1752
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Epithalamium.

Poems on Several Occasions. By Christopher Smart.

Christopher Smart


Three irregular stanzas written while the poet was a Fellow at Cambridge. The occasion for the epithalamium, if there was one, has not been determined. Christopher Smart's Miltonic manner is that of the academic versifiers, yet how gorgeous the medium becomes in his hands: "Fragrant Flora, queen of May, | All bedight with garlands gay, | Where in the smooth-shaven green | The spangled cowslips variegate the scene, | And the rivulet between, | Whispers, murmurs, sings, | As it stoops, or falls, or springs."

John Hill: "Not without reason hath it been said, that the spirit of poetry is reviving among us. After the days of Milton there was a chasm; after the death of Pope there was another: none cared to appear in a situation where they must be seen with disadvantage; none dared to imitate what it was so difficult to equal. It was not a single poet that arose after the one or the other of these periods; nor is it to one that we at present owe the prospect of eminence in so affecting as well as entertaining a science. The Penshurst of an author, whose modesty has to this time continued him unknown, was a promise of much poetical worth: the church-yard elegy of mr. Gray, and the Elfrida of mr. Mason, are pieces which shew a power and height of genius equal to any thing, if properly, that is, if judiciously as well as warmly, cultivated. Last in the point of time, but not last in any other consideration, stands mr. Smart. the author of many entertaining pieces, and of the collection of miscellaneous poems, whose publication has given the immediate occasion to these observations. But if we allow a strength of genius in this gentleman, naturally equal, as perhaps justice cannot say less, to either of the others, we cannot mention him without a more than ordinary caution, in regard to its cultivation. The author of these poems is yet young enough to form himself: he seems to have been shamefully remise on this head; and the alternative before him at this time is certainly that of care on his own part, or the utmost severity of censure on that of the world. Would one imagine that the man we admire in one of these pieces, is the same we can scarce pardon in another? Could one suppose that, in the compass of so few pages, the same writer shall make us applaud the sincerest warmth, and condemn with no less reason?. . . The eleventh ode is an epithalamium. Pieces of this kind are in general indifferent performances, and this is not one of the best of them. It is an irregular and unmeasured ode, pretty much like one of those which it was, an age ago, a fashion with writers who were acquainted with nothing but the irregularity of the length of lines in Pindar, (but not with the latent connexion and concert even in that) to call Pindaric. These things are like birth-day odes; they all seem to set out alike. 'Descend, descend, ye sweet Aonian maids,' Did any epithalamist ever begin otherwise? was ever the repetition more spirited, or the epithet more sugared, or more appropriated?" Monthly Review 7 (August 1752) 131-32.

Iolo Williams: "there are flashes of genius in various parts of his beautiful quarto, Poems on Several Occasions, which appeared in 1752 — ten years before his most famous poem was scratched upon the walls of Bedlam. Especially in the first section of the book, the Odes, which show the influence of Gray's odes, are these flashes present; Gray, by the way, was a subscriber to the volume, and so was Mason; Pembroke (with Mason and Smart, and Gray just over the road at Peterhouse, but with most of his thoughts in Pembroke) must have been ringing with odes, as it was with petty quarrels, in the 1750's. Smart's attempts in this kind (odes, of course, not quarrels) show great metrical invention, based on Milton, Dryden, and Gray, though they are not often wholly successful as poems" By-Ways around Helicon (1922) 133.

Augustine Birrell: "The author of 'David,' under happier circumstances, might have conferred additional poetic lustre, even upon the college of Spenser" Obiter Dicta, Second Series (1887) 280.

Karina Williamson: "Perhaps written to celebrate the wedding of Anne Vane and Charles Hope Weir in 1746" Miscellaneous Works (1987) 440. This volume also contains Christopher Smart's Latin translation of Milton's L'Allegro.



I.
Descend, descend, ye sweet Aonian maids,
Leave the Parnassian shades,
The joyful Hymeneal sing,
And to a lovelier Belle
Than fiction can devise, or eloquence can tell,
Your vocal tributes bring.
And you, ye winged choristers, that fly
In all the pensile gardens of the sky,
Chant thro' th' enamel'd grove,
Stretch from the trembling leaves your little throats,
With all the wild variety of artless notes,
But let each note be love.
Fragrant Flora, queen of May,
All bedight with garlands gay,
Where in the smooth-shaven green
The spangled cowslips variegate the scene,
And the rivulet between,
Whispers, murmurs, sings,
As it stoops, or falls, or springs;
There spread a sofa of thy softest flowers,
There let the bridegroom stay,
There let him hate the light, and curse the day,
And dun the tardy hours.

II.
But see the bride — she comes with silent pace,
Full of majesty and love;
Not with a nobler grace
Look'd the imperial wife of Jove,
When erst ineffably she shone
In Venus' irresistible, inchanting zone.
Phoebus, great god of verse, the nymph observe,
Observe her well;
Then touch each sweetly-trem'lous nerve
Of thy resounding shell:
Her like huntress-Dian paint,
Modest, but without restraint;
From Pallas take her decent pace,
With Venus sweeten all her face,
From the Zephyrs steal her sighs,
From thyself her sun-bright eyes;
Then baffled, thou shalt see,
That as did Daphne thee,
Her charms description's force shall fly,
And by no soft persuasive sounds be brib'd
To come within INVENTION'S narrow eye;
But all indignant shun its grasp, and scorn to be describ'd.

III.
Now see the bridegroom rise,
Oh! how impatient are his joys!
Bring zephyrs to depaint his voice,
Bring light'ning for his eyes.
He leaps, he springs, he flies into her arms,
With joy intense,
Feeds ev'ry sense,
And sultanates o'er all her charms.
Oh! had I Virgil's comprehensive strain,
Or sung like Pope, without a word in vain,
Then should I hope my numbers might contain,
Engaging nymph, thy boundless happiness,
How arduous to express!
Such may it last to all eternity:
And may thy lord with thee,
Like two coeval pines in Ida's grove,
That interweave their verdant arms in love,
Each mutual office chearfully perform,
And share alike the sunshine, and the storm;
And ever, as you flourish hand in hand,
Both shade the shepherd and adorn the land,
Together with each growing year arise,
Indissolubly link'd, and climb at last the skies.

[pp. 27-29]