Page images




the boys, and the urchins, fresh from home, were left to fare as they might. “Neglect, abuse, and vice were,” Sydney used to say, “the pervading evils of Winchester; and the system of teaching, if one may so call it, savored of the old monastic nar

I believe, when a boy at school, I made above ten thousand Latin verses, and no man in his senses would dream of ever making another in after-life. So much for life and time wasted.” The verse-inciting process is, nevertheless, remorselessly carried on during three years more at Oxford, and is much oftener the test of patient stupidity than of aspiring talent. Yet of what stupendous importance it is in the attainment of scholarships and prizes; and how zealous, how tenacious are dons and “coaches” in holding to that which far higher classics, the Germans, regard with contempt!

Sydney's proficiency promoted him to be captain of the school, and he left Winchester for New College, Oxford—one of the noblest and most abused institutions then of that grand university. Having obtained a scholarship, as a matter of course, and afterward a fellowship, he remarked that the usual bumpers of port wine at college were as much the order of the day among the Fellows as Latin verses among the under-graduates. We may not, however, picture to ourselves Sydney as partaking in the festivities of the common room; with more probability let us imagine him wandering with steady gait, even after Hall—a thing not either then or now certain in colleges—in those evergreen, leafy, varied gardens, flanked by that old St. Peter's church on the one side, and guarded by the high wall, once a fortification, on the other. He was poor, and therefore safe, for poverty is a guardian angel to an undergraduate, and work may protect even the Fellow from utter deterioration.

He was turned out into the world by his father with his hundred a year from the Fellowship, and never had a farthing from the old destroyer of country-seats afterward. He never owed a sixpence; nay, he paid a debt of thirty pounds, which Courtenay, who had no iron in his character, had incurred at Winchester, and had not the courage to avow. The next step was to choose a profession. The bar would have been Sydney's choice; but the Church was the choice of his father. It is the cheapest channel by which a man may pass into genteel poverty; - wit and independence do not make bishops," as Lord Cockburn remarks. We do not, however, regard, as he does, Sydney Smith as “lost” by being a churchman. He was happy, and made others happy; he was good, and made others good. . Who can say the same of a successful barrister, or of a popular orator? His first sphere was in a curacy on Salis


[blocks in formation]

bury Plain; one of his earliest clerical duties was to marry his brother Robert (a barrister) to Miss Vernon, aunt to Lord Lansdown. “All I can tell you of the marriage," Sydney wrote to his mother, “is that he cried, she cried, I cried.” It was celebrated in the library at Bowood, where Sydney so often enchanted the captivating circle afterward by his wit.

Nothing could be more gloomy than the young pastor's life on Salisbury Plain : “the first and poorest pauper of the hamlet,” as he calls a curate, he was seated down among a few scattered cottages on this vast flat ; visited even by the butch

; er's cart only once a week from Salisbury; accosted by few human beings; shunned by all who loved social life. But the probation was not long; and after being nearly destroyed by a thunder-storm in one of his rambles, he quitted Salisbury Plain, after two years, for a more genial scene.

There was a hospitable squire, a Mr. Beach, living in Smith's parish; the village of Netherhaven, near Amesbury. Mr. Beach had a son; the quiet Sundays at the Hall were enlivened by the curate's company at dinner, and Mr. Beach found his guest both amusing and sensible, and begged him to become tutor to the young squire. Smith accepted; and went away with his pupil, intending to visit Germany. The French Revolution was, however, at its height. Germany was impracticable, and we were driven,” Sydney wrote to his mother, “ by stress of politics, into Edinburgh."

This accident—this seeming accident-was the foundation of Sydney Smith's opportunities; not of his success, for that his own merits procured, but of the direction to which his efforts were applied. He would have been eminent wherever destiny had led him; but he was thus made to be useful in one especial manner: “his lines had, indeed, fallen in pleasant places."

Edinburgh, in 1797, was not, it is almost needless to say, the Edinburgh of 1860. An ancient, picturesque, high-built looking city, with its wynds and closes, it had far more the characteristics of an old French ville de Province than of a northern capital. The foundation-stone of the new College was laid in 1789, but the building was not finished until more than forty years afterward. The edifice then stood in the midst of fields and gardens. “Often," writes Lord Cockburn,“ did we stand to admire the blue and yellow crocuses rising through the clean earth in the first days of spring, in the house of Doctor Monro (the second), whose house stood in a small field entering from Nicolson street, within less than a hundred yards from the college.”

The New Town was in progress when Sydney Smith and




his pupil took refuge in “ Auld Reekie.” With the rise of every street some fresh innovation in manners seemed also to begin. Lord Cockburn, wedded as he was to his beloved Reekie, yet unprejudiced and candid in all points, ascribes the change in customs to the intercourse with the English, and seems to date it from the Union. Thus the overflowing of the old town into fresh spaces “implied,” as he remarks, “a general alteration of our habits.”

As the dwellers in the Faubourg St. Germain regard their neighbors across the Seine, in the Faubourg St. Honoré, with disapproving eyes, so the sojourners in the Canongate and the Cowgate considered that the inundation of modern population vulgarized their “prescriptive gentilities.” Cockburn's description of a Scottish assembly in the olden time is most interesting..

“For example, Saint Cecilia's Hall was the only public resort of the musical; and, besides being our most selectly fashionable place of amusement, was the best and most beautiful concert-room I have ever seen. And there have I myself seen most of our literary and fashionable gentlemen, predominating with their side curls and frills, and ruffles, and silver buckles; and our stately matrons stiffened in hoops, and gorgeous satin; and our beauties with high-heeled shoes, powdered and pomatumed hair, and lofty and composite head-dresses. All this was in the Cowgate; the last retreat nowadays of destitution and disease. The building still stands, though raised and changed. When I last saw it, it seemed to be partly an oldclothesman's shop and partly a brazier’s.” alls were held in the beautiful rooms of George Square, in spite of the “New Town piece of presumption," that is, an attempt to force the fashionable dancers of the reel into the George Street apartments.

