1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 5:302-03.



CHRISTOPHER SMART was born at Shipbourne, in Kent. In 1739 he was admitted of Pembroke hall, Cambridge, where he brought himself into notice by the excellence of his Tripos verses. In 1745 he was elected a fellow of his hall. The Seatonian prize was adjudged to him four times successively. He also wrote a considerable number of miscellaneous and some dramatic pieces.

"Though the fortune," says his biographer, "as well as the constitution of Mr. Smart, required the utmost care, he was equally negligent in the management of both, and his various and repeated embarrassments acting upon an imagination uncommonly fervid, produced temporary alienations of mind; which at last were attended with paroxysms so violent and continued as to render confinement necessary. In this melancholy state, his family, for he had now two children, must have been much embarrassed in their circumstances, but for the kind friendship and assistance of Mr. Newbery. Many other of Mr. Smart's acquaintance were likewise forward in their services; and particularly Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, on the first approaches of Mr. Smart's malady, wrote several papers for a periodical publication in which that gentleman was concerned, to secure his claim to a share in the profits of it." The publication alluded to, was the Universal Visitor and Memorialist, published by Gardner, a bookseller in the Strand. Smart, and Rolt, a political writer, are said to have entered into an engagement to write for this magazine, and for no other work whatever; for this they were to have a third of the profits, and the contract was to be binding for ninety-nine years. In Boswell's Life of Johnson, we find this contract discussed with more gravity than it seems to deserve. It was probably a contrivance of Gardner's to secure the services of two irregular men for a certain period. Johnson, however, wrote a few papers for our poet, "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." The publication ceased in about two years from its commencement.

In 1763 he published his Song to David, — a composition remarkable for its alternate magnificence and meanness, indicating the state of the composer's mind.

In his intervals of health and regularity he still continued to write and although he perhaps formed too high an opinion of his effusions, he spared no labour when employed by the booksellers, and formed, in conjunction with them, many schemes of literary industry which he did not live to accomplish. In 1765 he published A Poetical Translation of the Fables of Phaedrus, with the appendix of Godius, and an accurate original text on the opposite page. This translation appears to be executed with neatness and fidelity, but has never become popular. His Translation of the Psalms, which followed in the same year, affords a melancholy proof of want of judgment and decay of powers. Many of his psalms scarcely rise above the level of Sternhold and Hopkins, and they had the additional disadvantage of appearing at the same time with Merrick's more correct and chaste translation. In 1767 he republished his Horace with a metrical translation, in which, although we find abundance of inaccuracies, irregular rhymes, and redundancies, there are some passages conceived in the true spirit of the original. His last publication in 1768 exhibited a more striking proof of want of judgment than any of his other performances. It was entitled The Parables of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; done into familiar verse, with occasional applications for the use of younger minds. This was dedicated to Master Bonnel George Thornton, a child of three years old, and is written in that species of verse which would be tolerated only in the nursery. In what manner he lived during his latter years, his biographer has not informed us; but at length he was confined for debt in the king's bench prison. Here he died after a short illness occasioned by a disorder in his liver, May 18th, 1770.