‘Jump in and scramble’ – Brian Maye on the Rev Sydney Smith
An Irishman’s Diary
Sydney Smith by Henry Perronet Briggs (1840). National Portrait Gallery, London. On prejudice, he gave the very sound advice: “Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him and cannot be reasoned out.”
I first came across reference to the Rev Sydney Smith through his lovely sentiment that “no furniture is so charming as books”. The English Anglican clergyman, who was born 250 years ago on June 3rd, held progressive and far-sighted views on such issues as women’s education, the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, among others, but it is mainly on his reputation as a wit and writer that I would like to dwell here.
First, a brief summary of his life. He was born in Woodford, Essex, the son of a merchant, and attended Winchester College before graduating from New College, Oxford. The law was his preferred profession but on his father’s insistence, he took holy orders and became a curate near Amesbury in Wiltshire, where he worked to improve the lot of his parishioners through providing basic education.
Sent to Edinburgh as tutor to the eldest son of his local squire, after some time in the city he set up the Edinburgh Review with others, becoming its first editor.
The Latin motto he proposed for the Review, which translated as “We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal”, was dropped because it was considered too near to the truth and also because, according to Smith, “It requires a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding”.
He wrote for the Review for more than 25 years and his articles contributed greatly to its success.
Parish work in Yorkshire followed, where he proved very popular with his parishioners. He was also appointed a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and a prebend at Bristol Cathedral. During these years, he wrote vigorously on behalf of Catholic rights, at times attacking Protestant bigotry and obscurantism, and he strongly supported the cause of parliamentary reform.
On prejudice, he gave the very sound advice: “Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him and cannot be reasoned out.”
Although he referred to himself as a “sincere friend of America”, what he wrote would seem to belie this. He strongly advocated the abolition of slavery.
In one piece he wrote, he asked: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book, or goes to an American play, or looks at an American picture or statue?” He concluded the piece: “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?”
His many sayings, comments and observations, for which he became famous, show perception, compassion, common sense and not a little humour. In his writings and sermons, he often spoke out for the poor and against the embedded privileges of the rich, and in his parish work gave practical expression to these views. “It is always considered a piece of impertinence in England if a man of less than two or three thousand a year has any opinion at all on important subjects” shows how skewed he believed social values were.
He knew how to encourage and motivate people as may be seen from the following.
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.”
“The fact is that in order to do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand shivering on the bank, thinking of the cold and the danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.”
If we did not make the effort, we would always regret it, he warned: “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things that we did not do that is inconsolable.”
Nor did he think we should be afraid to admit our lack of knowledge at times. “Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.”
He was under no illusion about one of his main tools as a clergyman.
“Preaching has become a byword for long and dull conversation of any kind, and whoever wishes to imply, in any piece of writing, the absence of anything agreeable and inviting, calls it a sermon.”
“Life is to be fortified by many friendships. To love, and to be loved, is the greatest happiness of existence,” was the main lesson he wished to expound from his full, active and valuable life.