Chap 25: Smith Interviewed

Chap 25: Smith Interviewed

 

  • In his letter to Cadell, Smith reproaches himself with his idleness during his first few years in Edinburgh.
    • He had bought a good many new books in London, or new editions of old ones,
    • He says that:
      • “My amusement in reading and diverting myself with them debauched me from my proper business of preparing a new edition of the Wealth of Nations.”
  • While he was engaged miscellaneous reading, a young interviewer from Glasgow elicited his opinions on most of the famous authors of the world.
    • The interviewer happened to be much in his company in connection with business in 1780.
      • He gave his notes to the public after Smith’s death in the Bee for 1791.
  • Dr. James Anderson was the editor of the Bee
    • He was the author of Ricardo’s rent theory.
    • He says that even if they had not been sent to him with the strongest assurances of authenticity, he could entertain no doubt on that point after their perusal from the coincidence of the opinions reported in them with those he himself had heard Smith express.
  • The writer’s name was Amicus.
    • He describes himself as “young, inquisitive, and full of respect” for Smith.
    • He says that:
      • their conversation always took a literary turn.
      • Smith was “extremely communicative, and delivered himself with a freedom and even boldness quite opposite to the apparent reserve of his appearance.”

[Pg 366]

  • The first author Amicus mentions is Dr. Johnson.
    • Smith had a “very contemptuous opinion”of him.
    • Smith says:
      • “I have seen that creature bolt up in a mixed company.
      • Without any previous notice, he:
        • fell on his knees behind a chair,
        • repeated the Lord’s Prayer,
        • and then resumed his seat at table.
      • He has played this trick over and over, perhaps five or six times in an evening.
      • It is not hypocrisy but madness.
      • He is an honest man himself.
      • But he is always patronising scoundrels.
        • For example, he so loudly praises Savage who was a worthless fellow.
        • His pension of £50 never lasted him longer than a few days.
      • As a sample of his economy you may take a circumstance that Johnson himself once told me.
        • It was then fashionable to wear scarlet cloaks trimmed with gold lace.
        • He met Savage one day just after he had got his pension.
          • Savage had one of those cloaks on his back, while at the same time his naked toes were sticking through his shoes.”
    • However, he spoke highly of Johnson’s political pamphlets on the American question in spite of his disapproval of their opinions.
      • He was especially charmed with the pamphlet about the Falkland Islands.
      • Because it forcibly presented the madness of modern wars.

 

  • “Contemptuous opinion” is too strong an expression for Smith’s view of Johnson.
    • But it is certain he never rated him so high as the world did then or does now.
  • He told Samuel Rogers that he was astonished at Johnson’s immense reputation.
    • But on the other hand, he frequently praised some of the Doctor’s individual writings very highly, as he did to this young gentleman of Glasgow.
  • He once said to Seward that Johnson’s preface to Shakespeare was “the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in any country.”[316]

 

  • Amicus then asked Smith his opinion of his countryman Dr. Campbell, author of the Political Survey, [Pg 367].
    • Smith replied that he had never met him but once,
    • He was one of those authors who wrote on from one end of the week to the other.
    • He had therefore with his own hand produced almost a library of books.
  • A gentleman who met Campbell out at dinner said he would be glad to have a complete set of his works.
    • The next morning a cart-load came to his door, and the driver’s bill was £70.
  • He used to get a few copies of each of his works from the printers and keep them for such chances as that.
    • A visitor one day saw these books and asked Campbell, “Have you read all these books?”
    • Campbell said: “Nay, I have written them.”

 

  • Smith often praised Swift highly.
    • He said:
      • Swift wanted to become one of the greatest of all poets.
      • “But in place of that he is only a gossiper, writing merely for the entertainment of a private circle.”
  • However, he regarded Swift as a pattern of correctness both in style and sentiment.
    • He read to his young friend some of the short poetical addresses to Stella.
  • Amicus says Smith expressed particular pleasure with one couplet—

 

  • Say, Stella, feel you no content, Reflecting on a life well spent?
  • But it was more probably not so much of these two lines as of the whole passage of which they are the opening that Smith was thinking.
  • He thought Swift a great master of the poetic art.
    • Because he produced an impression of ease and simplicity, though the work of composition was to him a work of much difficulty, a verse coming from him, as Swift himself said, like a guinea.
  • In Smith’s opinion, Swift’s masterpiece was,  the lines on his own death.
    • His poetry was on the whole more correct after he settled in Ireland, and was surrounded, as he himself said, “only by humble friends.”

