Today in Literary History – June 3, 1771 – Clergyman and Wit Sydney Smith is born

Sydney Smith, the Anglican cleric, writer and famous wit, was born on July 3, 1771. After a brilliant career at Oxford University Smith took Holy Orders. He served as the priest at several small rural parishes, including Combe Florey, later the home of Evelyn Waugh.


Smith was one of the founders of The Edinburgh Review in 1802. He wrote articles for it until 1828. Smith expressed progressive views, such as the education of women and the abolition of slavery. His views stalled his career in the church but he was eventually made Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He died in 1845 at the age of seventy-four.


During his years in London he famous as a gregarious figure in society, often invited to aristocratic homes where his witty statements were collected and circulated. Here are some of Smith’s famous lines:

Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out.

Correspondences are like small clothes before the invention of suspenders; it is impossible to keep them up.

No furniture is so charming as books.

The main question to a novel is — did it amuse? were you surprised at dinner coming so soon? did you mistake eleven for ten? were you too late to dress? and did you sit up beyond the usual hour? If a novel produces these effects, it is good; if it does not — story, language, love, scandal itself cannot save it. It is only meant to please; and it must do that or it does nothing.

Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.

It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little – do what you can.

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.

What you don’t know would make a great book.

I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.

To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in, and scramble through as well as we can.

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