1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Rowland Freeman, in Kentish Poets (1821) 2:273-78.



The village of Shipbourne in Kent, was then the birth place of Christopher Smart, who was born April 11th, 1722. His father possessed an estate of some value in the neighbourhood, and was steward to the Kentish property of Lord Barnard, afterwards Earl of Darlington. He had been originally destined for the church, and had acquired in consequence a taste for literature, which induced him to give his son a learned education.

Christopher Smart, suffered from his birth, which was premature, under a feeble constitution of body, which was not improved. by his subsequent habits, but he displayed we are informed, at a very early period of his life, a taste and a talent for poetry. He lisped in verse; and composed a poem when only four years old; another in his thirteenth year, he deemed worthy a place in the collection he afterwards offered' to the public; and he was capable of latin metrical composition when only sixteen years old.

He was educated first at Maidstone, and afterwards at Durham, from whence he was removed in his seventeenth year, and placed at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he acquired a fellowship, and remained many years. He appears to have led a life of dissipation and extravagance during his residence at Cambridge, neither creditable to himself nor to the university of which he was a member. He was the wit and poet laureate of the place; his company was courted by strangers and residents, and like a poet of superior order in later times, he became a frequenter of taverns, and was weak enough to afford to every idle inviter "a slice of his constitution." By these practices he contracted debts, involved himself in difficulties and disgrace, and acquired habits which in the end deprived him of reason, and every enjoyment of life.

While at Cambridge he wrote and published several poems on various subjects; among others a latin version of Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, and by that poet's particular recommendation, another of the "Essay on Criticism."

In the year 1750 he became a candidate for the Seatonian prize for the best poem on the subject of the Supreme Being, and was successful in that and four succeeding years.

In 1752 he married the daughter of Mrs. Newbery, wife of the bookseller of that name, by a former husband, and lost his fellowship in consequence; immediately after which he removed to London, and commenced the life of an author by profession. In this pursuit he might have been successful, as he possessed by nature and cultivation many of the most essential requisites for an author, but unfortunately he also derived partly from nature, but principally from habit, a more than equal number of counteracting propensities. He was not deficient in learning nor in genius; but he was indolent, profuse, and drunken.

In 1753 he published a collection of his poems in one volume quarto, which he dedicated to the Earl of Middlesex, as a "Man of Kent." He engaged subsequently in a great variety of literary undertakings, none of which appear to have been in any eminent degree successful.

His bad habits during this interval ruined his health, involved his affairs in frequent embarrassment, and finally deprived him of his reason. He was in consequence of this calamity confined for two years in a receptacle for mad patients, after which he regained his liberty, and returned to his former literary habits; but he never seems to have recovered the entire possession of his mental powers.

The following letter, written by Dr. Hawkesworth to his sister Mrs. Hunter, is strikingly characteristic of his habits, at this period of his life:—

"I have, since my being in town, called on my old friend, and seen him. He received me with an ardour of kindness natural to the sensibility of his temper; and all were soon seated together by his fire-side. I perceived on his table a quarto book in which he had been writing, a prayer-book, and a Horace. After the first compliments, I said I had been at Margate, had seen his mother and his sister, who expressed great kindness for him, and made me promise to come and see him. To this he made no reply, nor did he make any enquiry after those I mentioned. He did not even mention the place, nor ask me any question about it, or what carried me thither. After some pause, and some indifferent chat, I returned to the subject, and said that Mr. Hunter and you would be very glad to see him in Kent. To this he replied very quick, 'I cannot afford to be idle.' I said he might employ his mind as well in the country as in town; at which he only shook his head, and I entirely changed the subject. Upon my asking him when we should see the Psalms, he said they were going to press immediately: as to his other undertakings, I found he had completed a translation of Phaedrus, in verse, for Dodsley, at a certain price; and that he is now busy in translating all Horace into verse; which he sometimes thinks of publishing on his own account, and sometimes of contracting for it with a bookseller. I advised him to the latter; and he then told me he was in treaty about it, and believed it would be a bargain. He told me his principal motive for translating Horace into verse, was to supersede the prose translation which he did for Newbery, which he said would hurt his memory. He intends, however, to review that translation, and print it at the foot of the page in his poetical version; which he proposes to print in quarto, with the latin, both in verse and prose, on the opposite page. He told me he once had thoughts of publishing it by subscription; but as he had troubled his friends already, he was unwilling to do it again, and had been persuaded to publish it in numbers; which, though I rather dissuaded him, seemed at last to be the prevailing bent of his mind. He read me some of it: it is very clever; and his own poetical fire sparkles in it very frequently; yet upon the whole, it will scarcely take place of Francis's; and therefore, if it is not adopted as a school book, which perhaps may be the ease, it will turn to little account. Upon mentioning his prose translation, I saw his countenance kindle; and snatching up the book, 'what,' says he, 'do you think I had for this?' I said I could not tell. 'Why,' says he, with great indignation, 'thirteen pounds!' I expressed very great astonishment, which he seemed to think he should increase, by adding — 'but I gave a receipt for a hundred.' My astonishment was now over; and I found that he received only thirteen pounds because the rest had been advanced for his family. This was a tender point; and I found means immediately to divert him from it. He is with very decent people, in a house most delightfully situated, with a terrace that overlooks St. James's Park, and a door into it. He was going to dine with an old friend of my own, Mr. Richard Dalton, who has an appointment in the King's library; and if I had not been particularly engaged I would have dined with him. He had lately received a very genteel letter from Dr. Lowth, and it is by no means considered in any light, that his company as a gentleman, a scholar, and a genius, is less desirable."

After his release from the mad-house, he applied himself for some time with apparent diligence to various literary tasks, but we are informed that he subsisted partly by private benefactions, and partly by a payment of fifty pounds a year out of the treasury. His bad habits were however inveterately fixed; he contracted debts for which he suffered an arrest, became a prisoner in the King's Bench, and afterwards obtained what is called the rules of that prison. Here he endured the utmost distress, amounting even to the occasional want of common necessaries, and finally died of a liver complaint, May 22d, 1771 in the 49th year of his age. He left a widow and two children, who were provided for by the care of their relation Mr. Newbery.

We have passed hastily over the life and misfortunes of poor Smart, there being no one circumstance in his history upon which the mind can rest with satisfaction. He was a strong instance of the too common faults and failings of men of genius. His talents however were not of the first order, and though he has published on almost every subject, and in every kind of metre and style, it would be difficult to make a pleasing selection from the mass of his productions. One poem, the Hop Garden, is in a peculiar manner Kentish, and on that account we cannot pass it by, though it is entitled to very little praise as a composition in any sense of the word. The best of his pieces are perhaps those to which the university prizes were adjudged; on these probably be bestowed most pains, for negligence and want of correction are too apparent in all that he has written. One or two of his fables are elegant, and an occasional vein of humour displays itself in his minor pieces, which is perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic.