1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Horace Smith

S. C. Hall, "James and Horace Smith" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 255-60.



There is no memoir of Horace Smith, but he wrote a biography of his brother James, to preface an edition of his collected writings; and although singularly, and perhaps blamably, abnegating himself, we thence gather a few facts and dates that may aid us in recalling both to memory. The brothers, of whom James was the elder by about four years, were the sons of Robert Smith, Esq., an eminent legal practitioner of London, who long held the office of Solicitor to the Ordnance — an office in which James succeeded him. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, and in all respects an estimable and accomplished gentleman. Horace, having eschewed the legal profession, preferred that of a stockbroker; a business, however, hardly more to his taste, and in which he made no "figure," being from his youth upwards better known at Parnassus than in the vicinity of the Exchange. Both wrote early in life, somewhat to the dismay of the father, who had paved the way to fortune through another and very opposite path. Notwithstanding, when Horace produced historical novels, he not only took interest in his son's productions, but gave him "aid and suggestions," which, by his extensive reading and profound knowledge of English history, he was well qualified to do.

James was born on the 16th of February, 1775, and Horace in 1779, at the house in which their father dwelt in Basinghall Street, London. There was also another son, Leonard, and there were six daughters.

The boys were educated at Chigwell, in Essex. In after years, when a "sexagenarian pilgrim," James frequently recalled to memory with pleasure and with gratitude the years there passed; and on revisiting the place towards the close of life, he thus murmured his latest thoughts:

Life's cup is nectar at the brink,
Midway a palatable drink,
And wormwood at the bottom.

James was articled to his father in 1792, subsequently became his partner, and in 1832 succeeded him. He had tried his "'prentice han'" in various short-lived periodicals, especially the Monthly Mirror, edited by Tom Hill. When Drury Lane was burned and rose again — to adopt an original simile — like a Phoenix from its ashes (it was in 1812), there appeared an advertisement offering a recompense for a poem in honour of the occasion. The idea occurred to these mercantile brothers that they would write and print a collection of Poems, imitative of all the leading poets of the time. They did so, and "woke to find themselves famous." And no wonder: they are fine as compositions, and singularly true as copies of the style and manner of the poets imitated; while so exquisitely pointed and witty, without a particle of ill-nature, that not one of the bards who were "hit" could have been offended at being touched, as if by arrows tipped with feathers from the wings of a Cupid or a seraph.

"One of the luckiest hits in literature" (thus Horace modestly speaks of the work) "appeared on the reopening of Drury Lane Theatre in October of that year." The idea was suggested just six weeks before that event, and the "Rejected Addresses" occupied the writers no longer time. The copyright was offered to, and declined by, Mr. Murray, for the modest sum of 20. He reluctantly undertook to publish it, and share the profits — if any; and it is not a little singular that the worthy publisher did actually purchase the book, in 1819, after it had gone through fifteen editions, for the sum of 131. May such results often follow transactions between publishers and authors!

James wrote the imitations of Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, Crabbe, and Cobbett; Horace those of Byron, Scott, Moore, Monk Lewis, and Fitzgerald. The sarcasms were so genuine, the humour so ample, and the imitations so true, that no one of the poets took offence; on the contrary, they were all gratified. It has been rightly said by Mr. Hayward, "that the only discontented persons were those who were left out." Crabbe said of the imitation of him — "There is a little ill-nature — and I take the liberty of adding, undeserved ill-nature — in their prefatory address; but in their versification they have done me admirably."

The brothers became "lions" at once; but they had no notion of revelling in notoriety; of literary vanity they had none, and they shrank from, rather than courted, the stare of "admirers," to whom any celebrity of the hour was — and is — a thing coveted and desired.

This story has been often told. When the venerable bas bleu, Lady Cork, invited them to her soiree, James Smith wrote his regret that they could not possibly accept the invitation, for that his brother Horace was engaged to grin through a horse-collar at a country fair, and he himself had to dance a hornpipe at Sadler's Wells upon that very night.

