From Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets series, published in 3 volumes between 1779 and 1781.
Edmund Smith is one of those lucky writers who have, without much labour, attained high reputation, and who are mentioned with reverence, rather for the possession, than the exertion of uncommon abilities.
Of his life little is known; and that little claims no praise but what can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous purpose. His character, as given by Mr. Oldisworth, with all the partiality of friendship, which is said, by Dr. Burton, to show "what fine things one man of parts can say of another," and which, however, comprises great part of what can be known of Mr. Smith, it is better to transcribe, at once, than to take by pieces. I shall subjoin such little memorials as accident has enabled me to collect.
Mr. Edmund Smith was the only son of an eminent merchant, one Mr. Neale, by a daughter of the famous baron Lechmere. Some misfortunes of his father, which were soon followed by his death, were the occasion of the son's being left very young in the hands of a near relation, (one who married Mr. Neale's sister,) whose name was Smith.
This gentleman and his lady treated him as their own child, and put him to Westminster school, under the care of Dr. Busby; whence, after the loss of his faithful and generous guardian, (whose name he assumed and retained,) he was removed to Christ church, in Oxford, and there, by his aunt, handsomely maintained till her death; after which he continued a member of that learned and ingenious society, till within five years of his own; though, some time before his leaving Christ church, he was sent for by his mother to Worcester, and owned and acknowledged as her legitimate son; which had not been mentioned, but to wipe off the aspersions that were ignorantly cast by some on his birth. It is to be remembered, for our author's honour, that, when at Westminster election he stood a candidate for one of the universities, he so signally distinguished himself by his conspicuous performances, that there arose no small contention, between the representative electors of Trinity college, in Cambridge, and Christ church, in Oxon, which of those two royal societies should adopt him as their own. But the electors of Trinity college having the preference of choice that year, they resolutely elected him; who yet, being invited, at the same time, to Christ church, chose to accept of a studentship there. Mr. Smith's perfections, as well natural as acquired, seem to have been formed upon Horace's plan, who says, in his Art of Poetry:
Ego nec studium sine divite vena, Nec rude quid prosit video ingenium; alterius sic Altera poscit opem res, et conjurat amice.
He was endowed by nature with all those excellent and necessary qualifications which are previous to the accomplishment of a great man. His memory was large and tenacious, yet, by a curious felicity, chiefly susceptible of the finest impressions it received from the best authors he read, which it always preserved in their primitive strength and amiable order.
He had a quickness of apprehension, and vivacity of understanding, which easily took in and surmounted the most subtile and knotty parts of mathematicks and metaphysicks. His wit was prompt and flowing, yet solid and piercing; his taste delicate, his head clear, and his way of expressing his thoughts perspicuous and engaging. I shall say nothing of his person, which yet was so well turned, that no neglect of himself in his dress could render it disagreeable; insomuch, that the fair sex, who observed and esteemed him, at once commended and reproved him by the name of the handsome sloven. An eager but generous and noble emulation grew up with him; which (as it were a rational sort of instinct) pushed him upon striving to excel in every art and science that could make him a credit to his college, and that college the ornament of the most learned and polite university; and it was his happiness to have several contemporaries and fellow-students who exercised and excited this virtue in themselves and others, thereby becoming so deservedly in favour with this age, and so good a proof of its nice discernment. His judgment, naturally good, soon ripened into an exquisite fineness and distinguishing sagacity, which as it was active and busy, so it was vigorous and manly, keeping even paces with a rich and strong imagination, always upon the wing, and never tired with aspiring. Hence it was, that, though he writ as young as Cowley, he had no puerilities; and his earliest productions were so far from having any thing in them mean and trifling, that, like the junior compositions of Mr. Stepney, they may make grey authors blush. There are many of his first essays in oratory, in epigram, elegy, and epick, still handed about the university in manuscript, which show a masterly hand; and, though maimed and injured by frequent transcribing, make their way into our most celebrated miscellanies, where they shine with uncommon lustre. Besides those verses in the Oxford books, which he could not help setting his name to, several of his compositions came abroad under other names, which his own singular modesty, and faithful silence, strove in vain to conceal. The Encaenia and publick collections of the university upon state subjects, were never in such esteem, either for elegy or congratulation, as when he contributed most largely to them; and it was natural for those who knew his peculiar way of writing, to turn to his share in the work, as by far the most relishing part of the entertainment. As his parts were extraordinary, so he well knew how to improve them; and not only to polish the diamond, but enchase it in the most solid and durable metal. Though he was an academick the greatest part of his life, yet he contracted no sourness of temper, no spice of pedantry, no itch of disputation, or obstinate contention for the old or new philosophy, no assuming way of dictating to others, which are faults (though excusable) which some are insensibly led into, who are constrained to dwell long within the walls of a private college. His conversation was pleasant and instructive, and what Horace said of Plotius, Varius, and Virgil, might justly be applied to him:
Nil ego contulerim jucundo sanus amico. Sat. v. l. 1.
