Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Edmund
SMITH, EDMUND (1672–1710), poet, born in 1672 either at Hanley, the seat of the Lechmeres, or at Tenbury in Worcestershire, was only son of Edmund Neale, a London merchant, by Margaret, daughter of Sir Nicholas Lechmere [q. v.] The father fell into poverty and soon died, and the boy was brought up by a kinsman, whose name was Smith—doubtless Mathew Smith of London, who married Margaret, Sir Nicholas Lechmere's sister. His guardian treated him as his own child, and he adopted his surname (cf. E. P. Shirley's Hanley and the House of Lechmere, p. 19). Educated at Westminster under Dr. Busby, he was elected to both Trinity College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, but decided to proceed to Oxford, where he matriculated 25 June 1688, aged 16. He was a promising lad, and was soon well read in the classics and in modern literature. His contributions to collections of Oxford verse on the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1688, on the coronation of William III and Mary, and on William's return from the battle of the Boyne won him a high reputation (cf. Nichols, Select Collection, ii. 62, vii. 105–8). In 1691 he wrote an excellent Latin ode in alcaics on the death of Dr. Edward Pococke [q. v.], the orientalist (Musæ Anglicanæ, vol. ii.). Johnson, who knew the poem by heart, declared it to be unequalled among modern writers (Boswell, Life, iii. 269). Smith's carelessness about his dress, combined with his handsome appearance, gave him the nicknames of ‘the handsome sloven’ and ‘Captain Rag’ (Gent. Mag. June 1780, p. 280). On 24 Dec. 1694 he was publicly admonished by the authorities of Christ Church for licentious conduct, and was threatened with expulsion. He proceeded M.A. on 8 July 1696, and on 8 Nov. 1701 was chosen to deliver the annual oration in praise of Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library. The manuscript of his speech—beautifully written, to imitate typography—is still preserved in the library. It was published by William Bowyer in 1711 (cf. Macray's Annals of the Bodleian Library, p. 151). Meanwhile Smith's irregularities did not abate, and on 24 April 1700 the dean and chapter declared his place ‘void, he having been convicted of riotous behaviour in the house of Mr. Cole, an apothecary.’ Further action was delayed. But, on failing in his candidature for the office of censor of Christ Church, Smith avenged his defeat by lampooning the dean, Dr. Aldrich. On 20 Dec. 1705 the patience of the authorities was exhausted, and the sentence of expulsion was carried into effect (cf. Gent. Mag. 1822, ii. 223). Driven to London, where he had already in 1690 entered himself as a student at the Inner Temple, Smith sought to make a livelihood by his pen. He professed himself a champion of the whigs, and Addison, who is said to have invited him to write a history of the revolution, at once befriended him. But he made influential friends among all parties.
On 21 April 1707 his tragedy of ‘Phædra and Hippolitus’—an artificial and bombastic effort modelled on Racine's ‘Phèdre’ rather than on Seneca's ‘Hippolytus’—was produced at the Haymarket Theatre, and was acted four times. The prologue was written by Addison, and the epilogue by Prior. The chief actors of the day—Betterton, Booth, Mrs. Barry, and Mrs. Oldfield—took part in it. Despite such advantages, the public were demonstrative in their hostility, and the piece was ‘hardly heard the third night’ (cf. Genest, ii. 368 sq.). The critics, however, were loud in their praises. ‘Would one think,’ wrote Addison in the ‘Spectator,’ No. 18, ‘it was possible (at a Time when an Author lived that was able to write the “Phædra and Hippolitus”) for a People to be so stupidly fond of the Italian Opera, as scarce to give a third Day's Hearing to that admirable Tragedy?’ George Stepney [q. v.], in a published epistle, complimented Smith on his dramatic talents. Lintot purchased the piece for publication at the current rate of 50l. (11 March 1705–6), and Halifax agreed to accept the dedication which Smith wrote after many months' delay. He was too indolent to present the dedication in person to his patron, and thus lost 300l. Prior described the dedication as nonsense, and attributed a decline in Smith's powers to his close association with Steele and Addison. Eight revivals of Smith's tragedy are noticed by Genest. In one of them, at Covent Garden, on 7 Nov. 1754, Peg Woffington played the heroine.
In 1708 Lintot published an elegy by Smith on John Philips, who was his friend at Oxford. Johnson places it ‘among the best elegies which our language can show; an elegant mixture of fondness and admiration, of dignity and softness.’
Anxious to try his fortune again on the stage, Smith designed a tragedy on the subject of Lady Jane Grey, and his friend, George Duckett [q. v.], invited him to his house at Hartham, Wiltshire, in order that he might concentrate his attention on the work. But indulgence in strong ale ‘rendered him plethoric,’ and prescribing for himself a purge, of the dangers of which an apothecary warned him, he defiantly drank it off with fatal effects. He was buried at Hartham in July 1710.
Duckett inaccurately told Oldmixon that Smith was employed by Aldrich, Smalridge, and Atterbury to garble Clarendon's history before it was published. He is said to have left MS. translations from Pindar and Longinus. ‘Two quires of hints’ which he had gathered for his tragedy of Lady Jane Grey were examined by Nicholas Rowe [q. v.], but Rowe did not use them in his play on the same theme. His works—his poem on Philips, his tragedy, and his ‘Oratio Bodleiana,’ with some odes—were issued in 1719, with a life by William Oldisworth [q. v.] Another edition, including the poems of John Armstrong, appeared in 1781. Smith's poems also appear in Dr. Johnson's and in Chalmers's ‘Collections.’
In 1751 F. Newbery published in quarto ‘Thales, a Monody, sacred to the memory of Dr. Pococke. In imitation of Spenser. From an authentic Manuscript by Mr. Edmund Smith, formerly of Christ's Church, Oxon.’ This poem, which is not in the Spenserian stanza, but in stanzas of eight lines (ababbccc), is a paraphrase in English, apparently by another hand, of Smith's Latin ode on the same theme. In the advertisement prefixed the editor states that he ‘has several other very valuable pieces of Mr. Smith in his possession which he intends shortly to communicate to the public.’
Smith's writings justify a very moderate estimate of his abilities. But his fame, owing to the praises of his friends, survived throughout the eighteenth century. Johnson described him as ‘one of those lucky writers who have, without much labour, attained high reputation, and who are mentioned with reverence rather for the possession than the exertion of uncommon abilities.’
[Oldisworth's Life, prefixed to Phædra and Hippolitus, 1719, 3rd edit.; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, ii. 41 et seq.; Welch's Alumni Westmon. pp. 211–12; Foster's Alumni Oxon.]