Read CHAPTER III - SYDNEY SMITH of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on

The hackneyed joke about biographers adding a new terror to death holds still as good as ever.  But biography can sometimes make a good case against her persecutors; and one of the instances which she would certainly adduce would be the instance of Sydney Smith.  I more than suspect that his actual works are less and less read as time goes on, and that the brilliant virulence of Peter Plymley, the even greater brilliance, not marred by virulence at all, of the Letters to Archdeacon Singleton, the inimitable quips of his articles in the Edinburgh Review, are familiar, if they are familiar at all, only to the professed readers of the literature of the past, and perhaps to some intelligent newspaper men who find Sydney to be what Fuseli pronounced Blake, “d ­d good to steal from.”  But the Life which Lady Holland, with her mother’s and Mrs. Austin’s aid, produced more than thirty years ago has had a different fate; and a fresh lease of popularity seems to have been secured by another Life, published by Mr. Stuart Reid in 1883.  This was partly abridged from the first, and partly supplied with fresh matter by a new sifting of the documents which Lady Holland had used.  Nor do the authors of these works, however great must be our gratitude to them, take to themselves any such share of the credit as is due to Boswell in the case of Johnson, to Lockhart in the case of Scott, to Carlyle in the case of Sterling.  Neither can lay claim to the highest literary merit of writing or arrangement; and the latter of the two contains digressions, not interesting to all readers, about the nobility of Sydney’s cause.  It is because both books let their subject reveal himself by familiar letters, scraps of journal, or conversation, and because the revelation of self is so full and so delightful, that Sydney Smith’s immortality, now that the generation which actually heard him talk has all but disappeared, is still secured without the slightest fear of disturbance or decay.  With a few exceptions (the Mrs. Partington business, the apologue of the dinners at the synod of Dort, “Noodle’s Oration,” and one or two more), the things by which Sydney is known to the general, all come, not from his works, but from his Life or Lives.  No one with any sense of fun can read the Works without being delighted; but in the Life and the letters the same qualities of wit appear, with other qualities which in the Works hardly appear at all.  A person absolutely ignorant of anything but the Works might possibly dismiss Sydney Smith as a brilliant but bitter and not too consistent partisan, who fought desperately against abuses when his party was out, and discovered that they were not abuses at all when his party was in.  A reader of his Life and of his private utterances knows him better, likes him better, and certainly does not admire him less.

He was born in 1771, the son of an eccentric and apparently rather provoking person, who for no assigned reason left his wife at the church door in order to wander about the world, and who maintained his vagabond principles so well that, as his granddaughter ruefully records, he bought, spent money on, and sold at a loss, no less than nineteen different houses in England and Wales.  Sydney was also the second of four clever brothers, the eldest and cleverest being the somewhat famous “Bobus,” who co-operated in the Microcosm with Canning and Frere, survived his better known brother but a fortnight, founded a family, and has left one of those odd reputations of immense talent not justified by any producible work, to which our English life of public schools, universities, and Parliament gives peculiar facilities.  Bobus and Cecil the third brother were sent to Eton:  Sydney and Courtenay, the fourth, to Winchester, after a childhood spent in precocious reading and arguing among themselves.  From Winchester Sydney (of whose school-days some trifling but only trifling anecdotes are recorded,) proceeded in regular course to New College, Oxford, and being elected of right to a Fellowship, then worth about a hundred pounds a year, was left by his father to “do for himself” on that not extensive revenue.  He did for himself at Oxford during the space of nine years; and it is supposed that his straitened circumstances had something to do with his dislike for universities, which however was a kind of point of conscience among his Whig friends.  It is at least singular that this residence of nearly a decade has left hardly a single story or recorded incident of any kind; and that though three generations of undergraduates passed through Oxford in his time, no one of them seems in later years to have had anything to say of not the least famous and one of the most sociable of Englishmen.  At that time, it is true, and for long afterwards, the men of New College kept more to themselves than the men of any other college in Oxford; but still it is odd.  Another little mystery is, Why did Sydney take orders?  Although there is not the slightest reason to question his being, according to his own standard, a very sincere and sufficient divine, it obviously was not quite the profession for him.  He is said to have wished for the Bar, but to have deferred to his father’s wishes for the Church.  That Sydney was an affectionate and dutiful son nobody need doubt:  he was always affectionate, and in his own way dutiful.  But he is about the last man one can think of as likely to undertake an uncongenial profession out of high-flown dutifulness to a father who had long left him to his own resources, and who had neither influence nor prospects in the Church to offer him.  The Fellowship would have kept him, as it had kept him already, till briefs came.  However, he did take orders; and the later Life gives more particulars than the first as to the incumbency which indirectly determined his career.  It was the curacy of Netheravon on Salisbury Plain; and its almost complete seclusion was tempered by a kindly squire, Mr. Hicks-Beach, great-grandfather of the present Sir Michael Hicks-Beach.  Mr. Hicks-Beach offered Sydney the post of tutor to his eldest son; Sydney accepted it, started for Germany with his pupil, but (as he picturesquely though rather vaguely expresses it) “put into Edinburgh under stress of war” and stayed there for five years.

