Sydney Smith

In my younger days I used to collect devastating reviews in a kind of commonplace bookas when <i>The Village Voice</I> entitled a review of a film by Barbra Streisand: A Bore is Starred, or when a reviewer complained, ODets, where is thy sting? This may be what attracted me to Sydney Smith (1771-1845), a clergyman in the Church of England perhaps best known as one of the founders of and regular contributors to <i>The Edinburgh Review</I>, as a champion of Catholic Emancipation, and as perhaps the greatest wit since Jonathan Swift. The Wikipedia article is a good introduction, and you can find works of his on-line here and here. Below are several examples of the sharpness of his pen, beginning with this one:
There is an event recorded in the Bible, which men who write books should keep constantly in their remembrance. It is there set forth, that many centuries ago the earth was covered with a great flood, by which the whole of the human race, with the exception of one family, were destroyed. It appears, also, that from thence, a great alteration was made in the longevity of mankind, who, from a range of seven or eight hundred years, which they enjoyed before the flood, were confined to their present period of seventy or eighty years. This epoch in the history of man gave birth to the twofold division of the antediluvian and postdiluvian style of writing, the latter of which naturally contracted itself into those inferior limits which were better accommodated to the abridged duration of human life and literary labour. Now, to forget this event--to write without the fear of the deluge before his eyes, and to handle a subject as if mankind could lounge over a pamphlet for ten years, as before their submersion--is to be guilty of the most grievous error into which a writer can possibly fall. The author of this book should call in the aid of some brilliant pencil, and cause the distressing scenes of the deluge to be portrayed in the most lively colours for his use. He should gaze at Noah, and be brief. The ark should constantly remind him of the little time there is left for reading; and he should learn, as they did in the ark, to crowd a great deal of matter into a very little compass. (Sydney Smith on Characters of the Late Charles James Fox.)
We hardly know what to say about this rambling, scrambling book; but that we are quite sure the author, when he began any sentence in it, had not the smallest suspicion of what it was about to contain.... The Essay on Bulls is written much with the same mind, and in the same manner, as a schoolboy takes a walk. He moves on for ten yards on the straight road, with surprising perseverance; then sets out after a butterfly, looks for a birds nest, or jumps backwards and forwards over a ditch. In the same manner this nimble and digressive gentleman is away after every object which crosses his mind. If you leave him at the end of a comma, in a steady pursuit of his subject, you are sure to find him, before the next full stop, a hundred yards to the right or left, frisking, capering, and grinning in a high paroxysm of merriment and agility. Mr. Edgeworth seems to possess the sentiments of an accomplished gentleman, the information of a scholar, and the vivacity of a first-rate Harlequin. He is fuddled with animal spirits, giddy with constitutional joy; in such a state he must have written on, or burst. A discharge of ink was an evacuation absolutely necessary, to avoid fatal and plethoric congestion. (Sydney Smith on Essay on Irish Bulls.)
But we are wasting our times in giving a theory of the faults of travelers, when we have such ample means of exemplifying them all from the publication now before us, in which Mr. Jacob Fieve, with the most surprising talents for doing wrong, has contrived to condense and agglomerate every species of absurdity that has hitherto been known, and even to launch out occasionally into new realms of nonsense, with a boldness which well entitles him to the merit of originality in folly, and discovery in impertinence. We consider Mr. Fieves book as extremely valuable in one point of view. It affords a sort of limit or mind-mark, beyond which we conceive it to be impossible in future that pertness and petulance should pass. It is well to be acquainted with the boundaries of our nature on both sides; and to Mr. Fieve we are indebted for this valuable approach to pessimism. The height of knowledge no man has yet scanned; but we have now pretty well fathomed the gulf of ignorance....
Lastly, Mr. Fieve alleges against the English, that they have great pleasure in contemplating the spectacle of men deprived of their reason. And, indeed, we must have the candour to allow that the hospitality which Mr. Fieve experienced seems to afford some proof of this assertion. (Sydney Smith on Fieves Lettres sur lAngleterre.)
It is commonly answered to any animadversions upon the English pulpit, that a clergyman is to recommend himself, not by his eloquence, but by the purity of his life and the soundness of his doctrine; an objection good enough, if any connection could be pointed out between eloquence, heresy, and dissipation. But if it is possible for a man to live well, preach well, and teach well, at the same time, such objections, resting only upon a supposed incompatibility of these good qualities, are duller than the dulness they defend....
