1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:346-47.



CHRISTOPHER SMART was born at Shipbourne, in Kent, on the 11th of April, 1722, and received the first part of his education at Maidstone and Durham, whence, in 1739, he was sent to Cambridge, and admitted of Pembroke Hall. He is said to have evinced a taste for poetry at the early age of four years, and he was enabled to pursue his future studies, by the bounty of the Duchess of Cleveland, who allowed him a pension of 40 a year until her death in 1742; and by the Barnard family, to whose liberality he was probably indebted for his subsequent subsistence at the university, his gratitude for which is expressed in his Ode to Lord Barnard. During the early part of his residence at Cambridge, he wrote the Tripos Poems, and shortly afterwards translated into Latin, successively, Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, and his Essay on Criticism. In 1743, he graduated B.A., and obtained a fellowship in July, 1745; about which time he wrote a comedy, called A Trip to Cambridge; but a ludicrous soliloquy of the Princess Periwinkle, printed in The Old Woman's Magazine, and a few songs, are all that have been preserved of it, though it appears to have been acted, with applause, at his college. In 1747, he graduated M.A., and for the next six successive years, with the exception. of the fifth, he obtained the Seatonian prize for his poems, entitled The Eternity, The Immensity, The Omniscience, The Power, and The Goodness of the Supreme Being: all of which he subsequently published.

In 1753, he married the daughter-in-law of Mr. Newbery, a projector of various periodical miscellanies, in which he had been assisted by Smart, particularly in The Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany; and The Midwife, or Old Woman's Magazine. During the publication of the latter work, Smart printed his prologue and epilogue to Othello, when acted at Drury Lane Theatre by the Delaval family; a production of which he thought so highly, that he gave a solemn notice of his intention to prosecute all who should pirate them, or any part of them. He had already published a collection of his poems, which, though generally praised, called forth some animadversions from the reviewers, which made our author their implacable enemy; and in the year last-mentioned, he produced a satire, called The Hilliad, named after Dr. John Hill, whom he supposed to be the author of the criticisms on his poems, in The Monthly Review. It was a most bitter and able satire; but, considering the contemptible character of the critic it attacked, exhibited more acerbity than judgment. Hill had the credit of writing a Smartiad, which only served to set off the merit of the other.

Between 1754 and 1756, Smart laboured under a dangerous illness, brought on by intemperance, and pecuniary embarrassments, which preyed upon his mind to such a degree, that he was for some time in a state of lunacy, that rendered his confinement necessary. He had previously entered into an engagement to write in The Universal Visitor and Memorialist, and in no other work; to secure his profits in which Dr. Johnson kindly contributed a few papers; "not then," he added, "knowing the terms on which Smart was engaged to write, and thinking I was doing him good. I hoped his wits would soon return to him. Mine returned to me, and I wrote in The Universal Visitor no longer." After his recovery, he appears to have received a pension of 50 a year from the Treasury; and, in 1757, he published a prose translation of the works of Horace, from which he derived more profit than fame. Pecuniary distresses, however, seem to have again come upon him, for, in 1759, Garrick gave him the profits of a free benefit, and he also seems to have received assistance from Dr. James, Dr. Burney, and other eminent literary men of his day. In 1763, he published A Song to David, which has justly been deemed a wonder in the moral world, and no less deserving the investigation of the philosophers, than the admiration of the lovers of poetry. It was composed while the unfortunate bard was confined in a mad-house: and, in the absence of pen, ink, and paper, which were denied him, was written on the walls of his room with a key. It is a sublime production, and glows with religious fervour. His Song to David was followed by a small volume of Poems on Several Occasions; and, in 1764, by Hannah, an oratorio, and an Ode to the Earl of Northumberland; in all of which he displayed that fine though wild fervour, which proceeds from a disturbed and poetic imagination. In 1765, he published a poetical translation of the Fables of Phaedrus, which, though executed with neatness and fidelity, has never obtained popularity. His Translations of Psalms, which followed in the same year, scarcely rose above the level of Sternhold and Hopkins, and showed the mental powers of the author to be lamentably on the decay; nor was his last publication, in 1768, entitled the Parables of our Lord done into Familiar Verse, a happier effort. It is not known in what manner he passed his latter years, but probably in poverty and embarrassment, as he died in the rules of the King's Bench, on the 18th of May, 1770, leaving a widow and two daughters.

The character of Smart was a singular mixture of piety and dissipation, conceit and reserve: he was liberal to a fault, shy in company, though engaging in conversation; vain of his own abilities, pleasing in his manners, and slovenly in his habits. His madness, according to Dr. Johnson, discovered itself chiefly in unnecessary deviations from the usual customs of the world, in things not improper in themselves. He would fall, it is said, upon his knees, and say his prayers in the street, or in any unusual place, and insist on people praying with him. — The following anecdote is told of his bashfulness: Having undertaken to introduce his wife to Lord Darlington, with whom he was well acquainted, he had no sooner mentioned her name to his lordship, than he retreated suddenly, as if stricken with a panic, from the room, and from the house, leaving her to follow, overwhelmed with confusion. As a poet, Smart has been raised, by some, to a level with Gray and Mason; and he is certainly not inferior to either in originality of thought or refinement of taste. His fables possess great merit; his religious poems are animated and sublime, and his translations of Horace faithful and spirited. Both himself and his works were held in esteem by many of the literary men of eminence of his day, and Pope, Johnson, Garrick, and Hawkesworth, were among his intimate friends.