1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Smith

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:107-13.



EDMUND SMITH, one of those writers who, without much labour have attained high reputation, and who are mentioned with reverence rather for the possession than the exertion of uncommon abilities, was the only son of Mr. Neale, an eminent merchant, by a daughter of the famous baron Lechmere; and born in 1668. Some misfortunes of his father, which were soon after followed by his death, occasioned the son to be left very young in the hands of Mr. Smith, who had married his father's sister. 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, young Neale, in gratitude, thought proper to assume the name of Smith. He was elected from Westminster to Cambridge, but, being offered a studentship, voluntarily removed to Christ-church in Oxford; and was there by his aunt handsomely maintained as long as she lived; after which, he continued a member of that society till within five years of his own death. Some time before he left Christ church, he was sent for by his mother to Worcester, and acknowledged by her as a legitimate son; which his friend Oldisworth mentions, he says, to wipe off the aspersions that some had ignorantly cast on his birth. He passed through the exercises of the college and university with unusual applause; and acquired a great reputation in the schools both for his knowledge and skill in disputation. He 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 languages, and in all the celebrated writers of his own country. 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.

His works are not many, and those scattered up and down in miscellaneous collections. His celebrated tragedy, called "Phedra and Hippolitus," was acted at the theatre royal in 1707. This play was introduced upon the stage at a time when the Italian opera so much engrossed the polite world, that sense was thought to be sacrificed to sound: and this occasioned Addison, who wrote the prologue, to satirize the vitiated taste of the public. The chief excellence of this play, which has been praised far beyond its merits, is the versification. It is not destitute of the pathetic; but is so wonderfully inferior, not only to the Hippolytus of Euripides, but even to the Phedre of Racine, and is so full of glaring faults, that it is astonishing how Addison could tolerate it, or how it could be made even a temporary fashion to admire it. It is now as little thought of as it deserves. This tragedy, with "A Poem to the Memory of Mr. John Phillips," his most intimate friend, three or four odes, and a Latin oration spoken publicly at Oxford, "in laudem Thomae Bodleii," were published in 1719, under the name of his Works, by his friend Oldisworth, who prefixed a character of Smith.

He died in 1710, in his forty-second year, at the seat of George Ducket, esq. called Hartham, in Wiltshire; and was buried in the parish church there. Some time before his death, he engaged in considerable undertakings; and raised expectations in the world, which he did not live to gratify. Oldisworth observes, that he had seen of his about ten sheets of Pindar, translated into English; which, he says, exceeded any thing in 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. But his greatest undertaking was a translation of Longinus, to which he proposed a large addition of notes and observations of his own, with an entire system of the art of poetry in three books, under the titles of "thoughts, diction, and figure." He intended also to make remarks upon all the ancients and moderns, the Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and English poets; and to animadvert upon their several beauties and defects.

Oldisworth has represented Smith as a man abounding with qualities both good and great; and that may perhaps be true, in some degree, though amplified by the partiality of friendship. He had, nevertheless, some defects in his conduct: one was an extreme carelessness in the particular of dress which singularity procured him the name of "Captain Rag." The ladies, it is said, at once commended and reproved him, by the name of the "handsome sloven." It is acknowledged also, that he was much inclined to intemperance; which was caused perhaps by disappointments, but led to that indolence and loss of character, which has been frequently destructive to genius, even of a higher order than he appears to have possessed. Dr. Johnson thus draws up his character: "As his years advanced, he advanced in reputation; for he continued to cultivate his mind; but 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 governors 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; it not being thought proper to trust the superintendance 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 December 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 he 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 stayed 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 that 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 critics, and the critics only. It was, as Addison has recorded, hardly heard the third night. Smith had, indeed, trusted entirely to his merit; had insured 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. 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 shew, 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. 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 fewer avocations, he was, in June, 1710, invited by Mr. George Ducket, to his house at Hartham 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 plethoric: 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 Hartham. 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 Trevoux, 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 burthened with a false charge. The testimonies which he has collected have convinced mankind that either Smith or Ducket were 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 to paper. Thus it was that he had gathered two quires of hints for his new tragedy; of which Rowe, 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; scholastic 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 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."