Christopher Smart 1722–1771
English poet and translator.
An author who long excited interest as much for his life as for his poetry, Smart has been described variously as a misunderstood mystic in an age of reason, a religiously obsessed madman, and a hack writer who, with A Song to David, unaccountably stumbled into genius. Composed in the middle of the eighteenth century, when poetic conventions were still heavily influenced by neoclassical notions of order and decorum, the Song stands out as an exuberant celebration of life as well as a deeply felt expression of religious belief. Although this work remains the foundation on which Smart's artistic reputation rests, since the discovery and publication in 1939 of fragments of Jubilate Agno, an erratic but at times brilliant poetic experiment, critics have increasingly come to regard A Song to David less as an anomaly in Smart's career and more as the poet's most sustained and successful fusion of religious fervor and lyrical virtuosity.
Born in Kent, Smart was the son of Peter Smart, steward to William, Viscount Vane. After his father's death in 1733, Smart, his mother, and his sisters came under the protection of the Vane family. A thwarted adolescent elopement with Anne Vane, the daughter of William's cousin Henry Vane, has been seen by a few biographers as early evidence of Smart's unstable behavior. As a young man, Smart's academic abilities attracted the notice and patronage of the Duchess of Cleveland, another relative of Lord Vane. Her support enabled Smart to attend Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and provided him with an annual allowance of forty pounds. Smart distinguished himself at Cambridge not only by his scholarship but also by his reckless manner of living. In 1742 he earned his bachelor's degree and three years later became a fellow of the university. Although he was already displaying signs of the alcoholism and financial difficulties which were to plague him throughout his life, he nevertheless continued to show promise in his academic career, achieving his master's degree in 1747 and being elected to college office. He was involved in a few petty scandals due to his intemperate habits, but university officials did not take action against him until the discovery of his secret marriage to Anna Maria Carnan. Even then the break was not complete; his position was nominally retained to allow him to participate in the university's annual poetry competition, the Seatonian Prize, which he won five times between 1750 and 1755. (He did not compete in 1754.)
After leaving Cambridge at age twenty-seven, Smart attempted to earn a living in the literary world of London. He became a journeyman writer, primarily for his wife's stepfather, the well-known bookseller John Newbery. Smart edited and wrote for several periodicals of the day, including the Student and the Midwife; he wrote songs and other materials for theatrical entertainments; and he produced a prose translation of Horace for use by students. The income from these endeavors was small, and given his continued prodigality, Smart was often in financial difficulty. He became so desperate for money that in 1755 he contracted to write exclusively for the magazine the Universal Visiter for ninety-nine years in exchange for one-sixth of the profits. During this period Smart suffered several severe illnesses, possibly mental breakdowns. Unable to write the required pieces for the Universal Visiter, he was aided by his friend Samuel Johnson, who submitted his own work instead. In addition to Johnson, Smart had a number of other friends who were among the leading cultural figures of the day. In 1759, the famed actor David Garrick performed a benefit play to extricate Smart from his debts. But Smart's difficulties proved to be beyond the reach of his friends' help. His debts and continual drinking contributed to the collapse of his marriage; his wife and two daughters moved to Ireland, and he never saw them again.
It is unclear exactly when Smart's first attack of madness began, or how long it lasted. It is known that Smart was confined three times between the years 1756 and 1763, part of the time in private homes, part in state-run asylums. The extent of Smart's insanity is also unknown. It expressed itself in religious monomania, in the compulsion to pray aloud wherever and whenever the urge arose. Sympathetic contemporaries conceded that, although undoubtedly strange, Smart's behavior was by no means a threat to anyone. Johnson insisted, "I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as with any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it." It was during his confinement that Smart composed Jubilate Agno, A Song to David, and much of his Translation of the Psalms of David. An apochryphal tale holds that, lacking pen and paper, Smart scratched the verses of A Song to David with a key on the wainscot of his cell. After his final release from confinement, Smart lived in comparative comfort, partly on proceeds from his work, partly on the generosity of friends. However, in 1770 he was sent to the King's Bench Prison for debt, and it was here that he composed his last work, Hymns, for the Amusement of Children. Smart died the following year, still incarcerated in the prison.
Smart's career has been broadly divided into three periods. The first period covers the miscellaneous poetry and prize-winning Seatonian odes; the second is marked by Smart's adoption of the lyric mode, culminating in A Song to David; and the last comprises the religious verse written after the Song.
