What Is Sentimentality?

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  • What Is Sentimentality?Author(s): Brian WilkieSource: College English, Vol. 28, No. 8 (May, 1967), pp. 564-575Published by: National Council of Teachers of EnglishStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/374718Accessed: 11/11/2010 23:17

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  • 564 COLLEGE ENGLISH

    mean, when she bade the ladies good- night? The poem is a grotesquerie, often

    nearly a parody; for only our assurance about intention will clearly distinguish parody from imitation or allusion; Eliot even told Arnold Bennett that yes, the notes were a skit, but not more so than some of the poem itself.

    But the later Eliot, that great master of the anonymous, the ventriloquist of Tradition, has appropriated the poem, which is after all signed with a name in-

    distinguishable from his; it is a very neo- classical poem now, and we lead students

    through it. It failed, apparently, like every

    other poem, to get poetry taken seriously by the people who quote it, much as Gulliver's Travels failed to reform the morals of England. It enacts that attempt and that failure: an enigmatic, nearly comic poem by a poet who no longer exists, who had ceased to exist by the time he had written it. For from that day on a man named T. S. Eliot lived, like the rest of us, in a world containing among other curiosities, a poem entitled The Waste Land: and the theme of The Waste Land, one may almost say, was that there existed (but there ought to) no such poem.

    What Is Sentimentality? BRIAN WILKIE

    ONE OF THE TERMS most often used when a literary critic wants to brand a work as bad is "sentimental." (I am referring both to published criticism and to class- room teaching.) Because the word is ac-

    cepted by almost everyone as a pejorative one, because there is virtually no appeal from the verdict that a work is sentimen- tal, we ought to know clearly what we are saying when we make the charge. What, then, is sentimentality? I intend to make a few general suggestions, but I should make it clear at the outset that I do not promise any positive and strict definition that everyone will accept. At the very least, though, I hope to show that the way in which critics, including teachers, generally define the word is un-

    helpful and in a high degree misleading.

    Our question may well seem superflu- ous, for, interestingly enough, "sentimen- tal" and "sentimentality" are among the

    very few terms-other than merely tech- nical ones like "blank verse"-of which a

    fairly standard definition prevails among people professionally concerned with lit- erature. Of twelve basic handbooks on literature which I have looked at, two discuss sentimentality without defining it; the other ten all define the term in es- sentially the same way, with some but surprisingly little variation in wording, emphasis, and illustrative detail. All ten agree that sentimentality is the expression of feeling or the attempt to evoke feeling in excess of what the portrayed situation reasonably calls for. The common key- note is the idea of disproportion or excess. (See the Appendix to this article.) The

    following definition of "sentimentality" is typical: "generally a pejorative word in literary criticism, indicating a superabun-

    Brian Wilkie is Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois in Urbana. He is the author of Romantic Poets and Epic Tradi- tion (1965).

  • WHAT IS SENTIMENTALITY? 565

    dance of tender emotion, a disproportion- ate amount of sentiment (feeling). It is sentimental to be intensely distressed be- cause one has stepped on a flower. A character, say, Hamlet, may display deep emotions, but they are sentimental only if they are in excess of what we feel the situation warrants." (Appendix, no. 2. It will surprise no one to learn that flowers come off badly in the definitions I col- lected; so do mothers, especially gray- haired ones, baby shoes, and small animals like goldfish and mosquitoes.) This defi- nition is, of course, an application of the ancient and honored principle of deco- rum, which insists, however tautological- ly, that what is inappropriate in literature is bad. But sentimentality, according to the current definitions, violates decorum in a special way: the violation is a quanti- tative one, an "excess."

    Let us compare this definition with an actual work which I believe all or almost all of us will agree is sentimental. So that we may have agreement as wide as possi- ble, I choose one of the most extreme ex- amples I can think of, the notorious late nineteenth-century tearjerker, Henry Clay Work's "Come Home, Father." I ask the reader to think of this song lyric as a lyric poem; if he knows the melody I ask him to try to forget it for the moment and ignore whatever influence it may have in making him feel that the words are sentimental. If the reader does not know the melody, so much the better for our purposes. In the song a little girl is addressing her drunkard father in a saloon:

    I. Father, dear father, come home with me now!

    The clock in the steeple strikes one. You said you were coming right home

    from the shop As soon as your day's work was done. Our fire has gone out, our house is all

    dark, And Mother's been watching since tea, With poor brother Benny so sick in

    her arms,

    And no one to help her but me. Come home, come home, come

    home! Please, father, dear father, come

    home.

    Refrain: Hear the sweet voice of the child Which the night winds repeat as they

    roam! Oh, who could resist this most plain-

    tive of prayers? "Please, father, dear father, come

    home!"

    2. Father, dear father, come home with me now!

    The clock in the steeple strikes two. The night has grown colder and Ben-

    ny is worse, But he has been calling for you. Indeed he is worse, Ma says he will

    die, Perhaps before morning shall dawn; And this is the message she sent me to

    bring: "Come quickly, or he will be gone."

    Come home, come home, come home!

    Please, father, dear father, come home! (Refrain.)

    3. Father, dear father, come home with me now!

    The clock in the steeple strikes three. The house is so lonely, the hours are

    so long, For poor weeping Mother and me. Yes, we are alone, poor Benny is dead, And gone with the angels of light; And these were the very last words

    that he said: "I want to kiss Papa good night."

    Come home, come home, come home!

    Please, father, dear father, come home. (Refrain.)

    Few readers, I think, will deny that this is sentimental, and while to subject it to serious discussion is to break a singularly vulnerable butterfly upon a wheel, that incongruity is irrelevant to our purpose

  • 566 COLLEGE ENGLISH

    at present, which is to find out wherein sentimentality consists. Besides, it is not easy to find a more respectable work that we can all agree is patently sentimental.

    The question is, does the sentimentality in the lyric arise from a disproportion be- tween the feeling and the situation? Sure- ly not. The little girl's brother is dying while her father callously drinks away his son's last hours; surely that is a situation in which emotional unrestraint can be understood and pardoned. By the crite- rion of the definition, neither the girl nor the chorus-like commentator who speaks the words of the refrain is being sentimental.

    But perhaps the lyric is sentimental be- cause it asks us, the readers, to be greatly affected by the plight of the girl and her suffering family at home. But again some- thing like the same answer is possible: if we were actually present at an event like the one described, surely we would be moved almost unbearably, by sadness, pity, and indignation. And to the extent that we can project ourselves into the imagined situation we presumably feel the aesthetic equivalents of these emo- tions. (It will not do to object here that our response to a fictitious event ren- dered through art is necessarily different from our response to an actual event, since it is equally true that our response to a depicted scene is normally analogous and akin to what we would feel in life itself. When Gloucester is blinded in Lear we feel horror; when Falstaff says something funny we laugh. In any case, the standard definition we have been tes