1714 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Smith

William Oldisworth, "A Character of the Author" in Smith, Works (1714) sigs A3-av.



Mr. Edmund Smith was the only Son of an eminent Merchant, one Mr. Neale, who had secretly married a Daughter of the famous Baron Lechemere. Some Misfortunes of his Father, which were soon after follow'd 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 assum'd and retain'd) he was remov'd to Christ-Church in Oxford, and there by his Aunt handsomely maintain'd till her Death; after which he continued a Member of that learned and ingenious Society, till within five Years of his own [Death;] tho' some time before his leaving Christ-Church, he was sent for by his Mother to Worcester, and own'd and acknowledg'd as her legitimate Son; which had not been mention'd, 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 distinguish'd 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 [Pre-eminence] Preference of Choice for 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 form'd upon Horace's Plan; who says in his Art of Poetry,

—Ego nect Studium sine divite vena,
Nec rude quid prosis video ingenium: alterius sic
Altera poscit opem res, & conjurat amice.

He was endow'd 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 receiv'd from the best Authors he read, which it always preserv'd 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 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 just Thoughts, perspicuous and engaging: To say nothing of his Person, which yet was so well turn'd that no Neglect of himself in his Dress, of outward Ornament could render it disagreeable; insomuch that some of the Fair Sex, who observ'd and esteem'd him, at once commended and reprov'd 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) push'd 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 exercis'd 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 ripen'd into an exquisite Fineness and distinguishing Sagacity, which as it was active, so it was vigorous and manly, keeping even Paces with a rich and strong Imagination always upon the Wing, and never tir'd with aspiring. Hence it was, that, tho' 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 shew a Masterly Hand, and tho' maim'd 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 Encoenia 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 'em,; 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 'em; and not only to polish a Diamond, but enchase it in Gold. Tho' 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 (tho' excusable) which some are insensibly led into, who are constrain'd 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 apply'd to him:

Nil ego contulerim jucundo sanus Amico.
Sat. 5. l. 1.

As correct a Writer as he was in his most elaborate Pieces, he read the Works of others with Candor, and reserv'd 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 excell'd himself (if any could excel him) as industrious to excel others.

'Twere to be wish'd he had confin'd 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 pass'd through the Exercises of the College and University with unusual Applause; and though he often suffer'd 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 once View, without Interruption or Confusion. Some indeed of his Acquaintance, who were pleas'd to distinguish between the Wit and the Scholar, extoll'd 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 signaliz'd 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 dis-interested Commendation of him, gave him such a Reputation, as silenc'd 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 encumber'd 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 the Character of Unprofitable, Rugged, and Abstruse, which some superficial Scoliasts (so very smooth and polite as to admit of no Impression) either out of an unthinking Indolence, or an ill grounded Prejudice had affix'd to this sort of Studies. He knew the thorny Terms of Philosophy serv'd well to fence in the true Doctrines of Religion; and look'd upon School-Divinity as upon a polish'd and well wrought Armour, which might at once adorn and defend the Christian Hero.

Besides this, Mr. Smith had a long and perfect Intimacy with all the Greek and Latin Classicks; with whom he had carefully compar'd 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 marry'd the two Arts for their mutual Support and Improvement. There was not a Tract of Credit upon that Subject, which he had not diligently examin'd from Aristotle down the 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 seem'd to read with a Design to correct, as well as learn, and meliorate, no less than imitate. Being thus prepar'd, he could not but taste every little Delicacy that was set before him; tho' it was impossible for him at the same time to be fed and nourish'd with any thing, but what was Substantial and Lasting. He consider'd the Antients 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 judg'd, approv'd, and blam'd without Flattery or Detraction. If he did not always commend the Compositions of others, 'twas not ill Nature, (which was not in his Temper) but strict Justice, that would not let him cull a few Flowers set in Ranks, a glib Measure, and so many Couplets by the Name of Poetry: He was of Ben Johnson's Opinion, who could not admire,

—Verses as smooth, and soft as Cream
In which there was neither Depth, nor Stream.

And therefore, tho' his want of Complaisance for some Mens overbearing Vanity made him Enemies, yet the better Part of Mankind were obliged by the Freedom of his Reflections.

His Bodleian Speech, tho' taken from a remote and imperfect Copy, hath shewn the World how great a Master he was of the Ciceronian Eloquence, mix'd with the Conciseness and Force of Demosthenes, the elegant and moving Turns of Pliny, and the acute and wise Reflexions 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 endear'd Dr. Hann's Odes to him, the finest Genius for Latin Lyrick since the Augustan Age. His Friend Mr. Philips's Ode to Mr. St. John, (now Lord Bolingbroke) after the manner of Horace's Lusory Panegyrical, or Amatorian Odes, is certainly a Masterpiece: But Mr. Smith's Pocockius, is of the Sublimer Kind; tho', like Waller's Writings upon Oliver Cromwell, it wants not the most delicate and surprizing Turns peculiar to the Person prais'd. 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 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 allow'd, that he had been singl'd 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 dropp'd; tho' 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, no body shone to greater Advantage: He seem'd 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 scatter'd up and down in Miscellanies and Collections; being wrested from him by his Friends, with great Difficulty and Reluctance. But all of them together make but a small Part of that much greater Body which lyes dispers'd 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 Writing 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 look'd upon as sacred, and inviolable. Every Subject that pass'd under his Pen, had the Life, Proportion, and Embellishments bestow'd on it, which an exquisite Skill, a warm Imagination, and a cool Judgment could possibly bestow on it. The Epique, Lyrick, Elegiac, every sort of Poetry which he touch'd upon, (and he had touch'd upon a great variety) was rais'd to its proper Height, and the Differences between each of them observ'd with a judicious Accuracy. We saw the old Rules and new Beauties plac'd in admirable Order by each other, and there was a predominant Fancy and Spirit of his own infus'd, superior to what some draw off from the Ancients,, or from Posies here and there cull'd 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, tho' Bold: His Numbers Various and Sounding; and that enamel'd Mixture of Classical Wit, which, without Redundance and Affectation, sparkl'd thro' his Writings, was no less Useful than Agreeable.