The sojourn at Edinburgh began in June 1798:  it ended in August 1803.  It will thus be seen that Sydney was by no means a very young man even when he began reviewing, the year before leaving the Scotch capital.  Indeed the aimless prolongation of his stay at Oxford, which brought him neither friends, money, nor professional experience of any kind, threw him considerably behindhand all his life; and this delay, much more than Tory persecution or Whig indifference, was the cause of the comparative slowness with which he made his way.  His time at Edinburgh was, however, usefully spent even before that invention of the Review, over which there is an amicable and unimportant dispute between himself and Jeffrey.  His tutorship was so successful that Mr. Hicks-Beach rewarded it with a cheque for a thousand pounds:  he did duty in the Episcopal churches of Edinburgh:  he made friends with all the Whigs and many of the Tories of the place:  he laughed unceasingly at Scotchmen and liked them very much.  Also, about the middle of his stay, he got married, but not to a Scotch girl.  His wife was Miss Catherine Pybus, of Cheam, and the marriage was as harebrained a one, from the point of view of settlements, as Jeffrey’s own. Sydney’s settlement on his wife is well known:  it consisted of “six small silver teaspoons much worn,” with which worldly goods he did her literally endow by throwing them into her lap.  It would appear that there never was a happier marriage; but it certainly seemed for some years as if there might have been many more prosperous in point of money.  When Sydney moved to London he had no very definite prospect of any income whatever; and had not Mrs. Smith sold her mother’s jewels (which came to her just at the time), they would apparently have had some difficulty in furnishing their house in Doughty Street.  But Horner, their friend (the “parish bull” of Scott’s irreverent comparison), had gone to London before them, and impressed himself, apparently by sheer gravity, on the political world as a good young man.  Introduced by him, Sydney Smith soon became one of the circle at Holland House.  It is indeed not easy to live on invitations and your mother-in-law’s pearls; but Sydney reviewed vigorously, preached occasionally, before very long received a regular appointment at the Foundling Hospital, and made some money by lecturing very agreeably at the Royal Institution on Moral Philosophy ­a subject of which he honestly admits that he knew, in the technical sense, nothing.  But his hearers did not want technical ethics, and in Sydney Smith they had a moral philosopher of the practical kind who could hardly be excelled either in sense or in wit.  One little incident of this time, however, throws some light on the complaints which have been made about the delay of his promotion.  He applied to a London rector to license him to a vacant chapel, which had not hitherto been used for the services of the Church.  The immediate answer has not been preserved; but from what followed it clearly was a civil and rather evasive but perfectly intelligible request to be excused.  The man was of course quite within his right, and a dozen good reasons can be guessed for his conduct.  He may really have objected, as he seems to have said he did, to take a step which his predecessors had refused to take, and which might inconvenience his successors.  But Sydney would not take the refusal, and wrote another very logical, but extremely injudicious, letter pressing his request with much elaboration, and begging the worthy Doctor of Divinity to observe that he, the Doctor, was guilty of inconsistency and other faults.  Naturally this put the Doctor’s back up, and he now replied with a flat and very high and mighty refusal.  We know from another instance that Sydney was indisposed to take “No” for an answer.  However he obtained, besides his place at the Foundling, preacherships in two proprietary chapels, and seems to have had both business and pleasure enough on his hands during his London sojourn, which was about the same length as his Edinburgh one.  It was, however, much more profitable, for in three years the ministry of “All the Talents” came in, the Holland House interest was exerted, and the Chancellor’s living of Foston, near York, valued at five hundred pounds a year, was given to Sydney.  He paid for it, after a fashion which in a less zealous and convinced Whig might seem a little dubious, by the famous lampoons of the Plymley Letters, advocating the claims of Catholic emancipation, and extolling Fox and Grenville at the expense of Perceval and Canning.  Very edifying is it to find Sydney Smith objecting to this latter that he is a “diner out,” a “maker of jokes and parodies,” a trifler on important subjects ­in fact each and all of the things which the Rev. Sydney Smith himself was, in a perfection only equalled by the object of his righteous wrath.  But of Peter more presently.

