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Horace Smith:
A Graybeard’s Gossip

A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. I
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. II
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. III
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. IV
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. V
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. VI
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. VII
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. VIII
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. IX
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. X
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. XI
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. XII
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. XIII

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Among the welter of nineteenth-century literary memoirs is this by Horace Smith (1779–1849), stockbroker and man of letters who with his brother James (1775–1839) published Rejected Addresses (1812) a collection of parodies of contemporary poets reprinted into the twentieth century. Smith was also a prolific novelist and writer for the periodicals, though it is as the friend of Shelley and member of Leigh Hunt’s circle that he tends to be remembered today.

Horace Smith’s “Graybeard’s Gossip” (1847-48) could hardly be more different than Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries by Leigh Hunt or Recollections of Writers by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke. Where the Cockney kingdom was concerned, Smith was rather in the village than of the village: five years older than Hunt, eight years older than Clarke, thirteen years older than Shelley, and sixteen years older than Keats, his literary sensibilities were those of an earlier generation. But quite apart from that, he goes out of his way to put distance between himself and Hampstead.

Although all were Londoners and dissenters, there were important social differences: no one would accuse Smith of vulgarity. While Smith was as prolific as the hardest-working professional toilers in Grub Street, he did not need to write for money. He was at ease with persons of fashion as well as Cockney Bohemians, and his politics were more liberal than those of Hunt’s circle—liberal in the sense of being less partisan. In an age not given to political tolerance he cultivated friendships on both sides of the political aisle and goes out of his way to give Whig and Tory writers equal status in his memoirs.

Knowing that Horace Smith was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley readers are likely to be disappointed in the lack of “gossip” about Hunt and his circle. Keats, Lamb, and Robert Haydon are merely mentioned while twenty other figures are treated at length. Leigh Hunt, to be sure, is given a pride of place as the central figure in the central essay, but other than regretting his lack of a pension Smith does not have much to say about him. Indeed the Shelleys aside, Horace Smith leaves the impression that he had little to do with Hunt and his circle.

A distaste for partisanship has much to do with this. One of the most moving sketches is that of John Scott, the talented editor of the London Magazine who was killed in a duel resulting from the quarreling with Blackwood’s Magazine. Scott had asked Horace Smith to act as his second when challenged by John Gibson Lockhart, and while accounts differ it is clear from all that Smith, despite his regard for John Scott, wanted no part of an affair that could not but come back to haunt him.

This is apparent from the most interesting piece of “gossip” on offer here, a 1 February 1828 letter from Walter Scott concerning the publication of Leigh Hunt’s Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries. Hunt had devoted a glowing chapter to Horace Smith that praises his liberality to Shelley. Fearing that he would be associated with Shelley’s atheism Smith sent a letter of protest to the Morning Post; fearing that he would be tarred with the other Cockneys in the Quarterly Review (Lockhart would remember the Smith affair), he sent a letter to Walter Scott asking him to intervene (reprinted in Grierson’s edition of Scott’s correspondence).

In his twelfth essay Smith prints Scott’s reply with names and other identifying evidence omitted, though enough remains for astute readers, and certainly Leigh Hunt, to make it out: Scott offers to intervene with the Tories on Smith’s behalf and he was evidently as good as his word. Both Lockhart’s review in the Quarterly and John Wilson’s in Blackwood’s contain passages abusing Hunt for what he had to say about Horace Smith. Walter Scott was a particular bête noir to Hunt; by printing the letter in an essay full of praise for Scott’s character as a writer and a man Smith indicates that in 1848 as much as in 1828 he did not care to be associated with Hampstead and its partisan warfare.

The Graybeard memoirs have otherwise much to recommend them. Smith’s account of Shelley glows with unwonted enthusiasm. The memoir of Richard Cumberland is endearing and generous considering how that playwright had been detested and abused. The sketches of Thomas Hill’s circle at Sydenham are lively, amusing, and more pointed than Hunt’s. Horace Smith brought to his task half a century’s experience as a novelist that shows in his eye for graphic description and ear for dialogue. The memoirs are uneven, or perhaps just various: his wide range of characters educes a diversity of styles. Minor figures are treated at full-length, partly to expose the viciousness of the literary system and partly to illustrate writers’ self-destructiveness. In opposite ways, the priggish Whig John Scott and the Tory libertine Theodore Hook were equally responsible for their own sad demise.

“A Graybeard’s Gossip” was never collected in book form and given its desultory arrangement seems intended only as a periodical publication. Smith’s health was beginning to fail and he had previously taken formal leave of the public.

The plangent melancholy pervading the essays could not be more different from Leigh Hunt’s programmatic optimism. The Graybeard seeks to amuse the rising generation with tales of amusements past but his autumnal mood proves hard to shake off. Dementia is a recurring theme in the pen-portraits and the series concludes with a sort of actuarial summary of the misery afflicting his literary acquaintances. Yet for all his irony, satire, and gloomth, one cannot mistake the generosity of spirit that Shelley and Hunt saw and admired in the great-hearted stockbroker. For Horace Smith, geniuses, fools, and rogues are all to be counted among God’s children.

David Hill Radcliffe