As correct a writer as he was in his most elaborate pieces, he read the works of others with candour, and reserved his greatest severity for his own compositions; being readier to cherish and advance, than damp or depress a rising genius, and as patient of being excelled himself (if any could excel him) as industrious to excel others.
'Twere to be wished he had confined himself to a particular profession, who was capable of surpassing in any; but, in this, his want of application was, in a great measure, owing to his want of due encouragement.
He passed through the exercises of the college and university with unusual applause; and though he often suffered his friends to call him off from his retirements, and to lengthen out those jovial avocations, yet his return to his studies was so much the more passionate, and his intention upon those refined pleasures of reading and thinking so vehement, (to which his facetious and unbended intervals bore no proportion,) that the habit grew upon him; and the series of meditation and reflection being kept up whole weeks together, he could better sort his ideas, and take in the sundry parts of a science at one view, without interruption or confusion. Some, indeed, of his acquaintance, who were pleased to distinguish between the wit and the scholar, extolled him altogether on the account of the first of these titles; but others, who knew him better, could not forbear doing him justice as a prodigy in both kinds. He had signalized himself, in the schools, as a philosopher and polemick of extensive knowledge and deep penetration; and went through all the courses with a wise regard to the dignity and importance of each science.
I remember him in the Divinity school responding and disputing with a perspicuous energy, a ready exactness, and commanding force of argument, when Dr. Jane worthily presided in the chair; whose condescending and disinterested commendation of him gave him such a reputation, as silenced the envious malice of his enemies, who durst not contradict the approbation of so profound a master in theology. None of those self-sufficient creatures, who have either trifled with philosophy, by attempting to ridicule it, or have encumbered it with novel terms and burdensome explanations, understood its real weight and purity half so well as Mr. Smith. He was too discerning to allow of the character of unprofitable, rugged, and abstruse, which some superficial sciolists, (so very smooth and polite, as to admit of no impression,) either out of an unthinking indolence, or an ill-grounded prejudice, had affixed to this sort of studies. He knew the thorny terms of philosophy served well to fence in the true doctrines of religion; and looked upon school-divinity as upon a rough but well-wrought armour, which might at once adorn and defend the christian hero, and equip him for the combat.
Mr. Smith had a long and perfect intimacy with all the Greek and Latin classicks; with whom he had carefully compared whatever was worth perusing in the French, Spanish, and Italian, (to which languages he was no stranger,) and in all the celebrated writers of his own country. But then, according to the curious observation of the late earl of Shaftesbury, he kept the poet in awe by regular criticism; and, as it were, married the two arts for their mutual support and improvement. There was not a tract of credit, upon that subject, which he had not diligently examined, from Aristotle down to Hedelin and Bossu; so that, having each rule constantly before him, he could carry the art through every poem, and at once point out the graces and deformities. By this means he seemed to read with a design to correct, as well as imitate.
Being thus prepared, he could not but taste every little delicacy that was set before him; though it was impossible for him, at the same time, to be fed and nourished with any thing but what was substantial and lasting. He considered the ancients and moderns not as parties or rivals for fame, but as architects upon one and the same plan, the art of poetry; according to which he judged, approved, and blamed, without flattery or detraction. If he did not always commend the compositions of others, it was not ill-nature, (which was not in his temper,) but strict justice, that would not let him call a few flowers set in ranks, a glib measure, and so many couplets, by the name of poetry: he was of Ben Jonson's opinion, who could not admire
Verses as smooth and soft as cream, In which there was neither depth nor stream.
