Christopher Smart’s masterpiece, A Song to David, is the primary reason for his reputation as a writer and the work on which his reputation as a poet rests to this day. A Song to David was first published in 1763, the year Smart was released from his second period of confinement. Such timing must have had more than a little to do with the speculation about the connection between madness and poetry that has remained a constant in criticism of Smart’s literary productions. James Boswell, Johnson’s famous biographer, seems to have begun the discussion that occupied Smart’s contemporaries even when they were admiring of the work, as Boswell was. The Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt were among the first to consider A Song to David a great lyric. Generally the Romantics were appreciative of Smart, but the Victorian Robert Browning is credited with reviving interest in his works. There is widespread agreement about the high quality of A Song to David, even though critical appreciation of Smart’s other work waxes and wanes as tastes change.
A Song to David
Writing a song of praise to the great Hebrew psalmist—A Song to David—appears to have been a deliberate act of emulation on the neoclassical poet’s part. Although Smart suggested that good poetry was inspired by God rather than the muse, it is known from his translations of Horace into both poetry and prose that he learned how to apply the theory and advice gained from his reading of the Roman poet. Typical of his era, however, he did not hesitate to combine classicism with Old Testament techniques and New Testament concepts. The trend toward imitation of Hebrew poetry seems to have been initiated by Bishop Robert Lowth’s Praelectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebraerorum (1753, lectures on the sacred poetry of the Hebrews), published ten years earlier than A Song to David. This work attracted attention in scholarly and literary circles and even stimulated popular interest with its analysis of Hebrew poetics and the technical devices of Old Testament poetry.
A Song to David does more, however, than follow a trend. It is in some ways unique, and it expresses a personal exhilaration that illustrates the neoclassical concept of the sublime. This sublime, or grand and exalted effect, is never grandiose or bombastic. A look at the formal properties of the poem reveals that Smart was certainly in control, rather than insane, when he wrote this tribute to his hero and model, King David.
The poem is made up of eighty-six stanzas, each of which follows the same basic pattern: two lines of iambic tetrameter followed by an iambic trimeter line and then a repetition of this sequence, making a six-line unit. The rhyme scheme is aabccb, with all the end rhymes masculine. An outline of the poem’s structure, made by Smart himself and labeled “Contents,” is placed between the quotation from 2 Samuel 23:1-2 and the opening stanza.
The quotation introduces David as the subject capsules his life, from his ancestry to his anointing by Samuel and his sacred gift of poetry and song. Traditional interpreters of Hebrew Scripture will find in this passage allusions to the various subtopics addressed within the poem proper: David’s ancestry, his monarchy, his sacred gift of poetry and song. David’s lineage from the family of Jesse is essential to Smart’s establishment of the connection between his Old Testament subject and Jesus Christ. Christian theology teaches that God became human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of the house of David, son of Jesse.
David was anointed king of Israel by Samuel, the same prophet who had anointed the first king, Saul. David, who was close friends with Jonathan, Saul’s son, not only was the warrior who slew the Philistine giant Goliath but also served Saul’s court as...
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