1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 502-03.



CHRISTOPHER SMART was born at Shipbourne, in Kent. Being an eight months child, he had from his birth an infirm constitution, which unfortunately his habits of life never tended to strengthen. His father, who was steward of the Kentish estates of Lord Barnard, (afterward Earl of Darlington,) possessed a property in the neighbourhood of Shipbourne of about 300 a year; but it was so much encumbered by debt that his widow was obliged to sell it as his death at a considerable loss. This happened in our poet's eleventh year, at which time he was taken from the school of Maidstone, in Kent, and placed at that of Durham. Some of his paternal relations resided in the latter place. An ancestor of the family, Mr. Peter Smart, had been a prebendary of Durham in the reign of Charles the First, and was regarded by the puritans as a proto-martyr in their cause, having been degraded, fined, and imprisoned for eleven years, on account of a Latin poem which he published in 1643, and which the high-church party party chose to consider as a libel. What services young Smart met with at Durham from his father's relations we are not informed; but he was kindly received by Lord Barnard, at his seat of Raby Castle; and through the interest of his lordship's family obtained the patronage of the Duchess of Cleveland, who allowed him for several years an annuity of forty pounds. In his seventeenth year he went from the school fo Durham to the university of Cambridge, where he obtained a fellowship of Pembroke-hall, and took the degree of master of arts. About the time of his obtaining his fellowship he wrote a farce, entitled the Grateful Fair, or the trip to Cambridge, which was acted in the hall of his college. Of this production only a few songs, and the mock-heroic soliloquy of the Princess Periwinkle, have been preserved; but from the draught of the plot given by his biographer, the comic ingenuity of the piece seems not to have been remarkable. He distinguished himself at the university, both by his Latin and English verses: among the former was his translation of Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, on the subject of which, and of other versions which he projected from the same author, he had the honour of corresponding with Pope. He also obtained, during several years, the Seatonian prize for poetical essays on the attributes of the Deity. He afterward printed those compositions, and probably rested on them his chief claims to the name of a poet. In one of them he rather too loftily denominates himself "the poet of his God." From his verses upon the Eagle chained in a College Court, in which he addresses the bird,

Thou type of wit and sense, confined,
Chain'd by th' oppressors of the mind,

it does not appear that he had great respect for his college teachers; nor is it pretended that the oppressors of the mind, as he calls them, had much reason to admire the application of his eagle genius to the graver studies of the university; for the life which he led was so dissipated, as to oblige him to sequester his fellowship for tavern debts.

In the year 1753 he quitted college, upon his marriage with a Miss Carnan, the step-daughter of Mr. Newbery, the bookseller. With Newbery he had already been engaged in several schemes of authorship, having been a frequent contributor to the Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany, and having besides conducted the Midwife, or Old Woman's Magazine. He had also published a collection of his poems, and having either detected or suspected that the notorious Sir John (formerly Dr.) Hill had reviewed them unfavourably, he proclaimed war with the paper knight, and wrote a satire on him, entitled the Hilliad. One of the bad effects of the Dunciad had been to afford to indigent witlings, an easily copied example of allegory and vituperation. Every versifier, who could echo Pope's numbers, and add an "iad" to the name of the man or thing that offended him, thought himself a Pope for the time being, and however dull, an hereditary champion against the powers of Dulness. Sir John Hill, who wrote also a book upon Cookery, replied in a Smartiad; and probably both of his books were in their different ways useful to the pastry-cooks. If the town was interested in such a warfare, it was to be pitied for the dearth of amusement. But though Smart was thus engaged, his manners were so agreeable, and his personal character so inoffensive, as to find friends among some of the most eminent men of his day, such as Dr. Johnson, Garrick, and Dr. Burney. Distress brought on by imprudence, and insanity, produced, by distress, soon made him too dependent on the kindness of his friends. Some of them contributed money. Garrick gave him a free benefit at Drury-lane theatre, and Dr. Johnson furnished him with several papers for one of his periodical publications. During the confinement which his alienation of mind rendered necessary, he was deprived of pen and ink and paper; and used to indent his poetical thoughts with a key on the wainscot of the wall. On his recovery he resumed his literary employments, and for some time conducted himself with industry. Among the compositions of his saner period, was a verse translation of the Fables of Phaedrus, executed with tolerable spirit and accuracy. But he gave a lamentable proof of his declining powers in his translation of the Psalms, and in his Parables of Jesus Christ, done into familiar verse, which were dedicated to Master Bonnel Thornton, a child in his nursery. He was also committed for debt to the King's Bench prison, within the Rules of which he died, after a short illness, of a disorder in the liver.

If Smart had a talent above mediocrity, it was a slight turn for humour. In his serious attempts at poetry, he reminds us of those

Whom Phoebus in his ire
Hath blasted with poetic fire.

The history of his life is but melancholy. Such was his habitual imprudence, that he would bring home guests to dine at his house, when his wife and family had neither a meal, nor money to provide one. He engaged, on one occasion, to write the Universal Visitor, and for no other work, by a contract which was to last ninety-nine years. The publication stopped at the end of two years. During his bad health, he was advised to walk for exercise, and he used to walk for that purpose to the ale-house; but "he was always carried back."