Of Dr. Rennels talents as a reasoner, we certainly have formed no very high opinion. Unless dogmatical assertion, and the practice (but too common among theological writers) of taking the thing to be proved, for part of the proof, can be considered as evidence of a logical understanding, the specimens of argument Dr. Rennel has afforded us are very insignificant. For putting obvious truths into vehement language; for expanding and adorning moral instruction, this gentleman certainly possesses considerable talents; and if he will moderate his insolence, steer clear of theological metaphysics, and consider rather those great laws of Christian practice, which must interest mankind through all ages, than the petty questions which are important to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being, he may live beyond his own days, and become a star of the third or fourth magnitude in the English Church. (Sydney Smith on Rennels Discourses on Various Subjects.)
If this peace be, as Mr. Bowles asserts, the death-warrant of the liberty and power of Great Britain, we will venture to assert that it [is] also the death-warrant of Mr. Bowles literary reputation; and that the people of this island, if they verify his predictions, and cease to read his books, whatever they may lose in political greatness, will evince no small improvement in critical acumen. ...
The truth is, if Mr. Bowles had begun his literary career at a period when superior discrimination and profound thought, not vulgar violence and the eternal repetition of rabble-rousing words, were necessary to literary reputation, he would never have emerged from that obscurity to which he will soon return. The intemperate passions of the public, not his own talents, have given him some temporary reputation; and now, when men hope and fear with less eagerness than they have been lately accustomed to do, Mr. Bowles will be compelled to descend from that moderate eminence, where no man of real genius would ever have condescended to remain. (Sydney Smith on Bowles Reflections on the Conclusion of the War.)
An accident, which happened to the gentleman engaged in reviewing this sermon, proves, in the most striking manner, the importance of this charity for restoring to life persons in whom the vital power is suspended. He was discovered, with Dr. Langfords discourse lying open before him, in a state of the most profound sleep; from which he could not, by any means, be awakened for a great length of time. By attending, however, to the rules prescribed by the Humane Society, flinging in the smoke of tobacco, applying hot flannels, and carefully removing the discourse itself to a great distance, the critic was restored to his disconsolate brothers. (Sydney Smith on Langfords Anniversary Sermon of the Royal Humane Society)

In my younger days I took an unholy pleasure in devastating reviewsas when The Village Voice entitled a review of a film by Barbra Streisand: A Bore is Starred, or when a reviewer complained, ODets, where is thy sting? This may be what attracted me to Sydney Smith (1771-1845), a clergyman in the Church of England perhaps best known as one of the founders of and regular contributors to The Edinburgh Review, as a champion of Catholic Emancipation, and as perhaps the greatest wit since Jonathan Swift. The Wikipedia article is a good introduction, and you can find works of his on-line here and here. Below are several examples of the sharpness of his pen, beginning with this one: There is an event recorded in the Bible, which men who write books should keep constantly in their remembrance. It is there set forth, that many centuries ago the earth was covered with a great flood, by which the whole of the human race, with the exception of one family, were destroyed. It appears, also, that from thence, a great alteration was made in the longevity of mankind, who, from a range of seven or eight hundred years, which they enjoyed before the flood, were confined to their present period of seventy or eighty years. This epoch in the history of man gave birth to the twofold division of the antediluvian and postdiluvian style of writing, the latter of which naturally contracted itself into those inferior limits which were better accommodated to the abridged duration of human life and literary labour. Now, to forget this event--to write without the fear of the deluge before his eyes, and to handle a subject as if mankind could lounge over a pamphlet for ten years, as before their submersion--is to be guilty of the most grievous error into which a writer can possibly fall. The author of this book should call in the aid of some brilliant pencil, and cause the distressing scenes of the deluge to be portrayed in the most lively colours for his use. He should gaze at Noah, and be brief. The ark should constantly remind him of the little time there is left for reading; and he should learn, as they did in the ark, to crowd a great deal of matter into a very little compass. (Sydney Smith on Characters of the Late Charles James Fox.)

