A NEW LIFE OF SYDNEY SMITH.* Or a man of
so sane and bright a mind as Sydney Smith, it is hardly possible to learn too much ; and Mr. Reid's im- portant though modest supplement to Lady Holland's biography of him commands attention and deserves commendation, as we shall presently see, on account of its own merits. There are, however, two special reasons why this book should be welcome at the present moment. For one thing, the British Commonalty is once again face to face with the opponent whom Smith helped to vanquish more than half a century ago, with one of the best of his jokes. " Gentlemen, be at your ease ; be quiet and steady ; you will beat Mrs. Partington," he said, at Taunton, in October, 1831. The comforting assurance, above all the advice to be "quiet and steady," is quite as much needed in November, 1884. Then we learn from the latest volumes of Mr. Froude's magnum et miserrimum opus that Sydney Smith, no less than Charles Lamb, came under the comprehensive anathema of the sanscidotte Pope of Chelsea. " Sydney Smith," we are told, "he never heartily liked, thinking that he wanted seriousness." This, be it remembered, is but Mr. Fronde's interpretation or recollection of Carlyle's sentiments ; and it is probable enough that, more discipuli, he sometimes makes his master talk the great whales of moral censure, when Carlyle actually meant the little fishes of temperamental difference or intellectual disagree- ment. Besides, the bad mark that Carlyle placed against Smith's name might have been worse. " Smith, a mass of fat and muscularity, with massive Roman nose, piercing hazel eyes, huge cheeks, shrewdness and fun, no humour or even wit, seemingly without soul altogether," is, after all, two-thirds compliment and one-third condemnation. " No humour or even wit," may pass as Scotland's answer, by one whom Smith himself would have allowed to be "a young man of conseederabletaalents from the North," to sundry jokes about a " surgical operation," and " that inferior variety of the electric talent, which under the
name of unit is so infinitely distressing to persons of good taste." At the worst, Carlyle accuses Smith, not of insincerity, but of frivolity and soullessness. There are varieties and degrees of seriousness and soul, and a eupeptic Democritus who takes what Smith, times without number, termed "short views," is lobo ccelo different from a dyspeptic Heraclitus in a chronic state of " Och ! I backward cast my e'e On prospects drear ;
An' 'forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an' fear !"
Still, the fact that Carlyle, as has now been demonstrated, im- perfectly understood, or altogether misunderstood Smith, is a very good reason why we should be glad to have fresh materials presented to us for forming a new judgment upon him. These materials are all the more noteworthy that Smith's present biographer takes especial pains to prove that his hero was more
serious than he was supposed to be even by . ..tu much more gently than Carlyle.
Mr. Reid does not question the value of Lady Holland's memoir of her father, his object being not to rival but to supple- ment that work. " I have ventured," he says, " to paint the figure of Sydney Smith against the background of his times, and to describe the men with whom he mingled, and the move- ments in which he took part. I have sought to point out the fidelity to duty in small things as. well as in great, which marked every stage of his brave and busy career, and which, indeed, created the bracing atmosphere in which his entire life was spent. I have done what lies in my power, by an appeal to indisputable facts, to dispel some lingering errors concerning the character of a man whose conduct and motives have been occasionally maligned, and frequently misunderstood." In these words Mr. Reid very fairly summarises the work he has not only sought to accomplish, but has actually accomplished. By means of careful investigations, and by some sixty letters which he has recovered and published, he has revealed the work of Sydney Smith as a tutor and clergyman even more than as a wit, a Whig, and an Edinburgh Reviewer. It is in respect of "the times "rather
• A Sketch of the Life and Time, of the RIV. Sydney Smith. By Stuart J. Reid. London : Samps,.n Low and Co. 1884. than " the life " of Smith, that Mr. Reid's book is somewhat weak. Smith occupied—or perhaps we should say, ought to have occupied—towards the Greys and Althorps of his day a position similar to that in which Swift stood towards the Harleys and Bolingbrokes of his. While he was Rector of Combe-Florey, and Canon Residentiary of St. Paul's, he must have met his political friends in innumerable dining-rooms. Yet Mr. Reid does not throw much fresh light on his hero's relations with these friends. This, however, is probably Mr. Reid's misfortune rather than his fault. Sydney Smith was no snob, and solicited or longed for patronage " infinitely less than did Swift. His retort to Lady Holland, as reported by the Princess Marie Liechtenstein, is characteristic of the man. " Sydney, ring the bell," said the queen of society, who once peremptorily told Macaulay to change the subject of conversation. "Oh, yes ! and shall I sweep the room ?" was the answer. It has sometimes been regretted that Smith. was not promoted to a bishopric before he died ; and a good deal of speculation has been indulged in as to the reasons why he was not promoted. In our opinion all this is quite idle. For one thing, Smith was, in his later years, as happy and as comfortably situated as a man even of his temperament could be,—much happier, in all probability, than he would have been as a Bishop. He had three livings, two of them good. The death of his brother Courtenay had made him a man of wealth. He had troops of friends, the best society in London, and no responsibilities worth speaking of. Besides—and leaving out of consideration the effect produced by Peter Plymley and the Edinburgh. Beview articles—Smith, although a great wit, a shrewd man of business, and an efficient parish administrator, was neither a great Churchman nor a great theologian. There was, therefore, no good reason, apart from party loyalty, for making him a Bishop. But if some reason must be given for the so-called neglect of him by the Whig chiefs, may it not be found in his independence,—in the fact that although he wore the uniform of his party courageously and openly, he never wore its plush ?
