1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 5:363-64.



The ingenious but unfortunate Christopher Smart was born of respectable parents at Shipbourne in Kent, April 11, 1722. During infancy he was of a delicate constitution; but early displayed a taste for elegant literature, and received the first rudiments of his education at Maidstone school, after which he removed to Durham, where his family had connections. Here he evinced a facility in versification which speedily distinguished him; and he was universally considered as a youth of great promise.

In 1739, he became a member of Pembroke-hall, Cambridge; but instead of mathematics, he applied to poetry, and with the too frequent improvidence of the retainers of the muses, involved himself in expences, of which the consequences, alas! were felt for the remainder of his days.

While at the university, however, he gained several prizes, some of which, though hastily written, would have done honour to any pen. His debts, unfortunately, obliged him to sequester his fellowship, which he had obtained; and his father dying involved, he left college; and soon after married Miss Carnan, daughter-in-law to Newbury, the first projector of juvenile libraries, and consequently to be ranked among the friends of youth.

Under the auspices of this worthy man, he might have retrieved his affairs, and lived in credit by the labours of his pen, had his economy kept any pace with his abilities. He became acquainted in the metropolis with all those who were celebrated for genius or learning; and engaged in various literary plans, which he too often wanted resolution to complete. As a poet, however, he maintained his reputation; but being broken both in fortune and constitution, and pressed by diversity of ills, he became, alas! subject to temporary alienations of mind, the frequency and progress of which rendered confinement at length necessary.

In this lamentable state, he was not deserted by his friends; and after an interval of two years, he was sufficiently recovered to enjoy his liberty, when he took a lodging near St. James's Park, and for a time maintained his family by his literary exertions, and by the contributions of some who admired the poet and pitied the man. It is said also, that he received 50 a year from the treasury.

Relapsing again into his former symptoms, he became negligent of his worldly affairs, and was confined for debt contracted in these distempered impulses, and after suffering the accumulated miseries of poverty, disease, and insanity, he departed this life in 1771, in the 49th year of his age, leaving two daughters, who, with his widow, settled at Reading in Berkshire, and by their prudent conduct, and the assistance of friends, enjoyed comfort and independence.

Smart was a man of great fervour of mind, and strongly tinctured with religion. As a poet, he deserves very considerable praise: as a man, an equal mixture of pity and regret.

His character, compounded like that of all human beings, of good qualities and of defects, may be easily collected from this account of his life.

His genius has never been questioned by those who censured his carelessness, and commiserated the unhappy vacillation of his mind. He is sometimes not only greatly irregular, but irregularly great. His errors are those of a bold and daring spirit, which bravely hazards what a vulgar mind could never suggest. Shakspeare and Milton are sometimes wild and irregular; and it seems as if originality alone could try the experiment. Accuracy is timid, and seeks for authority. Fowles of feeble wing seldom quit the ground, though at full liberty; while the eagle, unrestrained, soars into unknown regions.

Smart is a various, an original, but unequal, writer. Every species of poetry, not excepting the epic, has been attempted by him, and most of them with eminent success.