We hardly know what to say about this rambling, scrambling book; but that we are quite sure the author, when he began any sentence in it, had not the smallest suspicion of what it was about to contain.... The Essay on Bulls is written much with the same mind, and in the same manner, as a schoolboy takes a walk. He moves on for ten yards on the straight road, with surprising perseverance; then sets out after a butterfly, looks for a birds nest, or jumps backwards and forwards over a ditch. In the same manner this nimble and digressive gentleman is away after every object which crosses his mind. If you leave him at the end of a comma, in a steady pursuit of his subject, you are sure to find him, before the next full stop, a hundred yards to the right or left, frisking, capering, and grinning in a high paroxysm of merriment and agility. Mr. Edgeworth seems to possess the sentiments of an accomplished gentleman, the information of a scholar, and the vivacity of a first-rate Harlequin. He is fuddled with animal spirits, giddy with constitutional joy; in such a state he must have written on, or burst. A discharge of ink was an evacuation absolutely necessary, to avoid fatal and plethoric congestion. (Sydney Smith on Essay on Irish Bulls.) But we are wasting our times in giving a theory of the faults of travelers, when we have such ample means of exemplifying them all from the publication now before us, in which Mr. Jacob Fieve, with the most surprising talents for doing wrong, has contrived to condense and agglomerate every species of absurdity that has hitherto been known, and even to launch out occasionally into new realms of nonsense, with a boldness which well entitles him to the merit of originality in folly, and discovery in impertinence. We consider Mr. Fieves book as extremely valuable in one point of view. It affords a sort of limit or mind-mark, beyond which we conceive it to be impossible in future that pertness and petulance should pass. It is well to be acquainted with the boundaries of our nature on both sides; and to Mr. Fieve we are indebted for this valuable approach to pessimism. The height of knowledge no man has yet scanned; but we have now pretty well fathomed the gulf of ignorance.... Lastly, Mr. Fieve alleges against the English, that they have great pleasure in contemplating the spectacle of men deprived of their reason. And, indeed, we must have the candour to allow that the hospitality which Mr. Fieve experienced seems to afford some proof of this assertion. (Sydney Smith on Fieves Lettres sur lAngleterre.) It is commonly answered to any animadversions upon the English pulpit, that a clergyman is to recommend himself, not by his eloquence, but by the purity of his life and the soundness of his doctrine; an objection good enough, if any connection could be pointed out between eloquence, heresy, and dissipation. But if it is possible for a man to live well, preach well, and teach well, at the same time, such objections, resting only upon a supposed incompatibility of these good qualities, are duller than the dulness they defend.... Of Dr. Rennels talents as a reasoner, we certainly have formed no very high opinion. Unless dogmatical assertion, and the practice (but too common among theological writers) of taking the thing to be proved, for part of the proof, can be considered as evidence of a logical understanding, the specimens of argument Dr. Rennel has afforded us are very insignificant. For putting obvious truths into vehement language; for expanding and adorning moral instruction, this gentleman certainly possesses considerable talents; and if he will moderate his insolence, steer clear of theological metaphysics, and consider rather those great laws of Christian practice, which must interest mankind through all ages, than the petty questions which are important to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being, he may live beyond his own days, and become a star of the third or fourth magnitude in the English Church. (Sydney Smith on Rennels Discourses on Various Subjects.) If this peace be, as Mr. Bowles asserts, the death-warrant of the liberty and power of Great Britain, we will venture to assert that it [is] also the death-warrant of Mr. Bowles literary reputation; and that the people of this island, if they verify his predictions, and cease to read his books, whatever they may lose in political greatness, will evince no small improvement in critical acumen. ... The truth is, if Mr. Bowles had begun his literary career at a period when superior discrimination and profound thought, not vulgar violence and the eternal repetition of rabble-rousing words, were necessary to literary reputation, he would never have emerged from that obscurity to which he will soon return. The intemperate passions of the public, not his own talents, have given him some temporary reputation; and now, when men hope and fear with less eagerness than they have been lately accustomed to do, Mr. Bowles will be compelled to descend from that moderate eminence, where no man of real genius would ever have condescended to remain. (Sydney Smith on Bowles Reflections on the Conclusion of the War.) An accident, which happened to the gentleman engaged in reviewing this sermon, proves, in the most striking manner, the importance of this charity for restoring to life persons in whom the vital power is suspended. He was discovered, with Dr. Langfords discourse lying open before him, in a state of the most profound sleep; from which he could not, by any means, be awakened for a great length of time. By attending, however, to the rules prescribed by the Humane Society, flinging in the smoke of tobacco, applying hot flannels, and carefully removing the discourse itself to a great distance, the critic was restored to his disconsolate brothers. (Sydney Smith on Langfords Anniversary Sermon of the Royal Humane Society)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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