The excellences of this book are considerable. It is carefully written, hearty, and, as we have already said, modest. Mr. Reid supplies additional information about Smith's work as a country clergyman in Nether Avon, Wiltshire, and Foston, Yorkshire. It is pleasant to find the great wit throwing himself heartily into the work of establishing day and Sunday schools for the poor. His relations with the family of Mr. Beach, the Wiltshire squire, the education of whose son Michael he superintended in Edin- burgh, reflect the greatest credit upon both him and them. The letters Mr. Reid publishes for the first time prove him to have been regarded by the Beaches as a friend, and not as a retainer. Mr. Beach showed how he appreciated the good influence Smith had over his son, by presenting him with a cheque for 2750, when he married Miss Pybus against the will of her relatives, who thought she was making a bad match. Mr. Reid gives a very interesting account of Smith's long, but not idle or useless, exile in Yorkshire. Such an exile might have soured a less perfectly balanced nature than Sydney Smith's ; it only disciplined his. Perhaps Mr. Reid might have complained a little less about no adequate memorial having yet been erected to SwinP vir
ir v would have wished, too, that he had not shown his own sentiments on the subject of the recent" develop- ments " of High Churchism, or quoted some acrid and not very well-turned verses by Smith to prove that he had similar opinions. These are small matters, however, and in no way lessen the value of a most painstaking, interesting, pleasantly- written, and timely biography.
It may be gathered from what we have said that this work is not, and does not profess to be, a thesaurus of the "wit and wisdom of Sydney Smith." It deals rather with the graver aspects of his character, and the homelier side of his career. Yet Smith could not write a letter without lighting it up with a joke. The following, to a friend who wished to hear him in St. Paul's, is, perhaps, the best of the kind in the book :—
"To go to St. Paul's is certain death. The thermometer is several
degrees below zero. My sentences are frozen as they come out of my mouth, and are thawed in the course of the summer, making strange noises and unexpected assertions in various parts of the church; but if you are tired of a world which is not tired of you, and are deter- mined to go to St. Paul's, it becomes my duty to facilitate the des- perate scheme. Present the enclosed card to any of the vergers, and you will be well placed."
Sydney Smith's "good things " are quite as widely known as Charles Lamb's or Douglas Jerrold's. Yet Mr. Reid manages
to give several that we, at least, do not remember to have come across before, such as " I will do human nature the justice to say that we are all prone to make other people do their duty," and " The liberality of Churchmen generally is like the quantity of matter in a cone ; both get less and less as they move higher and higher."
Mr. Reid has rescued and given to the world some hitherto unpublished fragments of Smith's, both in prose and verse, the most important being "a little moral advice," the tenor of which may be gathered from these two sentences,—" Any fool may be a suicide ;" and " Stop, thou child of Tob, and tell me on what you dined ?" Still better, however, is this " advice concerning low spirits," addressed to an esteemed lady correspondent :—
"Poston, February 16th, 1820.
DEAR LADY GEORGIANA,— Nobody has suffered more from
low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you. lat. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life —not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects
tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit., gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep gond blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgians, very truly yours, SYDNEY SMITH."
This is the whole duty of the eupeptic man and woman, the whole gospel of Sydney Smith, at least of the " natural man " of that name.
Smith was a sagacious political observer. Here is what he thought of Sir Robert Peel in 1842,—" I believe Peel to be a philosopher disguised in a Tory fool's-cap, who will do every- thing by slow degrees which the Whigs proposed to do at once." It.is interesting to compare this with the opinion expressed by Sydney's elder and remarkably able brother Bobus,"—" I do myself think the state of things beat suited to our condition is a Tory Government checked by a strong Opposition, and under the awe of a tolerably Liberal public opinion. This is pretty near what we shall have if Peel can keep his army in order."
A perusal of this book—though not, we hasten to add, of the short " estimates " contributed to it by Mr. Gladstone, Lord Granville, and others, which have too much the appearance of " testimonials "—will, in spite of Carlyle, increase the unpre- judiced reader's opinion of Sydney Smith. He sounded no depths, he ascended no heights, of life or of philosophy, bat he was equal to all vicissitudes of fortune. He never consciously misused his great and dangerous gift. He was sincere, reverent, serious, according to his lights; and if these lights burned brightly, that was Nature's affair, not his. His Whiggism may now seem anti- quated; but it was something in his day to have preached trust of the people, Liberal ideas, hatred of oppression, fanaticism, and cant, without fear or faltering, to the dining and clubbable classes of his countrymen. In spite of his strictures on Methodism, Missions, and Puseyism—in which he allowed his strong judgment to be carried away by his humour—he knew and taught the true theory of toleration, which is, as Burke puts it, " not to despise opinions, but to respect justice." If he was not a profoundly religious man, and chose " short views " too frequently, he was, nevertheless, a " child of the light, and did not prefer to it any little private darkness of his own."