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Sensibility is a trend in eighteenth century society
and literature relating to the sensitivity of one’s feelings towards others. It
magnified how delicate one’s emotions were to the world surrounding them. Sensibility
became popular in middle-class and aristocratic circles alike, while a few of
the labouring class broke this mould such as poet Ann Yearsley. The
middle-classes in particular celebrated sensibility as it helped them to rise
in social status through the practicing of gentility which was previously associated
with higher classes. There were many different interpretations of what
sensibility was. Hannah More was concerned with the link between sensibility
and morals. Her definition of sensibility conveys itself as a combination of
morality and religion. She believed only the purest minds could appreciate true
sensibility and that overt displays of emotion were inappropriate. More claimed
it was for the deepest and truest minds to appreciate and had class associations.
She believed it was for upper class citizens and aristocrats and thought lower
class people could not experience the true sensibility. Her compassionate
nature conveyed her self-proclaimed exquisite sense of judgement, while her
keen sense of sympathy allowed her to work philanthropically to help people in
God’s name. Thus she saw sensibility to be synonymous with religion and charity.
It was said that ”the practice of visiting the poor had now become a ‘fashion
and a rage’ among English women” (Elliot 1) due in part to More’s influence. Other’s
believed sensibility was accumulated through life experiences and lessons such
as philosopher John Locke (”It would be equally unreasonable to
explain our knowledge of various truths in terms of innate ‘imprinting’ if it
could just as easily be explained through our ordinary abilities to come to
know things” Locke 3). Many rejected this idea
and claimed it was purely built on character and received when young, as Adam
Smith believed this is proved in one’s naturally empathy for others’ pain (”that
we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too
obvious to require any instances to prove it” Smith 13). This also lends itself to the religious notion that
believed sensibility was imparted by God (”Sweet Sensibility! Thou secret
power / who shed’st thy gifts upon the natal hour” More 1-2). People prone to sensibility
liked to make their emotions visible and sensibility became performative self. It
could be shown in physical displays of laughter, tears, blushing or fainting.
If one became visibly moved by a seemingly trivial or insignificant object it translated
their superior intellect and body to others. The ability to see beyond a
conventional object or to perceive another’s emotion or trauma was linked with
the accumulation of knowledge Sensibility first emerged in science and
philosophical studies but became increasingly popular in literature especially
in the new form of the novel. In this essay I will look at the anxieties
attributed to sensibility in eighteenth-century literature focusing on the
novel A Sentimental Journey by
Laurence Sterne and the poems ‘On Mrs Montagu’ and ‘To Indifference’ by Ann

In A
Sentimental Journey Sterne’s protagonist Yorick performs his sensibility
throughout the novel through the advertising of his kindness. However,
sensibility was not always praised and there were many questions surrounding
its reputability. One such concern confronted in this novel regards the divide
of opinion towards sensibility being accumulated through life experience or being
granted by God. It is credible that Sterne agrees it is earned through
experience, as one can see Yorick’s sensibility grow throughout his travels as
he becomes more sensitive towards others. From the outset Yorick denies a monk a
small amount money leading to his later chastisement of himself for his selfish
manners. This paves the way for the rest of the novel. Yorick says ”I have
behaved very ill; said I within myself; but I have only just set out upon my
travels and shall learn better manners as I go” (Sterne 10).  This suits the theory that sensibility is
learned, yet it is interesting to note that Sterne and Yorick alike are
ministers, as Yorick is thought to be a fictional persona of Sterne. Sterne
offers no clues in this novel about his thoughts towards the idea that
sensibility is granted by God and contrastingly favours the opposing approach. Yorick’s
flirtatious behaviour with the many women he meets on his travels shows
Sterne’s writing does not always prioritise evangelical matters. Sterne highlights Yorick’s emotional spectrum
as Yorick engages with many people of different backgrounds including slaves,
dwarves and even animals that arouse passion in him. Here one can see that a
problem with sensibility is the class connotations it implies. Those who became
objects of pity are seen as lesser than those practicing their sensibility on them
and these pathetic figures become secondary objects. His internal monologue
informs the reader of his surprise of seeing dwarves as he condescendingly
remarks ”every third man a pigmy! – some by rickety heads and hump backs – others
by bandy legs” (Sterne 56). However Yorick’s pity for them gives him an
opportunity to express his sensibility, particularly when a dwarf’s view is
obstructed (”I feel some little principles within me, which
incline me to be merciful towards this poor blighted part of my species, who
have neither size or strength to get on in the world” Sterne 57). When a
policeman aids the dwarf Yorick labels him ”noble” (Sterne 58).