Smart's early poems were the most highly regarded of his works during his lifetime; but modern critics generally consider them conventional exercises in standard poetic genres. "The -Garden," perhaps the most notable piece in his first collection, Poems on Several Occasions, is a georgic modelled after those of Vergil but written in blank verse reminiscent of John Milton's. Smart's five Seatonian Prize odes are linked in form and theme; all are written in Miltonian blank verse and all emphasize a different attribute of the Supreme Being. Many commentators have pointed out that these pieces in particular among Smart's early work show signs of the devices he was later to utilize in his lyric poems, notably the use of cataloguing, in which the poet lists and brings together all of creation to sing God's praise. Furthermore, it is in the Seatonian poems that Smart began to invoke the image of David, the ancient Hebrew king and composer of the Psalms, a figure that Smart would repeatedly turn to as a model and source of inspiration.
Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness has often been cited as marking a turning point in Smart's career. The nature of the illness referred to in the title is uncertain; many have surmised that it was his first incidence of madness. In this poem Smart describes his illness in terms of a spiritual crisis, and he strikes for the first time the subjective and intensely personal note that marks his later poetry. The poem also heralds the lyricism of Smart's subsequent work, signaling his freedom from the Miltonian poetic conventions that characterized his earlier pieces. Jubilate Agno, composed in the period from 1759 to 1763, during Smart's confinement for insanity, displays a radical departure from his earlier poetry. This work survives only in fragments consisting of several individual manuscript pages. It is divided in two sections; each verse in the first begins with the word "For," while each verse in the second section begins with "Let." Each "Let" line features a biblical, historical, or contemporary figure—often linked with an animal—who is exhorted to rejoice in God. Most "For" lines deal directly with Smart himself; in Robert P. Fitzgerald's phrase, the subjective "For" lines constitute "a kind of personal journal" of his confinement. Both sections, with their often obscure references and allusions, demonstrate the encyclopedic breadth of Smart's knowledge. Although, when it was rediscovered and first published in 1939, it was seen as a jumbled, chaotic pastiche of verses, it is now clear that Smart conceived Jubilate Agno after ancient Hebraic poetic models which had recently been brought to light by Bishop Robert Lowth's book, Praelectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 1753).
A Song to David is almost universally considered to be Smart's masterpiece. Published just after Smart's release from the asylum, the poem was long thought the product of an irrational, deranged mind. In fact the Song is carefully and coherently organized; much of the interest of the poem lies in the conjunction of its meticulous arrangement with its ecstatic personal emotion. The poem is an elaborate lyrical paean to the glory of God, describing how all creation comes together to worship Him. It has been suggested that Smart, in addressing his song to David, desired to become an English David himself, a supreme psalmist dedicated to the adoration of God.
Smart's Hymns and Spiritual Songs and translations of the Psalms show stylistic and thematic similarities to both Jubilate Agno and A Song to David. The Psalms are loose paraphrases of the biblical text, as Smart's stated intention was to Christianize the Old Testament verses. The Hymns and Spiritual Songs, strongly influenced by both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, celebrate the cycle of the Christian year, and—as in the case of the Psalms and Jubilate Agno—there is evidence that Smart hoped his efforts would be adopted for use in the Anglican church service. Smart's last work, Hymns for the Amusement of Children, was written during his imprisonment for debt. Despite the circumstances of their composition, these Hymns are simple and childlike poems celebrating Christian virtues and evoking an air of peace and comfort.
Smart translated the works of Horace both in prose and in verse, and he greatly admired Horace's "unrivalled peculiarity of expression," by which he meant both precision and unexpectedness of poetic language. Smart took to heart Horace's words in his Ars Poetica on the desirability of using words in an unusual fashion, or of coining new ones, and derived from Horace his own poetic maxim which he called "impression," which he described as "a talent or gift of Almighty God, by which a Genius is impowered to throw an emphasis upon a word or sentence in such a wise, that it cannot escape any reader of sheer good sense, and true critical sagacity." Although this technique is apparent in Smart's earlier poetry, critics have noted that its use is more frequent and more effective in Jubilate Agno, A Song to David, and his later work.
Until recently, the main body of Smart's works received critical attention only for the insight it could provide into the mind of the man who could produce A Song to David. Many critics over the centuries dismissed Smart's early works as of limited importance, finding them marred by their close adherence to traditional forms. The Seatonian odes, for instance, have long been viewed as "uninspired but technically proficient," in the words of William H. Bond, and Smart has been regarded as merely a "facile versifier" in his early works. Smart's contemporaries, however, generally admired his early poetry; magazine reviews of the time speak glowingly of his promise.