And, therefore, though his want of complaisance for some men's overbearing vanity made him enemies, yet the better part of mankind were obliged by the freedom of his reflections.
His Bodleian Speech, though taken from a remote and imperfect copy, hath shown the world how great a master he was of the Ciceronian eloquence, mixed with the conciseness and force of Demosthenes, the elegant and moving turns of Pliny, and the acute and wise reflections of Tacitus.
Since Temple and Roscommon, no man understood Horace better, especially as to his happy diction, rolling numbers, beautiful imagery, and alternate mixture of the soft and the sublime. This endeared Dr. Hannes's odes to him, the finest genius for Latin lyrick since the Augustan age. His friend Mr. Philips's ode to Mr. St. John, (late lord Bolingbroke,) after the manner of Horace's Lusory or Amatorian Odes, is certainly a masterpiece; but Mr. Smith's Pocockius is of the sublimer kind, though, like Waller's writings upon Oliver Cromwell, it wants not the most delicate and surprising turns peculiar to the person praised. I do not remember to have seen any thing like it in Dr. Bathurst, who had made some attempts this way with applause. He was an excellent judge of humanity; and so good an historian, that in familiar discourse he would talk over the most memorable facts in antiquity, the lives, actions, and characters of celebrated men, with amazing facility and accuracy. As he had thoroughly read and digested Thuanus's works, so he was able to copy after him; and his talent in this kind was so well known and allowed, that he had been singled out, by some great men, to write a history, which it was for their interest to have done with the utmost art and dexterity. I shall not mention for what reasons this design was dropped, though they are very much to Mr. Smith's honour. The truth is, and I speak it before living witnesses, whilst an agreeable company could fix him upon a subject of useful literature, nobody shone to greater advantage; he seemed to be that Memmius whom Lucretius speaks of:
Quem tu, dea, tempore in omni Omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus.
His works are not many, and those scattered up and down in miscellanies and collections, being wrested from him by his friends with great difficulty and reluctance. All of them together make but a small part of that much greater body which lies dispersed in the possession of numerous acquaintance; and cannot, perhaps, be made entire without great injustice to him, because few of them had his last hand, and the transcriber was often obliged to take the liberties of a friend. His condolence for the death of Mr. Philips is full of the noblest beauties, and hath done justice to the ashes of that second Milton, whose writings will last as long as the English language, generosity, and valour. For him Mr. Smith had contracted a perfect friendship; a passion he was most susceptible of, and whose laws he looked upon as sacred and inviolable.
Every subject that passed under his pen had all the life, proportion, and embellishments bestowed on it, which an exquisite skill, a warm imagination, and a cool judgment, possibly could bestow on it. The epick, lyrick, elegiack, every sort of poetry he touched upon, (and he had touched upon a great variety,) was raised to its proper height, and the differences between each of them observed with a judicious accuracy. We saw the old rules and new beauties placed in admirable order by each other; and there was a predominant fancy and spirit of his own infused, superiour to what some draw off from the ancients, or from poesies here and there culled out of the moderns, by a painful industry and servile imitation. His contrivances were adroit and magnificent; his images lively and adequate; his sentiments charming and majestick; his expressions natural and bold; his numbers various and sounding; and that enamelled mixture of classical wit, which, without redundance and affectation, sparkled through his writings, and was no less pertinent and agreeable.
His Phaedra is a consummate tragedy, and the success of it was as great as the most sanguine expectations of his friends could promise or foresee. The number of nights, and the common method of filling the house, are not always the surest marks of judging what encouragement a play meets with; but the generosity of all the persons of a refined taste about town was remarkable on this occasion; and it must not be forgotten how zealously Mr. Addison espoused his interest, with all the elegant judgment and diffusive good-nature for which that accomplished gentleman and author is so justly valued by mankind. But as to Phaedra, she has certainly made a finer figure under Mr. Smith's conduct, upon the English stage, than either in Rome or Athens; and if she excels the Greek and Latin Phaedra, I need not say she surpasses the French one, though embellished with whatever regular beauties and moving softness Racine himself could give her.
