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‘He is a very clever fellow, but he will never be a bishop.’ George III
‘A more profligate parson I never met.’ George IV
‘I sat next to Sydney Smith, who was delightful … I don’t remember a more agreeable party.’ Benjamin Disraeli
‘I wish you would tell Mr Sydney Smith that of all the men I ever heard of and never saw, I have the greatest curiosity to see … and to know him.’ Charles Dickens
How one agrees with Dickens. Without doubt, Sydney Smith was the most famous wit of his generation. But there was more to him than that, he was an outstanding representative of the English liberal tradition.
Starting as an impoverished village curate he went to Edinburgh as a tutor, and co-founded the Edinburgh Review, the first major nineteenth-century periodical. Happily married, he moved in 1803 to London, where he was introduced into the Holland House circle – of which he quickly became an admired and popular member – but at the age of thirty-eight a Tory government banished him to a village parsonage. There he became ‘one of the best country vicars of whom there is a record’, and after his two chief causes – the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the Reform Bill of 1832 – triumphed, he was rewarded by a canonry of St. Paul’s.
This generous selection of his writings gives the full flavour of his mind and intellectual personality. In a characteristically stimulating introduction in which he discusses Sydney Smith both as an individual and as a shining exemplar of the liberal mind, W. H. Auden places him with Jonathan Swift and Bernard Shaw among the few polemic authors ‘who must be ranked very high by any literary standard.’
As Macaulay said he was ‘The Smith of Smiths’.
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