In 1983, British biographer and novelist A.N. Wilson wrote, in his Life of John Milton, “It needs an act of supreme historical imagination to be able to recapture an atmosphere in which Anglican bishops might be taken seriously; still more, one in which they might be thought threatening.”
This observation gained a particular force in March, when Rowan Williams announced his forthcoming departure from the See of Canterbury. Not only has Williams been the first holder of his office to abandon all Christian dogma in favor of druidic whimsies and Islamic appeasement, but even against such daunting competitors as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Sarah Palin he has become the most comprehensively derided politician in the English-speaking world since Teddy Kennedy acquired his one-way ticket to Gehenna.
This circumstance lends a pleasing fascination to the spectacle of any English Anglican with cojones. Such a being acquires in 2012 the same novel charm that typifies any exotic mindset, and that ensures the continuing appeal of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis even among those who have never darkened an Anglican church’s door. Which is where the Reverend Sydney Smith comes in.
Smith—an overweight, homely-looking cleric who neither obtained nor sought legislative office—never left Europe, seldom left London, could disappear into any crowd without attracting notice, and had about as much obvious magnetism as the proverbial “Mayor of Birmingham in a bad year.” “A mouth like an oyster, and three double-chins,” one catty female observer remarked.
Yet when Smith died in 1845, some of Britain’s toughest political bruisers wept like children. The news of Smith’s passing plunged Francis Jeffrey, ruthless Scottish editor and judge, into (one Smith specialist tells us) “an agony of grief.” This news—according to the same source—had also “shaken Lord John Russell, silenced Macaulay, caused Lady Holland to forget her ailments, made [dry-as-dust poetaster] Samuel Rogers sentimental, stopped the pen of Dickens … [and] reddened the eyes of Thomas Moore.” Once Moore had good-humoredly complained: “Sydney at breakfast made me actually cry with laughing. I was obliged to start up from the table.” Sir James Mackintosh, an uninspired but at one time celebrated historian, so forgot his natural tedium in Smith’s company that (according to the aforementioned Russell) he “rolled on the floor in fits of laughter.”
Among Smith’s admirers across the Atlantic was the obscure spokesman for Sangamon County in the Illinois House of Representatives, who delighted in spouting Smith’s maxims but whom few on that account credited with a political future. The representative bore the name Abraham Lincoln.
What manner of hero was this Smith? Who would have thought the old man to have had so much fame in him?
He was… odd, definitely. Odd more in a French than an English manner: he himself imputed his ebullient logic to his mother’s Huguenot blood, which made a combustible mix with the antic disposition of his merchant father, Robert. Adumbrating Edward Lear’s limerick about “the old man of Thermophylae / Who never did anything properly,” Robert Smith bought and sold 19 estates in England, for reasons known exclusively to himself. Hesketh Pearson, in The Smith of Smiths, describes Smith senior’s architectural M.O.: “No sooner had he purchased a house and spent both money and energy in ruining its appearance, than he got rid of it at a loss and departed for another district.”
Sydney, born in 1771, was the second of five children. He went to Winchester, one of the leading “public schools”—private schools, in American terms—and loathed it. Over 200 years before David Cameron gave upper-crust puerile sordor a bad name, Smith had flayed the ethical pretensions afflicting Cameron’s alma mater, Eton, no less than Winchester itself:
At a public school, every boy is alternatively tyrant and slave. The power which the elder part of these communities exercises over the younger, is exceedingly great—very difficult to be controlled—and accompanied, not unfrequently, with cruelty and caprice. … The morality of boys is generally very imperfect; their notions of honor extremely mistaken; and their objects of ambition frequently very absurd. … This system also gives the elder boys an absurd and pernicious opinion of their own importance, which is often with difficulty effaced by a considerable commerce with the world.
One negative merit such schools preserved: as Lord Melbourne mused, they could not actually prevent you reading books if you wanted to. And read books Smith did. He won so many academic prizes as to inspire demands that he be prohibited from contesting any more. But these prizes, though securing him entry to Oxford, did not lastingly enrich him. Following his father into “trade” would have caused scandal. Becoming a lawyer—as he himself wanted to do—required paternal money long gone. He would not have survived a week’s training in the armed forces. Nor would the armed forces.
