
    • Book I, Ch. 7.
  • For every ten jokes, thou hast got a hundred enemies.
    • Book I, Ch. 12.
  • He was within a few hours of giving his enemies the slip forever.
    • Book I, Ch. 12.
  • Whistled up to London, upon a Tom Fool's errand.
    • Book I, Ch. 16.
  • 'Tis known by the name of perseverance in a good cause — and of obstinacy in a bad one.
    • Book I, Ch. 17.
  • Persuasion hung upon his lips, and the elements of Logick and Rhetorick were so blended up in him, — and, withall, he had so shrewd guess at the weaknesses and passions of his respondent, — that NATURE might have stood up and said, — "This man is eloquent."
    • Book I, Ch. 19.
  • Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; —& they are the life, the soul of reading; — take them out of this book for instance, — you might as well take the book along with them.
    • Book I, Ch. 22.
  • The history of a soldier's wound beguiles the pain of it.
    • Book I, Ch. 25.
  • The desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it.
    • Book II (1760), Ch. 3.
  • Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.
    • Book II, Ch. 11.
  • Go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? — This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.
    • Book II, Ch. 12 (Uncle Toby to the fly).
  • Trust that man in nothing who has not a conscience in everything.
    • Book II, Ch. 17.
  • Our armies swore terribly in Flanders, cried my uncle Toby, — but nothing to this. — For my own part, I could not have a heart to curse my dog so.
    • Book III, Ch. 11.
  • Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, — though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst, — the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!
    • Book III, Ch. 12.
  • As for the clergy — No — If I say a word against them, I'll be shot. — I have no desire, — and besides, if I had, — I durst not for my soul touch upon the subject, — with such weak nerves and spirits, and in the condition I am in at present, 'twould be as much as my life was worth, to deject and contrist myself with so bad and melancholy an account, — and therefore, 'tis safer to draw a curtain across, and hasten from it, as fast as I can, to the main and principal point I have undertaken to clear up, — and that is, How it comes to pass, that your men of least wit are reported to be men of most judgment.
    • Book III, Ch. 20.
  • I have got him fast hung up, quoth Didius to himself, upon one of the two horns of my dilemma — let him get off as he can.
    • Book IV (1761-1762), Ch. 26.
  • It had ever been the custom of the family, and by length of time was almost become a matter of common right, that the eldest son of it should have free ingress, egress, and regress into foreign parts before marriage, — not only for the sake of bettering his own private parts, by the benefit of exercise and change of so much air — but simply for the mere delectation of his fancy, by the feather put into his cap, of having been abroad.
    • Book IV, Ch. 31.
  • Now or never was the time.
    • Book IV, Ch. 31.
  • Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be showing the relics of learning, as monks do the relics of their saints — without working one — one single miracle with them?
    • Book V (1761-1762), Ch. 1.
  • My father was as proud of his eloquence as MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO could be for his life, and and for aught I am convinced of to the contrary at present, with as much reason: it was indeed his strength — and his weakness, too. — His strength — for he was by nature eloquent — and his weakness — for he was hourly a dupe to it; and provided an occasion in life would but permit him to shew his talents, or say either a wise thing, a witty, or a shrewd one — (bating the case of a systematic misfortune)— he had all he wanted.— A blessing which tied up my father's tongue, and a misfortune which let it loose with a good grace, were pretty equal: sometimes, indeed, the misfortune was the better of the two; for instance, where the pleasure of the harangue was as ten, and the pain of the misfortune was as five — my father gained half in half, and consequently was as well again off, as if it had never befallen him.
    • Book V, Ch. 3.
  • I am convinced, Yorick, continued my father, half reading and half discoursing, that there is a Northwest Passage to the intellectual world; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it.
    • Book V, Ch. 42.
  • The Accusing Spirit which flew up to heaven's chancery with the oath, blush'd as he gave it in; and the Recording Angel as he wrote it down, dropp'd a tear upon the word, and blotted it out forever.
    • Book VI (1761-1762), Ch. 8. Compare: "But sad as angels for the good man’s sin, Weep to record, and blush to give it in", Thomas Campbell, Pleasures of Hope, part ii, line 357.
  • A man should know something of his own country too, before he goes abroad.
    • Book VII (1765), Ch. 2.
  • I am sick as a horse.
    • Book VII, Ch. 11.
  • Ho! 'tis the time of salads.
    • Book VII, Ch. 17.
  • I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.
    • Book VIII, Ch. 2.
  • When issues of events like these my father is waiting for, are hanging in the scales of fate, the mind has the advantage of changing the principle of expectation three times, without which it would not have power to see it out.

    Curiosity governs the first moment; and the second moment is all economy to justify the expense of the first — and for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth moments, and so on to the day of judgment — 'tis a point of HONOUR.