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Sterne uses sensibility in many of his written works
and it became his signature style, but as Christopher Fanning states ”of
course, as with all things Sternean, such simplicity is accompanied by
interesting problems” (433). Sensibility had gender
implications and its association with femininity became problematic. Women were
seen as frivolous beings motivated by feeling. Femininity has connotations of
being soft and weak and this often emasculated men performing sensibility. One
could argue this is visible in Yorick’s reaction to Maria at Moulines. The
interweaving narrative style introduces the reader to Maria though Mr Shandy’s
recommendation of visiting her (”Not everyone would have
the sensibility to feel such misfortune, and those who did must be superior
beings” Taylor 296). The kinship Yorick
feels and the pity he casts on Maria for the losses she has experienced express
his delicate nature. Becoming an active participant in her pain and sitting and
crying with her resembles the gentle nature of females while one cannot observe
any redeeming masculine actions of Yorick to make the scene less effeminate. Maria’s beauty makes her
story arguably more upsetting for Yorick than if it had been someone whom
society would not considere conventionally beautiful. This casts doubt on the
legitimacy of Yorick’s weeping and conveys an erotic side to sensibility. He
behaves in a typically feminine manner through his laments for Maria’s pain
which are cathartic for him (”I felt such undescribable
emotions within me, as I am sure could not be accounted for from any combinations
of matter and motion” 108 Sterne).

Sensibility was also criticised by those who they
held the belief that it was not genuine emotions being expressed and therefore doubted
the respectability of this notion. They believed the production of feelings
were mawkish and overt histrionics despite the success the sensible movement
enjoyed, particularly in the production of engrossing novels filled with
tragedy and triumph. Those that were prone to using sensibility in this way
were said to be self-obsessed and narcissistic as to place so much importance
on their own emotions. Sterne’s use of sensibility is slightly problematic as
his sincerity is sometimes questionable. Yorick’s intense emotions shift frequently
which lends itself to the disbelief of their legitimacy. One moment when Yorick
manipulates himself into feeling melancholic is his hearing of a caged bird’s
repetition of the words ”I can’t get out – I can’t get out” (69 Sterne). His
failed attempts to free the Starling propels Yorick into a stream of
consciousness like trance where he considers the potential captivity he may
face in the Bastille and suddenly his thoughts move to slavery (”I never had
my affections more tenderly awakened” 69 Sterne). The bird’s pleas disturb him
gravely, even upon hearing the inconsequential story behind its cries. While
Yorick becomes upset at the thought of the bird’s imprisonment and also for slavery,
he is not as visibly upset as Sterne’s sensible characters often are. Ross King
says Sterne’s use of the body ”becomes the site of blushes, touches, dilating
vessels, pulsating arteries, vibrating nerves, and floods of tears”
(292).  Yorick’s efforts to think of a
more unpleasant situation paired with his imaginative conception of a single
slave are an attempt to move himself to tears to validate his emotion. Here one
can see the detrimental relationship between pain and sympathy. As Yorick tries
to provoke his own tears, one can question the motivation behind his sympathy
and its honesty. The stimulation of his frenzied emotions from the simple
subject of a bird show Yorick’s preoccupation with sensibility. However it cannot
be denied that this act of sensibility serves him well as it drives him to seek
a passport and avoid the Bastille, even if these courageous actions serve to
help himself instead of the truly misfortunate. These questions surrounding
sensibility that are witnessed in Sterne’s work also feature in the sensible
poetry of Yearsley.

Ann Yearsley was a working class poet who caught
the attention of More who later became her patron. More saw Yearsley’s working
class background as charming and did not consider Yearsley to be fully
educated. More delighted in the poetry of Yearsley even though she did not
consider it particularly profound, instead discerning that this made it more
sincere and real. Yearsley’s sensible writing contrasts with Sterne’s opinion
that sensibility is earned with practice and she instead suggests it is a
religious concept. However it is difficult to perceive in Yearsley’s work the
difference between Yearsley’s independent thoughts and lyrics that have been
shaped by More. In the poem ‘On Mrs Montagu’  Yearsley writes of More’s friend and literary
critic Elizabeth Montagu while uses descriptions with religious connotations such
as ”firm wing” (l.16), ”the soul’s best
energies” (l.l15) and later uses the word ”heavenly”(l.l) to
describe Montagu. Yearsley uses metaphors to associate Montagu with imagery of
angels. More’s reverant editing is palpable in the poem. Yearsley informs the
reader of Montagu’s goodness and superior sensibility, cementing Yearsley’s
reliance with religion through sensibility. Yearsley traces her change in
attitude towards Montagu, saying ”e’evn on STELLA cou’d I
gaze / With sullen envy,, and admiring pride, / Till rous’d by MONTAGU, the
pair / Conspire to clear my dull, imprison’d sense” (l.l46-49). Yearsley
expresses her belief that she was but a passive spectator in life until Montagu
helped her with her writing. Claire Knowles states that ”Yearsley admits that it was the patronage of her
middle-class contemporaries that allowed her to cultivate her sensibility in
the first place” (175). Yearsley uses intense emotions to show her
sensible prowess, particularly through rich adjectives and her use of hyperbole.
Although Yearsley’s passage has an abundance of religious connotations and
bestows praise upon Montagu, she may be doing so to simply express her
gratitude for Montagu’s help with her writing by comparing her goodness to that
of a heavenly being. Yearsley mirrors Sterne’s ambiguous use of sensibility
where it is difficult to identify when they are expressing their true thoughts or
if they are simply heightening their descriptions for satirical effects. One
cannot say if the amplification of religion in this poem is a result of
Yearsley’s devotion to religion or whether is it for the benefit of Montagu and