Even his admiring biographers have noticed, with something of a chuckle, the revenge which Perceval, who was the chief object of Plymley’s sarcasm, took, without in the least knowing it, on his lampooner.  Had it not been for the Clergy Residence Bill, which that very respectable, if not very brilliant, statesman passed in 1808, and which put an end to perhaps the most flagrant of all then existing abuses, Sydney, the enemy of abuses, would no doubt have continued with a perfectly clear conscience to draw the revenues of Foston, and while serving it by a curate, to preach, lecture, dine out, and rebuke Canning for making jokes, in London.  As it was he had to make up his mind, though he obtained a respite from the Archbishop, to resign (which in the recurring frost of Whig hopes was not to be thought of), to exchange, which he found impossible, or to bury himself in Yorkshire.  This was a real hardship upon him, because Foston, as it was, was uninhabitable, and had had no resident clergyman since the seventeenth century.  But whatever bad things could be said of Sydney (and I really do not know what they are, except that the combination of a sharp wit, a ready pen, and strong political prejudices sometimes made him abuse his talents), no one could say that he ever shirked either a difficulty or a duty.  When his first three years’ leave expired, he went down in 1809 with his family to York, and established himself at Heslington, a village near the city and not far from his parish.  And when a second term of dispensation from actual residence was over, he set to work and built the snuggest if the ugliest parsonage in England, with farm-buildings and all complete, at the cost of some four thousand pounds.  Of the details of that building his own inimitable account exists, and is or ought to be well known.  The brick-pit and kiln on the property, which were going to save fortunes and resulted in nothing but the production of exactly a hundred and fifty thousand unusable bricks:  the four oxen, Tug, Lug, Haul and Crawl, who were to be the instruments of another economy and proved to be, at least in Sydneian language, equal to nothing but the consumption of “buckets of sal volatile:”  the entry of the distracted mother of the household on her new domains with a baby clutched in her arms and one shoe left in the circumambient mud:  the great folks of the neighbourhood (Lord and Lady Carlisle) coming to call graciously on the strangers, and being whelmed, coach and four, outriders and all, in a ploughed field of despond:  the “universal scratcher” in the meadows, inclined so as to let the brute creation of all heights enjoy that luxury:  Bunch the butler, a female child of tender years but stout proportions:  Annie Kay the factotum:  the “Immortal,” a chariot which was picked up at York in the last stage of decay, and carried the family for many years half over England ­all these things and persons are told in divers delightful scraps of autobiography and in innumerable letters, after a fashion impossible to better and at a length too long to quote.

Sydney Smith was for more than twenty years rector of Foston, and for fully fifteen actually resided there.  During this time he made the acquaintance of Lord and Lady Grey, next to Lord and Lady Holland his most constant friends, visited a little, entertained in his own unostentatious but hearty fashion a great deal, wrote many articles for the Edinburgh Review, found himself in a minority of one or two among the clergy of Yorkshire on the subject of Emancipation and similar matters, but was on the most friendly terms possible with his diocesan, Archbishop Vernon Harcourt.  Nor was he even without further preferment, for he held for some years (on the then not discredited understanding of resignation when one of the Howards was ready for it) the neighbouring and valuable living of Londesborough.  Then the death of an aunt put an end to his monetary anxieties, which for years had been considerable, by the legacy of a small but sufficient fortune.  And at last, when he was approaching sixty, the good things of the Church, which he never affected to despise, came in earnest.  The Tory Chancellor Lyndhurst gave him a stall at Bristol, which carried with it a small Devonshire living, and soon afterwards he was able to exchange Foston (which he had greatly improved), for Combe Florey near Taunton.  When his friend Lord Grey became Prime Minister, the stall at Bristol was exchanged for a much more valuable one at St. Paul’s; Halberton, the Devonshire vicarage, and Combe Florey still remaining his.  These made up an ecclesiastical revenue not far short of three thousand a year, which Sydney enjoyed for the last fifteen years of his life.  He never got anything more, and it is certain that for a time he was very sore at not being made a bishop, or at least offered a bishopric.  Lord Holland had rather rashly explained the whole difficulty years before, by reporting a conversation of his with Lord Grenville, in which they had hoped that when the Whigs came into power they would be more grateful to Sydney than the Tories had been to Swift.  Sydney’s acuteness must have made him wince at the omen.  For my part I do not see why either Harley or Grey should have hesitated, as far as any scruples of their own went.  But I think any fair-minded person must admit the possibility of a scruple, though he may not share it, about the effect of seeing either the Tale of a Tub or Peter Plymley’s Letters, with “By the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of ­” on the title-page.  The people who would have been shocked might in each case have been fools:  there is nothing that I at least can see, in either book, inconsistent with sound religion and churchmanship.  But they would have been honest fools, and of such a Prime Minister has to take heed.  So Amen Corner (or rather, for he did not live there, certain streets near Grosvenor Square) in London, and Combe Florey in the country, were Sydney Smith’s abodes till his death.  In the former he gave his breakfasts and dinners in the season, being further enabled to do so by his share (some thirty thousand pounds) of his brother Courtenay’s Indian fortune.  The latter, after rebuilding it, ­for he had either a fate or a passion for bricks and mortar, ­he made on a small scale one of the most beautiful and hospitable houses in the West of England.

