Christopher Smart Biography

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 is considered evidence of the techniques that would make his later works worthy of note. This poem receives notice as pivotal in his literary development from religious and technical perspectives.

Smart’s compulsiveness and his fixation seem to have a shared religious root, resulting in what was considered his most bizarre public behavior: praying aloud whenever and wherever the inclination struck him. He said once, “I blessed God in St. James’s Park until I routed all the company.” Such behavior was categorized as enthusiasm in the eighteenth century, and the adjective “enthusiastic” was applied to many Dissenters seized by religious fervor.

Although his friends did not agree on the necessity for Smart’s confinement, he was kept in St. Luke’s Hospital from 1757 through part of 1758. When released that year, he seemed to grow worse, and mental problems caused him to be placed in a mental asylum from 1759 to 1763. Under these circumstances, he seemed to behave quietly and occupy himself with religious activities, with his writing, and with domestic chores. Among his friends who visited, Johnson said, “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 anyone else.” During this second confinement, he wrote his major works, Jubilate Agno (begun in 1759), which remained unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime, and A Song to David, his most important work.

After returning to society, having lost all contact with his family, Smart became involved in a series of bitter conflicts with other journalists, in which he revealed an indignation or self-righteousness that has been frowned on since that time.

Smart continued to deteriorate physically and behaviorally after he returned to London life, but he concentrated more and more on the writing of poetry and focused to an even greater extent on religious subjects. He published A Translation of the Psalms of David Attempted in the Spirit of Christianity in 1765 and his verse translation of Horace in 1767, several years before his final incarceration, which began in 1769. A number of biographical questions exist relating to the actual composition of his religious poems, with some critics interested in whether several were written simultaneously. Smart seems to have hoped that some of his works would be adopted by the Church of England for its liturgy, since his psalms and their arrangement not only imitate the Hebrew and the Anglican prayer book of his day but also follow the sequence of the Christian year.

Because Smart was not only a literary scholar and linguist but also a student of natural phenomena, he drew these interests into his poetry. Much of what he knew about science came from books and reading, but he insisted on studying God’s works in nature so that he could celebrate all creation.

The year 1769 brought further debt and lack of control, resulting in a final incarceration in King’s Bench prison for debtors. During this year, Smart wrote Hymns for the Amusement of Children, a book of verses sharing his knowledge of nature and his love of God. It was in this prison that he died, remaining outwardly optimistic and happy regardless of his problems. He seems to have been absolutely sure of his salvation; at least he asserted his certainty flamboyantly and repeatedly, often to the discomfort and irritation of others.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Christopher Smart’s life is the record of a very considerable talent profoundly affected by personal misfortunes. He was frail as a child, and, according to the rules of eighteenth century medicine, he was treated with “cordials,” which probably began his lifelong alcoholism. From what witnesses such as Samuel Johnson said, it would appear that Smart sometimes suffered from delirium tremens and later from a form of mental illness which manifested itself in religious mania. Smart’s earlier life did not presage so tragic an ending. He began writing as a child, attracted some literary attention as a young man, and was sent to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. At the university both his talents and his troubles seem to have had their maturation. He won a reputation as a poet, but his personal difficulties, including a habit of running into debt that was to become perennial, forced him to leave the university.{$S[A]Midnight, Mary;Smart, Christopher}

The next events of Smart’s career took place in London, where he spent his time writing, composing music, and publishing his own and others’ literary work. Smart was married in 1752 and enjoyed a short period of happiness and health. Within a few years, however, his troubles began in earnest. He was unable to face up to the problems of his domestic life, his literary life, and the business affairs into which he had entered. In his middle thirties he became increasingly liable to attacks of madness, many of them violent, and all of them, at least by the treatment of his time, incurable. As one might expect, much of Smart’s poetry seems to reflect a disengagement from reality. It also shows his quest for spiritual and psychological security. If his deep emotions found no cure, they did find impressive expression in the hymns and in A Song to David.

Smart’s mental illness did not necessitate his complete confinement; after some years of treatment (1757-1763) he was able to emerge and take his place in the literary society of London. His talents won important friends such as Samuel Johnson and Thomas Gray, men who recognized his ability and made allowances for his condition. He was aided by Fanny Burney and her father, who did what they could, personally and financially, to ease his life. Smart, although far from the totally insane man he is often incorrectly pictured as being, was also far from being able to lead a life even remotely normal. His financial condition was as precarious as it had been years before at Cambridge, and the last months of his life witnessed his confinement in debtor’s prison. Although he was what may too easily be called a failure, Smart’s very weakness enabled him to reach his own form of success. His religious poetry, written in an age of dominant rationalism, was imbued with a strong and valuable sense of the mystical. He reinvigorated the English tradition of holy poetry, a tradition which had been allowed to wither for many years.