Eccentricity and / or Typicality in Sterne's Sermons ? Towards a Computer - Assisted Tentative Answer

  1. 1. Françoise Deconinck-Brossard

    Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre (Paris Nanterre University)

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Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) is better-known
nowadays as a novelist, but he was also an Anglican minister whose literary style was initially developed in the pulpit. He wrote many sermons before he turned to novel-writing. Indeed, his first publications were single sermons.
Melvyn New, who cannot be praised enough for
publishing the first scholarly edition of his sermons, claims
that it is “foolish” to “argue Sterne’s uniqueness
as a sermon-writer”. Others have followed suit (e.g.
Elizabeth Kraft). However, Paul Goring and Judith Hawley have cogently argued that Sterne’s contemporaries often commented on the distinctiveness of Mr Yorick’s sermons.
As a scholar who has devoted much of her research to eighteenth-century English pulpit literature, I have long had the impression that some of Sterne’s sermons stand
out above all the rest. I therefore propose to test this intuition/assumption through a comparison between
Sterne’s homiletic discourse and a corpus of
contemporary sermons, in order to assess whether it is possible to reconcile the viewpoints of New and Goring.
My working hypothesis is that Sterne as a preacher may have dealt with typical homiletic ideas in a very original (hence ‘eccentric’) idiolect. His innovation may be more
stylistic than doctrinal. Besides, eccentricity seems to be the characteristic feature of only a relatively small
number of Sterne’s sermons, which strike the reader as being more narrative, imaginative or even novelistic texts than standard post-Restoration pulpit oratory. Most
of his other homilies sound much more conventional.
Whether this is due to extensive plagiarism -- as first
systematically analysed by Lansing Van der Heyden Hammond -- or to typically Latitudinarian theology, as argued by New, remains to be seen.
Sterne’s printed sermons will be compared with a
full-text corpus of eighteenth-century English sermons,
comprising works by Jonathan Swift, John Wesley,
perhaps George Whitefield, the manuscripts of John Sharp
(1723-92), and a subset of political sermons published in the first two decades of the century. Furthermore, internal comparisons between the collections of sermons which Sterne himself prepared for publication after the first instalment of Tristram Shandy and the three posthumous volumes published by his daughter are also necessary.
This paper will be based on the approach developed by the predominantly French school of lexicometry and
stylometry, which emphasizes the use of exploratory multivariate statistical methods such as correspondence analysis and cluster analysis. For lack of a single software program that would ideally carry out all the necessary
tasks, several packages will be used, especially
Hyperbase, Lexico3, Weblex, Wordmapper, maybe Wordsmith. The linguistic and stylistic features
identified by Douglas Biber as underlying different text types, especially the dimensions labelled by him as
“narrative versus non-narrative concerns,” “informational versus involved production,” and “persuasion” will be explored.
Bandry-Scubbi, Anne & Deconinck-Brossard, F. (2005). ‘De la lexicométrie à la stylostatistique : peut-on mesurer le style ?’ Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique anglaise 26 : 67-85.
Biber, D. (1988). Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: CUP.
Coulthard, M. (2004). ‘Author Identification, Idiolect, and Linguistic Uniqueness,’ Applied Linguistics 25/4: 431-447.
Deconinck-Brossard, F. (1984). Vie politique, sociale et religieuse en Grande-Bretagne d’après les sermons prêchés ou publiés dans le Nord de l’Angleterre, 1738 –1760. Paris : Didier-Erudition.
---------- (1993). ‘Eighteenth-Century Sermons and the Age,’ in Crown and Mitre : Religion and Society in Northern Europe since the Reformation, eds W.M. Jacob & Nigel Yates. Woodbridge : The Boydell P, 105-21.
Delcourt, C. (2002). ‘Stylometry,’ Revue belge de
philologie et d’histoire, 80/3 : 979-1002.
Downey, J. (1978). ‘The Sermons of Mr Yorick:
A Reassessment of Hammond,’ English Studies in Canada 4/2: 193-211.
Goring, P. (2002). ‘Thomas Weales’s The Christian Orator Delineated (1778) and the Early Reception of Sterne’s Sermons,’ The Shandean 13: 87-97.
Greenacre, M.J. (1984). Theory and Applications of Correspondence Analysis. London: Academic.
Hammond, L. (1948). Laurence Sterne’s Sermons of Mr. Yorick. New Haven : Yale U P.
Hawley, J. (1998). ‘Yorick in the Pulpit,’ Essays in
Criticism 48/1: 80-88.
Kraft, E. (1996). ‘A Theologic [sic] Flap Upon the Heart: The Sermons of Mr. Yorick,’ in Laurence Sterne
Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers. Pp. 24-46.
Lebart, L et al. (1998). Exploring Textual Data. Boston; London: Kluwer Academic.
New, M. (1996). The Sermons of Laurence Sterne: The Notes. Gainsville: U P of Florida.
New, M., ed. (1996). The Sermons of Laurence Sterne: The Text. Gainsville: U P of Florida.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None