A Sentimental Journey Through France And Italy "I Saw The Iron Enter Into His Soul"

Laurence Sterne

"I Saw The Iron Enter Into His Soul"

Context: Yorick (Sterne) has rushed off to France at a moment's notice because he has discovered in conversation that a trip to that country makes one immeasurably superior; as he observes, if a mere journey of twenty miles can accomplish this result, he may as well go. Arrived in France, he proceeds in a leisurely fashion toward Paris; on the road he flirts with women, hires a servant named La Fleur, and has a fine time in an aimless, harmless way. In Paris he is so overcome by a female shopkeeper that he buys several pairs of gloves, all the wrong size; he is blissfully unaware that she may be available for an altogether different kind of relationship. He attends the opera, learns to his astonishment that the French have a ribald sense of humor, and ponders the fact. Two women have been seated in the same box with a clergyman, and the crowd heckles him, enjoining him to keep his hands in the air. Yorick also notes a dwarf who cannot see the stage because a huge German is standing in front of him. French justice triumphs: a Gendarme places the dwarf in front of the German. Wandering about the city later, Yorick flirts with a chambermaid. Then he learns the police are looking for him. It seems that in his haste to leave England he had forgotten that England and France are at war; moreover, he has no passport. In a sudden access of contrition, Yorick decides to turn himself in; but, hearing a voice, he looks around and spies a starling in a cage. The bird is repeating, in English, "I can't get out." Yorick purchases the feathered prisoner and then begins to reconsider his legal duty; he ponders in his mind the horrors of imprisonment. Giving his imagination free rein, he pictures the victim in the cell:

I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was which arises from hope deferr'd. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years the western breeze had not once fann'd his blood–he had seen no sun, no moon, in all that time–nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed through his lattice:–his children–
But here my heart began to bleed–and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait.
He was sitting upon the ground upon a little straw, in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and bed: a little calendar of small sticks were laid at the head, notch'd all over with the dismal days and nights he had passed there–he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap. As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye towards the door, then cast it down–shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs, as he turned his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle.–He gave a deep sigh–I saw the iron enter into his soul–I burst into tears–I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn–I started up from my chair, and called La Fleur–I bid him bespeak me a remise, and have it ready at the door of the hotel by nine in the morning.