This distinguished poet was son of an eminent merchant, one Mr. Neal, by a daughter of baron Lechemere. Some misfortunes of his father, which were soon followed by his death, occasioned our author's being left very young in the care of a near relation (one who married Mr. Neal's mother, whose name was Smith).
This gentleman treated him with as much tenderness as if he had been his own child, and placed him at Westminster-school, under the care of Dr. Busby. After the death of his generous guardian (whose name in gratitude he thought proper to assume) he was removed to Christ's Church in Oxford, and was there by his aunt handsomely supported till her death; after which he continued a member of that learned society, till within five years of his own. Some time before his leaving Christ-Church, he was sent for by his mother to Worcester, and acknowledged by her as a legitimate son. We chuse to mention this circumstance, in order to wipe off the aspersion which folly and ignorance cast upon his birth.
In honour to Mr. Smith it should be remembered, that when he stood a candidate for one of the universities, at the Westminster election, he so peculiarly distinguished himself by his conspicuous performances, that there arose no small contention between the representative electors of Trinity-College in Cambridge, and Christ-Church College in Oxon, which of those two illustrious societies should adopt him as their own. But the electors of Trinity College having the preference of choice that year, they resolutely elected him; but being invited at the same time to Christ-Church, Mr. Smith chose to accept of a studentship there.
He passed through the exercises of the college, and the university, with unusual applause; and tho' he often suffered his friends to call him off from his retirement; yet his return to his studies was so much the more passionate, and his love of reading and thinking being so vehement, the habit grew upon him, and the series of meditation and reflexion being kept up whole weeks together, he could better arrange his ideas, and take in sundry parts of a science at one view, without interruption or confusion. Some of his acquaintance, who were pleased to distinguish between the wit and the scholar, extoll'd him altogether on account of the first of these excellencies; but others, who were more candid, admired him as a prodigy in both. He had acquired reputation in the schools, both as a philosopher and polemic of extensive knowledge, and deep penetration, and went through all the courses with a proper regard to the dignity, and importance of each science.
Mr. Smith had a long and perfect intimacy with all the Greek and Latin Classics; with whom he had industriously compared whatever was worth perusing in the French, Spanish, and Italian, and all the celebrated writers in his own country. He considered the antients and moderns, not as parties, or rivals for fame, but as architects upon one and the same plan, the Art of Poetry. If he did not always commend the compositions of others, it proceeded not from ill-nature (for that was foreign to his temper) but a strict regard to justice would not suffer him to call a few flowers elegantly adorned, without much art, and less genius, by so distinguished a name, as poetry. He was of Ben Johnson's opinion, who could not admire,
—Verses, as smooth and loft as cream,
In which their was neither depth nor stream.
Mr. Smith's Bodleian Oration, printed with his other works, though taken from a remote and imperfect copy, has shewn the world, how great a master he was of Ciceronian Eloquence. Since Temple and Roscommon (says Mr. Oldisworth) "No man understood Horace better, especially as to his happy diction, rolling numbers, beautiful imagery, and alternate mixture of the soft and subiime. His friend Mr. Philips's Ode to Mr. St. John, 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 Cromwell, it wants not the most delicate and surprizing turns, peculiar to the person praised."
He was an excellent judge of humanity, and so good a historian, that in familiar conversation, 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 carefully read and distinguished Thuanus's works, so he was able to copy after him: And his talent in this kind was so generally confess'd, that he was made choice of by some great men, to write a history, which it was their interest to have executed with the utmost art, and dexterity; but this design was dropp'd, as Mr. Smith would not sacrifice truth to the caprice, and interested views of a party.
Our author's Poem, condoling the death of Mr. Philips, is full of the noblest beauties, and pays a just tribute to the venerable ashes of that great man. Mr. Smith had contracted for Mr. Philips the most perfect friendship, a passion of which he was very susceptible, and whose laws he considered as sacred and inviolable.