Despite Yearsley’s reputation as a rural poet
from a less privileged background she was also noted for being one of the
leading female poets in the sensibility movement. Although several anxieties
surrounded sensibility, Yearsley subconsciously aided the criticism that
sensibility was a female movement, being a female writer of this trend. Knowles
says ”Yearsley’s repeated deployment of sensibility in
her poetry reflects the fact that the discourse was available to the
labouring-class female poet” (169). Many females read literature and wrote their own in
this style giving the trend its feminine repuation, along with the extreme
peformances of emotions which were seen as distinctly female. Patricia Spacks
says that ”the ethic of fine feeling flourished also in
actual experience, particularly among young women powerfully influenced by
their reading”. Yearsley used ‘On Mrs Montagu’ to praise
female writers and enthusiasts. This hampered male writers like Sterne, who tried
to use their prolific status to make the general idea of sensibility synonymous
with masculinity aswell as allowing female writers to employ this mode of
eighteenth-century literature. However Yearsley did not present her image as a
feminine writer to be one of meekness and normativity, but of a strong feminist
author who worked hard to succeed in her literature. As public dispute with
More became widespread news the determined Yearsley continued to write without
her patron. Yearsley’s new reputation of being a radical female poet was
highlighted in her rebuttal to More which she published in her later poetry. Her
poem ‘To Indifference’ symbolises her departure from
More. Yearsley brought a new tenacity to the respectability of female writers
and sensibility. This unique perspective of Yearsley’s was refreshing and
attracted attention to her writing. These traits that were synonymous with her
poetry and her character moved away from the refined image previously associated
with females and the feminised view of sensibility that men were admonished for

The opinion of some that sensibility was too
severe in its descriptions of expression and therefore not always genuine can
also be seen in Yearsley’s work. As the century progressed displays of sensibility
became ridiculous. Although Yearsley regularly employed sensibility in her
writing she wrote ‘To Indifference’ as an
antithesis towards it. Here one can see Yearsley agree with the claim that sensibility
is too intense in it’s expression of sentiment (”Then leave me,
Sensibility! Be gone” l.l43 Yearsley). Yearsley also offers her opinion that
the experience of true pain discourages those who are suffering from attracting
attention as they lose interest in the conceivably melodramatic expression of
their pain. This devalues the experience of true feeling as the emphasis in
society is placed on overwhelming displays of this feeling. Yearsley describes this
wide range of emotion saying ”Our souls can never sit;
the point so nice, / We quick fly off – secure, but not in descent” (l.l28-29).
Here she describes the lack of longeveity in acts of sensibility as sentiments
are forever changing. The metaphor of ”high heights” (l.27)
shows her acknowledgement of the intense levels sensibility can reach. Those
who reacted dramatically in an act of pity for the less fortunate were also
criticized for their lack of action in helping those figures. They often
lamented for people’s struggles while they did not have any particular insight
or understanding to the reality of these hardships, nor did they attempt to
gain one. These pitiful figures served simply as a vehicle for people to
express their emotions and show their sense of empathy, like Yorick does in A Sentimental Journey when thinking of
slavery. Yearsley is unafraid to expose the troubles associated with
sensibility in this poem. Her writing was sometimes criticized or
under-appreciated due to her working class background and her lack of prestigious
education resulting in doubts regarding her intellect and ability to write
sensibly.  While some disliked her
writing for this reason, others contrastingly enjoyed it for what they deemed
to be a good attempt at writing in style they deemed prestigious and innate to
the higher class people. Yearsley was unafraid to confess her true sentiments,
positive and negative alike of matters such as sensibility.

the anxieties attributed to it sensibility was employed by many people and was
one of the major literary trends and cultural developments of the eighteenth
century. Sterne’s writing style is recognizably one of sensibility,
particularly seen in his fast-paced writing by use of hyphens and exclamation
marks. Sterne attempts to portray himself as a perceptive and sensible figure
who is attentive towards others’ difficulties, using the figure of Yorick.
Yorick teaches himself to mourn throughout the novel and become more attuned to
his emotions. At one moment he even labels himself as a ”sentimental
traveller” (Sterne 13). Yearsley is an example of someone from a lower class
country background who was not formally educated who began to climb the social
hierarchy through her literary prowess and accomplishing of sensibility. Both
of these authors deal with sensibility in different ways; Sterne attempts to
associate sensibility with male connotations and also maximises his emotions in
each of his texts, whereas Yearsley shows the female side of sensibility while
offering different perspectives on this literary movement, using her ability to
see the positives and negatives of it. She tries to combine the worlds of
working class and middle-class through her writing and individual sensible
style. Although there were differing interpretations and opinions regarding
sensibility, it was a pinnacle literary trend in the discourse and development
of future writing styles and composition.












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