So holy orders it had to be; so, from 1796, it was. While his aristocratic contemporaries gambled and wenched their way through the Grand Tour of the Low Countries, France, and Italy—with perhaps a penitential week among the clean-living Swiss—we find Smith in a Wiltshire village, catechizing parishioners among whom the ability to read and write ranked well below the knack for milking cattle or harvesting corn. This is what nine-tenths of rural England was like before Gladstone’s 1870 Education Act.
Even after young Smith had studied philosophy in Edinburgh, nothing much distinguished him from other scholarly, indigent curates. Certainly he wrote sermons good enough to be collected in a book, but a volume of homilies no more presupposed literary talent in 1800 than a master’s thesis does to us. Anglican divines then, however innately uncompetitive, resembled today’s racehorses or pop singers in the passionate claques they acquired. (As late as 1922 P.G. Wodehouse, with no hint of anachronism, devoted to these sacerdotal conflicts a marvelous short story, “The Great Sermon Handicap.”) Smith nevertheless had what his rivals usually lacked: first-hand understanding of Scottish Lowlands didacticism at its fiercest, and intellectual friendships for which Dr. Johnson’s milieu alone provides a counterpart. The didacticism led gradually into the friendships.
What do intellectual friends in any epoch do? They start a magazine. Smith was erudite and broke. Francis Jeffrey was erudite and broke. Neither Smith nor Jeffrey had shown exceptional prose gifts, or cultivated any rich patrons, or even developed a skill at placating those censors who—in the Britain of Pitt the Younger as afterward in the Austria of Metternich—spied pestiferously on suspected radicals, even while incapable of serious doctrinal combat against them. No matter. In 1802 the Edinburgh Review made its début, with Smith being editor, a more experienced candidate having proven invisible. Smith lost his first tiff with his colleagues when they rejected his proffered motto for the magazine: Tenui musam meditamur avena, “We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal.” The staff did live on oatmeal and saw no reason to publicize the regrettable fact.
Smith took over ever more of the Review’s writing assignments—some under his own name, some pseudonymous—consigning to Jeffrey the editorship. For all the Review’s theoretical allegiance to the Whig party, Smith did what very few British journalists have done since: he got his periodical read by multitudes who abhorred his politics. Just as innumerable Loyal Orange major-generals once bought the left-leaning New Statesman for its book reviews and poetry competitions, just as Trotskyite educrats once bought The Spectator for the shamefaced satisfaction of perusing Sir Peregrine Worsthorne’s latest assault on good collectivist taste, so Smith achieved a readership among those antediluvian backwoods peers who equated the Duke of Wellington with the Jacobin Club.
A cause had only to be both sensible and apparently unwinnable for Smith to champion it. Like numerous really fine stylists, he never lost a needful power to shock. And no utterance more shocked England—Smith had become a Londoner in 1803—than any call for Catholic Emancipation.
To ordinary Englishmen back then, an advocate of extending civil rights to hold office and practice their religion to Catholics was at once a maniac, a conspirator, and a hoodlum. The best somebody like Smith could expect was to be dismissed as JFK dismissed Nixon: “No class.”
This challenge Smith relished. Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, shot dead in 1812, might well have found his killer’s ammunition anticlimactic after Smith’s onslaughts against his anti-Catholic policy. To drive the message home, Smith—his pen-name “Peter Plymley” deceived no one—combined emancipism with (gulp) the Irish Question: “There is not a parent from the Giant’s Causeway to Bantry Bay who does not conceive that his child is the unfortunate victim of the exclusion, and that nothing short of positive law could prevent his own dear pre-eminent Paddy from rising to the highest honors of the State. So with the army, and parliament; in fact, few are excluded; but in imagination, all; you keep 20 or 30 Catholics out, and you lose the affection of four millions.”
Finally in 1829 his agitation gained statutory results. Smith acted—let this be emphasized—not through any love of Catholicism. Instead, he obeyed that same spirit that made French War Minister Georges Picquart, whilst personally antipathetic toward Captain Dreyfus, seek the overturning of Dreyfus’s conviction for treason: an objective evil had prevailed, it must not continue to prevail, and those who extenuated it degraded the very nation they purported to love. Picquart had much the easier task, given the articulacy of Dreyfus’s admirers. Catholic Erin was less fortunate. “The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned,” Smith lamented, “the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants, and the fatuity of idiots.” Consult the recent Hibernophobic ravings of historian Andrew Roberts to behold this syndrome in our own age.