To Combe Florey, as to Foston, a sheaf of fantastic legends attaches itself; indeed, as Lady Holland was not very fond of dates, it is sometimes not clear to which of the two residences some of them apply.  At both Sydney had a huge store-room, or rather grocer’s and chemist’s shop, from which he supplied the wants, not merely of his household, but of half the neighbourhood.  It appears to have been at Combe Florey (for though no longer poor he still had a frugal mind), that he hit upon the device of “putting the cheapest soaps in the dearest papers,” confident of the result upon the female temper.  It was certainly there that he fitted up two favourite donkeys with a kind of holiday-dress of antlers, to meet the objection of one of his lady-visitors that he had no deer; and converted certain large bay-trees in boxes into the semblance of an orangery, by fastening some dozens of fine fruit to the branches.  I like to think of the mixed astonishment and disgust of a great Russian, and a not very small Frenchman, both not long deceased, M. Tourguenieff and M. Paul de Saint-Victor, if they had heard of these pleasing tomfooleries.  But tomfoolery, though, when properly and not inordinately indulged, one of the best things in life, must, like the other good things of life, come to an end.  After an illness of some months Sydney Smith died at his house in Green Street, of heart disease, on 22nd February 1845, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

The memorials and evidences of his peculiar if not unique genius consist of three different kinds; reported or remembered conversations and jokes, letters, and formal literary work.  He was once most famous as a talker; but conversation is necessarily the most perishable of all things, and its recorded fragments bear keeping less than any other relics.  Some of the verbal jests assigned to him (notably the famous one about the tortoise, which, after being long known by the initiated not to be his, has at last been formally claimed by its rightful owner), are certainly or probably borrowed or falsely attributed, as rich conversationalists always borrow or receive.  And always the things have something of the mangled air which sayings detached from their context can hardly escape.  It is otherwise with the letters.  The best letters are always most like the actual conversation of their writers, and probably no one ever wrote more as he talked than Sydney Smith.  The specially literary qualities of his writing for print are here too in great measure; and on the whole, though of course the importance of subject is nearly always less, and the interest of sustained work is wholly absent, nowhere can the entire Sydney be better seen.  Of the three satirists of modern times with whom he may not unfairly claim to rank ­Pascal, Swift, and Voltaire ­he is most like Voltaire in his faculty of presenting a good thing with a preface which does not in the least prepare you for it, and then leaving it without the slightest attempt to go back on it, and elaborate it, and make sure that his hearer has duly appreciated it and laughed at it.  And of the two, though the palm of concentration must be given to Voltaire, the palm of absolute simplicity must be given to Sydney.  Hardly any of his letters are without these unforced flashes of wit, from almost his first epistle to Jeffrey (where, after rallying that great little man on being the “only male despondent he has met,” he adds the postscript, “I beg to except the Tuxford waiter, who desponds exactly as you do”) to his very last to Miss Harcourt, in which he mildly dismisses one of his brethren as “anything but a polished corner of the Temple.”  There is the “usual establishment for an eldest landed baby:”  the proposition, advanced in the grave and chaste manner, that “the information of very plain women is so inconsiderable, that I agree with you in setting no store by it:”  the plaintive expostulation with Lady Holland (who had asked him to dinner on the ninth of the month, after previously asking him to stay from the fifth to the twelfth), “it is like giving a gentleman an assignation for Wednesday when you are going to marry him on the previous Sunday ­an attempt to combine the stimulus of gallantry with the security of connubial relations:”  the simple and touching information that “Lord Tankerville has sent me a whole buck.  This necessarily takes up a good deal of my time;” that “geranium-fed bacon is of a beautiful colour, but it takes so many plants to fatten one pig that such a system can never answer;” that “it is a mistake to think that Dr. Bond could be influenced by partridges.  He is a man of very independent mind, with whom pheasants at least, or perhaps even turkeys, are necessary;” and scores more with references to which I find the fly-leaves of my copy of the letters covered.  If any one wants to see how much solid there is with all this froth, let him turn to the passages showing the unconquerable manliness, fairness, and good sense with which Sydney treated the unhappy subject of Queen Caroline, out of which his friends were so ready to make political capital; or to the admirable epistle in which he takes seriously, and blunts once for all, the points of certain foolish witticisms as to the readiness with which he, a man about town, had taken to catechisms and cabbages in an almost uninhabited part of the despised country.  In conversation he would seem sometimes to have a little, a very little, “forced the note.”  The Quaker baby, and the lady “with whom you might give an assembly or populate a parish,” are instances in point.  But he never does this in his letters.  I take particular pleasure in the following passage written to Miss Georgiana Harcourt within two years of his death:  “What a charming existence!  To live in the midst of holy people; to know that nothing profane can approach you; to be certain that a Dissenter can no more be found in the Palace than a snake can exist in Ireland, or ripe fruit in Scotland!  To have your society strong, and undiluted by the laity; to bid adieu to human learning; to feast on the Canons and revel in the Thirty-Nine Articles!  Happy Georgiana!” Now if Sydney had been what some foolish people think him, merely a scoffer, there would be no fun in this; it would be as impertinent and in as bad taste as the stale jokes of the eighteenth century about Christianity.  But he was much else.

