The other day in discussing Oliver Hereford, I wrote that he stood “somewhere between Sydney Smith and Ogden Nash.” I’m really not at all clear what I had in mind in that comparison—probably just sloppy writing. Well: Nash and Smith both were famous for their wit, but they were at least a century apart in time, and perhaps even further apart in style or general sensibility.
Smith, who flourished in late Georgian England, was perhaps the world’s first modern celebrity preacher, the guy who did so much to give the Anglican clergy the rep of being just too cool for words. In a way he brought this on himself, but in a more important way, the charge is unfair. In fact was a person of great civility and generosity in an age when neither thrived. For all his drawing-room manner, he opposed slavery and supported Catholic emancipation in an age when neither position was a ticket to the best society.
Nash seems to me a more complicated case. When I was young (and had not heard of Smith), I thought Nash was the model of wit. These days I find him mostly (although not entirely) unreadable. Hard for me to say just why, except perhaps that Smith was light-hearted in an age that took itself too seriously, while Nash was facetious an era that didn’t take itself seriously enough.
Sydney Smith quotes abound on the web. Here are some samples:
A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.
Marriage resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.
Never talk for half a minute without pausing and giving others a chance to join in.
I’m the proud possessor of a tattered old Penguine Paperback edition The Smith of Smiths a biography by Hesketh Pearson who was a minor celebrity in his own right—and so, a double artifact. Necessarily, I want to be more careful with Nash. Most of the verse, as I say, now strikes me as dreadful. I am startled to learn that he was lyricist for the Broadway musical “One Touch of Venus,” collaborating with Kurt Weill and S. J. Perelman. And I do like:
Girls who are bespectacled
Seldom get their necktacled.