Orna Me: Laurence Sterne’s Open Letter to Literary History

  • Celia B. Barnes Lawrence University


This essay considers the curious way Laurence Sterne communicates with and reflects on his literary predecessors, most often Alexander Pope, by writing love letters to women. Focusing primarily on his correspondence with Elizabeth Draper, Barnes contends that, even as Sterne looks back to Pope to guarantee himself a place in literary history, he looks forward to women like Draper to ensure his name will survive.  Thus, erotic correspondence becomes an important way of ensuring Sterne’s literary estate, or as he terms it, his “futurity.” “Orna Me”—a phrase that means, roughly, “ornament me” or “set me off,” and that Sterne got from Pope and Swift, who got it from Cicero—allows Sterne to plug in to a literary tradition that privileges collaboration: append something of yours to something of mine. It is this idea of letter-writing as correspondence, a collaborative process between friends or lovers, that unites Sterne to his female correspondent and to literary tradition all at once.

Author Biography

Celia B. Barnes, Lawrence University
Celia Barnes is Assistant Professor of English at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.  She has published essays on Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Hester Thrale, and bluestocking letter-writers Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot, and is currently editing with Jack Lynch an Oxford Classics edition of Johnson and Boswell’s accounts of their 1773 trip to the Hebrides.
How to Cite
Barnes, C. B. (2016). Orna Me: Laurence Sterne’s Open Letter to Literary History. Authorship, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.21825/aj.v5i2.3878