No man had a juster notion of the difficulty of composing than Mr. Smith; and he sometimes would create greater difficulties than he had reason to apprehend. Writing with ease, what (as Mr. Wycherley speaks) may be easily written, moved his indignation. When he was writing upon a subject, he would seriously consider what Demosthenes, Homer, Virgil, or Horace, if alive, would say upon that occasion, which whetted him to exceed himself, as well as others. Nevertheless, he could not, or would not, finish several subjects he undertook; which may be imputed either to the briskness of his fancy, still hunting after new matter, or to an occasional indolence, which spleen and lassitude brought upon him, which, of all his foibles, the world was least inclined to forgive. That this was not owing to conceit and vanity, or a fulness of himself, (a frailty which has been imputed to no less men than Shakespeare and Jonson,) is clear from hence; because he left his works to the entire disposal of his friends, whose most rigorous censures he even courted and solicited, submitting to their animadversions, and the freedom they took with them, with an unreserved and prudent resignation.
I have seen sketches and rough draughts of some poems he designed, set out analytically; wherein the fable, structure, and connexion, the images, incidents, moral episodes, and a great variety of ornaments, were so finely laid out, so well fitted to the rules of art, and squared so exactly to the precedents of the ancients, that I have often looked on these poetical elements with the same concern with which curious men are affected at the sight of the most entertaining remains and ruins of an antique figure or building. Those fragments of the learned, which some men have been so proud of their pains in collecting, are useless rarities, without form and without life, when compared with these embryos, which wanted not spirit enough to preserve them; so that I cannot help thinking, that, if some of them were to come abroad, they would be as highly valued by the poets, as the sketches of Julio and Titian are by the painters; though there is nothing in them but a few outlines, as to the design and proportion.
It must be confessed, that Mr. Smith had some defects in his conduct, which those are most apt to remember who could imitate him in nothing else. His freedom with himself drew severer acknowledgments from him than all the malice he ever provoked was capable of advancing, and he did not scruple to give even his misfortunes the hard name of faults; but, if the world had half his good-nature, all the shady parts would be entirely struck out of his character.
A man, who under poverty, calamities, and disappointments, could make so many friends, and those so truly valuable, must have just and noble ideas of the passion of friendship, in the success of which consisted the greatest, if not the only, happiness of his life. He knew very well what was due to his birth, though fortune threw him short of it in every other circumstance of life. He avoided making any, though perhaps reasonable, complaints of her dispensations, under which he had honour enough to be easy, without touching the favours she flung in his way when offered to him at the price of a more durable reputation. He took care to have no dealings with mankind in which he could not be just; and he desired to be at no other expense in his pretensions than that of intrinsick merit, which was the only burden and reproach he ever brought upon his friends. He could say, as Horace did of himself, what I never yet saw translated:
Meo sum pauper in aere.
At his coming to town, no man was more surrounded by all those who really had or pretended to wit, or more courted by the great men, who had then a power and opportunity of encouraging arts and sciences, and gave proofs of their fondness for the name of patron in many instances, which will ever be remembered to their glory. Mr. Smith's character grew upon his friends by intimacy, and outwent the strongest prepossessions which had been conceived in his favour. Whatever quarrel a few sour creatures, whose obscurity is their happiness, may possibly have to the age; yet, amidst a studied neglect, and total disuse of all those ceremonial attendances, fashionable equipments, and external recommendations, which are thought necessary introductions into the grand monde, this gentleman was so happy as still to please; and whilst the rich, the gay, the noble, and honourable, saw how much he excelled in wit and learning, they easily forgave him all other differences. Hence it was that both his acquaintance and retirements were his own free choice. What Mr. Prior observes upon a very great character was true of him, "that most of his faults brought their excuse with them."
Those who blamed him most, understood him least, it being the custom of the vulgar to charge an excess upon the most complaisant, and to form a character by the morals of a few, who have sometimes spoiled an hour or two in good company. Where only fortune is wanting to make a great name, that single exception can never pass upon the best judges and most equitable observers of mankind; and when the time comes for the world to spare their pity, we may justly enlarge our demands upon them for their admiration.
Some few years before his death, he had engaged himself in several considerable undertakings; in all which he had prepared the world to expect mighty things from him. I have seen about ten sheets of his English Pindar, which exceeded any thing of that kind I could ever hope for in our own language. He had drawn out the plan of a tragedy of the Lady Jane Grey, and had gone through several scenes of it. But he could not well have bequeathed that work to better hands than where, I hear, it is at present lodged; and the bare mention of two such names may justify the largest expectations, and is sufficient to make the town an agreeable invitation.