In the year 1707 Mr. Smth's Tragedy called Phaedra and Hippolitus was acted at the Theatre-Royal. This play was introduced upon the stage, at a time when the Italian Opera so much engrossed the attention of the polite world, that sense was sacrificed to sound. It was dress'd and decorated, at an extraordinary expence: — and inimitably perform'd in all its parts, by Betterton, Booth, Barry, and Oldfield. Yet it brought but few, and slender audiences. — To say truth, 'twas a fine Poem; but not an extraordinary Play. Notwithstanding the intrinsic merit of this piece, and the countenance it met with from the most ingenious men of the age, yet it languished on the stage, and was soon neglected. Mr. Addison wrote the Prologue, in which he rallies the vitiated taste of the public, in preferring the unideal entertainment of an Opera, to the genuine sense of a British Poet.
Long has a race of Heroes fill'd the stage,
That rant by note, and thro' the gamut rage;
In songs, and airs, express their martial fire,
Combat in trills, and in a feuge expire;
While lull'd by sound, and undisturb'd by wit,
Calm and serene, you indolently sit;
And from the dull fatigue of thinking free,
Hear the facetious fiddle's rapartee;
Our home-spun authors must forsake the field,
And Shakespear to the soft Scarlatti yield.
To your new taste, the poet of this day,
Was by a friend advis'd to form his play;
Had Valentini musically coy,
Shun'd Phaedra's arms, and scorn'd the proffer'd joy,
It had not mov'd your wonder to have seen,
An Eunuch fly from an enamour'd queen.
How would it please, should she in English speak,
And could Hippolitus reply in Greek?
We have been induced to transcribe these lines of Mr. Addison, in order to have the pleasure of producing so great an authority in favour of the English drama, when placed in contradistinction to an entertainment, exhibited by Eunuchs and Fidlers, in a language, of which the greatest part of the audience are ignorant; and from the nature of which no moral instruction can be drawn.
The chief excellence of this play certainly consists in the beauty and harmony of the versification. The language is luxuriantly poetical. The passion of Phaedra for her husband's son has been considered by same critics as too unnatural to be shewn on the stage; and they have observed that the poet would have written more successfully if he had converted the son into a brother. Poetical justice is carefully distributed; Phaedra and Lycon are justly made the sufferers, while Hippolitus and Ismena escape the vengeance of Theseus. The play is not destitute of the pathetic, tho' much more regard is paid to the purity and elegance of the language, than a poet more acquainted with the workings of the heart would have done. We shall give an example to illustrate this observation. When Theseus reproaches Hippolitus for his love to Ismena, and at the fame time dooms him as the victim of his revenge and jealousy, he uses these words,
Canst thou be only clear'd by disobedience,
And justified by crimes? — What! love my foe!
Love one descended from a race of tyrants,
Whose blood yet reeks on my avenging sword!
I'm curst each moment I delay thy fate:
Haste to the shades, and tell the happy Pallas,
Ismena's flames, and let him taste such joys
As thou giv'st me; go tell applauding Minos,
The pious love you bore his daughter Phaedra;
Tell it the chatt'ring ghosts, and hissing furies,
Tell it the grinning fiends, till Hell sound nothing
To thy pleas'd ears, but Phaedra and Ismena.
We cannot suppose that a man wrought up to fury, by the flame of jealousy, and a sense of affronted dignity, could be so particular in giving his son directions how to behave in hell, and to whom he should relate the story of his fate. When any passion violently overwhelms the soul, the person who feels it, always speaks sententiously, avoids repetitions, and is not capable of much recollection, at least of making a minute detail of circumstances. In how few words, and with greater force would Shakespear have conducted this speech of Theseus. An example will prove it: when Othello is informed that Cassio is slain, he replies,
Had all his hairs been lives,
My great revenge had stomach for them all.
When Phaedra is made acquainted with the ruin of Hyppolitus, the poet makes her utter the following beautiful speech, which, however, is liable to the fame objection as the former, for it seems rather a studied declamation, than an expression of the most agonizing throes the is then supposed to experience.
What's life? Oh all ye Gods! can life attone
For all the monstrous crimes by which 'tis bought?
Or can I live? when thou, O Soul of honour!
O early hero! by my crimes art ruin'd.
Perhaps even now, the great unhappy youth,
Falls by the sordid hands of butchering villains;
Now, now he bleeds, he dies, — O perjur'd traitor!
