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The Rev. Sydney Smith was sound at heart on this subject. When he saw some signs of unseemly levity, as he thought, in an article in the Edinburgh Review, he wrote to the editor, Jeffrey, rebuking the license as injurious, by its indiscretion, and rendering it "perilous to a clergyman in particular to be concerned in the Review." Ten years later he wrote again to Jeffrey-"I must beg the favour of you to be explicit on one point. Do you mean to take care that the Review shall not profess or encourage infidel principles? Unless this is the case I must absolutely give up all thoughts of connecting myself with it."†
Sydney Smith must thus be absolved from the charge of employing his wit to the injury of sound religious principle. As a matter of taste he sometimes, it must be admitted, pushed his jest to an extremity with professional ecclesiastical arrangements, and, in a few instances, as in his description of Rogers' dining-room, with "a blaze of light above, and below nothing but darkness and gnashing of teeth," may be rebuked by the censure of Dr.
It was an article in the Review for Jan., 1808, making sport of a heavy and absurd epic poem, by Charles Hoyle, of Cambridge, on the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, entitled Exodus, an example of the not uncommon delusion of crude imitators of Homer and Milton. The article follows one of Sydney Smith on Methodism, which at least to those who winced under it, would appear far more reprehensible than speaking lightly of Pharaoh and the jugglers of his court. Smith's objection to the latter article showed his sensitiveness as a wit as well as his sense of the proprieties. "The levities," he says, "are ponderous and vulgar, as well as indiscreet." Scripture was one thing in the eyes of Sydney Smith, and the Methodism of the beginning of the century quite another. His treatment of what he considered the eccentricities of the latter was vigorous and unsparing. In reading his reply to Mr. John Styles, who ventured a retort, we feel that it is "excellent to have a giant's strength," and perhaps, “tyrannous to use it like a giant." ↑ Letter 141.
Dyce's Table Talk of Rogers. Rogers arrays the poetical authorities on the distribution of light, in a note to his "Epistle to a Friend," citing Homer, Lucretius, Virgil, Leonardo da Vinci, and Milton. A Quarterly Reviewer remarks upon this: "There are few precepts of taste that are not practised in Mr. Rogers' establishment, as well as recommended in his works; but he has hit upon a novel and ingenious mode of lighting a dining-room. Lamps above, or candles on the table, there are none; all the light is reflected
Johnson on the employment of "idle and indecent applications of sentences taken from the Scriptures; a mode of merriment which a good man dreads for its profaneness, and a witty man disdains for its easiness and vulgarity."* Another is readily pardonable, the oft-mentioned reply to Landseer's request that he should sit to him for his picture-"Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?" There is another of the same class attributed to him on receiving, at the time of the Pennsylvania grievance, a visiter who congratulated him on his happy circumstances. "Yes," said Sydney, in the words of St. Paul, “I would that you were almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds." Sydney Smith, however, appears seldom to have transgressed in this direction. The defence of a friendly writer on this subject must be admitted in his favour. "Some of the happiest jests of Smith were ecclesiastical. But such sallies were too professional to be profane. They seemed to rebound upon himself, or they played about his order: they certainly scorched nothing. If there was satire in them, it was directed only at hypocrisy or corruption. If he could lightly touch the terrene and external part of religion-its secularized institutions-its drowsy dignitaries; he paid lowliest obeisance (wherever he could discern it) to its heavenly spirit. He could play with the tassel of his cushion; never with the leaves of his Bible."†
In one or two instances there is a freedom of expression indulged in by Sydney Smith, allowable perhaps, among the liberties of social life of Europe, where conversation and literature are less
by Titians, Reynolds, &c., from lamps projecting out of the frames of the pictures and screened from the company." (Quar. Rev., lv., 457.)
*Life of Pope. The witty Dr. Thomas Fuller had anticipated Johnson in this remark. In the chapter "Of Jesting," in his Holy State, he says: "Jest not with the two-edged sword of God's word. Will nothing please thee to wash thy hands in but the font? or to drink healths in but the church chalice? And know, the whole art is learnt at the first admission, and profane jests will come without calling."
† An admirable article on the Life of Sydney Smith in the British Quarterly Review for July, 1855.
restricted in these respects than in America. Addressing Lady Holland in 1811 in a note, in a reply to an invitation to dinner, his witticism seems bold as addressed to a lady; satirical personally, considering the antecedents of his honourable hostess :—
"How very odd, dear Lady Holland, to ask me to dine with you on Sunday, the 9th, when I am coming to stay with you from the 5th to the 12th! It is like giving a gentleman an assignation for Wednesday, when you are going to marry him on the preceding Sunday-an attempt to combine the stimulus of gallantry with the security of connubial relations. I do not propose to be guilty of the slightest infidelity to you while I am at Holland House, except you dine in town; and then it will not be infidelity, but spirited recrimination. Ever the sincere and affectionate friend of Lady Holland."
These, however, if pressed as defects, would be but slight blemishes in a lifetime passed in kindliness,* charity, truthfulness and honour. If his wit or humour occasionally appear in excess in his memoirs, it is to be remembered how largely these relaxations of his life have been chronicled, and that all the while he was pursuing a serious, noble, useful career. The jests of Sydney Smith should be passed to his credit, as supererogatory gifts to the world, contributed after he had performed the usual duties of a valuable man. Men of worth and integrity are always to be honoured, but how little would we give for the table-talk of most of them, in comparison with that of this ingenious social benefactor.
Sydney Smith was not, indeed, a profound spiritualist; he was
* There is a rare instance of forbearance for a wit, which comes to light in one of Sydney Smith's letters to Lady Holland, in 1839: "I have written against one of the cleverest pamphlets I ever read, which I think would and him with ridicule. At least it made me laugh very much in reading it; and there I stood, with the printer's devil, and the real devil close to me; and then I said, 'After all, this is very funny, and very well written, but it will give great pain to people who have been very kind and good to me through life; and what can I do to show my sense of that kindness, if it is not by flinging this pamphlet into the fire?' So I flung it in, and there was an end! My sense of ill-usage remains, of course, the same."
not a great philosopher; there have been deeper thinkers, more earnest divines. He was a dogmatist from his impulses and position in society. Fortunately his nature was broad and liberal, and his lot was cast among whigs and reformers. He was for expediency; but his expediency implied courage for the right and true. It was not vulgar temporizing, but an enlarged conformity to the well-being of society.
It is for few to round the outer circle, broken as is it, of human excellence. Sydney Smith, like most of the best of men, was but a parcel man. But how complete within his limits, how perfect in his segment! He took a healthy view of life, as it must practically come home to the greater part of the world; saw its necessities, and complied with its duties, while he embroidered this plainness with his delightful humours.
Such men should be cultivated at the present day from their rarity, for modern levelling is not favourable to their growth. They enlarge the freedom of life, add to its faculties as well as its enjoyments, clear the intellectual and warm the moral atmosphere. Characters there are enough, excrescences on society, oddities, in the sense of perversions of human nature, anomalous churls, crude, hard-hearted and repulsive; but there are few such illustrations of the kindly powers of life as this brave humourist-the man of generous humour and humours.