(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Christopher Smart’s Seatonian poems are those of his poems that won the Seatonian Prize at Cambridge University from 1750 to 1756. These poems cover the attributes of the “Supreme Being” to whom they are addressed—his Eternity, Immensity, Omniscience, Power, and Goodness. The poems are Miltonic not only in the structure of the verse but also in the largeness of vision they conjure up. The second of these in particular, On the Immensity of the Supreme Being, is a landmark of Miltonic adaptation. It begins with an avowal that God is best praised by poetry that, like nature itself, acknowledges “the grand thanksgiving” of creation. Its prevailing tone is humility; the center of the poem is God and not human beings. It is, in fact, a poem about human imperfection opposed to the plenitude of the created universe, and in this respect it is quite unlike the mainstream of eighteenth century poetry.

The beauty of the earth is praised for the evidence it gives of the nature of the deity. “Astonish’d into silence,” the poet reflects on the variety, beauty, and multiplicity of creation, finding even in the bottom of the sea the evidence of a divine intention in “th’ unplanted garden round/ Of vegetable coral, sea-flow’rs gay,/ And shrubs of amber from the pearl-pav’d bottom.” Like the other Seatonian poems, this suggests that the works of civilization are far inferior to those of nature.

Smart’s Hymn to the Supreme Being was written, as he said, to express his thanks for recovering from a dangerous illness. He begins by relating the sickness of David, a figure ever present in his mind. For Smart, David stands not only for the figure of the psalmist but also for the man who is both “the sovereign of myself and servant of the Lord.” When he compares the sickness of David with his own illness, he sees that he has very little to recommend him to the special care of heaven. In going over his life he addresses himself constantly to the great themes of waste and sorrow. He finds that he has no special title to mercy, much less to divine notice, but it is his discovery of this fact that both casts him down and lifts him up. His penitence and his union with a world of sinners, which he sums up as the “contrite heart,” are the whole of the defense he offers of his past life. The poem is both a thanksgiving for and a praise of charity; it makes clear that the beneficiary is such only by the grace of heaven.

The figure of David is preeminent in Smart’s A Song to David, a poem that is both a biography and a spiritual celebration of its subject. Smart begins by pointing out the excellence of David’s character, which won for him material rewards. He outlines the courage and intelligence of his hero “arm’d in gallant faith.” Yet above all other issues, and infinitely more meaningful than David’s success as a warrior and a politician, is David’s piety. It is his consecration to his religion that Smart particularly admires, and the poem is in substance in praise of this. The goodness of David he explains by reference to those occasions when the king showed mercy to his enemies: “To pity, to forgive, to save.” Beyond this, according to the poet, is the perpetual prayer of David, the purity of his devotion, his fasting and fear of the Lord. Whether in warfare or in the employments of peace he is the paradigm of the virtuous man and the consecrated leader.

Like Milton, Smart appreciates in David another quality, that of poetic creativity. David as king elicits Smart’s praises. David as the man of “perpetual prayer” draws his admiration, but David as the figure of the artist is perhaps even more central to the poet’s vision. Smart writes of the “invention” of David, his capacity to make the form and the language of the Psalms convey the richness of his responses. He praises, too, the “conception” of the poet-king, his powers of imagination. His emotional quality is mentioned last, the “exaltations” that the poet, above all other men, manages to achieve...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)