1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:108-09.



CHRISTOPHER SMART, an unfortunate and irregular man of genius, was born in 1722 at Shipbourne in Kent. His father was steward to Lord Barnard (afterwards Earl of Darlington), and dying when his son was eleven years of age, the patronage of Lord Barnard was generously continued to his family. Through the influence of this nobleman, Christopher procured from the Duchess of Cleveland an allowance of £40 per annum. He was admitted of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, in 17, elected a fellow of Pembroke in 1745, and took his degree of M.A. in 1747. At college, Smart was remarkable for folly and extravagance, and his distinguished contemporary Gray prophesied truly that the result of his conduct would be a jail or bedlam. In 1747, he wrote a comedy called a "Trip to Cambridge, or The Grateful Fair," which was acted in Pembroke College Hall, the parlour of which was made the green-room. No remains of this play have been found, excepting a few songs and a mock-heroic soliloquy, the latter containing the following humorous simile:—

Thus when a barber and a collier fight,
The barber beats the luckless collier white;
The dusty collier heaves his ponderous sack,
And, big with vengeance, beats the barber black.
In comes the brick-dust man, with grime o'erspread,
And beats the collier and the barber red;
Black, red, and white, in various clouds are tossed,
And in the dust they raise the combatants are lost.

From the correspondence of Gray, it appears that Smart's income at Cambridge was about £140 per annum, and of this his creditors compelled him to assign over to them £50 a-year till his debts were paid. Notwithstanding his irregularities, Smart cultivated his talents, and was distinguished both for his Latin and English verse. His manners were agreeable, though his misconduct appears to have worn out the indulgence of all his college friends. Having written several pieces for periodicals published by Newberry, Smart became acquainted with the bookseller's family, and married his stepdaughter, Miss Carnan, in the year 1753. He now removed to London, and endeavoured to subsist by his pen. The notorious Sir John Hill — whose wars with the Royal Society, with Fielding, &c., are well-known, and who closed his life by becoming a quack doctor — having insidiously attacked Smart, the latter replied by a spirited satire entitled "The Hilliad." Among his various tasks was a metrical translation of the Fables of Phaedrus. He also translated the psalms and parables into verse, but the version is destitute of talent. He had, however, in his better days, translated with success, and to Pope's satisfaction, the "Ode on St Cecilia's Day." In 1756 Smart was one of the conductors of a monthly periodical called The Universal Visitor; and to assist him, Johnson (who sincerely sympathised, as Boswell relates, with Smart's unhappy vacillation of mind) contributed a few essays. In 1763 we find the poor poet confined in a mad-house. "He has partly as much exercise," said Johnson, "as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him (also falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in an other unusual place); and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it." During his confinement, it is said, writing materials were denied him, and Smart used to indent his poetical thoughts with a key on the wainscot of his walls. A religious poem, the "Song to David," written at this time in his saner intervals, possesses passages of considerable power and sublimity, and must be considered as one of the greatest curiosities of our literature. What the unfortunate poet did not write down (and the whole could not possibly have been committed to the walls of his apartment) must have been composed and retained from memory alone. Smart was afterwards released from his confinement; but his ill fortune (following, we suppose, his intemperate habits) again pursued him. He was committed to the King's Bench prison for debt, and died there, after a short illness, in 1770.