 

 

  • Among historians, Smith rated Livy first.
  • He knew of no other who [Pg 368] could rival him, except for David Hume.

 

  • When asked about Shakespeare, Smith quoted with apparent approval Voltaire’s remarks that:
    • Hamlet was the dream of a drunken savage, and
    • Shakespeare had good scenes but not a good play.
  • But Amicus gathered that he would not permit anybody else to pass such a verdict with impunity, for when he himself once ventured to say something derogatory of Hamlet, Smith replied,
    • “Yes, but still Hamlet is full of fine passages.”
    • This opinion of Shakespeare was of course common to most of the great men of last century.
  • They were not so much insensible to Shakespeare’s genius as perplexed by it.
    • His plays were full of imagination, dramatic power, natural gifts of every kind.
    • But then they seemed wild, unregulated, savage—even “drunken savage,” as Voltaire says.
  • They were magnificent.
    • But they were not poetry, for they broke every rule of the art, and poetry after all was an art.
  • And so we find Addison at the beginning of last century, writing on the greatest English poets and leaving Shakespeare out.
    • We find Charles James Fox, a true lover of letters, telling Reynolds at the close of the century that Shakespeare’s reputation would have stood higher if he had never written Hamlet.
  • Smith thought Shakespeare had more than 10 times the dramatic genius of Dryden.
    • But Dryden had more of the poetic art.

 

  • He praised Dryden for rhyming his plays.
    • He said:
      • that only laziness prevented our tragic poets from writing in rhyme like French poets, as Pope and Voltaire used also to say
      • “If Dryden had but 1/10th of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, he would have brought rhyming tragedies into fashion here as they were in France.
        • The mob would then have admired them just as much as they then pretended to despise them.”
  • Smith did not call Beattie’s Minstrel a poem at all.
    • Because it had no plan, [Pg 369]no beginning, middle, or end.
    • It was only a series of verses.
    • Some of them, however, were very happy.
  • As for Pope’s translation of the Iliad, he said,
    • “They do well to call it Pope’s Iliad, for it is not Homer’s Iliad.
    • It has no resemblance to Homer’s majesty and simplicity.”

 

  • He read over to Amicus Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.
    • He explained the respective beauties of each.
    • But he added that all the rest of Milton’s short poems were trash.
  • He could not imagine what made Johnson:
    • praise the poem on the death of Mrs. Killigrew, and
    • compare it with Alexander’s Feast.
  • Johnson’s praise of it had induced him to read the poem attentively twice.
    • But he could not discover even a spark of merit in it.
  • On the other hand, Smith considered Gray’s Odes, which Johnson had damned, to be the standard of lyric excellence.

 

  • He did not admire much The Gentle Shepherd, by Allan Ramsay.

    • He preferred the Pastor Fido and the Eclogues of Virgil..
    • Amicus says he “spoke with rapture” on the Pastor Fido.
  • Amicus implied favour for Ramsay, a Scotch.
    • But Smith would not yield a point.
    • He said:
      • “It is the poet’s duty to write like a gentleman.
      • I dislike that homely style which some think fit to call the language of nature and simplicity and so forth.
      • In Percy’s Reliques too a few tolerable pieces are buried under a heap of rubbish.
      • You have read perhaps Adam Bell, Clym of the Cleugh, and William of Cloudesley.”
    • Amicus replied “Yes”
    • Smith continued:
      • “Well then, do you think that was worth printing?”

 

  • Smith spoke somewhat severely of Goldsmith as a man, not as a writer.
    • He related some anecdotes of his easy morals, which Amicus does not repeat.
  • But when Amicus mentioned some story about Burke seducing a young lady, Smith at once declared it an invention.
    • He said:
      • “I imagine that you have got that fine story out of some of the Magazines.
  • If anything can be lower than the Reviews, they are so.
  • They once [Pg 370]had the impudence to publish a story of a gentleman having debauched his own sister, and on inquiry it came out that the gentleman never had a sister.
  • As to Mr. Burke, he is a worthy, honest man, who married an accomplished girl without a shilling of fortune.”
  • Of the Reviews, Smith never spoke but with ridicule and detestation.
  • Amicus tried to get the Gentleman’s Magazine exempted from the general condemnation.
  • But Smith would not hear of that.
  • He said that for his part he never looked at a Review, nor even at the names of the publishers.