Of course, however, no rational man will contend that in estimating Sydney Smith’s place in the general memory, his deliberate literary work, or at least that portion of it which he chose to present on reflection, acknowledged and endorsed, can be overlooked.  His Life contains (what is infinitely desirable in all such Lives and by no means always or often furnished) a complete list of his contributions to the Edinburgh Review, and his works contain most of them.  To these have to be added the pamphlets, of which the chief and incomparably the best are, at intervals of thirty years, Peter Plymley and the Letters to Archdeacon Singleton, together with sermons, speeches, and other miscellaneous matter.  The whole, except the things which he did not himself care to reprint, can be obtained now in one volume; but the print is not to be recommended to aged or weakly sight.

Sydney Smith had no false modesty, and in not a few letters to Jeffrey he speaks of his own contributions to the Edinburgh with the greatest freedom, combating and quite refusing to accept his editor’s suggestion as to their flippancy and fantasticality, professing with much frankness that this is the way he can write and no other, and more than once telling Jeffrey that whatever they may think in solemn Scotland, his, Sydney’s, articles are a great deal more read in England and elsewhere than any others.  Although there are maxims to the contrary effect, the judgment of a clever man, not very young and tolerably familiar with the world, on his own work, is very seldom far wrong.  I should say myself that, putting aside the historic estimate, Sydney Smith’s articles are by far the most interesting nowadays of those contributed by any one before the days of Macaulay, who began just as Sydney ceased to write anonymously in 1827, on his Bristol appointment.  They are also by far the most distinct and original.  Jeffrey, Brougham, and the rest wrote, for the most part, very much after the fashion of the ancients:  if a very few changes were made for date, passages of Jeffrey’s criticism might almost be passages of Dryden, certainly passages of the better critics of the eighteenth century, as far as manner goes.  There is nobody at all like Sydney Smith before him in England, for Swift’s style is wholly different.  To begin with, Sydney had a strong prejudice in favour of writing very short articles, and a horror of reading long ones ­the latter being perhaps less peculiar to himself than the former.  Then he never made the slightest pretence at systematic or dogmatic criticism of anything whatever.  In literature proper he seems indeed to have had no particular principles, and I cannot say that he had very good taste.  He commits the almost unpardonable sin of not merely blaspheming Madame de Sevigne, but preferring to her that second-rate leader-writer in petticoats, Madame de Stael.  On the other hand, if he had no literary principles, he had (except in rare cases where politics came in, and not often then) few literary prejudices, and his happily incorrigible good sense and good humour were proof against the frequent bias of his associates.  Though he could not have been very sensible, from what he himself says, of their highest qualities, he championed Scott’s novels incessantly against the Whigs and prigs of Holland House.  He gives a most well-timed warning to Jeffrey that the constant running-down of Wordsworth had very much the look of persecution, though with his usual frankness he avows that he has not read the particular article in question, because the subject is “quite uninteresting to him.”  I think he would, if driven hard, have admitted with equal frankness that poetry, merely as poetry, was generally uninteresting.  Still he had so many interests of various kinds, that few books failed to appeal to one or the other, and he, in his turn, has seldom failed to give a lively if not a very exact or critical account of his subject.  But it is in his way of giving this account that the peculiarity, glanced at above as making a parallel between him and Voltaire, appears.  It is, I have said, almost original, and what is more, endless as has been the periodical writing of the last eighty years, and sedulously as later writers have imitated earlier, I do not know that it has ever been successfully copied.  It consists in giving rapid and apparently business-like summaries, packed, with apparent negligence and real art, full of the flashes of wit so often noticed and to be noticed.  Such are, in the article on “The Island of Ceylon,” the honey-bird “into whose body the soul of a common informer seems to have migrated,” and “the chaplain of the garrison, all in black, the Rev. Mr. Somebody or other whose name we have forgotten,” the discovery of whose body in a serpent his ruthless clerical brother pronounces to be “the best history of the kind he remembers.”  Very likely there may be people who can read this, even the “all in black,” without laughing, and among them I should suppose must be the somebody or other, whose name we too have forgotten, who is said to have imagined that he had more than parried Sydney’s unforgiven jest about the joke and the surgical operation, by retorting, “Yes! an English joke.”  I have always wept to think that Sydney did not live to hear this retort.  The classical places for this kind of summary work are the article just named on Ceylon, and that on Waterton.  But the most inimitable single example, if it is not too shocking to this very proper age, is the argument of Mat Lewis’s tragedy:  “Ottilia becomes quite furious from the conviction that Caesario has been sleeping with a second lady called Estella; whereas he has really been sleeping with a third lady called Amelrosa.”

