Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Sydney Smith (1771–1845)
[Sydney Smith was born at Woodford, Essex, in 1771. His father was an Englishman of some means, and very eccentric, his mother had French blood in her. Sydney was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, where he obtained a fellowship in the ordinary course, but adopted no profession till he was about seven-and-twenty, when he took orders and was appointed to the curacy of Netheravon in Wiltshire. The squire of the parish, Mr. Hicks-Beach, took a fancy to him and engaged him as tutor to his son, tutor and pupil, as they could not go to Germany for the war, going to Edinburgh. Here Sydney did clerical duty, helped to start the Edinburgh Review, published sermons, and was married. He left Edinburgh in 1803 to establish himself in London, where he did duty at the Foundling Hospital, lectured on Moral Philosophy at the Royal Institution, and became very popular in society. When the Whigs came in, in 1806, he was presented to the Chancellor’s living of Foston in Yorkshire, where at first there was no thought of his residing. So he remained in London and published the famous Letters of Peter Plymley on Catholic Emancipation. In 1808 Perceval’s Clergy Residence Bill forced him to Foston, where he built a parsonage and lived for some fifteen years. In 1828 Lord Lyndhurst gave him a prebend at Bristol, and he was able to exchange Foston for Combe Florey, near Taunton. When Lord Grey came in, Sydney was appointed to a canonry at St. Paul’s, his political friends being apparently afraid to make him either dean or bishop. He had, however, a considerable income from his various preferments, and though in early life he was much straitened for means, had latterly a fair private fortune. He died on 22nd February 1845. His chief writings were contributions to the Edinburgh Review, which he collected in 1839, the above named Peter Plymley, a much later but still more brilliant series of Letters to Archdeacon Singleton on the Ecclesiastical Commission (exhibiting some reaction from his earlier reforming zeal), and a very few other things, nearly all of the pamphlet and letter kind. They have long been collected as his Works in various forms, but should be supplemented by the letters and other matter contained in the two extremely entertaining Lives of him by his daughter, Lady Holland, and by Mr. Stuart Reid.]  1
COLERIDGE’S celebrated saying that “wit was the stuff and substance of Fuller’s intellect” would apply, I think, much better to Sydney Smith than to Fuller. Some limitations of it which are indispensable in the earlier writer’s case have been suggested in the section of this book which deals with him. But to the later it is applicable with hardly any limitations at all, and with only one serious addition—that common-sense was the form just as wit was the matter of the thought and style of the author of Peter Plymley. This combination which was found in Sydney Smith more perfectly than even in Voltaire—though without some additional ingredients which extended Voltaire’s range, and exalted his reach beyond Sydney Smith’s—will account when it is properly considered for almost all the peculiarities of this famous canon, the wittiest Englishman perhaps, with the possible exception of Charles the Second, of whom English history, literary or other, gives us intelligence. Very much of his ability in this kind was of course expended orally upon society, wherein he ranked as one of the most famous talkers of his time; and of this part nearly all has inevitably and irrecoverably perished, a few traditional anecdotes (some, as usual, of very doubtful attribution) being all that remains. His letters on the other hand exist, and are printed in the Lives referred to above in very considerable numbers; and these letters display, for the merely general reader who wishes to be amused, the combination of wit and common-sense in perfection. But for the literary student even they are not to be compared to the formally literary work, the most perfect examples whereof are the Peter Plymley Letters and those to Archdeacon Singleton, but every piece of which, whether pamphlet, letter, or review, is saturated with this quality.  2
  It is particularly important for the appreciation of Sydney’s style as well as of his matter to keep in mind that co-ordination of common-sense with wit which has been defined as his note. Fuller’s superabounding wit was most certainly not kept in order by any such companionship, and the result is, that though it has much more unction and far more of poetical tone than Sydney’s (which indeed is absolutely prosaic in the transferred sense of that word), it is often extravagant, often irrelevant, not unfrequently childish, sometimes very close to downright silliness and impertinence. That is to say it lacks the quality of justness, and it is this latter quality which is so eminently characteristic of Sydney Smith’s. In life and in conversation, as well as more rarely in his private letters, he may sometimes have passed from comedy to farce, but he never does this in his regular literary work. There is, as a rule, no verbal horseplay, no literary practical joking allowed in these remarkable productions. Even in the most daring and the most unscrupulous of them, Peter Plymley, there is little of either. That quality of exact proportion and measure which Thackeray—no lenient judge in that case—rightly assigned to Swift’s humour, is in a lower degree and share equally characteristic of Sydney Smith’s wit. It is possible that this very measure and moderation may be a little distasteful to some lovers of the irregular and fantastic, that they would pardon an occasional false note for the compensation of a more ambitious and varied music; but that is a matter more of personal predilection than of general criticism. In fact it is only a fresh instance of the eternal debate between “classical” and “romantic.” Intensely amusing as it is, Sydney Smith’s pleasantry belongs on the whole to the severer styles and orders of literary architecture. It is Greek rather than Gothic, and Ionic rather than Corinthian.  3
  The means whereby his effect is attained are of course not at all difficult to foresee, and they are found exactly as they may be foreseen. Although Sydney Smith was by no means averse from neologisms—indeed, when he thought fit to do so, he coined words with a freedom which may be suspected of having secretly shocked Jeffrey—he was on the whole decidedly economical of language, and very sober in his use of it. He never throws up a joke by the use of fantastic or voluble vocabulary; his phrase, though perfectly easy, is the ordinary phrase of well-bred and well-educated society; and above all he never insists or returns upon a jest, however drily or unobtrusively couched. Although his style is by no means so saturated with irony proper as Swift’s, he is unmatched in a sort of quiet, cursory, unconcerned, ironic summary or sketch, putting the subject which he is handling (especially if it be the action or the argument of an opponent or a victim) in the most ludicrous light possible. In his reviews he takes the greatest care not to overload an essentially absurd quotation with his own expositions of its absurdity. His sentences are unusually short, though he is not afraid of long ones when they are necessary or useful; but his habitual economy of phrase and the simplicity (at times reaching narrowness) of his thought naturally disincline him from prolixity. In short, though the nature of his subjects and the temper of his mind make him extremely allusive, and though he never wastes space on explaining himself, few writers permit themselves to be read and enjoyed with such perfect ease as Sydney Smith. He was an exceedingly strong partisan, and sometimes not a very scrupulous one; but his partisanship is never disgusting and hardly ever irritating. This effect may be not unconnected with the fact that even in his lifetime it frightened and puzzled his friends at least as much as it annoyed his enemies. Nor has his cleverness, astonishing as it is, anything that is presumptuous or arrogant about it. In short, both in style and in his application of it to his subject, Sydney Smith is the representative of the average intelligent man with his common-sense and his wit both sublimated to an elsewhere unattained pitch; and as such, despite his dealing with apparently ephemeral topics for the most part, he can hardly fail to be perennially admirable and interesting.  4

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