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“Alas, poor YORICK!”: Sterne’s Iconography of Mourning

Commemorating the death of Parson Yorick, Laurence Sterne’s black page in Tristram Shandy (1759) is often perceived as the preeminent symbol of his experimentation. But Sterne’s device may be less innovative than previously supposed, descending instead from two distinct traditions of depicting death in print: funeral literature and the typographic epitaph in the mid-century novel. In tracing inventive examples of memento mori iconography and identifying a profusion of novelistic epitaphs appearing during the 1740s and 1750s, this article situates the black page and Yorick’s epitaph in Sterne’s immediate literary context. In so doing, it demonstrates that his innovation in commemorating Yorick’s death lies in his deployment of a typesetting trend in the mid-century novel while simultaneously referencing a longstanding tradition of funeral publications. Through the mourning borders around Yorick’s epitaph and the black page’s double-sided covering of black ink, Sterne engages with the clichés of mourning iconography while playing on—and pushing to its limits—the novelistic epitaph’s self-conscious manipulation of the printed page.