1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Isaac Reed, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1782) 1:421-22.



CHRISTOPHER SMART. We have but few particulars of this unfortunate author, who, from the dedication of his Poems, appears to have been born in the county of Kent. He was once the favourite of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he received a part of his education, took the degree of M.A. and became a fellow. At this early period of his life, he was not more remarkable for his learning than his humour, of which many examples, like the following, are still remembered by his academical acquaintance. The three beadles of the university being men of unusual bulk, he is said to have characterized them in this extempore hexameter—

Pinquia tergeminorum abdomina bedellorum.

He lost his fellowship, however, by marrying Newbery the bookseller's wife's daughter by a former husband; yet to this event his succeeding miscarriages are not to be imputed, as he had previously quitted the university on account of debts he had contracted by his extravagance and attachment to the bottle.

This unfortunate habit of intemperance had a fatal effect upon him. It was carried to such excess, that about the year 1757 he was obliged to be confined in a madhouse, where he continued about two years, and during that time is said to have completed his translation of the Psalms. In 1759, he had a benefit at Drury-Lane theatre, when Mr. Garrick's Farce of The Guardian was acted for the first time. After his release from confinement, he published many pieces, and was reduced to the most deplorable state of poverty. At length, after suffering the accumulated miseries of debt, disease, and insanity, he was released by death on the 21st of May, 1771.

His translation of Pope's Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day has been celebrated much beyond its merit. Being written without regard to conformity of measure, it cannot be received as the legitimate representative of a Roman ode; neither are some expressions in it authorized by any writer in the same language.

The success of his version of Pope's Essay on Criticism suitable to the wildness of such an undertaking. Had he chosen the Temple of Fame, or Windsor Forest, for the experiment, being general subjects, the Latin language could easily have furnished him with correspondent expressions, but where could he expect to meet with phrases capable of conveying ideas of the jingle of rhime, and other peculiarities of modern English versification?

The performance that exhibits the highest flight of his genius is one of those copies of Latin verses published annually at Cambridge under the title of a Tripos. In this, his personifications of Mathesis, Atheia, &c. abound with the most poetical imagery, delivered in language that will abide the test of criticism.

Smart was engaged with Rolt in more than one literary enterprize, particularly in Mother Midnight's Entertainment at the Hay-Market theatre. This was first undertaken at the expence of the Mr. Newbery already mentioned, and was afterwards carried on with some degree of success. See article ROLT.

Our author's claim to a place in this work is derived from a dramatic piece written by him, and acted at Pembroke College, under the following title:

1. The Grateful Fair. C.
In this mock drama his well known simile of the Collier, the Brickdust-men, and the Barber, was originally inserted. The Prologue to it is printed in the fourth volume of The Poetical Calendar.
2. The Judgment of Midas. M. 4to. 1752.
3. Hannah. O. 4to. 1764.