Conversely, A Song to David received mixed critical reaction when it first appeared, for by this time Smart's malady was well known, and early commentators were reluctant to praise a madman. Interest in Smart's poetry waned sharply after the publication of A Song to David, and it was not until Robert Browning eulogized the Song in his Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887) that Smart again received critical attention. Twentieth-century critics have noted that the same circumstance that hindered the poem's success in the eighteenth century—Smart's madness—enhanced its value in the nineteenth, when Romantic views prevailed regarding the close connection between madness and artistic inspiration. Some critics, in fact, have considered Smart as in certain respects a precursor of Romanticism.
Speculation over the influence of Smart's madness has abated in recent years, as critics have determined that, whether or not Smart was sane, he produced in A Song to David one of the most powerfully moving religious poems in English literature. Similarly, scholars of Jubilate Agno have uncovered thematic and structural patterns in the seeming chaos of the poem, leading to a reconsideration of not only this, but Smart's other works as well. Smart is now often regarded as among the most highly original poets of the eighteenth century.
*On the Eternity of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay 1750
*On the Immensity of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay 1751
*On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay 1752
Poems on Several Occasions 1752
The Hilliad: An Epic Poem 1753
*On the Power of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay 1754
Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness 1756
*On the Goodness of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay 1756
Poems by Mr. Smart. Viz. Reason and Imagination...
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Robert Browning (poem date 1887)
SOURCE: "With Christopher Smart," in Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, Smith, Elder & Co., 1887, pp. 79-95.
[Browning was an English poet and playwright who is considered one of the outstanding poets of the nineteenth century. Much of his poetry is expressive of his metaphysical concerns with the nature of and relationship between love, knowledge, and faith. His work greatly influenced later poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. In the following poem, composed as an apostrophe to Smart, Browning marvels at the mind that could produce the singular achievement of A Song to David.]
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Philip Hanson (essay date 1897)
SOURCE: "Christopher Smart," in Temple Bar, Vol. 112, No. 443, October, 1897, pp. 268-74.
[In this originally unsigned essay, Hanson argues that Smart's Translation of the Psalms provides the "missing link" between the brilliance of A Song to David and the mediocrity of the poet's other works.]
In the history of literature it is not uncommon for a man to have two distinct and different reputations, one while he is alive and the other after his death. Adam Smith was known to his contemporaries as a philosopher, and the Wealth of Nations was only a fragment of a projected great work on the 'Progress of Man.' The example of Johnson is trite....
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Cyril Falls (essay date 1924)
SOURCE: "Christopher Smart," in The Critic's Armoury, Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1924, pp. 109-20.
[In this essay, Falls extols A Song to David as an inspired poem and far superior to the rest of Smart's output.]
We can but hope that Smart's words on David were true of himself. Great was his need of such consolation. A more miserable and, but for one bright flower budded in madness, a more worthless and barren life than his, were hard to conceive. Even of his madness we have no picture of a fine spirit wasting away in melancholy, like that of his greater and like-circumstanced contemporary, William Collins. When Dr. Johnson, good, kindly soul, went to visit him...
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Raymond D. Havens (essay date 1938)
SOURCE: "The Structure of Smart's Song to David," in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 14, No. 54, April, 1938, pp. 178-82.
[In this essay, Havens identifies patterns of language, imagery, and numerology as ordering elements in A Song to David.]
Certain structural features of Christopher Smart's Song to David, such as the repetition of "adoration" and "glorious," are so obvious as to attract immediate attention, but no one seems to have remarked, at least in print, that the poem is constructed throughout on one or another formal pattern. This attention to form extends even to the general divisions, which are made up almost entirely of stanzas grouped in...
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William Force Stead (essay date 1939)
SOURCE: An introduction to Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam by Christopher Smart, J. Cape, 1939, pp. 13-49.
[Stead was the discoverer and first editor of the manuscript of Jubilate Agno. The following excerpt is taken from his introduction to the first edition of the work, which he called Rejoice in the Lamb. Stead views the poem as valuable principally for the light it sheds on Smart's composition of A Song to David.]
This is a curiosity, an extraordinary document; but if it were nothing more, I would not have troubled to edit it. Bewildering at the first glance, it contains much that is intelligent and beautiful, which I believe will reward the...