Among the most important of these essays are the two famous ones on Methodism and on Indian missions, which gave far more offence to the religious public of evangelical persuasion than all Sydney’s jokes on bishops, or his arguments for Catholic emancipation, and which (owing to the strong influence which then, as now, Nonconformists possessed in the counsels of the Liberal party) probably had as much to do as anything else with the reluctance of the Whig leaders, when they came into power, to give their friend the highest ecclesiastical preferment.  These subjects are rather difficult to treat in a general literary essay, and it may perhaps be admitted that here, as in dealing with poetry and other subjects of the more transcendental kind, Sydney showed a touch of Philistinism, and a distinct inability to comprehend exaltation of sentiment and thought.  But the general sense is admirably sound and perfectly orthodox; and the way in which so apparently light and careless a writer has laboriously supported every one of his charges, and almost every one of his flings, with chapter and verse from the writings of the incriminated societies, is very remarkable.  Nor can it, I think, be doubted that the publication, in so widely read a periodical, of the nauseous follies of speech in which well-meaning persons indulged, had something to do with the gradual disuse of a style than which nothing could be more prejudicial to religion, for the simple reason that nothing else could make religion ridiculous.  The medicine did not of course operate at once, and silly people still write silly things.  But I hardly think that the Wesleyan body or the Church Missionary Society would now officially publish such stuff as the passage about Brother Carey, who, while in the actual paroxysm of sea-sickness, was “wonderfully comforted by the contemplation of the goodness of God,” or that about Brother Ward “in design clasping to his bosom” the magnanimous Captain Wickes, who subsequently “seemed very low,” when a French privateer was in sight.  Jeffrey was, it seems, a little afraid of these well-deserved exposures, which, from the necessity of abundant quotation, are an exception to the general shortness of Sydney’s articles.  Sydney’s interest in certain subjects led him constantly to take up fresh books on them; and thus a series of series might be made out of his papers, with some advantage to the reader perhaps, if a new edition of his works were undertaken.  The chief of such subjects is America, in dealing with which he pleased the Americans by descanting on their gradual emancipation from English prejudices and abuses, but infuriated them by constant denunciations of slavery, and by laughing at their lack of literature and cultivation.  With India he also dealt often, his brothers’ connection with it giving him an interest therein.  Prisons were another favourite subject, though, in his zeal for making them uncomfortable, he committed himself to one really atrocious suggestion ­that of dark cells for long periods of time.  It is odd that the same person should make such a truly diabolical proposal, and yet be in a perpetual state of humanitarian rage about man-traps and spring-guns, which were certainly milder engines of torture.  It is odd, too, that Sydney, who was never tired of arguing that prisons ought to be made uncomfortable, because nobody need go there unless he chose, should have been furiously wroth with poor Mr. Justice Best for suggesting much the same thing of spring-guns.  The greatest political triumph of his manner is to be found no doubt in the article “Bentham on Fallacies,” in which the unreadable diatribes of the apostle of utilitarianism are somehow spirited and crisped up into a series of brilliant arguments, and the whole is crowned by the famous “Noodle’s Oration,” the summary and storehouse of all that ever has been or can be said on the Liberal side in the lighter manner.  It has not lost its point even from the fact that Noodle has now for a long time changed his party, and has elaborated for himself, after his manner, a similar stock of platitudes and absurdities in favour of the very things for which Sydney was fighting.

The qualities of these articles appear equally in the miscellaneous essays, in the speeches, and even in the sermons, though Sydney Smith, unlike Sterne, never condescended to buffoonery or theatrical tricks in the pulpit.  In Peter Plymley’s Letters they appear concentrated and acidulated:  in the Letters to Archdeacon Singleton, in the Repudiation Letters, and the Letters on Railways which date from his very last days, concentrated and mellowed.  More than one good judge has been of the opinion that Sydney’s powers increased to the very end of his life, and it is not surprising that this should have been the case.  Although he did plenty of work in his time, the literary part of it was never of an exhausting nature.  Though one of the most original of commentators, he was a commentator pure and simple, and found, but did not supply, his matter.  Thus there was no danger of running dry, and as his happiest style was not indignation but good-natured raillery, his increasing prosperity, not chequered, till quite the close of his life, by any serious bodily ailment, put him more and more in the right atmosphere and temper for indulging his genius. Plymley, though very amusing, and, except in the Canning matter above referred to, not glaringly unfair for a political lampoon, is distinctly acrimonious, and almost (as “almost” as Sydney could be) ill-tempered.  It is possible to read between the lines that the writer is furious at his party being out of office, and is much more angry with Mr. Perceval for having the ear of the country than for being a respectable nonentity.  The main argument, moreover, is bad in itself, and was refuted by facts.  Sydney pretends to be, as his friend Jeffrey really was, in mortal terror lest the French should invade England, and, joined by rebellious Irishmen and wrathful Catholics generally, produce an English revolution.  The Tories replied, “We will take good care that the French shall not land, and that Irishmen shall not rise.”  And they did take the said good care, and they beat the Frenchmen thorough and thorough while Sydney and his friends were pointing their epigrams.  Therefore, though much of the contention is unanswerable enough, the thing is doubtfully successful as a whole.  In the Letters to Archdeacon Singleton the tone is almost uniformly good-humoured, and the argument, whether quite consistent or not in the particular speaker’s mouth, is absolutely sound, and has been practically admitted since by almost all the best friends of the Church.  Here occurs that inimitable passage before referred to.

