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LIFE OF SMITH.
BY DR. JOHNSON.
EDMUND Smith is one of those lucky writers, who have, without much labour, attained high reputation, and who are mentioned with reverence ratlier 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
Ego nec studium sine divite venâ,
Altera poscit opem res, & 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 subtle and knotty parts of mathematics and metaphysics. 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) puslied 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 epique, 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, aud faithful silence, strove in vain to conceal. The Encænia and public Collections of the University upon State Subjects were never in such esteem, either for elegy and 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 academic 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, wlio 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 were 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 bim, 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 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 polemic of extensive knowledge and deep penetration; and went through all the courses with a wise regard to the dignity and importance of each science, member 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 atiempting to ridicule it, or have encumbered it with novel terms and burthensome 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 illgrounded 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
schooldivinity as upon a rough but well-wrought army, 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 classics ; 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 Ivim, 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 modernis
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 illnature (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, wh uld not admire
Verses as smooth and soft as cream,
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 lyric since the Augustan age. His friend Mr. Philips's ode to Mr. St. John, (late lord Bolinybroke) after the manner of Horace's Lusory or Amatorian Odes, is certainly a master-piece; 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 bis 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, thougli 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
His works are not many, and those scattered up and down in Miscellanies and Collections, being wrested from bim 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 perlaps be made entire, without great injustice to bim, 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
i Dr. Ralph Bathurst, whose life and literary remains were published in 1761, by Mr. Thomas Varton. C.