1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Smart

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:151-53.



We hear of "Single-speech Hamilton." We have now to say something of "Single-poem Smart," the author of one of the grandest bursts of devotional and poetical feeling in the English language — the Song to David. This poor unfortunate was born at Shipbourne, Kent, in 1722. His father was steward to Lord Barnard, who, after his death, continued his patronage to the son, who was then eleven years of age. The Duchess of Cleveland, through Lord Barnard's influence, bestowed on Christopher an allowance of 40 a-year. With this he went to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, in 1739; was in 1745 elected a Fellow of Pembroke, and in 1747 took his degree of M.A. At college, Smart began to display that reckless dissipation which led afterwards to such melancholy consequences. He studied hard, however, at intervals; wrote poetry both in Latin and English; produced a comedy called a Trip to Cambridge; or, The Grateful Fair, which was acted in the hall of Pembroke College; and, in spite of his vices and follies, was popular on account of his agreeable manners and amiable dispositions. Having become acquainted with Newberry, the benevolent, red-nosed bookseller commemorated in The Vicar of Wakefield, — for whom he wrote some trifles, — he married his step-daughter, Miss Carnan, in the year 1753. He now removed to London, and became an author to trade. He wrote a clever satire, entitled The Hilliad, against Sir John Hill, who had attacked him in an underhand manner. He translated the fables of Phaedrus into verse, — Horace into prose (Smart's Horace used to be a great favourite, under the rose, with schoolboys); made an indifferent version of the Psalms and Paraphrases, and a good one, at a former period, of Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, with which that poet professed himself highly pleased. He was employed on a monthly publication called The Universal Visitor. We find Johnson giving the following account of this matter in Boswell's Life: — "Old Gardner, the bookseller, employed Rolt and Smart to write a monthly miscellany called The Universal Visitor. There was a formal written contract. They were bound to write nothing else, — they were to have, I think, a third of the profits of the sixpenny pamphlet, and the contract was for ninety-nine years. I wrote for some months in The Universal Visitor for poor Smart, while he was mad, not then knowing the terms on which he was engaged to write, and thinking I was doing him good. I hoped his wits would soon return to him. Mine returned to me, and I wrote in The Universal Visitor no longer."

Smart at last was called to pay the penalty of his blended labour and dissipation. In 1763 he was shut up in a madhouse. His derangement had exhibited itself in a religious way: he insisted upon people kneeling down along with him in the street and praying. During his confinement, writing materials were denied him, and he used to write his poetical pieces with a key on the wainscot. Thus, "scrabbling," like his own hero, on the wall, he produced his immortal Song to David. He became by and by sane; but, returning to his old habits, got into debt, and died in the King's Bench prison, after a short illness, in 1770.

The Song to David has been well called one of the greatest curiosities of literature. It ranks in this point with the tragedies written by Lee, and the sermons and prayers uttered by Hall in a similar melancholy state of mind. In these cases, as well as in Smart's, the thin partition between genius and madness was broken down in thunder, — the thunder of a higher poetry than perhaps they were capable of even conceiving in their saner moments. Lee produced in that state — which was, indeed, nearly his normal one — some glorious extravagancies. Hall's sermons, monologised and overheard in the madhouse, are said to have transcended all that he preached in his healthier moods. And, assuredly, the other poems by Smart scarcely furnish a point of comparison with the towering and sustained loftiness of some parts of the Song to David. Nor is it loftiness alone, — although the last three stanzas are absolute inspiration, and you see the waters of Castalia tossed by a heavenly wind to the very summit of Parnassus, — but there are innumerable exquisite beauties and subtleties, dropt as if by the hand of rich haste, in every corner of the poem. Witness his description of David's muse) as a

Blest light, still gaining on the gloom,
The more than Michal of his bloom,
The Abishag of his age.

The account of David's object—

To further knowledge, silence vice,
And plant perpetual paradise,
When God had calmed the world.

Of David's Sabbath—

'Twas then his thoughts self-conquest pruned,
And heavenly melancholy tuned,
To bless and bear the rest.

One of David's themes—

The multitudinous abyss,
Where secrecy remains in bliss,
And wisdom hides her skill.

And, not to multiply instances to repletion, this stanza about gems—

Of gems — their virtue and their price,
Which, hid in earth from man's device,
Their darts of lustre sheath;
The jasper of the master's stamp,
The topaz blazing like a lamp,
Among the mines beneath.

Incoherence and extravagance we find here and there; but it is not the flutter of weakness, it is the fury of power: from the very stumble of the rushing steed, sparks are kindled. And, even as Baretti, when he read the Rambler, in Italy, thought within himself, If such are the lighter productions of the English mind, what must be the grander and sterner efforts of its genius? and formed, consequently, a strong desire to visit that country; so might he have reasoned, If such poems as David issue from England's very madhouses, what must be the writings of its saner and nobler poetic souls? and thus might he, from the parallax of a Smart, have been able to rise toward the ideal altitudes of a Shakspeare or a Milton. Indeed, there are portions of the Song to David, which a Milton or a Shakspeare has never surpassed. The blaze of the meteor often eclipses the light of

The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.