I met the other day, in an old Dutch chronicle, with a passage so apposite to this subject, that, though it is somewhat too light for the occasion, I cannot abstain from quoting it.  There was a great meeting of all the clergy at Dordrecht, and the chronicler thus describes it, which I give in the language of the translation:  “And there was great store of Bishops in the town, in their robes goodly to behold, and all the great men of the State were there, and folks poured in in boats on the Meuse, the Merse, the Rhine, and the Linge, coming from the Isle of Beverlandt and Isselmond, and from all quarters in the Bailiwick of Dort; Arminians and Gomarists, with the friends of John Barneveldt and of Hugh Grote.  And before my Lords the Bishops, Simon of Gloucester, who was a Bishop in those parts, disputed with Vorstius and Leoline the Monk, and many texts of Scripture were bandied to and fro; and when this was done, and many propositions made, and it waxed towards twelve of the clock, my Lords the Bishops prepared to set them down to a fair repast, in which was great store of good things ­and among the rest a roasted peacock, having in lieu of a tail the arms and banners of the Archbishop, which was a goodly sight to all who favoured the Church ­and then the Archbishop would say a grace, as was seemly to do, he being a very holy man; but ere he had finished, a great mob of townspeople and folks from the country, who were gathered under the windows, cried out Bread! bread! for there was a great famine, and wheat had risen to three times the ordinary price of the sleich; and when they had done crying Bread! bread! they called out No Bishops! and began to cast up stones at the windows.  Whereat my Lords the Bishops were in a great fright, and cast their dinner out of the window to appease the mob, and so the men of that town were well pleased, and did devour the meats with a great appetite; and then you might have seen my Lords standing with empty plates, and looking wistfully at each other, till Simon of Gloucester, he who disputed with Leoline the Monk, stood up among them and said, Good my Lords, is it your pleasure to stand here fasting, and that those who count lower in the Church than you do should feast and fluster?  Let us order to us the dinner of the Deans and Canons which is making ready for them in the chamber below. And this speech of Simon of Gloucester pleased the Bishops much; and so they sent for the host, one William of Ypres, and told him it was for the public good, and he, much fearing the Bishops, brought them the dinner of the Deans and Canons; and so the Deans and Canons went away without dinner, and were pelted by the men of the town, because they had not put any meat out of the windows like the Bishops; and when the Count came to hear of it, he said it was a pleasant conceit, and that the Bishops were right cunning men, and had ding’d the Canons well.”

Even in the Singleton Letters, however, there are some little lapses of the same kind (worse, indeed, because these letters were signed) as the attack on Canning in the Plymley Letters.  Sydney Smith exclaiming against “derision and persiflage, the great principle by which the world is now governed,” is again edifying.  But in truth Sydney never had the weakness (for I have known it called a weakness) of looking too carefully to see what the enemy’s advocate is going to say.  Take even the famous, the immortal apologue of Mrs. Partington.  It covered, we are usually told, the Upper House with ridicule, and did as much as anything else to carry the Reform Bill.  And yet, though it is a watery apologue, it will not hold water for a moment.  The implied conclusion is, that the Atlantic beat Mrs. Partington.  Did it?  It made, no doubt, a great mess in her house, it put her to flight, it put her to shame.  But when I was last at Sidmouth the line of high-water mark was, I believe, much what it was before the great storm of 1824, and though the particular Mrs. Partington had no doubt been gathered to her fathers, the Mrs. Partington of the day was, equally without doubt, living very comfortably in the house which the Atlantic had threatened to swallow up.

