So long a time has elapsed since we took leave of our old acquaintance, SMART, that, though we did not part very good friends, we are now glad to fee him in so neat and spruce a garb. In all our bickerings, we never questioned his genius. His absurd advertisements against us are now forgotten: but there are many of his poems which should never be forgotten. The literary squabbles of the day recede, and are soon obliterated by time: but real merit must have foul play, indeed, if it does not, at length, burst from accidental and temporary clouds, and shine forth with fresh lustre.
To this new edition of the works of Mr. Smart, a well-written life of the author is prefixed; not composed, perhaps, with the powers of a Johnson, nor indeed with the decision and severity of censure. It is not easy to account for the works of this poet not being included in the body of English poets, whose lives were written by that great biographer, who had a friendship for him; especially as his malady proceeded from an excess of religious zeal, and terrors, somewhat congenial with his own pious principles. Johnson, however, frequently declared, that the choice of poets, for whose works he had agreed to write biographical prefaces, was not his own; the list of them was furnished by the booksellers; and yet, as he condescended to ask a place for the lives of Blackmore and Watts, more perhaps from their being champions for religion, than for their poetical powers, poor Smart had a double claim to his notice, — from piety, and from genius: — but perhaps the copy-right to the scattered productions of our Bard could not be easily settled. Johnson frequently expressed a wish, and an intention, to write the life of Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount Verulam, &c. for a new edition of that great man's works: but he said, that so large a portion of a former edition, remained in the hands of the booksellers, that it would be a great injury to them, if another were published, before that was sold.
Smart's best pieces, though admirable, have not often been honoured with a place in favourite collections of poems. He was too poor an author to bestow; and, perhaps, he had no ambition to share in the triumph of those who, for the most part, wrote more for their own diversion, than for that of the public. — His way of living, from hand to mouth, depending always on the product of his desultory pen, appropriated to no regular nor profitable purpose, and on the liberality of his friends, was not likely to procure for him that public respect from his contemporaries which sweetens a man's life, however useless it may be to his works after his decease.
While he was the pride of Cambridge, and the chief poetical ornament of that university, he ruined himself by returning the tavern-treats of strangers, who had invited him as a wit, and an extraordinary personage, in order to boast of his acquaintance. This social spirit of retaliation, involving him in debt with vintners and college cooks, occasioned his fellowship to be sequestered, obliged him to quit the university, and crippled him for the rest of his life. Subsisting in London as a writer for bread, he lost his dignity, his time, and his peace of mind; while his contemporary bards, Gray and Mason, by oeconomy and independence, augmented their personal importance, as well as that of their productions. Select in their acquaintance with persons of the first class for rank and talents, the public in general adored them at a distance as unknown gods. Their works, always polished at leisure, with critical care and solicitude, were received as favours, and were read with reverence; while those of poor Smart, who was never nice in his person, in his taste, nor in his acquaintance, appeared, good, bad, and indifferent, before the dread tribunal of the public, "with all their imperfections on their heads."
In his quarrel with Dr. Hill, he could obtain no fame, though he greatly augmented the ridicule of that extraordinary personage: but time settles the disputes of authors and men of talents in the most upright manner. Hill seems to have been insensible to the learning and genius of Smart; and Smart only saw Hill in the light of a quack and a coxcomb: but posterity not only allows the originality, the invention, and the poetical talents, of Smart, but also regards Hill as an able botanist; and though his nostrums and panaceas are now exploded, his voluminous works in natural history have advanced toward fame, with nearly as much rapidity as his empyrical productions have descended toward oblivion. Even some of the decisions of Boileau and Pope have been reprehended and reversed by posterity. The Perraults and Quinaults have been rescued from the talons of satire; and not only Bentley has had justice done to him, but even Theobald and Cibber have been taken out of Fleet-ditch, and have been brought to life by the humane society of modern critics.
So long ago as the year 1751, we admired the vein of pious poetry which ran through the prize poems of Smart; and we continued our approbation of these compositions, till fanaticism (always fatal to just thinking,) had distorted his ideas, and, as if stung by the gad-fly, had made him run wildly about, in pain and terror; not knowing that he carried the enemy with him wherever he went.
In the year following, 1752, we heartily praised the genius, though we freely censured the carelessness and inaccuracy, of this Bard. Of his mock-heroic poem, called the Hilliad, we spoke as favourably as truth and candour would allow: — for however we might have admired the loftiness of some of the lines, the happy imitations of the Dunciad, and the wit and humour of the notes, we thought then, and we still think, that the abuse was coarse, and that the scurrility was a disgrace to the republic of letters. His prose Horace was fairly treated.
Indeed we censured, with reason, the roughness and the want of dignity in the blank verse of his Hop-Garden, but we ascribed these defects, not to want of genius, but to want of diligence and care; for though many of this poet's shorter pieces are beautiful and nearly perfect, he never had patience, nor application sufficient to bring a long work to any degree of perfection.
We have been diffuse in our praises of the Hymn to David, published in 1763. We allowed a grandeur, a majesty of thought, and a happiness of expression, in several of the stanzas: but we observed, "that it would be cruel to insist on the flight defects and singularities of this piece, for many reasons and more especially, if it be true, as we are informed, that it was written when the author was denied the use of pen, ink, and paper, and was obliged to indent his lines, with the end of a key, upon the wainscot."
From this period, we commiserated the author's situation, and confined our applause to the talents of his better day: we therefore with-held our opinion of his translation of the Psalms, in pure pity for his state of mind at the time when he performed this arduous task.
Having recapitulated our former opinions of most of the works of this author, that were published during his lifetime, we shall now chiefly speak of those pieces which appear in this edition, or at least in any collection of his works, for the first time; after directing the reader's attention to some admirable little poems inserted in these volumes, from the quarto edition, which we had not room to particularize in our former remarks on that publication....
We shall now take a melancholy leave of this poet! whose faults, though numerous, are amply compensated by his beauties. Some of his defects may be fairly ascribed to redundant genius, and to impatience of labor; others to fanaticism, generated perhaps by the grandeur of the awful subjects which he under took to treat in the prize poems, in 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 great 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."
We have formerly observed of Smart, that he is not only sometimes 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, Milton, and Dryden, 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.