 

  • Pope was a great favourite with him as a poet.
  • He knew by heart many passages from his poems, though he disliked Pope’s personal character as a man.
  • He said that he was all affectation.
  • Speaking of his letter to Arbuthnot when the latter was dying as a consummate piece of canting.
  • Dryden was another of his favourite poets.
  • When he was speaking one day in high praise of Dryden’s fables, Amicus mentioned Hume’s objections.
  • He was told, “You will learn more as to poetry by reading one good poem than by a thousand volumes of criticism.”
  • Smith regarded the French theatre as the standard of dramatic excellence.

 

  • Amicus concludes his reminiscences by quoting one of Smith’s observations on a political subject.
  • He said that at the beginning of the reign of George III, the dissenting ministers used to receive £2,000 a year from Government.
    • But that the Earl of Bute had most improperly deprived them of this allowance
    • and that he supposed this to be the real motive of their virulent opposition to Government.

 

  • These recollections of Amicus provoked a letter in the Bee’s next number.
    • It was from Ascanius (the Earl of Buchan).
    • It complained of their publication, not as misrepresenting Smith’s views, but as obtruding the trifles of the ordinary social hour upon the learned world in a way Smith would have extremely disliked.
    • He says that Smith would rather have had his [Pg 371]body injected by Hunter and Monro, and exhibited in Fleet Street or in Weir’s Museum.
  • That may very possibly be so.
    • But though Smith, if he were to give his views on literary topics to the public, might prefer putting them in more elaborate dress,
    • yet the opinions he expressed were mature opinions on subjects on which he had long thought and even lectured
    • If neither Dr. Anderson nor the Earl of Buchan has any fault to find with the correctness of Amicus’s report of them, Smith cannot be considered to be any way wronged.
  • The Earl also complains of how the letter was “such frivolous matter”.
    • But it is not so frivolous.
    • If it were, is it not Smith himself who used to say to his class at Glasgow, as we are informed by Boswell, that there was nothing too frivolous to be learnt about a great man,
    • and that, for his own part, he was always glad to know that Milton wore latchets to his shoes and not buckles?

 

  • In 1781, Gibbon seems to have doubted continuing his History.
    • Robertson happened to be in London then.
    • Gibbon wanted him to talk the matter over with Smith after his return to Edinburgh.
  • The result of this consultation is in a letter from Robertson to Gibbon on November 6, 1781.
    • Robertson says:
      • “Soon after my return, I had a long conversation with Mr. Smith
      • I told him every particular you mentioned to me with respect to the propriety of going on with your work.
      • I was happy to find that his opinion coincided perfectly mine.
      • His decisions, you know, are prompt and vigorous.
      • He could not allow that you hesitate a moment in your choice.
      • He promised to write his sentiments to you very fully.
      • But as he may have neglected to do this, for he not willingly writes, I thought it might be agreeable to you to know his opinion.
      • Though I imagine you could hardly entertain any doubt concerning it.”[317]

[Pg 372]

 

  • Professor B. Faujas Saint Fond was Professor of Geology in the Museum of Natural History at Paris and member of the National Institute of France,
    • He visited Edinburgh in October or November 1782 during his tour of Scotland.
    • He received many civilities from Adam Smith.
    • He mentions it in the account of his travels which he published in 1783.
  • Saint Fond says there was nobody in Edinburgh he visited more frequently than Smith.
    • Nobody received him more kindly or studied more to procure for him every information and amusement Edinburgh could afford.
  • He was struck with Smith’s numerous and excellently chosen library.
    • “The best French authors occupied a distinguished place in his library.
    • For he was fond of our language.”
    • “Though advanced in years, he still had a fine figure.
    • His animation was striking when he spoke of Voltaire.”
    • I have already quoted the remark he made (p. 190).

 

  • One evening while having tea with him, Smith spoke about Rousseau “with a kind of religious respect.”
    • Smith said: “Voltaire, set himself to correct the vices and follies of mankind:
      • by laughing at them, and
      • sometimes by treating them with severity.
    • But Rousseau conducts the reader to reason and truth by the attractions of sentiment and the force of conviction.
      • His ‘Social Compact’ will one day avenge all the persecutions he suffered.”

