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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sydney Smith (1771–1845)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
SYDNEY SMITH’S reputation as an English wit is solid,—if that word can be applied to so volatile a quality. But wit that endures generally implies other characteristics behind it; and Sydney Smith is no exception. He was a man of great intellect; an advanced thinker on politics, philosophy, and religion, and one of the most potent and salutary influences of his day in England. His brilliant social traits should not obscure this fact. Naturally, however, it is the sparkling bon-mot that is easiest remembered. He had the art, as had few men of his time, of saying a deep or pregnant thing in a light way.  1
  He was the son of an English country gentleman of marked eccentricity of character, and was born at Woodford, Essex, June 3d, 1771. He went to Winchester school; then to Oxford, where he was a Fellow in 1792. A brief residence in Normandy gave him a command of the French language. His subsequent career was that of a talented and ambitious cleric in the Church of England. It is significant that the bar, not the pulpit, was his choice for a profession: it is easy to see that he would have been successful in the former calling. In 1794 he became curate of a remote parish on Salisbury Plains; and in 1796 went to Edinburgh, where he officiated for five years at an Episcopal chapel. It was during this Edinburgh residence that he formed the intimacy with Brougham, Jeffrey, and other clever young literary men, which resulted in 1802 in the foundation of the Edinburgh Review, with Sydney Smith as chief editor. He contributed seven articles to the first number, and kept up his connection with the magazine as a contributor for a quarter of a century. The position taken by this famous review was largely due to the impress given to it by Sydney Smith. From Edinburgh he went to London, and was a popular preacher there until 1806, when he was given the Yorkshire living of Foston-le-Clay; in 1809 he received that of Heslington near York, where he remained until 1828. It was characteristic of the man that he proved a faithful, hard-working country parson. In this year he received the appointment of canon of Bristol, from which he was transferred to London, as resident canon of St. Paul’s, living in the capital for the rest of his days, and dying there on February 22d, 1845. It has always been believed that had he not been throughout a consistent and sturdy Whig, and hence on the unpopular side, he would have died a bishop. For a dozen years or more, in London, he was not only an intellectual force but a social light, famous for his good-fellowship, a persona grata in drawing-rooms. His fund of animal spirits was unfailing. The conjunction of such intellectual powers with social gifts and graces is rare indeed. Yet physically, he was bulky and ungraceful, his face heavy and plain; and he was by no means a ladies’ man in the usual sense of that term.  2
  The first characteristic publication of Sydney Smith was the ‘Letters on the Subject of the Catholics: To my Brother Abraham, who Lives in the Country, by Peter Plymley’ (1807–8); it was issued anonymously, and had a decided influence in securing Roman Catholic emancipation. The lectures on moral philosophy—delivered at London, and attracting large and fashionable audiences in spite of the abstruse nature of the subject—were not published till 1849, Jeffrey being the editor. Sydney Smith’s other published writings embraced sermons, occasional discourses, and essays on political and social themes. In 1856 appeared ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Sydney Smith,’ with a biography and notes by E. A. Duyckinck. The memoir by his daughter, Lady Holland, gives an idea of his trenchant table-talk; and valuable material is contained in Stuart J. Reid’s ‘Life and Times of Sydney Smith’ (1884). Any one who takes the trouble to read Sydney Smith’s serious writings will see plainly that his wit and satire were but light-arm weapons used for serious purposes and in noble and enlightened causes. Macaulay remarked that he was the greatest master of ridicule in England since Swift. Doubtless this is true. But equally true is Sir Henry Holland’s claim that “if he had not been the greatest and most brilliant of wits, he would have been the most remarkable man of his time for a sound and vigorous understanding and great reasoning powers; and if he had not been distinguished for these, he would have been the most eminent and the purest writer of English.”  3

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