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Norman Callan (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Collected Poems of Christopher Smart, Volume 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949, pp. xiii-xxxvi.
[In the following excerpt, Callan broadly surveys Smart's work, attempting to identify the characteristics of the poet's style.]
It is not an easy matter to dissociate the poetry Smart wrote from the life he lived. This is due in some measure to the sort of criticism which has been applied to his work since Browning included him in Parleyings with Certain People, but much more to Smart's own nature. Like Donne and Milton, he is persistently egocentric, but whereas they show the ego at grips with the great problems of humanity, Smart's...
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Sophia B. Blaydes (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: Christopher Smart as a Poet of His Time: A Re-Appraisal, Mouton & Co., 1966, 182 p.
[In the following excerpt, Blaydes discusses the intrinsic value of Smart's Seatonian poetry, as well as its relationship to the author's later work, particularly A Song to David.]
Since the time of the Victorians many readers of the Song to David have had little, if any, interest in Smart's minor religious poetry. His Seaton poems were forgotten and shelved with other eighteenth-century literary fads; his work in the asylum, Jubilate Agno, was regarded as proof of his madness; his metrical version of the Psalms was, at most, considered a step towards the...
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Edward L. Hart (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Christopher Smart Must Slay the Dragon (A Note on Smart's Satire)," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2-3, 1967, pp. 115-19.
[In this essay, Hart demonstrates how the satire in Smart's work reveals a fear of cuckoldry and sexual impotence.]
A good deal of satire appears throughout the works of Christopher Smart, and the writers on Smart have taken adequate notice of how he is related in his own times to Butler, Dryden, Pope, Gay, and others in the general way satire functioned in the eighteenth century. My purpose here is to leave these areas of general concern and attempt to show how satire functioned personally for Smart in his statement of hopes...
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Geoffrey H. Hartman (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Christopher Smart's 'Magnificat': Toward a Theory of Representation," in The Fate of Reading and Other Essays, University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 74-98.
[In the following essay, which was first published in 1974, Hartman addresses questions regarding the nature of verbal representation which arise from Smart's elaborate word-play in Jubilate Agno.]
What is the consummation of perfect freedom? Not to be ashamed of one's self.
For when men get their horns again, they will delight to go uncovered.
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Thomas F. Dillingham (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: '"Blest Light': Christopher Smart's Myth of David," in The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik, Purdue University Press, 1980, pp. 120-33.
[In the following essay, Dillingham analyzes the importance of the works of King David and Horace as models for Smart's poetry.]
Christopher Smart's career is generally perceived as a paradigm of professional disorder, a kind of poetic junk shop littered with odd bits of undergraduate humor, Miltonic fustian, Grub Street hackwork, and only occasionally enriched with the poetic jewels in the creation of which Smart, as Robert Browning observed, "pierced the screen / 'Twixt thing...
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James King (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Revelation of Self in Jubilate Agno and A Song to David, " in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 65, No. 1, February, 1984, pp. 23-6.
[In the essay below, King examines the "psychological and structural interdependences" between Jubilate Agno and A Song to David, focusing particularly on Smart's identification with King David, a sinner who redeems himself through poetry.]
Although the structure of Christopher Smart's Davidic poems, Jubilate Agno (composed c. 1759-63) and A Song to David (1763), have been analyzed perceptively and the background to these poems elucidated superbly, not much attention has been...
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Edward Joseph Katz (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Transcendent Dialogic: Madness, Prophecy, and the Sublime in Christopher Smart," in Compendious Conversations: The Method of Dialogue in the Early Enlightenment, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Peter Lang, 1992, pp. 151-64.
[In the following essay, Katz argues that by organizing language in his poetry, Smart both defines himself and gives form and shape to the inexpressible.]
During the period extending from May 1757 to February 1763, Christopher Smart was confined to asylums for treatment of visual hallucinations and religious delusions, first at St. Luke's and later, after a brief recovery, at Potter's private house in Bethnal Green. The composition of Jubilate...
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Mahoney, Robert, and Rizzo, Betty W. Christopher Smart: An Annotated Bibliography 1743–1983. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984, 671 p.
A comprehensive work including annotations, notes, and a census of manuscripts.
Devlin, Christopher. Poor Kit Smart. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961, 200 p.
The standard modern biography of Smart. Devlin interweaves biographical data with commentary on the style and meaning of Smart's poetry.
Sherbo, Arthur. Christopher...
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