His greatest and noblest undertaking was Longinus. He had finished an entire translation of the Sublime, which he sent to the reverend Mr. Richard Parker, a friend of his, late of Merton college, an exact critick in the Greek tongue, from whom it came to my hands. The French version of monsieur Boileau, though truly valuable, was far short of it. He proposed a large addition to this work, of notes and observations of his own, with an entire system of the art of poetry, in three books, under the titles of Thought, Diction, and Figure. I saw the last of these perfect, and in a fair copy, in which he showed prodigious judgment and reading; and particularly had reformed the art of rhetorick, by reducing that vast and confused heap of terms, with which a long succession of pedants had encumbered the world, to a very narrow compass, comprehending all that was useful and ornamental in poetry. Under each head and chapter, he intended to make remarks upon all the ancients and moderns, the Greek, Latin, English, French, Spanish, and Italian poets, and to note their several beauties and defects.
What remains of his works is left, as I am informed, in the hands of men of worth and judgment, who loved him. It cannot be supposed they would suppress any thing that was his, but out of respect to his memory, and for want of proper hands to finish what so great a genius had begun.
Such is the declamation of Oldisworth, written while his admiration was yet fresh, and his kindness warm; and, therefore, such as, without any criminal purpose of deceiving, shows a strong desire to make the most of all favourable truth. I cannot much commend the performance. The praise is often indistinct, and the sentences are loaded with words of more pomp than use. There is little, however, that can be contradicted, even when a plainer tale comes to be told.
Edmund Neale, known by the name of Smith, was born at Handley, the seat of the Lechmeres, in Worcestershire. The year of his birth is uncertain.
He was educated at Westminster. It is known to have been the practice of Dr. Busby to detain those youths long at school, of whom he had formed the highest expectations. Smith took his master's degree on the 8th of July, 1696; he, therefore, was probably admitted into the university in 1689, when we may suppose him twenty years old.
His reputation for literature in his college was such as has been told; but the indecency and licentiousness of his behaviour drew upon him, Dec. 24, 1694, while he was yet only bachelor, a publick admonition, entered upon record, in order to his expulsion. Of this reproof the effect is not known. He was probably less notorious. At Oxford, as we all know, much will be forgiven to literary merit; and of that he had exhibited sufficient evidence by his excellent ode on the death of the great orientalist, Dr. Pocock, who died in 1691, and whose praise must have been written by Smith when he had been yet but two years in the university.
This ode, which closed the second volume of the Musse Anglicanae, though, perhaps, some objections may be made to its Latinity, is by far the best lyrick composition in that collection; nor do I know where to find it equalled among the modern writers. It expresses, with great felicity, images not classical in classical diction: its digressions and returns have been deservedly recommended by Trapp, as models for imitation.
He has several imitations of Cowley:
Vestitur hinc tot sermo coloribus Quot tu, Pococki, dissimilis tui Orator effers, quot vicissim Te memores celebrare gaudent.
I will not commend the figure which makes the orator pronounce colours, or give to colours memory and delight. I quote it, however, as an imitation of these lines:
So many languages he had in store, That only fame shall speak of him in more.
The simile, by which an old man, retaining the fire of his youth, is compared to Aetna flaming through the snow, which Smith has used with great pomp, is stolen from Cowley, however little worth the labour of conveyance.
He proceeded to take his degree of master of arts, July 8, 1696. Of the exercises which he performed on that occasion, I have not heard any thing memorable.
As his years advanced, he advanced in reputation; for he continued to cultivate his mind, though he did not amend his irregularities, by which he gave so much offence, that, April 24, 1700, the dean and chapter declared "the place of Mr. Smith void, he having been convicted of riotous misbehaviour in the house of Mr. Cole, an apothecary; but it was referred to the dean when, and upon what occasion, the sentence should be put in execution."
Thus tenderly was he treated: the governours of his college could hardly keep him, and yet wished that he would not force them to drive him away.
