“These pieces of moral prose have been written, dear Reader, by a large Carnivorous Mammal, belonging to that sub-order of the Animal Kingdom which includes also the Orang-outang, the tusked Gorilla, and the gentle Chimpanzee.”
To speak of “best-known” in regard to anything Smith ever wrote recalls Dr. Johnson’s observation that a second marriage is “a triumph of hope over experience.” In our day, Smith and other “minor” (a patronizing word that shouldn’t be used qualitatively) writers of the past are stubbornly unfashionable, not forgotten but unknown, like those cold little planets said to be lurking beyond the orbit of Pluto. There’s a poignancy in their fate. They worked hard and often honorably. They can still give us pleasure if we make the effort to recover them. Of course, all writers are fated to slip into oblivion – if they are fortunate, only after they are dead.
Smith was a clever man not averse to truth tempered by silliness. In the volume cited above he writes: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.” Every reader unburdened with naiveté nods in agreement. Smith won my heart with what is probably his best-known line, found in the same book: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Clearly, we’re dealing with a man whose values are in order.
You may have noticed that Smith tends to write aphoristically, in small bursts of amusement and wisdom. In Reperusals and Re-collections (1937), Smith includes “English Aphorists,” an essay originally published as the introduction to a volume he edited, A Treasury of English Aphorisms (1928). He gives the French their due and loosely defines aphorisms as “fragments of experience, gleams and flashes of light, rather than the steady glow of a larger illumination.” Anyone writing in short forms aspires to write aphoristically, to pack much into little, to charge the fewest words with the most energy. Smith suggests that the best aphorisms are the opposite of inspirational: “[D]isenchantment, the ever-accumulating stores of wise disillusion and worldly wisdom, are the aspects of life which, it would seem, the aphorism is best fitted to express.” They are, he says, “apt to be somewhat fulsome if they are too sweetly flavoured.”
Smith traces the family tree of great English aphorists: Bacon, John Selden, George Savile (Marquis of Halifax), Lord Chesterfield, Dr. Johnson (“the greatest of English aphorists”), Blake, Hazlitt and, sad to say, Emerson (“perhaps the last great aphorist who has written in English”). He includes a few names he judges “minor,” such as Ben Jonson and Jeremy Taylor, and he calls Swift’s aphorisms “admirable in their sardonic terseness.” Of Pope he writes: “Men in those days wore rapiers, and he carried his into literature and unsheathed it, too.” Two occasional aphorists he neglects are Lamb and Landor, but did introduce me to Charles Caleb Colton (1777-1832), who in 1820 published the charmingly titled Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words, addressed to those who think. At the conclusion of his essay Smith writes of aphorists:
“On the whole they are a malicious lot; their object is not to extricate man from the mire of his condition, but rather to roll him more deeply in it. So much do they enjoy fishing in muddy waters, that they are not unwilling to pursue their sport even in their own bosoms.”