His Phaedra is a consummate Tragedy, and the Success of it was as great, as the most sanguin 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 refin'd Taste about the Town, was Remarkable on this Occasion: And it must not be forgotten how zealously Mr. Addison espous'd his Interest, with all the elegant Judgment and diffusive Good-Nature, for which that accomplish'd Gentleman and Author is renown'd. But as to Phaedra, she has certainly made a finer Figure under Mr. Smith's Conduct, upon the English Stage, than either at Rome or Athens; and if she excels of the Greek and Latin Phaedra, I need not say, she surpasses the French one, tho' embellish'd with all the 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, mov'd his Indignation. When he was writing upon a Subject, he would seriously consider what Demosthenes, Homer, Virgil, and Horace, if alive, would say upon that Occasion; which caus'd 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 inclin'd 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 Shakespear and Johnson) is clear from hence; because he left his Works to the entire Disposal of his Friends, whose most rigorous Censures he even courted and sollicited; submitting to their Animadversions, and the Freedom they took with him, with an unreserv'd and prudent Resignation.

I have seen Sketches and rough Draughts of some Poems he design'd, 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 squar'd so exactly to the Precedents of the Antients; 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 compar'd with these Embryo's, 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: tho' there is nothing in them but a few Out-lines, as to the Design and Proportion.

It must be confess'd, 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 provok'd, 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, tho' Fortune threw him short of it, in every other Circumstance [of Life.] He avoided making any, tho' 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 offer'd 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 desir'd to be at no other Expence in his Pretensions than that of intrinsick Merit; which was the only Burthen 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 remember'd to their Glory. Mr. Smith's Character grew upon his Friends by Intimacy, and outgrew the strongest Prepossessions, which had been conceiv'd in his Favour. Whatever Quarrel a few sowr Creatures, whose Obscurity is their Happiness, may possibly have to the Age; yet amidst a study'd Neglect, and total Disuse of all those ceremonial Attendances, fashionable Equipments, and external Recommendations, which are thought necessary Introductions into the Grande Monde, this Gentleman was so happy as still to please; and whilst the Rich, the Gay, the Noble, and Honourable, saw how much he excel'd in Wit and Learning, they easily forgave 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 the Excuse with them.

Those who blam'd him most understood him least: It being the Custom of the Vulgar to forge an Excess upon the most Complaisant, and to form a Character by the Morals of a few, who have sometimes spoil'd an Hour or two in good Company. But where only Fortune is wanting to make a Great Name, that single Exception can never pass upon the best Judges and most exquisite 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 engag'd himself in several considerable Undertakings: In all which he had prepar'd 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 bequeath'd that Work to better Hands, than where, I hear, it is at present lodg'd: And the bare Mention of Two such Names, may justifie the largest Expectations, and is sufficient to make the Town an agreeable Invitation.

His greatest and noblest Undertaking was Longinus. He had finish'd 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, tho' truly valuable, was far short of it. He propos'd 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 Title of Thought, Diction, and Figure. I saw the last of these Perfect, and in a fair Copy, in which he shew'd prodigious Judgment and Reading; and particularly had reform'd the Art of Rhetorick, by reducing that vast and confus'd Heap of Terms with which a long Succession of Pedants hath encumber'd 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 lov'd him. It cannot be suppos'd 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.

He dy'd at Hartham the Seat of George Ducket Esq; in Wiltshire, and lies bury'd in the Parish-Church there, with this Inscription upon his Monument, written by the Reverend Mr. William Adams late of Christ-Church, Oxon, his Contemporary, and very intimate Friend.

M. S.

EDMUNDI SMITH. A. M.

Qui in Schola Westmon. educatus,

Ingenii, & Literaturae Splendare,

Leida Morum Comitate

Aedem Christi Oxon. cohonestavit

Poeta, Orator, Philosophus;

Cui Graecae, & Romanae Laudis aemulo

Disciplinas suas Euclides, & Stagyrita,

Tubam Maro, Flaccus Lyram,

Euripides Cothurnum, Facundiam Cicero,

Certatim Detulere;

Ut quod paucis unquam contigit,

Id Egregio Juveni palmarium foret,

Tragodicam in Hippolito suo, restitere,

Auriaci gloriam Scriptis augere,

Bodleio, Pococokio, Phillipsio, Famam addere.

Dum autem Judicio pollens limato,

De Sublimi Dicendi genere

Longinus alter opus parat arduum,

Heu! fato immaturo extinctus est;

Viris Doctis, & Ingeniosis semper carus,

Eo nunc carior, quia abreptus.

Obiit A. D. MDCCX. Aetat. 42.