The irreverent Reverend

Or, Sydney Smith in good faith

It’s not a cliché to call Sydney Smith (1771-1845) a square peg in round hole because he coined the phrase:

“If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes — some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole.”

As one of the wittiest conversationalists who ever lived, Smith was somewhat squeezed by the Church of England. He was a man of the cloth by default, as he couldn't afford other professions. Still, he dispensed medical advice, educated his parishioners, and built his own house. He argued against large injustices and for small pleasures, and his life is proof that wit may hamper your career while ensuring your legacy.

As he said to his more serious and successful brother:

“You and I are exceptions to the laws of nature. You have risen by your gravity, and I have sunk by my levity.”

Or as he wrote to a bishop:

“You must not think me necessarily foolish because I am facetious, nor will I consider you necessarily wise because you are grave.”

For that sort of cheek — and for saying things like “When a man is a fool, in England we only trust him with the immortal concerns of human beings”— the Anglican cleric spent much of his life exiled to rural parishes, the life in which he called “a kind of healthy grave.” He was reputed to be one of the all-time great dinner guests, so sending him far away from the best tables of London was a particularly painful punishment. But his jolly cleverness came through from the pulpit and in prose, infusing all of his advice with a wink:

“What is real piety? What is true attachment to the Church? How are these fine feelings best evinced? The answer is plain: by sending strawberries to a clergyman. Many thanks.”

His most famous poem is a rhyming recipe for salad dressing (tested and found “quite good” here) that ends with the happy lines:

Serenely full, the epicure would say,
Fate cannot harm me—I have dined to-day.”

Smith’s epigrams were world-class:

“Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.”

And his metaphors were original, vivid, and surprising:

“My definition of marriage. It resembles a pair of shears so joined that they cannot be separated often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.”

Given his brilliance with language and his intolerance for office politics, it may seem like he would have been much happier without the Church of England to hold him back. But creativity craves constraints, and Smith’s wit was grounded  in his deeply moral worldview. He preached what he practiced, namely that there needn’t be a gap between the everyday and the transcendent. The best way to get to something extraordinary is through the ordinary. His view of heaven was said to be eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. And his legacy is the fact that he may be the only person in human history remembered as “clergyman and wit.”

The Reverend Sydney Smith’s best advice is continually reaffirmed 176 years after his death:

“Mankind are always happy for having been happy, so that if you make them happy now, you make them happy twenty years hence by memory of it.”


Quick quips; lightning

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”
H.L. Mencken

“When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”
—Abraham Lincoln

“The test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.”
G.K. Chesterton


Phrase turner

There are sentences that are so Wodehousian they ought to be inducted into the Drones Club. Such was this line from James Poniewozik’s nifty New York Times remembrance of the actress who played Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth to perfection:

“Any actor can roll his or her eyes at you. When Jessica Walter did it, you stayed eye-rolled at.”

Any writer can deploy a verb. When P.G. Wodehouse does it, you stay verbed. This is a great little conceit, one you can use in all manner of scenarios. When I drink a drink, I expect it to stay drunk. When the U.S. invades a country, it really stays invaded. And so on.

But what of the original source? It had to be Wodehouse, but where? Search engines were useless in solving this problem. Ultimately, a re-reading of the invaluable companion Wodehouse Nuggets turned up the answer (in 1940’s Eggs, Beans and Crumpets), and by including it here, I expect it to stay turned up:

Golly! When you admonish a congregation, it stays admonished.


That was the 91th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly pulpit non-fiction. Sydney Smith perfected the run-on fat joke. When you read my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, it damn well stays read. In lieu of sending strawberries, please tap the ❤️ below.