The term “sensibility” became popular in the 18th c. when it acquired the meaning of ‘susceptibility to tender feelings’; thus, a capacity not for feeling sorry for oneself so much as being able to identify with and respond to the sorrows of others – and to respond to the beautiful. This quality of empathy was probably a reaction against 17th c. stoicism and Hobbes’s theory that man is innately selfish and motivated by self-interest and the power drive. In sermons, essays, fiction and philosophical writing (in the early 18th c.) it was averred, on the contrary, that man was innately benevolent and thus wished others well. The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks (1711) proclaimed this
view. In the periodical, The Prompter (1735) a writer defended the human attitude that is not content merely with good-natured actions ‘but feels the misery of others with inward pain’. This was deservedly termed ‘sensibility’.
By mid-century such feelings were an accepted part of social ethics and public morality. It was a sign of good breeding and good manners to shed a sympathetic tear, as indeed in Thomas Gray’s Elegy (1750), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), and William Cowper’s The Task (1785), not to mention the various odes to sensibility from the 1760s onwards. Two other relevant works in the history of this attitude were Thomas Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). In The Man of Feeling, sensibility became self-indulgent. It declined into sentimentalism, and showed a propensity for ‘the luxury of grief’. Jane Austen and Dr Johnson both criticized it; particularly Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility (1811).
In the 19th c. the term was more or less replaced by ‘sensitivity’, but the latter never established itself as a literary term. In fact, sensibility received a renewed and vigorous life in the critical essays of T. S. Eliot, for whom it represented the creative faculty and the quality of temperament in a poet.
Also read; What is novel of sensation and its examples