James reposed on his laurels: as his brother says, "he was fond of his ease," and unsolicitous of further celebrity, never again wooing a proverbially capricious public, contenting himself with flinging scraps of humour here and there, heedless of their value or their fate; while Horace became a laborious man of letters. Of James, Mathews used to say, "He is the only man who can write clever nonsense." He lived among wits — dramatic wits more especially — and from him some of them derived much that constituted their stock in trade. His motto was "Vive la bagatelle!" his maxim, "Begone, dull care!" His sparkle was that of champagne. But, as one of his friends wrote, "he ever preserved the dignity of the English gentleman from merging in the professional gaiety of the jester;" there was never aught of sneering or sarcasm in his humour — his wit was never a stab. On the contrary, he was buoyant and genial, even when enduring much bodily suffering; and there was no mistaking the fact that he loved to give pleasure rather than pain.

Horace, on the other hand, became a worker; he took the pen seriously and resolutely in hand, and although not at any time dependent on literature, became an author by profession, joining the immortal hand who

live for aye
In Fame's eternal volume.

James died on the 24th of December, 1839, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, and was buried under the vaults of St. Martin's Church. Horace died on the 12th of July, 1849, aged sixtynine, and was buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church, Tunbridge Wells.

James "seldom wrote, except as an amusement and relief from graver occupation. Though he may be described as a wit by profession, his nature was kindly, genial, and generous." One who knew him intimately avers that it was "difficult to pass an evening in his company without feeling in better humour with the world;" and many of his friends have testified to his inexhaustible fund of amusement and information, and his "lightness, liveliness, and good sense."

Of James his brother writes: — "His was not the sly, sneering sarcasm that finds most pleasure in the bon mot that gives pain, nor was it of that dry, quiet character which gives zest to a joke by the apparent unconsciousness of its author. His good sayings were heightened by his cordial good nature, by the beaming smile, the twinkling eye, and the frank, hearty cachination that showed his own enjoyment." He had a remarkably tenacious memory, and was ever ready with an apt quotation from the old poets; and he pleasantly sang some of his own songs.

I recall to memory one of his jeux d'esprit; I am not sure if it be published:—

Caelia publishes with Murray,
Cupid's ministry is o'er;
Lovers vanish in a hurry;
She writes — she writes, boys.
Ward off shore!

And I have another in MS., "The Alphabet to Madame Vestris:"—

Though not with lace bedizened o'er
From James's and from Howell's,
Oh, don't despise us twenty-four
Poor consonants and vowels.
Though critics may your powers discuss
Your charms, admiring, men see,
Remember you from four of us
Derive your X L N C."

Although I more than once visited James Smith at his house in Craven Street, I saw most of him — and it was the best of him — at the "evenings" of Lady Blessington in Seamore Place. He was not far off from his grave, and was usually full of pain: it was often shown by that expression of countenance which accompanies physical suffering, and his round, good-humoured face, although it was seldom without a smile, was generally contracted, and at times convulsed from internal agony. He had eyes full of humour — he looked as if all things, animate and inanimate, were suggestive of jokes, which were continually slipping in and playing about during any pause in any conversation.

Leigh Hunt described him as "a fair, stout, fresh-coloured man, with round features;" and N. P. Willis as a man "with white hair, and a very nobly-formed head and physiognomy; his eye alone, small, and with lids contracted into an habitual look of drollery, betrayed the bent of his genius."

He wheeled himself about the room in a sort of invalid chair, and had generally something pleasant, and often something witty, to say to each of the guests, his beautiful and accomplished hostess coming, naturally, in for the largest share of both. He was tall and stout, and the merry twinkle of his eye gave evidence that his thoughts were redolent of humour, even when he did not speak. Some one has said, "He had the head of a man, with the heart of a boy."

Horace Smith was of another, and certainly a higher nature. Leigh Hunt deposes to "the fine nature of the man" (and well he might do so, having had experience of his liberality), and pictures him as "of good and manly figure, inclining to the robust; his countenance extremely frank and cordial, sweetness without weakness." And Shelley, writing of him, exclaims: — "It is odd that the only truly generous person I ever knew who had money to be generous with should be a stockbroker." "Gay, tender, hospitable, and intellectual," that is Lady Morgan's character of Horace Smith; and this is Southey's testimony to the credit of the brothers both: — "They are clever fellows, with wit and humour as fluent as their ink, and, to their praise be it spoken, with no gall in it."

