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.