Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William Henry (1808-1872)

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SMITH, WILLIAM HENRY (1808–1872), philosopher, poet, and miscellaneous writer, son of Richard Smith, barrister-at-law, was born at North End, Hammersmith, in January 1808, of parents in easy circumstances. Theyre Townsend Smith [q. v.] was his brother. He was educated at Radley school, then a nonconformist institution, and afterwards at Glasgow University, where he made many valuable friends and imbibed the habits of thought which influenced his subsequent life. After his father's death in 1823 he was placed with Sharon Turner to study law, and served out his articles as a solicitor with excessive distaste. He was afterwards called to the bar, and went circuit for a while, but obtained no practice. Having a small independence, he mainly led the life of a recluse man of letters, reading, thinking, writing, and enjoying the friendship of Mill, Maurice, and Sterling, having assisted the latter two when they edited the ‘Athenæum.’ Caroline Fox notices his personal likeness to Maurice. His poems ‘Guidone’ and ‘Solitude’ were published together in 1836, and about the same time he reviewed Bulwer and Landor in the ‘Quarterly.’ In 1839 he published his ‘Discourse on Ethics of the School of Paley,’ which was, in Professor Ferrier's opinion, ‘one of the best written and most ingeniously reasoned attacks upon Cudworth's doctrine that ever appeared.’ In the same year he began his connection with ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ continued to nearly the end of his life. He contributed altogether 126 articles on the most diverse subjects, stories, poems, essays in philosophy and politics, but principally reviews and criticisms, all valuable, and all distinguished by elegance and lucidity of style. His novel, ‘Ernesto,’ a story connected with the conspiracy of Fiesco, had appeared in 1835. It has considerable psychological but little narrative interest. Similar qualities and defects characterise his tragedy of ‘Athelwold’ (1842), although it was greatly admired by Mrs. Taylor, the Egeria of Stuart Mill, whose scrap of criticism is one of the very few utterances of hers that have found their way into print. Macready produced a curtailed version in 1843, and his and Helen Faucit's acting procured it a successful first night; more was hardly to be anticipated. It was published in 1846 along with ‘Sir William Crichton,’ another tragedy, and ‘Guidone’ and ‘Solitude.’ From this time Smith lived chiefly at Keswick in the Lake district. In 1851 he unexpectedly received an offer from Professor Wilson to supply temporarily his place as professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, but he was diffident, and had begun to write ‘Thorndale,’ and the tempting offer was declined. ‘Thorndale, or the Conflict of Opinions,’ was published in 1857, and, notwithstanding its length and occasional abstruseness, speedily gained acceptance with thoughtful readers. In the previous year he had become acquainted with his future wife, Lucy Caroline, daughter of George Cumming, M.D., whom he married at St. John's Church, Notting Hill, on 5 March 1861. ‘Gravenhurst, or Thoughts on Good and Evil,’ was published in the same year. It confirmed and extended the reputation acquired by ‘Thorndale,’ but Smith owes much more to his wife's beautiful and affectionate record of their married life, almost devoid of incident as it is. His health began to decline in 1869, and he died at Brighton on 28 March 1872. Mrs. Smith survived until 14 Dec. 1881. Apart from her memoir of her husband, her literary work had principally consisted of translations from the German, both in prose and verse.

Next after the biography which has embalmed his name, Smith will chiefly be remembered by his philosophical dialogues, ‘Thorndale’ and ‘Gravenhurst.’ The mutual relation of the books is indicated by the author himself when he says that ‘Thorndale’ is a conflict of opinions and ‘Gravenhurst’ a harmony. No man was better qualified by innate candour and impartiality to balance conflicting opinions against each other, or by acuteness to exhibit the strong and weak points of all. The eclectic character of his mind aided the diffusion of the books; every one found much that commended itself to him, while less popular views were expressed with an urbanity which disarmed hostility, and the hesitation to draw definite conclusions was an additional attraction to a public weary of dogmatism. If these really charming compositions have become in a measure obsolete, the chief reason is the importation of physical science as an element in moral discussions, but their classic elegance will always secure them an honourable, if not an influential, place in the history of modern speculation. Smith's dramatic gift was not inconsiderable; his personages are well individualised both in his dialogues and his dramas. Of the latter, ‘Sir William Crichton,’ a play of the stormy times of James II of Scotland, is the more effective. ‘Athelwold’ is a clear imitation of the style of Sir Henry Taylor, and, like the latter's ‘Edwin the Fair,’ brings Dunstan upon the stage. Both plays are full of wisdom, beautifully expressed, but neither is very vital nor very real.

[Memoir of William Smith, by his widow, originally printed privately in 1873, and afterwards prefixed to the second edition of Gravenhurst, 1875; The Story of William and Lucy Smith, by George S. Merriam, 1889, a reprint of the memoir with copious additions from the correspondence of both and extracts from Smith's writings and with a portrait from a bust. A thorough description and analysis of Smith's philosophy (especially as expressed in ‘Gravenhurst’) is given by M. Joseph Milsand in one of a series of eleven essays called ‘Littérature Anglaise et Philosophie,’ Dijon, 1893, pp. 173–197.]

R. G.