Christopher Smart was born in Shipbourne, Kent, where his father served as steward to William, Viscount Vane. His earliest love was Lord Vane’s daughter Anne, but the two were forced apart. A precocious student, he was sponsored by the duchess of Cleveland for enrollment at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. Her forty-pound annuity allowed him to concentrate on both scholarship and social life in college, where he gained a reputation as a hard drinker and incurred heavy debts. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1742, followed by a master’s in 1747, with election to college office the same year. He also married Anna Marie Carnan; the marriage was kept secret until its discovery forced him to give up his position. However, Smart was allowed to keep his connection in order to compete for the Seaton Poetry Prize each year. He won the prize in 1750, 1751, and 1753; after skipping a year of the competition in 1754, he came back to win again in 1755. The Seatonian odes are not considered successful, but they show the religious attitudes for which Smart was noted as well as his practice of the cataloging technique as a strategy.
Smart had left Cambridge for London in 1749 to make a living as a writer, taking various hack assignments in a variety of forms. On jobs for booksellers, mostly for his wife’s stepfather John Newbery, he wrote humor, fables, lyric verses, and epitaphs. As a periodical writer, he remained poor and undistinguished, even as editor of Midwife.
Smart was befriended by such noted figures as Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Gray, and David Garrick, who helped him during his periods of alcoholism and madness. Johnson supposedly did some of Smart’s periodical writing, and Garrick performed in 1759 to raise money for him. Even with help from friends, however, Smart’s family fell apart; his wife and two daughters moved to Ireland and remained there with his sister.
The study of Smart’s life and his works has customarily revolved around his madness, which seems to have begun around 1756. He was confined several times for madness and for debts. Though there is no agreement on the causes or the exact label for his madness, it is generally considered to have been a religious form of monomania. Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness...
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