Christopher Smart

John Holland, in Psalmists of Britain. Records of upwards of One Hundred and Fifty Authors, who have rendered the Whole or Parts of The Book of Psalms, into English Verse (1843) 2:213-17.

Poor Smart! His unhappy life seems to have been a compound of fits of genius, gleams of piety, conflicts with intemperance, and finally, mental aberration. And yet, as Southey remarks, he must not be classed with such as Boyce and Savage, who were redeemed by no virtue, for Smart was friendly, and liberal, and affectionate. His piety, was fervent, and when composing his religious poems, he was frequently so impressed as to write upon his knees; in his fits of insanity it became his ruling passion: he would say his prayers in the streets, and insist that people should pray with him. Dr. Johnson, who knew him well, said, "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart, as any one else." He composed a "Song to David," when in confinement, and being denied the use of pen, ink, and paper, indented the lines upon the wainscot with the end of a key. Amidst many brilliant passages which outshine the wildfire of genius, it would be impossible to find in the English language a specimen of more condensed poetic diction, than is displayed by the last stanza of the composition alluded to, and which, as Montgomery says, "alone might give immortality to any name: it is a most perfect specimen of the sublime":—

"Tell them, I AM," Jehovah said
To Moses, while earth heard in dread:
And, smitten to the heart,
At once, above, beneath, around,
All Nature, without voice or sound,
Replied, "O Lord, THOU ART."

The principal works of Smart — who died in 1770 — are his Poems "On the Divine Attributes," a volume of "Miscellanies," and "A translation of the Psalms of David, attempted in the spirit of Christianity, and Adapted to the Divine Service." Prefixed to this last, a thin quarto, is a large list of Subscribers, comprising the names of most of the persons of note in literature at that day, as well as individuals in all grades of society, from the Archbishop of York, to Ned Shuter, the Comedian. In this work, the author tells us, "all expressions, that seem contrary to Christ, are omitted, and evangelical matter put in their room; — and as it was written with a special view to the Divine Service, the reader will find many allusions to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, which are intended to render the work in general more useful and acceptable to Congregations." Of the merit and propriety of the "omissions and commissions" here referred to, different opinions will doubtless be entertained: the versification is generally clever; the double rhymes especially are managed with great dexterity: the diction is sometimes elegant, but not seldom greatly attenuated — perhaps the following specimen will be allowed to exhibit, in some degree, most of these characteristics:—

I tarried in the House of Prayer,
To patient hope resign'd;
And God in his paternal care,
To hear my voice inclin'd.

He saved me likewise from the shock
Of terror and dismay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
To regulate my way.

Such mercies in my mouth inspire
A song of new delight,
A lesson for the Hebrew lyre,
And grateful to recite.

This blessed change beyond their thought,
The multitude shall see;
And put their trust in God that wrought
This miracle in me.

Blest is the man, in God assured
Who has not turn'd his side
To him that has the tale procured,
Or him that hears in pride.

O Lord my God, thy works are plann'd,
How marvellous and great,
Thy careful love, and bounteous hand,
What praises shall relate?

If I should set about the task,
Their numbers to recount;
It would such shining talents ask,
As my mean powers surmount.

Fat lambs and firstlings of the year,
Are better fed than slain;
For thou prefer'st a duteous ear
To what thy laws contain.

No more the flocks and herds shall die
For sinners to atone—
Then lo! I come — I come — said I
To give myself alone.

O God, 'tis written in thy book,
That I should do thy will;
I from my heart have all forsook,
That scripture to fulfil.

Thy righteousness I have declared,
Before th' assembled tribes;
O Lord, thou know'st I have not spared,
In that thy word prescribes.

I have not been reserved to balk
Thy holy word and ways;
But all the tenour of my talk,
Was how their light might blaze.

I have not hid thy, loving grace,
And thine established truth,
But shewn them to the genuine race
Of Boaz and of Ruth;

God of mine ancestors and arms,
Do not that truth withhold;
Preserve me in that love which charms
Reluctance to thy fold.

Woes multitudinous surround,
My grief my spirit wears;
My sins my conscious heart confound,
Outnumbering ev'n my hairs.

O Lord, in thy good pity please
Thy servant to restore;
And with thy speedy succour ease
The hardships I deplore.

Give them, O Lord, the sense of shame,
Who seek my soul's distress,
And those with sharp remorse reclaim,
That wish me no success.

Let self-conviction be their lot,
Join'd with the contrite sigh,
Who thus their poisoned bolts have shot,—
"O fie, upon thee, fie!"

Let them rejoice whose final scope
Is placed in Christ their King;
And all the sons of love and hope
Their hallelujah sing.

As for my share of all this earth,
It is but mean and poor;
And yet the Lord esteems me worth
A substance to endure.

Thou art my help, my Saviour thou,
Of all my goods the sum;
O tarry not, but even now,
O come, Lord Jesus, come.