 

  • Smith asked Saint Fond if he loved music.
    • He replied that it was one of his chief delights whenever it was well executed.
    • Smith replied:
      • “I am very glad of it.
      • I shall put you to a proof which will be very interesting for me,
      • for I shall take you to hear a kind of music of which it is impossible you can have formed any idea, and
      • it will afford me great pleasure to know the impression it makes upon you.”
  • The annual bagpipe competition was to take place next day.
    • Accordingly, Smith came to the Professor’s lodgings at 9 am. [Pg 373]
    • They proceeded at 10am to a spacious concert-room, plainly but neatly decorated.
    • They found it already filled with many ladies and gentlemen.
    • A large space was reserved in the middle of the room and occupied by gentlemen only.
    • Smith said:
      • they were the judges of the upcoming performances.
      • they were all inhabitants of the Highlands or Islands.
    • The prize was for the best execution of some favourite piece of Highland music,
    • and the same air was to be played successively by all the competitors.
    • In about 30 minutes, a folding door opened at the bottom of the hall.
    • The Professor was surprised to see a Highlander advance playing on a bagpipe, dressed in the ancient kilt and plaid of his country.
    • “He walked up and down the vacant space in the middle of the hall with rapid steps and a martial air playing his noisy instrument, the discordant sounds of which were sufficient to rend the ear.
    • The tune was a kind of sonata divided into three periods.
    • Smith requested me:
      • to pay my whole attention to the music, and
      • to explain to him my impression of it.
    • But I confess that initially I could not distinguish either air or design in the music.
    • I was only struck with a piper marching backward and forward with great rapidity.
    • Presenting the same warlike countenance, he made incredible efforts with his body and his fingers to bring into play the different reeds of his instrument.
      • It emitted sounds almost insupportable to me.
    • However, he received great praise.
    • Then came a second piper.
      • He seemed to excel the first, judging from the clapping of hands and cries of bravo that greeted him from every side.
    • Then a third and a fourth, until eight were heard successively.
    • The Professor began at length to realise that the first part of the music was meant to represent the clash and din and fury of war.
    • The last part the wailing for the slain.
    • This last part, he observed, always drew tears from the eyes of a number of “the beautiful Scotch ladies” in the audience.
    • After the music came a “lively and [Pg 374]animated dance,” in which some of the pipers engaged.
      • The rest all played together “suitable airs possessing expression and character, though the union of so many bagpipes produced a most hideous noise.”
    • He does not say whether his verdict was satisfactory to Smith.
    • But the verdict was:
      • that it seemed to him like a bear’s dancing, and
      • that “the impression the wild instrument made on the audience was so different from the impression it made on himself
        • that he could not help thinking that the lively emotion of the persons around him was not occasioned by the musical effect of the air itself, but by some association of ideas which connected the discordant sounds of the pipe with historical events brought forcibly to their recollection.”[318]

 

  • These annual competitions were not the only local institutions Smith was interested in.
    • One of his duties as a citizen was as a Captain of the City Guard.
    • He was made Honorary Captain of the Trained Bands of Edinburgh—the City Guard—on June 4, 1781.
    • According to its minutes, it was made “with the usual solemnity and after spending the evening with grate joy, the whole corps retired, but in distinct divisions and good order, to quarters.”[319]

 

  • The business of this body seems practically to have been mostly of a convivial character.
    • We can sympathise with the honest pride of the clerk in recording in what a condition of good order they were able to retire after celebrating that auspicious occasion with the joy it deserved.
    • Smith attended their periodical festivities, or paid his fine of eight magnums of claret for absence.
    • But their business was not all claret and punch.
  • On September 8, 1784, for example, the captains, lieutenants, and ensigns of the Trained Bands were called out because of an order from the[Pg 375] Lord Provost, “to attend the wheeping of Paull and Anderson, actors in the late riots at Cannonmills.”
    • A rescue riot was apprehended.
    • The Trained Bands met in the old Justiciary Court-room, and were armed there with “stowt oaken sticks.”
    • Marching forth in regular order, they acted as guard to the magistrates during the day.
    • “by their formidable and respectable appearance had the good effect of detering the multitude so that they became only peaceable spectators.”
  • I cannot say if an honorary captain was called on for active service in an emergency.
    • But Smith’s name is not mentioned in the list of absentee captains on this occasion.

