As a poet, his genius has never been questioned by those who censured his carelessness, and commiserated the unhappy vacillation of his mind. He is sometimes not only greatly irregular, but irregularly great. His errors are those of a bold and daring spirit, which bravely hazards what a vulgar mind could never suggest. Shakspeare and MIlton are sometimes wild and irregular; and it seems as if originality alone could try experiments. Accuracy is timid, and seeks for authority. Fowls of feeble wing seldom quit the ground, though at full liberty; while the eagle, unrestrained, soars into unknown regions.
He is a various, an original, but unequal writer. Every species of poetry, not even excepting the epic, has been attempted by him, and most of them with eminent success.
His fine poems on the Divine Attributes, are written with the sublimest energies of religion, and the true enthusiasm of poetry; and if he had written nothing else, these compositions alone would have given him a very distinguished rank among the writers of verse. Their faults, though numerous, are amply compensated by their beauties. Some of their defects may be fairly ascribed to redundance of genius, and impatience of labour; others to fanaticism, generated, perhaps, by the grandeur of the subject; on which he strained his faculties, in trying to penetrate "beyond the reach of human ken" — but he never could mount "to the height of his argument." Dr. Johnson, in speaking of sacred poetry, in his life of Waller, has admirably said, that "whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved." Upon the whole, however, his prize poems are more accurate than the generality of his performances; which may be attributed to the deference he might feel from those persons who were to adjudge the prizes which he obtained.
Of his Odes it may be said, in general, that they are spirited and poetical. It will be difficult to find any other quality applicable to compositions very different from each other; and in many of which opposite characters occasionally predominate. He has followed the example of Horace, rather than that of the Grecian models; and of him he is, for the most part, a judicious imitator. Some of the shorter pieces are beautiful, and nearly perfect; but instances of an improper association of the grave and the ludicrous, sometimes occur; and he debases, by an impure admixture, what otherwise would have been gold of the standard value. The Ode to Idleness possesses the elegance of Sappho; and that to Ethelinda, the sprightliness of Anacreon. The Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, inferior only to the great model of Dryden, is dignified throughout, and breathes the true spirit of poetry. The Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from Sickness, is pious, animated, and pathetic. The Ode on Good-Nature is full of elegance, and that on Ill-Nature full of force. The Morning Piece is uniformly beautiful; the description of Labour is eminently happy.
Strong Labour got up — with his pipe in his mouth,
He stoutly strode over the dale, &c.
The lines were misprinted in the 4to edition.
Strong Labour got up with his pipe in his mouth,
And stoutly, &c.
The correction was advertised immediately after the publication of the first edition; but the blunder has been retained in the edition of 1791. The poet did not mean to insinuate, that Labour had slept with his pipe in his mouth, which must have the case, if he got up with it in that situation. In the Night-Piece, the images of Night, and her attendants, Stillness and Silence, are highly painted. The Noon-Piece is beautifully descriptive. The imitation of Horace, On taking a Bachelor's Degree, is spirited and pleasant. The Ode on the Birth-Day of a Beautiful Young Lady, is highly poetical: its chief blemish is the too frequent and affected use of alliteration. It was written on Miss Harriot Pratt of Durham, in Norfolk, a lady for whom Smart had entertained a long and unsuccessful passion; who was the subject also of the crambo ballad, and other verses among his poems. Of the rest, the odes On an Eagle confined in a Cage; To Lord Bernard; To Lady Harriot; To the Earl of Northumberland; To a Virginia Nightingale; The Sweets of Evening; New Version of the CXLVIIIth Psalm, deserve commendation....
In the first rank of the elegant writers of Latin, among our English poets, Jonson, May, Crashaw, Cowley, Milton, Marvell, Addison, Gray, Warton, &c. Smart stands very high. His translation of Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, is at once elegant and appropriate. He equals his original in the sublimest passages, except only the third stanza; and to the ballad and epigrammatic stanzas gives dignity and grace. The vulgar lines which describe the power of Styx over the enthralled Eurydice, and the superior power of music and of love, are translated with truth and beauty. It has been objected, and with some reason, to Smart's translation, that it exhibits a variety of meters unauthorized by any single example among the Latin poets. But had he, too timid to pursue the rapid flights and wild genius of his original, confined himself to the regular recurrence of the Roman stanza, his imitation would not have been exact, and probably would not have been interesting. The opinion of the public has fully justified the choice of Smart.
In his version of Pope's Essay on Criticism, he is a very diligent imitator of the epistolary style of Horace; and we shall find him carefully following the footsteps of his master, where we might otherwise have been disposed to suspect the purity of his language. To the labours of Smart those persons chiefly are indebted, who, being unacquainted with the English tongue, wish to see Pope's just rules of taste, embellished indeed with his powers of poetry, though appearing with less gloss and lustre through the medium of translation. In the famous lines intended as an echo to the sense, he has laboured through a very painful task, with considerable dexterity; and in the beautiful pictures of the reign of Leo, of Vida, and of the Arts, no foreigner need regret that he is unacquainted with Pope.