Some time afterwards he assumed an appearance of decency: in his own phrase, he whitened himself, having a desire to obtain the censorship, an office of honour and some profit in the college; but, when the election came, the preference was given to Mr. Foulkes, his junior: the same, I suppose, that joined with Freind in an edition of part of Demosthenes. The censor is a tutor; and it was not thought proper to trust the superintendence of others to a man who took so little care of himself.
From this time Smith employed his malice and his wit against the dean, Dr. Aldrich, whom he considered as the opponent of his claim. Of his lampoon upon him, I once heard a single line, too gross to be repeated.
But he was still a genius and a scholar, and Oxford was unwilling to lose him: he was endured, with all his pranks and his vices, two years longer; but, on Dec. 20, 1705, at the instance of all the canons, the sentence, declared five years before, was put in execution.
The execution was, I believe, silent and tender; for one of his friends, from whom I learned much of his life, appeared not to know it.
He was now driven to London, where he associated himself with the whigs; whether because they were in power, or because the tories had expelled him, or because he was a whig by principle, may, perhaps, be doubted. He was, however, caressed by men of great abilities, whatever were their party, and was supported by the liberality of those who delighted in his conversation.
There was once a design, hinted at by Oldisworth, to have made him useful. One evening, as he was sitting with a friend at a tavern, he was called down by the waiter; and, having staid some time below, came up thoughtful. After a pause, said he to his friend: "He that wanted me below was Addison, whose business was to tell me that a History of the Revolution was intended, and to propose that I should undertake it. I said, 'What shall I do with the character of lord Sunderland?' and Addison immediately returned, 'When, Rag, were you drunk last?' and went away."
Captain Rag was a name which he got at Oxford, by his negligence of dress.
This story I heard from the late Mr. Clark, of Lincoln's Inn, to whom it was told by the friend of Smith.
Such scruples might debar him from some profitable employments; but, as they could not deprive him of any real esteem, they left him many friends; and no man was ever better introduced to the theatre than he, who, in that violent conflict of parties, had a prologue and epilogue from the first wits on either side.
But learning and nature will now and then take different courses. His play pleased the criticks, and the criticks only. It was, as Addison has recorded, hardly heard the third night. Smith had, indeed, trusted entirely to his merit, had ensured no band of applauders, nor used any artifice to force success, and found that naked excellence was not sufficient for its own support.
The play, however, was bought by Lintot, who advanced the price from fifty guineas, the current rate, to sixty; and Halifax, the general patron, accepted the dedication. Smith's indolence kept him from writing the dedication, till Lintot, after fruitless importunity, gave notice that he would publish the play without it. Now, therefore, it was written; and Halifax expected the author with his book, and had prepared to reward him with a place of three hundred pounds a year. Smith, by pride, or caprice, or indolence, or bashfulness, neglected to attend him, though doubtless warned and pressed by his friends, and, at last, missed his reward by not going to solicit it.
Addison has, in the Spectator, mentioned the neglect of Smith's tragedy as disgraceful to the nation, and imputes it to the fondness for operas, then prevailing. The authority of Addison is great; yet the voice of the people, when to please the people is the purpose, deserves regard. In this question, I cannot but think the people in the right. The fable is mythological, a story which we are accustomed to reject as false; and the manners are so distant from our own, that we know them not from sympathy, but by study: the ignorant do not understand the action; the learned reject it as a schoolboy's tale; "incredulus odi;" what I cannot for a moment believe, I cannot for a moment behold with interest or anxiety. The sentiments thus remote from life are removed yet further by the diction, which is too luxuriant and splendid for dialogue, and envelopes the thoughts rather than displays them. It is a scholar's play, such as may please the reader rather than the spectator; the work of a vigorous and elegant mind, accustomed to please itself with its own conceptions, but of little acquaintance with the course of life.
Dennis tells us, in one of his pieces, that he had once a design to have written the tragedy of Phaedra; but was convinced that the action was too mythological.
In 1709, a year after the exhibition of Phaedra, died John Philips, the friend and fellow-collegian of Smith, who, on that occasion, wrote a poem, which justice must place among the best elegies which our language can show, an elegant mixture of fondness and admiration, of dignity and softness. There are some passages too ludicrous; but every human performance has its faults.
This elegy it was the mode among his friends to purchase for a guinea; and, as his acquaintance was numerous, it was a very profitable poem.