 

  • In 1783, Smith joined Robertson and others in founding the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
    • Robertson had long entertained the idea of establishing a society on the model of the foreign academies for the cultivation of every branch of science, learning, and taste.
    • He was at length moved into action by the steps taken in 1782 by the Earl of Buchan and others to obtain a royal charter for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded two years before.
    • Robertson was very anxious to have only one learned society in Edinburgh, of which antiquities might be made a branch subject.
    • He even induced the University authorities to petition Parliament against granting a charter of incorporation to the Antiquarian Society.
  • In this strong step, the University was seconded by the Faculty of Advocates and the old Philosophical Society, founded by Colin Maclaurin in 1739.
    • but their efforts failed.
  • Out of the agitation, however, the Royal Society came into being.
  • I do not know whether Smith actively supported Robertson, or supported him at all, in his exertions against the Antiquarian Society.
    • He was not, as Robertson was, a member of the Society of Antiquaries.
    • But he was one of the original members of the Royal Society.
  • The society was divided into two branches:
    • a physical branch or class devoted to science; and
    • a literary branch or class devoted to history and polite letters.
  • Smith was one of the [Pg 376]four presidents of the literary class.
    • The Duke of Buccleugh was President of the whole society
    • Smith’s colleagues in the presidency of the literary class were Robertson, Blair, and Baron Gordon (Cosmo Gordon of Cluny, a Baron of Exchequer and most accomplished man).

 

  • Smith never read a paper to this society.
    • He does he ever seem to have spoken in it except once or twice.
  • In Transactions, his name is only mentioned in connection with two prizes of 1000 ducats and 500 ducats respectively.
    • These were offered to all the world in 1785 by Count J.N. de Windischgraetz.
    • It was for the two most successful inventions of such legal terminology for every sort of deed.
      • It should not impose any new restraints on natural liberty.
      • Yet it would yet leave no room for doubt or litigation.
      • It would thereby reduce the number of lawsuits.
  • The Count wished the prizes to be decided by three of the most distinguished literary academies in Europe.
    • He had chosen:
      • the Royal Academy of Science in Paris
        • It had already consented to do it.
      • the Royal Society of Edinburgh
        • the Count now sought its consent
      • one of the academies of Germany or Switzerland which he was afterwards to name.
  • He addressed the society through Adam Smith.
    • He must therefore be assumed to have had some private acquaintance or connection with him
    • On July 9, Smith laid the proposal before the Council of the society.
    • The Transactions, reports he “signified to the meeting that although he entertained great doubt whether the problem of the Count de Windischgraetz admitted of any complete and rational solution,
      • yet the Count’s views were so highly laudable, and
      • even an approximation of its object’s attainment would be so important to mankind.
    • He was therefore thought that the society should agree to the Count’s request.
  • He wanted to convey his sentiments [Pg 377]on the subject to the Count by a letter which he would lay before the Council at a subsequent meeting.”[320]
    • This letter was read to the Council on December 13.
    • After being approved, a copy of it was requested for preservation among their papers, as Smith “did not want it to be published in the Transactions of the society.”

 

  • Nothing further is heard of this until August 6, 1787.
    • “Mr. Commissioner Smith told the society that the Count de Windischgraetz had:
      • written to him three dissertations offered as solutions of his problem.
      • wanted the society’s judgment on their merits.
    • The society referred the consideration of these papers to the committee of:
      • Mr. Smith,
      • Mr. Henry Mackenzie of the Exchequer, and
      • Mr. William Craig, advocate.
    • They were to:
      • appraise and consider them, and
      • report their opinion to the society at a subsequent meeting.”
  • At length, on January 21, 1788, Mr. Commissioner Smith reported that this committee thought that:
    • none of the three dissertations amounted to a solution or an approximation to a solution of the Count’s problem.
    • but one of them was a work of great merit.
      • The society asked Mr. A. Fraser Tytler, one of their secretaries, to send their verdict to the Count.[321]

 

FOOTNOTES:

[316] Seward’s Anecdotes, ii. 464.

[317] Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works, ii. 255.

[318] Saint Fond, Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides, ii. 241.

[319] Skinner’s Society of Trained Bands of Edinburgh, p. 99.

[320]Transactions, R.S.E., i. 39.

[321]Ibid., R.S.E., ii. 24.

 


 

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