Yes, certainly Horace was of a far higher nature than James. Perhaps it was fairly said of them, "One was a good man, the other a good fellow." But Horace was happily married, and had loving children, enjoyed a healthy constitution, and lived in comparative retirement, away from the bustle of society, in a tranquil home. During the later years of his life he resided at Brighton — it was not then as it is now, London-on-sea, where everybody meets everybody, and nods of recognition are about as many as the steps one takes when promenading the Parade.

He was twice married, and left a daughter by his first wife, and two daughters by his second, who was the maternal aunt of Mr. E. M. Ward, R.A., the artist, and it is from a sketch by him of his uncle that I engrave the portrait at the head of this Memory. Mr. Ward retains affectionate remembrances of Horace Smith, of his love for children, and the delight that was caused in his father's house whenever "Uncle Horace" was expected: his arrival was ever the signal of a merry-making. He usually placed the children on his knees, and regaled them with fairy tales told in extempore verse.

It was at Brighton I knew Horace Smith, so far back as the year 1835. My knowledge of him, though limited, enables me to indorse the opinions I have quoted from better authorities. He was tall, handsome, with expressive yet quiet features; they were frequently moved, however, when he either heard or said a good thing, and it was easy to perceive the latent humour that did not come to the surface as often as it might have done. It is saying little if I say I never heard him utter an injurious word of any one of his contemporaries, although our usual talk concerned them; for I was at that time editor of the New Monthly, to which he was a frequent contributor, and he liked to know something of his associates in letters, the greater number of whom, I believe, he had never seen. He knew their writings, however, and was certainly an extensive reader as well as a sound thinker, and always a generous and sympathising critic. I copy one of his letters; it is evidence of that which was the leading characteristic of his mind — a total abnegation of self.

"17th October, 1831.

10, Hanover Crescent.

I am sorry you should deem the smallest apology necessary for returning my MS., a duty which every editor must occasionally exercise towards all his contributors. From my domestic habits and love of occupation I am always scribbling, often without due consideration of what I am writing, and I only wonder that so many of my frivolities have found their way into print. With this feeling, I am always grateful towards those who save me from committing myself; and acquiesce very willingly in their decisions. In proof of this I will mention a fact of which I am rather proud. Mr. Colburn had agreed to give me 500 for the first novel I wrote, and had announced its appearance, when a mutual friend who looked over the MS., having expressed an unfavourable opinion of it, I threw it in the fire, and wrote 'Brambletye House' instead. Let me not omit to mention, to the credit of Mr. C., that, upon the unexpected success of that work, he subsequently presented me with an additional 100.

Yours very truly,

HORATIO SMITH."

His novels are still "asked for" at the circulating libraries, and perhaps as historical romances they even now hold their place next to those of Scott, while among his collected poems are many of great beauty and of much strength. I believe, however, that after the publication of "Rejected Addresses" he preferred to consider the comic vein exhausted.

Horace was not rich; indeed, neither of the brothers was so. James never could have amassed money, notwithstanding he was Solicitor to the Board of Ordnance. He invested his whole capital, amounting to no more than 3,000, in the purchase of an annuity, and died three months after it was bought. Horace bequeathed to his widow and children an ample sufficiency, although he was far too generous to become wealthy. Shelley did not know that it was out of comparatively limited means, and not a superfluity, that he relieved, at the entreaty of the former, the pressing wants of Leigh Hunt. Many other instances may be recorded of his generosity in giving — or lending, which often means much the same thing — to less prosperous brothers of the pen.

He was, indeed, emphatically a good man; of large sympathy and charity; generous in giving, even beyond his means; eminent for rectitude in all the affairs and relations of life; and "richly meriting" the praises that are inscribed on his tombstone in the graveyard at Tunbridge Wells.