Monday, September 4, 2017

Unexpected Reading

On Friday, I had more or less a notion of what I would read Friday evening and Saturday: one book until it wore me out, then perhaps another. That might have worked had I not stopped by Second Story Books after work, and had I not found there The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith. Late Saturday afternoon,  I was able to think that I had probably read enough Smith for the week and might go on to other matter.

The volume is "Edited, with an introduction, by W.H. Auden". Auden justly remarks that
 As a general rule it is the fate of the polemical writer to be forgotten when the cause for which he fought has been won or is no longer a live issue, and it will always be difficult to persuade a later generation that there can be exceptions, polemical writers, journalists if you will of such brilliance and charm that they can be read with delight and admiration by those to whom their subject matter is itself of little interest.
Indeed so. I would not have said that the changes in Church of England benefices under a Whig administration a century and a half ago could hold the least interest for me. But Smith, a canon of St. Paul's, though probably at that point in his life not much dependent on such revenue, fills pages that I couldn't stop reading. One might call his arguments worldly--
I object to the confiscation [of livings from the deans and chapters of the cathedrals] because it will throw a great deal more of capital out of the parochial Church than it will bring into it. I am very sorry to come forward with so homely an argument, which shocks so many Clergymen, and particularly those with the largest incomes, and the best Bishoprics; but the truth is, the greater number of Clergymen go into the Church in order that they may derive a comfortable income from the Church. Such men intend to do their duty, and they do it; but the duty is, however, not the motive, but the adjunct. If I were writing in gala and parade, I would not hold this language; but we are in earnest, and on business; and as very rash and hasty changes are founded up contrary suppositions of the pure disinterestedness and perfect inattention to temporals in the Clergy, we must get down at once to the solid rock, without heeding how we disturb the turf and the flowers above. The parochial  Clergy maintain their present decent appearance quite as much by their own capital as by the income derived from the Church.... So that by the old plan of paying by lottery, instead of giving a proper competence to each, not only do you obtain a parochial clergy upon much cheaper terms; but from the gambling propensities of human nature, and the irresistible tendency to hope that they shall gain the great prizes, you tempt men into your service who keep up their credit, and yours, not by your allowance, but by their own capital.
.. when every atom of power and patronage ought to be husbanded for the Crown. A Prebend of Westminster for my second son would soften the Catos of Cornhill and lull the Gracchi of the Metropolitan Boroughs. Lives there a man so absurd, as to suppose that Government can be carried on without those gentle allurements? You may as well attempt to poultice off the humps of a camel's back as to cure mankind of these little corruptions.
--but I at least kept reading.

One can find the Peter Plymley letters on-line at Gutenberg, and they make a good introduction to Smith. The abuses the letters address, in the treatment of the Catholics of Ireland, were largely resolved within twenty-five years after the writing, and I think that I could canvass a fairly literate acquaintance of two dozen without finding three persons who could identify most of the persons that Smith wrote against. (Castlereagh and Canning, maybe; Spencer Perceval, George Rose, and Lord Eldon, probably not.) Still the letters are readable. They offer among other things an example of what political polemics can be in the hands of the literate. Perceval is a favorite target, but Canning gets his share:
It is only the public situation which this gentleman holds which entitles me or induces me to say so much about him. He is a fly in amber, nobody cares about the fly: the only question is, How the Devil did it get there? Nor do I attack him for love of glory, but from the love of utility, as a burgomaster hunts a rat in a Dutch dyke, for fear it should flood a province.

No comments:

Post a Comment