“And here," writes Lord Cockburn, looking back to the days when he was that “ne'er-do-weel” Harry Cockburn,

were the last remains of the ball-room discipline of the preceding age. Martinet dowagers and venerable beaux acted as masters and mistresses of ceremonies, and made all the preliminary arrangements. No couple could dance unless each party was provided with a ticket prescribing the precise place, in the precise dance. If there was no ticket, the gentleman or the lady was dealt with as an intruder, and turned out of the dance. If the ticket had marked upon it—say for a countrydance, the figures 3, 5, this meant that the holder was to place himself in the 3d dance, and 5th from the top; and if he was any where else, he was set right or excluded.

And the partner's ticket must correspond. Woe on the poor girl who, with




a 6


ticket 2, 7, was found opposite a youth marked 5,9! It was flirting without a license, and looked very ill, and would probably be reported by the ticket director of that dance to the mother."

All this had passed away; and thus the aristocracy of a few individuals was ended; and society, freed from some of its restraints, flourished in another and more enlightened way than formerly.

There were still a sufficient number of peculiarities to gratify one who had an eye to the ludicrous. Sydney Smith soon discovered that it is a work of time to impart a humorous idea to a true Scot. “It requires,” he used to say, “a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding." “They are so imbued with metaphysics, that they even make love metaphysically. I overheard a young lady of my acquaintance, at a dance in Edinburgh, exclaim in a sudden pause of the music, “What you say, my Lord, is very true of love in the abstract, but here the fiddlers began fiddling furiously, and the rest was lost.” He was, however, most deeply touched by the noble attribute of that nation which retains what is so

-the attribute of being true friends. He did ample justice to their kindliness of heart. “ If you meet with an accident,” he said, "half Edinburgh immediately flocks to your doors to inquire after your pure hand, or your pure foot.” “Their temper,” he observed," stands any thing but an attack on their climate; even Jeffrey can not shake off the illusion that myrtles flourish at Craig Crook.” The sharp reviewer stuck to his myrtle allusions, and treated Smith's attempts with as much contempt as if he had been a “wild visionary, who had never breathed his caller air,” nor suffered under the rigors of his climate, nor spent five years in “discussing metaphysics and medicine in that garret end of the earth—that knuckle end of England-that land of Calvin, oat-cakes, and sulphur," as Smith termed Scotland.

During two years he braved the winters in which he declared hackney-coaches were drawn by four horses on account of the snow; where men were blown flat down on the face by the winds; and where even “experienced Scotch fowls did not dare to cross the streets, but sidled along, tails aloft, without venturing to encounter the gale.” He luxuriated, nevertheless, in the true Scotch supper, than which nothing more pleasant and more unwholesome has ever been known in Christendom. Edinburgh is said to have been the only place where people dined twice a day. The writer of this memoir is old enough to remember the true Scottish Attic supper before its final “fading into wine and water,” as Lord Cockburn



describes its decline. “Suppers," Cockburn truly says, “are

, cheaper than dinners," and Edinburgh, at that time, was the cheapest place in Great Britain. Port and sherry were the staple wines; claret, duty free in Scotland until 1780, was indeed beginning to be a luxury; it was no longer the ordinary beverage, as it was when-as Mackenzie, the author of the Man of Feeling," described-it used, upon the arrival of a cargo, to be sent through the town on a cart with a horse before it, so that every one might have a sample, by carrying a jug to be filled for sixpence: still even at the end of the eighteenth century it was in frequent use. Whisky toddy and plotty (red wine mulled with spices) came into the supper-room in ancient flagons or stoups, after a lengthy repast of broiled chickens, roasted moorfowl, pickled mussels, flummery, and numerous other good things had been discussed by a party who ate as if they had not dined that day. “We will eat,” Lord Cockburn used to say after a long walk, “a profligate supper,” a supper without regard to discretion or digestion; and he usually kept his word.

İn Edinburgh, Sydney Smith formed the intimate acquaintance of Lord Jeffrey, and that acquaintance ripened into a friendship only closed by death. The friendship of worthy, sensible men he looked upon as one of the greatest pleasures in life.

The "old suns,” Lord Cockburn tells us, were setting when the band of great thinkers and great writers, who afterward concocted the 'Edinburgh Review,' were rising into celebrity.” Principal Robertson, the historian, had departed this life in 1793, a kindly old man. With beaming eyes underneath his frizzed and curled wig, and a trumpet tied with a black ribbon to the button-hole of his coat, for he was deaf, this most excellent of writers showed how he could be also the most zealous of diners. Old Adam Ferguson, the historian of Rome, had “set” also: one of the finest specimens of humanity had gone from among his people in him. Old people, not thirty years ago, delighted to tell you how “Adam,” when chaplain to the Black Watch, that glorious 42d, refused to retire to his proper place, the rear, during an action, but persisted in being engaged in front. He was also gone; and Dugald Stewart filled his vacant place in the professorship of moral philosophy. Dr. Henry, the historian, was also at rest : after a long, laborious life, and the compilation of a dull, though admirable History of England, the design of which, in making a chapter on arts, manners, and literature separate from the narrative, appears to have suggested to Macaulay his inimitable disquisition on the same topics. Dr. Henry showed to a friend a pile of books

[ocr errors]


« PreviousContinue »