1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Stephen Jones, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse ( 1812) 1:673-74.



This unfortunate author was born at Shipborne, in the county of Kent, his father being steward to Lord Vane. 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 bedels of the university being men of unusual bulk, he is said to have characterized them in this extempore spondaic, which he afterwards introduced into a copy of Tripos verses, printed in his poems: "Pinguia tergeminorum abdomina bedellorum." He lost his fellowship, however, by marrying Mr. 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 debts, disease, and insanity, he was released by death the 21st of May, 1771. Not long before his death he wrote thus to the Rev. Dr. Jackson: "Being upon the recovery from a fit of illness, and having nothing to eat, beg you to lend me two or three shillings, which (God willing) I will return, with many thanks, in two or three days."

His translation of Pope's Ode on St. 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 was suitable to the wildness of such an undertaking. He 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 rhyme, 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 enterprise, particularly in Mother Midnight's Entertainment at the Haymarket theatre. This was first undertaken at the expense of Mr. Newbery already mentioned, and was afterward carried out with some degree of success.

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. 1747. N.P. In this mock drama his well-known simile of the Collier, the Brickdustmen, and the Barber, was originally inserted. The prologue to it was printed in the fourth volume of The Poetical Calendar. 2. The Judgment of Midas. M. 4to. 1752. 3. Hannah. Orat. 4to. 1764.