See his rich blood in purple torrents flows,
And nature sallies in unbidden groans;
Now mortal pangs distort his lovely form,
His rosy beauties fade, his starry eyes
Now darkling swim, and fix their closing beams;
Now in short gasps his lab'ring spirit heaves,
And weakly flutters on his falt'ring tongue,
And struggles into sound. Hear, monster hear,
With his last breath, he curses perjured Phaedra:
He summons Phraedra to the bar of Minos;
Thou too shalt there appear; to torture thee
Whole Hell shall be employ'd, and suff'ring Phaedra
Shall find some care to fee thee still more wretched.
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. Mr. Smith had, indeed, some defects in his conduct, which those are more apt to remember, who could imitate him in nothing else. Amongst the blemishes of an innocent kind, which attended Mr. Smith, was his extreme carelessness in the particular of dress; this oddity procured him the name of Captain Ragg. His person was so well formed, and he possessed so much natural gracefulness, that notwithstanding the disadvantage of his appearance, he was called, by the Ladies, the Handsome Sloven.
It is to be wondered at (says Mr. Oldisworth) that a man under poverty, calamities, and disappointments, could make so many friends, and those so truly valuable. He had, indeed, a noble idea of the passion of friendship, in he success of which, consisted the greatest, if not the only happiness of his Life. He was serene and chearful under the dispensations of providence; he avoided having any dealings with mankind in which he could not be just, and therefore refused to embrace some opportunities of amending his fortune.
Upon Mr Smith's 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. Mr. Smith's character grew upon his friends by intimacy, and exceeded the strongest prepossessions which had been conceived in his favour. A few years before his death, Mr. Smith engaged in some considerable Undertakings; in all which he raised expectations in the world, which he lived not to gratify. Mr. Oldisworth observes, that he had seen about ten sheets of Pindar translated into English, which, he says, exceeded any thing of that kind, he could ever hope for in our language. He had drawn out a plan for a tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, and had written several scenes of it: a subject afterwards nobly executed by Mr. Rowe. His greatest undertaking was Longinus, which he executed in a very masterly manner. He proposed a large addition to this work, of notes and observations of his own, with an intire system of the art of poetry in three books, under the title of Thoughts, Action, and Figure; in this work he proposed to reform the art of Rhetoric, by reducing that confused heap of Terms, with which a long succession of Pedants had incumbered 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 anamadvert upon their several beauties and defects.
Mr. Smith died in the year 1710, in the 42d of his age, at the seat of George Ducket esq; called Hartham, in Wiltshire; and was buried in the parish church there. We shall give the character of this celebrated poet in the words of Mr. Oldisworth: — "He had a quickness of apprehension and vivacity of understanding, which easily took in, and surmounted, the most knotty parts of mathematics and metaphysics. His wit was prompt and flowing, yet solid and piercing; his taste delicate, his head clear, and his manner of expressing his thoughts perspicuous, and engaging; an eager, but generous, emulation grew up in him, which push'd him upon striving to excel in every art and science, that could make him a credit to his college and it was his happiness to have several cotemporaries, and fellow students, who exercised and excited this virtue in themselves and others: 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 pace with a rich and strong imagination, always on the wing, and never tired with aspiring; there are many of his first essays in oratory, in epigram, elegy and epic, still handed about the university in manuscript, which shew 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. 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 tincture 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 which some are insensibly led into, who are constrained to dwell within the walls of a private college." Thus far Mr. Oldisworth, who has drawn the character of his deceased friend, with a laudable fondness. Mr. Smith, no doubt, possessed the highest genius for poetry; but it is certain he had mixed but too little in life. His language, however luxuriously poetical, yet is far from being proper for the drama, and there is too much of the poet in every speech he puts in the mouths of his characters, which products an uniformity, that nothing could teach him to avoid, but a more general knowledge of real life and characters. It is acknowledged that Mr. Smith was much inclined to intemperance, though Mr. Oldisworth has glossed it over with the hand of a friend; nor is it improbable, that this disposition sunk him in that vis inertiae, which has been the bane of many of the brightest geniuses of the world. Mr. Smith was, upon the whole, a good natured man, a great poet, a finished scholar, and a discerning critic.