    I need not be told, that the ethic writers have assigned this all to Patience; but that VIRTUE, methinks, has extent of domination sufficient of her own, and enough to do in it, without invading the few dismantled castles which HONOUR has left him upon the earth.

    • Book IX (1767), Ch. 10.
  • L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about? — A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick — And one of the best of its kind I ever heard.
    • Book IX, Ch. 33.

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)[edit]

  • They order, said I, this matter better in France.
    • Line 1.
  • I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba and cry, 'Tis all barren!
    • In the Street, Calais.
  • A large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.
    • In the Street, Calais.
  • Tant pis and tant mieux, being two of the great hinges in French conversation, a stranger would do well to set himself right in the use of them before he gets to Paris.
    • Montreuil.
  • Hail, ye small, sweet courtesies of life! for smooth do ye make the road of it.
    • The Pulse, Paris.
  • God tempers the wind, said Maria, to the shorn lamb.
    • Maria. Compare: "Dieu mésure le froid à la brebis tondue" (translated: "God measures the cold to the shorn lamb"), Henri Estienne (1594), Prémices, etc, p. 47; "To a close-shorn sheep God gives wind by measure", George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum.
  • We get forwards in the world not so much by doing services, as receiving them: you take a withering twig, and put it in the ground; and then you water it, because you have planted it.
    • Paris.


  • [T]he worst of human maladies is poverty — though that is a second lye — for poverty of spirit is worse than poverty of purse, by ten thousand per cent.
    • to F--- Toulouse, March 29, 1762.
  • Every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of life.
    • To Eliza Draper, Coxwould, July 17, 1764
  • But this is his way; it is the language of his character; and, though one might wish it to be otherwise, yet I cannot tell what right any of us have to pass a severe sentence upon it, for no other reason in the world, but because our own failings are of a different complexion. And so much for all that.
    • To ---, Coxwould, Wednesday night
  • Opinion, my dear fellow, somehow or other, rules all mankind; and not like a kind master, or, which would be more congenial, a gentle mistress, but like a tyrant, whose wish is power, and whose gratification is servility. — Opinion leads us by the ears, the eyes, — and, I had almost said, by the nose. It warps our understandings, confounds our judgments, dissipates experience and turns our passions to its purpose. In short, it becomes the governess of our lives, and usurps the place of reason, which it has kicked out of office. — This is among the strange truths which cannot be explained but by that mortifying description which time will display to your experience hereafter, with ten times the credit that would accompany any present endeavours of mine to the same purpose... A mistress, with all her arts and fascinations, may, in time, be got rid of; but opinion, once rooted, becomes a part of ourselves — it lives and dies with us.
    • Scarborough, August 29, 1787
  • As far as my observation has reached, and the circle of it is by no means, a narrow one — an hard heart is always a cowardly heart. — Generosity and courage are associate virtues; and the character which possesses the former, must, in the nature of mental arrangements, be adorned with the latter. If I perceive a man to be capable of doing a mean action, — if I see him imperious and tyrannical; if he takes advantage of the weak to oppress, or of the poor to grind, or of the downcast to insult, — or is continually on the hunt after excuses not to do what he ought, — I determine such a man, though he may have fought fifty duels, to be a coward. — It is by no means a proof that a man is brave because he does not refuse to fight; — for we all know that cowards have fought, nay, — that cowards have conquered, — but a coward never performed a generous or a noble action: — and thou hast my authority to say, — and thou mightest find a worse, that a hard-hearted character never was a brave one. I say, thou mayst justly call such a man a coward, — and, if he should be spirited into a resentment of thy words — fear him not. — Tristram shall brighten his armour, and scour the rust from off his spear, and aid thee in the combat.
    • To ---- -----, Sunday evening
  • [T]he worst of human maladies is poverty — though that is a second lye — for poverty of spirit is worse than poverty of purse, by ten thousand per cent.
    • Toulouse, March 29, 1762. to F---
  • I shall not die but live — in the mean time dear F. let us live as merrily but as innocently as we can. — It has ever been as good, if not better, than a bishoprick to me — and I desire no other.
    • Montpellier, Jan. 15, 1764.
  • We must bring three parts in four of the treat along with us — In short we must be happy within — and then few things without us make much difference — This is my Shandean philosophy.
    • York, November 16, 1764
  • Friendship is the balm and cordial of life, and without it, ’tis a heavy load not worth sustaining.
    • Bond Street, April 9, 1767. to Miss S

Quotes about Sterne[edit]

  • Who is this Yorick? you are pleased to ask me. You cannot, I imagine, have looked into his books: execrable I cannot but call them; for I am told that the third and fourth volumes are worse, if possible, than the two first, which, only, I have had the patience to run through. One extenuating circumstance attends his works, that they are too gross to be inflaming.
    • Samuel Richardson, Letter to Mark Hildesley, January - February 1761, in Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson, ed. J. Carroll (1964).

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