Sermons on Sermonizing: The Pulpit Rhetoric of Swift and Sterne

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Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne have frequently been compared as eighteenth-century satirists. As sermonists they have received less attention, mainly because the sermon is a traditional genre, perceived as having little room for individual expression, and perhaps because of a literary-critical distaste for theology. Nevertheless, as a form of writing, and especially as a form of oratory, the sermon is susceptible of literary or rhetorical analysis. Swift and Sterne certainly hold a common theological ground in Anglican orthodoxy, but a reading of their sermons in rhetorical terms makes it apparent that each writer has given thought to his method of communication as a sermonist and come to a different conclusion. This essay will examine the rhetorical manifestations of the two sermonists' attitudes toward their audience. Both Swift and Sterne are self-consciously aware of their duties as preachers and the relationship of the sermon form to the performance of those duties, so much so that they address these issues within sermons themselves. However, there is a difference in the nature of each preacher's self-consciousness. Swift's appears involuntary, a product of his conflict with the sermon form. This differs greatly from what I will suggest is at work in Sterne's sermons where he uses self-consciousness as an integral part of his message concerning the communication of moral truth. Swift, in contrast, seems to attempt such communication in spite of self-consciousness. Swift's declaredly rational and Sterne's implicitly social approach to the sermon are indicative of each preacher's view of the rhetorical situation which provides the sermon's context.

My focus on the distinction between the sermon rhetoric of Swift and of Sterne implies a reassessment of recent, more theologically oriented studies which have leveled distinctions between the two authors, suggesting that "[d]espite the wealth of criticism that has concentrated on the fundamental differences between Swift's mordant satire and Sterne's amiable humour, there is basically very little difference in attitude or tone."(1) Such a view has been argued for years by Melvyn New who has attempted to "correct" modern critics "who readily hear tonal differences between the two but are unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the shared intellectual base that makes Sterne the last true heir of Swift."(2) The purpose of the present essay is not to argue against Sterne's inheritance from Swift or the theological reading of these "Augustan" satirists and their sermons. However, to consider theology alone is to examine only part of the matter at hand: the sermon is, after all, a form of oratory, and therefore the way in which it addresses its audience is worthy of equal consideration.(3) The effect of the solely theological reading is to collapse important differences between Swift and Sterne. For, in method, if not message, these preacher-satirists have differing views.

Thus, the subject of this essay is rhetorical, and not merely in the ornamental sense of the word. I will seek to answer questions ignored by theological studies: How do Swift and Sterne use the sermon form to communicate Anglican orthodoxy to their congregation? How does each preacher define the rhetorical situation, the relationship between preacher and congregation? Recent scholarship on the Latitudinarians (the Anglican forebears of Swift and Sterne) has had little to say about the sermon as a rhetorical genre.(4) This is not surprising, for part of the Latitudinarian project was to make the sermon rhetorically unremarkable. Isabel Rivers suggests that the Latitudinarians generally speak with a collective voice which emphasizes reason (although the passions are not neglected), using the language of the plain style advocated by the Royal Society (John Wilkins, the language theorist, was a Latitudinarian bishop) and appealing to the material interests of its mercantile audience.(5) The collective nature of this voice makes it difficult to perceive individual differences in theology--indeed this is the point. …