“. . . I was born to travel out of the common road, and to get aside from the highway path, and he had sense enough to see it, and not to trouble me with trammels. I was neither made to be a thill-horse, nor a fore-horse; in short I was not made to go in a team, but to amble along as I liked; and so that I do not kick, or splash, or run over any one, who in the name of common sense has a right to interrupt me?”
I mistook thill for thrill, and thought Sterne meant a horse trained to perform tricks, like a horse in a rodeo, or else he was lisping. Not so. A thill is the “pole or shaft by which a wagon, cart, or other vehicle is attached to the animal drawing it.” (OED) The dictionary defines thill-horse as the “shaft-horse or wheeler in a team,” the opposite of an unbroken wild horse or mustang. We know untrammeled but you can watch Sterne’s equine metaphor unfold beginning with trammels if you know it means “a hobble to prevent a horse from straying or kicking.” The secret engine driving Tristram Shandy (1759-67) is identical – a wayward and comical association of ideas, digressions within digressions, philosophical japes, smutty puns and double entendres. In the hands of an earnestly humorous writer, the strategy is deadly. Forty-five years ago, the professor who introduced me to Sterne warned me against imitating him if I ever chose to write fiction. I did, briefly, and she was right. Some styles are meant to be savored and left severely alone. In his letter, written on this date, July 17, in 1764, Sterne is describing both his sensibility and his manner of writing, which, as with any good writer, are identical. He goes on:
“Let the good folks laugh if they will, and much good may it do them. Indeed, I am persuaded, and I think I could prove, nay, and I would do it, if I were writing a book instead of a letter, the truth of what I once told a very great statesman, orator, politician, and as much more as you please—that every time a man smiles—much more so—when he laughs—it adds something to the fragment of life.”
Sterne, the author of two death-haunted masterpieces, was dead in less than four years.