It was, however, perhaps part of Sydney’s strength that he never cared to consider too curiously, or on too many sides.  Besides his inimitable felicity of expression (the Singleton Letters are simply crammed with epigram), he had the sturdiest possible common sense and the liveliest possible humour.  I have known his claim to the title of “humourist” called in question by precisians:  nobody could deny him the title of good-humourist.  Except that the sentimental side of Toryism would never have appealed to him, it was chiefly an accident of time that he was a polemical Liberal.  He would always and naturally have been on the side opposite to that on which most of the fools were.  When he came into the world, as the straitest Tory will admit, there were in that world a great many abuses as they are called, that is to say, a great many things which, once useful and excellent, had either decayed into positive nuisances, or dried up into neutral and harmless but obstructive rubbish.  There were also many silly and some mischievous people, as well as some wise and useful ones, who defended the abuses.  Sydney Smith was an ideal soldier of reform for his time, and in his way.  He was not extraordinarily long-sighted ­indeed (as his famous and constantly-repeated advice to “take short views of life” shows) he had a distinct distrust of taking too anxious thought for political or any other morrows.  But he had a most keen and, in many cases, a most just scent and sight for the immediate inconveniences and injustices of the day, and for the shortest and most effective ways of mending them.  He was perhaps more destitute of romance and of reverence (though he had too much good taste to be positively irreverent) than any man who ever lived.  He never could have paralleled, he never could have even understood, Scott’s feelings about the Regalia, or that ever-famous incident of Sir Walter’s life, when returning with Jeffrey and other Whig friends from some public meeting, he protested against the innovations which, harmless or even beneficial individually and in themselves, would by degrees destroy every thing that made Scotland Scotland.  I am afraid that his warmest admirers, even those of his own political complexion, must admit that he was, as has been said, more than a little of a Philistine; that he expressed, and expressed capitally in one way, that curious middle-class sentiment, or denial of sentiment, which won its first triumph in the first Reform Bill and its last in the Exhibition of twenty years later, which destroyed no doubt much that was absurd, and some things that were noxious, but which induced in England a reign of shoddy in politics, in philosophy, in art, in literature, and, when its own reign was over, left England weak and divided, instead of, as it had been under the reign of abuses, united and strong.  The bombardment of Copenhagen may or may not have been a dreadful thing:  it was at any rate better than the abandonment of Khartoum.  Nor can Sydney any more than his friends be acquitted of having held the extraordinary notion that you can “rest and be thankful” in politics, that you can set Demos at bishops, but stave and tail him off when he comes to canons; that you can level beautifully down to a certain point, and then stop levelling for ever afterwards; that because you can laugh Brother Ringletub out of court, laughter will be equally effective with Cardinal Newman; and that though it is the height of “anility” (a favourite word of his) to believe in a country gentleman, it is the height of rational religion to believe in a ten-pound householder.

But however open to exception his principles may be, and that not merely from the point of view of highflying Toryism, his carrying out of them in life and in literature had the two abiding justifications of being infinitely amusing, and of being amusing always in thoroughly good temper.  It is, as I have said, impossible to read Sydney Smith’s Life, and still more impossible to read his letters, without liking him warmly and personally, without seeing that he was not only a man who liked to be comfortable (that is not very rare), that he was not only one who liked others to be comfortable (that is rarer), but one who in every situation in which he was thrown, did his utmost to make others as well as himself comfortable (which is rarest of all).  If the references in Peter Plymley to Canning were unjustifiable from him, there is little or no reason to think that they were prompted by personal jealousy; and though, as has been said, he was undoubtedly sore, and unreasonably sore, at not receiving the preferment which he thought he had deserved, he does not seem to have been personally jealous of any man who had received it.  The parson of Foston and Combe Florey may not have been (his latest biographer, admiring though he be, pathetically laments that he was not) a spiritually minded man.  But happy beyond almost all other parishioners of the time were the parishioners of Combe Florey and Foston, though one of them did once throw a pair of scissors at his provoking pastor.  He was a fast and affectionate friend; and though he was rather given to haunting rich men, he did it not only without servility, but without that alternative of bearishness and freaks which has sometimes been adopted.  As a prince of talkers he might have been a bore to a generation which (I own I think in that perhaps single point), wiser than its fathers, is not so ambitious as they were to sit as a bucket and be pumped into.  But in that infinitely happier system of conversation by books, which any one can enjoy as he likes and interrupt as he likes at his own fireside, Sydney is still a prince.  There may be living somewhere some one who does not think so very badly of slavery, who is most emphatically of opinion that “the fools were right,” in the matters of Catholic emancipation and Reform, who thinks well of public schools and universities, who even, though he may not like spring-guns much, thinks that John Jones had only himself to blame if, after ample warning and with no business except the business of supplying a London poulterer with his landlord’s game, he trespassed and came to the worst.  Yet even this monster, if he happened to be possessed of the sense of fun and literature, (which is perhaps impossible), could not read even the most acrid of Sydney’s political diatribes without shrieking with laughter, if, in his ogreish way, he were given to such violent demonstrations; could certainly not read the Life and the letters without admitting, in a moment of unwonted humanity, that here was a man who, for goodness as well as for cleverness, for sound practical wisdom as well as for fantastic verbal wit, has had hardly a superior and very few equals.