Of his Pindar, mentioned by Oldisworth, I have never otherwise heard. His Longinus he intended to accompany with some illustrations, and had selected his instances of the false sublime from the works of Blackmore.
He resolved to try again the fortune of the stage, with the story of Lady Jane Grey. It is not unlikely, that his experience of the inefficacy and incredibility of a mythological tale might determine him to choose an action from English history, at no great distance from our own times, which was to end in a real event, produced by the operation of known characters.
A subject will not easily occur that can give more opportunities of informing the understanding, for which Smith was unquestionably qualified, or for moving the passions, in which I suspect him to have had less power.
Having formed his plan, and collected materials, he declared, that a few months would complete his design; and, that he might pursue his work with less frequent avocations, he was, in June 1710, invited, by Mr. George Ducket to his house, at Gartham, in Wiltshire. Here he found such opportunities of indulgence as did not much forward his studies, and particularly some strong ale, too delicious to be resisted. He ate and drank till he found himself plethorick; and then, resolving to ease himself by evacuation, he wrote to an apothecary in the neighbourhood a prescription of a purge so forcible, that the apothecary thought it his duty to delay it, till he had given notice of its danger. Smith, not pleased with the contradiction of a shopman, and boastful of his own knowledge, treated the notice with rude contempt, and swallowed his own medicine, which, in July, 1710, brought him to the grave. He was buried at Gartham.
Many years afterwards, Ducket communicated to Oldmixon, the historian, an account, pretended to have been received from Smith, that Clarendon's History was, in its publication, corrupted by Aldrich, Smalridge, and Atterbury; and that Smith was employed to forge and insert the alterations.
This story was published triumphantly by Oldmixon, and may be supposed to have been eagerly received; but its progress was soon checked; for, finding its way into the Journal of Trévoux, it fell under the eye of Atterbury, then an exile in France, who immediately denied the charge, with this remarkable particular, that he never, in his whole life, had once spoken to Smith; his company being, as must be inferred, not accepted by those who attended to their characters.
The charge was afterwards very diligently refuted, by Dr. Burton, of Eton, a man eminent for literature, and, though not of the same party with Aldrich and Atterbury, too studious of truth to leave them burdened with a false charge. The testimonies which he has collected have convinced mankind, that either Smith or Ducket was guilty of wilful and malicious falsehood.
This controversy brought into view those parts of Smith's life, which, with more honour to his name, might have been concealed.
Of Smith I can yet say a little more. He was a man of such estimation among his companions, that the casual censures or praises, which he dropped in conversation, were considered, like those of Scaliger, as worthy of preservation.
He had great readiness and exactness of criticism, and, by a cursory glance over a new composition, would exactly tell all its faults and beauties.
He was remarkable for the power of reading with great rapidity, and of retaining, with great fidelity, what he so easily collected.
He, therefore, always knew what the present question required; and, when his friends expressed their wonder at his acquisitions, made in a state of apparent negligence and drunkenness, he never discovered his hours of reading, or method of study, but involved himself in affected silence, and fed his own vanity with their admiration and conjectures.
One practice he had, which was easily observed: if any thought or image was presented to his mind, that he could use or improve, he did not suffer it to be lost; but, amidst the jollity of a tavern, or in the warmth of conversation, very diligently committed it to paper.
Thus it was that he had gathered two quires of hints for his new tragedy; of which Howe, when they were put into his hands, could make, as he says, very little use, but which the collector considered as a valuable stock of materials.
When he came to London, his way of life connected him with the licentious and dissolute; and he affected the airs and gaiety of a man of pleasure; but his dress was always deficient; scholastick cloudiness still hung about him; and his merriment was sure to produce the scorn of his companions.
With all his carelessness and all his vices, he was one of the murmurers at fortune; and wondered why he was suffered to be poor, when Addison was caressed and preferred; nor would a very little have contented him; for he estimated his wants at six hundred pounds a year.
In his course of reading it was particular, that he had diligently perused, and accurately remembered, the old romances of knight-errantry.
He had a high opinion of his own merit, and was something contemptuous in his treatment of those whom he considered as not qualified to oppose or contradict him. He had many frailties; yet it cannot but be supposed that he had great merit, who could obtain to the same play a prologue from Addison, and an epilogue from Prior; and who could have at once the patronage of Halifax, and the praise of Oldisworth.