If contemplating Smith the pro-Catholic would still suffice to make Roberts reach for the Valium, contemplating Smith the foe of imperial overreach would probably induce in him a fatal aneurysm. Too seldom remembered among Whiggery’s successes, between Lord Grey’s election in 1830 and Lord Melbourne’s retirement in 1841, is its refusal to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But just as our own laptop bombardiers have their Hitlers of the month, the armchair warriors of Smith’s day had their Bonapartes of the month, King Louis-Philippe included. Smith, who numbered both the prime minister and his wife among his closest allies, set to work. Lady Grey drew from him a letter that stands, even now, among the most stirring of all English epistolary utterances:
For God’s sake do not drag me into another war! I am worn down, and worn out, with crusading and defending Europe, and protecting mankind; I must think a little of myself. I am sorry for the Spaniards. I am sorry for the Greeks. I deplore the fate of the Jews. The people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny. Baghdad is oppressed. I do not like the present state of the [Ganges] Delta. Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people? The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy? We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid that the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other’s throats. No war, dear Lady Grey! No eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic! I beseech you, secure Lord Grey’s swords and pistols, as the housekeeper did Don Quixote’s armor.”
Intermittent stabs of guilt could make a Whig boss fleetingly entertain the idea of giving Smith condign rewards. “Smith has done more for the Whigs than all the clergy put together,” reflected Lord Melbourne, “and our not making him a bishop is sheer cowardice.” Alas, cowardice triumphed, and George III’s prophecy—“He is a very clever fellow, but he will never be a bishop”—proved accurate. It was probably bound to do so, given that Smith had enfiladed an ecclesiastical opponent with the words, “I must believe in Apostolic Succession, there being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot.”
But for every individual who feared Smith’s tongue, hundreds cherished it. Perhaps recalling Smith’s aid to Louis-Philippe’s governance, French statesman François Guizot discerned: “It is his condition to be witty, as it is that of Lady Seymour”—a renowned Whig diva—“to be beautiful.” Macaulay praised Smith for talking “from the impulse of the moment, and his fun is quite inexhaustible,” a fairly generous response to Smith’s famous put-down that Macaulay “has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful.” Lord Dudley, then considered a political genius, sportingly told Smith: “You have been laughing at me for the last seven years, and you never said anything which I wished unsaid.”
Pages of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations will supply as many Smith epigrams as one could desire. May a latter-day admirer cite, instead, an Edinburgh lecture that Smith gave to raise money on behalf of the blind?
The sense of sight is indeed the highest bodily privilege, the purest physical pleasure, which man has derived from his Creator. To see that wandering fire, after he has finished his journey through the nations, coming back to his eastern heavens … is it possible to joy in this animated scene, and feel no pity for the sons of darkness? For the eyes that will never see light? For the poor clouded in everlasting gloom? If you ask me why they are miserable and dejected, I turn you to the plentiful valleys; to the fields now bringing forth their increase; to the freshness and the flowers of the earth; to the endless variety of its colors; to the grace, the symmetry, the shape of all it cherishes and all it bears: these you have forgotten, because you have always enjoyed them … This is the reason why the blind are miserable and dejected—because their soul is mutilated, and dismembered of its best sense—because they are a laughter and a ruin, and the boys of the streets mock at their stumbling feet. Therefore, I implore you, by the Son of David, have mercy on the blind. If there is not pity for all sorrows, turn the full and perfect man to meet the inclemency of fate; let not those who have never tasted the pleasures of existence be assailed by any of its sorrows; the eyes which are never gladdened by light should never stream with tears.
Rare is the writer whose deathbed tenets one would want, on one’s own deathbed, to read. Smith is such a writer. In his final weeks he found himself quoting a sermon he had composed long before: “We talk of human life as a journey, but how variously is that journey performed! There are some who come forth girt, and shod, and mantled, to walk on velvet lawns and smooth terraces, where every gale is arrested, and every beam is tempered. There are others who walk on the Alpine paths of life, against driving misery, and through stormy sorrows, over sharp afflictions; walk with bare feet, and naked breast, jaded, mangled, and chilled.”
Sydney Smith, R.I.P. You were saying, Professor Dawkins?
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.