1889 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

Edmund Gosse, in History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 313-14.



Fawkes was distinguished as a translator of the classics, and he had the complaisance to render into English the Latin poems of his friend Christopher Smart (1722-1770). Throughout his own century, Smart received no other honours, and, and his forlorn reputation has only very recently been lifted out of the limbo where it was lying with that of the Langhornes and the Merricks. In no existing history of literature does Smart receive anything like his due meed of attention, as being, in a dreary age of versifiers, a very original, if somewhat crazy and unballanced poet. He went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1738, and remained there until 1754, when he lost his fellowship through the fact of his marriage having been discovered. Of his eccentric and disreputable ways in college we find traces in the letters of Gray, who was resident with him for a long time at Pembroke, and who describes him as graduating for Bedlam or a jail. After having tested the merits of either kind of asylum, however, in 1752 Smart pulled himself together, and published a collection of Poems, a handsome quarto, containing, besides some sixteen odes in following of Gray, a didactic Hop-Garden, in two books of Thomsonian blank verse, a masque, and some miscellaneous ballads. These pieces are mediocre, although illuminated here and there with flashes of gorgeous phraseology. In 1753 Smart published The Hilliad, a conceited satire on Dr. John Hill, who had somewhat severely reviewed Smart's odes. This poem is chiefly notable as having probably suggested the form and the title of the much more famous Rolliad (1785) of Lawrence and Fitzpatrick. About 1754 Smart let himself out on a lease for ninety-nine years, to work for a bookseller, and in 1761 he became violently insane once more. Dr. Johnson went to see him in the madhouse, and his account of the visit is well known. "I did not think," said the lexicographer, "that he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as with any one else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it." While in Bedlam, Smart wrote his famous Song to David, published in 1763. Worn out with drunkenness and depressed with debt, the unhappy poet sank in 1770.