Page:Household Words - Volume 12.djvu/131

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"Familiar in their Mouths as HOUSEHOLD WORDS"- Shakespeare.


HOUSEHOLD WORDS.

 

A WEEKLY JOURNAL.

CONDUCTED BY CHARLES DICKENS.

 


No. 285.] SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 1855. Price 2d.
Stamped 3d.


 

SYDNEY SMITH. I HAVE always had great historic doubts about the reality of SYDNEY SMITH. That there may have been a person of that name, I don't deny I think it likely, from Thiers's ac- count of St. Jean d'Acre, aud other authori- ties, that there was. Perhaps there were more than one ; but it is very evident to me that the witty and wise, the manly aud independent Sydney Smith, about whom we have all laughed so often, and for the supposed loss of whom many of us have wept, was a phan- tasm or, at most, a character imagined by some gentleman of dramatic power, and ad- mirably sustained throughout every scene. How can it be otherwise ? How can we believe that a man with all those qualities the kindness that wins affection, the genius that commands respect was left unrecog- nised and unappreciated for fifty years of his life, by those who had the best opportunities of knowing his virtues and qualifications ? Let us see who those persons were. The Whigs of eighteen hundred were a large and influential joint-stock company for the seizing of loaves and fishes from the Tories. There was no end of their fondness for those piscine and cereal repasts. For many years before that date they had been kept from the public bakeries and ponds, and had complained of the exclusion as a grievous wrong. They had produced the glorious Revolution, they said, and they considered themselves and their wives, aud their sons and their sons' wives, and their daughters and sons-in-law, entitled, by right of birth, to all the good things the country could bestow. The country bestowed all the good things it could : and, at last, gorged aud replete, the leeches dropped off, and the Tories took their place. They were posi- tively stuffed to within an inch of apoplexy with the fat of the land. There were Whig lords in all the counties, in the enjoyment of patriotic sentiments and immeasurable estates ; both estimable possessions dating from the arrival of the glorious Deliverer. There were stewardships and secretaryships, and commissions in the militia, and livings in the church, in their gift, all independent of kings or governments. They formed a little colony of abdicated mouarchs in the midst of the people whom they had sucked and ruled. Diocletians, and Syllas, and Charles the Fifths, were plentiful in every shire ; and the "grey, discrowned kings" were not without their courtiers who followed them (for salaries, of course) into private life. But years passed on their former glories began to be for- gotten Salona and St. Just became tiresome, and the soul of Whiggery panted for a change. Pompous aristocrats, with coronets fantas- tically twisted to resemble caps of liberty, began to talk of the rights of man meaning by that, their own right to a fresh lease of power and pelf. But the country laughed at them, for it could not give them credit for anything but selfishness and stupidity. So,, the great lords betook themselves to little job- beries of their own bought small boroughs, and bribed large ones but still with no effect. They appeared ridiculous whenever anybody compared the liberality of their speeches with the narrowness of their actions. Aud at this time, seeing no real individual of their party able to astonish the Tories with the addition of wit and wisdom to the ordinary political banquets of both the parties, my theory is, that they imagined one, and called him SYDNEY SMITH. The class of men most deeply sunk at that time in dulness and self-seeking were the clergy, so they called SYDNEY SMITH a clergyman. They made him a scholar, a humourist eloquent, gay, benevolent, and, above all, with a mind perfectly free from the trammels of sect or party ; a Christian philo- sopher m holy orders. And they knew how, in this excellent creation, to unite perfect propriety of conduct, perfect orthodoxy of belief, with the more brilliant and captivjitiiig qualities of their hero. But, there are liber- ties people may take with fictitious charac- ters which they could not venture on with flesh and blood. So they put this youth, brimful of energy and goodness, in a curacy on Salisbury Plain. They left him with a broken-down cottage and a hundred a-year ; a population not much above the Calmucks in intelligence ; and potatoes, enriched with a little butter and salt, on the days when the butcher did not come into the parish, and they were many. Yet how did this imaginary curate bear up '! Like Caractacus at Home like Marius at Carthage like a great man under a cloud with dignity and self-respect. The wit and scholar ate his potatoes in hope ; VOL. XII. 285