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E S S A Y S.
THE REV. SYDNEY SMITH:
HIS LIFE, CHARACTER, AND WRITING S.
(FROM THE EDINBURGH REVIEW, JULY, 1855.)
A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. By his Daughter,
LADY HOLLAND. With Selections from his Letters.
Edited by Mrs. AUSTIN. In 2 vols. London : 1855. The publication of this book affords us the opportunity for which we have been anxiously watching, which we must ere long have found or made for ourselves, had it not presented itself. We should be guilty of an unpardonable neglect of duty were we to allow Sydney Smith to be permanently placed amongst the illustrious band of English worthies in the Temple of Fame, at the risk of seeing too low a pedestal assigned to him, without urging on the attention of contemporaries, and recording for the instruction of posterity, his claims to rank as a great public benefactor, as well as his admitted superiority in what we must make bold to call his incidental and subordinate character of “wit." It was in this Journal that he commenced his brilliant and eminently useful career as a social, moral, and political reformer. He persevered in that career through good and evil report, with unabated vigour and vivacity, both in writing and conversation, until the
greater part of his original objects had been attained; and the simplest recapitulation of these would be sufficient to show that his countrymen have durable benefits and solid services, as well as pleasant thoughts and lively images, to thank him for.
With, perhaps, the single exception of Lord Brougham, no one man within living memory has done more to promote the improvement and wellbeing of mankind, by waging continual war, with pen and tongue, against ignorance and prejudice in all their modifications and varieties; nor should it be forgotten, that, although he wielded weapons very like those which had been employed in the immediately preceding age to undermine law, order, and religion, his exquisite humour was uniformnly exerted on the side of justice, virtue, and rational freedom. Indeed, it would hardly have been possible to pervert or misapply so rare and distinctive a gift, being, as it notoriously was, the intense expression, the flower, the cream, the quintessence, of reason and good sense. We will not say that, like Goldsmith, he adorned everything he touched, but he compelled everything he touched to appear in its natural shape and genuine colours. In his hands the logical process called the reductio ad absurdum operated like the spear of Ithuriel. No form of sophistry or phase of bigotry could help throwing off its disguise at his approach; and the dogma which has been deemed questionable touching ridicule in general, may be confidently predicated of his, namely, that it was literally and emphatically the test of truth.
Sydney Smith's Life: he who opens this book under the expectation of reading in it curious adventures, important transactions, or public events, had better close the volume, for none of these things will he find therein.”
So stands the first sentence of Lady Holland's preface, and such an announcement at starting must be admitted to be the reverse of a temptation or a lure.
Nothing,” she proceeds, “can be more thoroughly private and eventless than the narrative I am about to give; yet I feel myself, and I have reason to believe there are many who will feel with me, that this Life is not, therefore, uninteresting or unimportant; for, though circumstances over which my father had no control forbade his taking that active share in the affairs of his country for which his talents and his character so eminently fitted him, yet neither circumstances nor power could suppress these talents, or subdue and enfeeble that character; and I believe I may assert, without danger of contradiction, that by them, and the use he has made of them, he has earned for himself a place amongst the great men of his time and country.
“Such being the case, however, his talents, and the employment of them, are alone before the world. This is but half the picture, and I believe few who have known so much do not wish to know more.
“ The mode of life, the heart, the habits, the thoughts and feelings, the conversation, the home, the occupations of such a man,-all, in short, which can give life and reality to the picture,—are as yet wanting ; and it is to endeavour to supply this want that I have ventured to undertake this task.”
The task was a labour of love, and, like almost all such labours, it has been efficiently as well as conscientiously performed. This monument erected by filial piety to our revered and lamented friend's memory, will at once compel unhesitating and universal assent to what might otherwise be thought an exaggerated estimate of his genius and his worth. It was a theory of Lavater that we insensibly contract a certain degree of physical resemblance, especially as regards expression, to those with whom we live much in domestic intimacy. Be this as it may, there can be little doubt that a master mind exercises a powerful influence on the feelings, understandings, and modes of thought of those who are brought into hourly contact with it through a series of years. When the