For the power of communicating these minute memorials, I am indebted to my conversation with Gilbert Walmsley, late registrar of the ecclesiastical court of Lichfield, who was acquainted both with Smith and Ducket; and declared, that, if the tale concerning Clarendon were forged, he should suspect Ducket of the falsehood, "for Rag was a man of great veracity."
Of Gilbert Walmsley, thus presented to my mind, let me indulge myself in the remembrance. I knew him very early: he was one of the first friends that literature procured me, and I hope that, at least, my gratitude made me worthy of his notice.
He was of an advanced age, and I was only not a boy; yet he never received my notions with contempt. He was a whig, with all the virulence and malevolence of his party; yet difference of opinion did not keep us apart. I honoured him, and he endured me.
He had mingled with the gay world, without exemption from its vices or its follies, but had never neglected the cultivation of his mind; his belief of revelation was unshaken; his learning preserved his principles; he grew first regular, and then pious.
His studies had been so various, that I am not able to name a man of equal knowledge. His acquaintance with books was great: and what he did not immediately know, he could, at least, tell where to find. Such was his amplitude of learning, and such his copiousness of communication, that it may be doubted whether a day now passes in which I have not some advantage from his friendship.
At this man's table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr. James, whose skill in physick will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend; but what are the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the publick stock of harmless pleasure.
In the library at Oxford is the following ludicrous analysis of Pocockius:
[Sent by the author to Mr. Urry.]
Opusculum hoc, Halberdarie amplissime, in lucem proferre hactenus distuli, judicii tui acumen subveritus magis quam bipennis. Tandem aliquando oden hanc ad te mitto sublimem, teneram, flebilem, suavem, qualem demum divinus (si musis vacaret) scripsisset Gastrellus: adeo scilicet sublimem ut inter legendum dormire, adeo flebilem ut ridere velis. Cujus elegantiam ut melius inspicias, versuum ordinem et materiam breviter referam. 1mus versus de duobus praeliis decantatis. 2dus et 3us de Lotharingio, cuniculis subterraneis, saxis, ponto, hostibus, et Asia. 4tus et 5tus de catenis, sudibus, uncis, draconibus, tigribus et crocodilis. 6us, 7us, 8us, 9us de Gomorrha, de Babylone, Babele, et quodam domi suae peregrine. 10us, aliquid de quodam Pocockio. 11us, 12us, de Syria, Solyma. 13us, 14us, de Hosea, et quercu, et de juvene quodam valde sene. 15us, 16us, de Aetna, et quomodo Aetna Pocockio sit valde similis. 17us, 18us, de tuba, astro, umbra, flammis, rotis, Pocockio non neglecto. Caetera, de Christianis, Ottomanis, Babyloniis, Arabibus, et gravissima agrorum melancholia; de Caesare, Flacco, Nestore, et miserando juvenis cujusdam florentissimi fato, anno aetatis suae centesimo praemature abrepti. Quae omnia cum accurate expenderis, necesse est ut oden hanc meam admiranda plane varietate constare fatearis. Subito ad Batavos proficiscor, lauro ab illis donandus. Prius vero Pembrochienses voco ad certamen poeticum. Vale.
Illustrissima tua deosculor crura.
[Footnote 125: Dr. Ralph Bathurst, whose Life and Literary Remains were published in 1761, by Mr. Thomas Warton. C.]
[Footnote 126: By his epitaph he appears to have been forty-two years old when he died. He was, consequently, born in the year 1668. R.
He was born in 1662, as appears from the register of matriculations among the archives of the university of Oxford.]
[Footnote 127: He was elected to Cambridge, 1688; but, as has been before stated, went to Oxford. J.B.]
[Footnote 128: Cowley on sir R. Wotton. L. B.]
[Footnote 129: See bishop Atterbury's Epistolary Correspondence, 1799, vol. iii. pp. 126, 133. In the same work, vol. i. p. 325, it appears that Smith was at one time suspected, by Atterbury, to have been the author of the Tale of a Tub. N. See Idler, No. 65.]
[Footnote 130: See prefatory remarks to Irene, vol. i. p. 25.]
[Footnote 131: Pro Flacco, animo paulo attentiore, scripsissem Marone.]
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