World Literature

Christopher Smart

 

BORN: 1722, Shipbourne, Kent, England

DIED: 1771, London, England

NATIONALITY: Welsh, British

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being: A Poetical Essay (1752)

Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness (1756)

A Song to David (1763)

Jubilate Agno (1939)

 

 

Christopher Smart. Smart, Christopher, photograph of a painting.

 

Overview

Known primarily for his 1763 A Song to David and the posthumously discovered poem Jubilate Agno (discovered in 1939), Christopher Smart is regarded as one of the most influential—and eccentric—writers of the eighteenth century. Although he suffered mental instability and frequent poverty throughout his life, Smart produced poems marked by narrative innovation and spiritual fervor. He is often characterized as a proto-Romantic; his combination of visionary power, Christian ardor, and lyrical virtuosity, however, was unappreciated in his own age. Beginning with Robert Browning in the nineteenth century, poets rather than critics have been the warmest and most perceptive admirers of the poetry of Christopher Smart. In a 1975 radio broadcast in Australia, Peter Porter spoke of Smart as ‘‘the purest case of man’s vision prevailing over the spirit of his times.’’

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

School and City Life. Christopher Smart was born on April 11, 1722, at Shipbourne in Kent, the youngest of three children of Peter and Winifred Griffiths Smart. His father was a steward for a large estate, and as a boy, Smart spent long hours outdoors observing nature. On his father’s side, Smart belonged to an established family from the north country of England; he was extremely proud, however, of his mother’s Welsh lineage and its folklore.

After distinguishing himself in classical studies as a youth, Smart attended Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, at the age of seventeen, with the help of an annual allowance from the duchess of Cleveland (Henrietta Fitzroy). As an undergraduate, he earned acclaim both for his classical learning and his abilities as a poet. In 1742 he was awarded the coveted Craven scholarship. He graduated the following year, celebrating the occasion with an ode. Two years later, he was elected to a fellowship at Pembroke.

By 1744 he had begun to frequent London; soon he was spending more time in town than in college, competing for recognition as a poet, enjoying the pleasures of the city, and running up tailor’s bills. At Cambridge, he showed little inclination to settle down to the tranquil seclusion of college life. Nevertheless, during this period Smart’s first original publication appeared:   Smart enhanced the second edition of his Latin version of Alexander Pope’s ode with his own ‘‘Ode for Musick on St. Cecilia’s Day.’’

Smart’s career at Cambridge effectively ended in 1749 when he was granted a leave of absence from college and moved to London, though he retained his fellowship until his subsequent marriage to Anna Maria Carnan, stepdaughter of the publisher John Newbery. Initially, the marriage seems to have been happy. His daughters, Marianne and Elizabeth, were born in 1753 and 1754, respectively. Despite his rich family and social life, he never lost sight of his serious ambitions as a poet in these busy years from 1749 to 1756.

The Onset of Illness. Smart continued throughout the early 1750s to pour out a stream of poems: songs, epigrams, epitaphs, fables, complimentary addresses, verse epistles, and one full-dress satire, The Hilliad (1753). His writings for the periodical The Universal Visiter began with the January 1756 issue, but Smart’s contributions were soon cut short: twice since leaving Cambridge he had suffered bouts of dangerous illness, and in 1756 he had an attack of such severity that his family feared he would die. Some historians argue that these bouts were mental breakdowns, but such evidence as there is points rather to an acute and recurrent fever of some kind, no doubt accompanied by delirium. Whatever the cause, the third and gravest of the attacks was, by his own account, a turning point in Smart’s life, which he commemorated with Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness (1756). The poem describes the course of his illness in terms of a spiritual crisis. At the height of his sufferings, he relates, reason, sense, and religious faith all failed him.

Less than a year later, Smart was admitted to the curable ward of St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics on Windmill Hill in London. What Smart described in his hymn was a classical conversion experience; the cause of his insanity has been much debated, but contemporary evidence is clear on one point: The form it took was religious mania, with a compulsion to pray in public. Samuel Johnson’s brisk and charitable comments on the subject were: ‘‘My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.’’ In the light of modern psychiatric theory, Sir Russell Brain diagnosed Smart’s condition as manic-depressive—a verdict that has not subsequently been challenged.

Despite all the suffering he endured, the ‘‘well-nigh sev’n years’’ (as he counted it) of his incarceration brought forth an astonishing quantity of brilliant and original poetry. Between 1757 and 1763, he wrote A Song to David; most if not all of A Translation of the Psalms of David and ‘‘Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Fasts and Festivals of the Church of England’’ (published together in 1765); and the lengthy manuscript of Jubilate Agno, the surviving fragments of which, amounting to more than seventeen hundred verses, represent only about a third of what he actually wrote.

Financial and Legal Troubles. This period was soured, however, by quarrels with his critics and self- imposed alienation from his family. Within three years of Smart’s release from the madhouse he was again in danger of imprisonment, this time for debt. In December 1765 he was arrested and was never again wholly out of trouble over money, in spite of diligent efforts on the part of his friends to secure employment or support for him. The last five years of Smart’s life were spent in increasing poverty and need: Most of his surviving letters after 1766 are concerned with money troubles. When Newbery died in 1767, provisions in his will ensured that none of the money left to Anna Maria Smart should be ‘‘subject or liable to the debts power or control of her present husband’’; and in 1769 Smart was disappointed in the hope of benefiting from the Durham estate of his cousin, Francis Smart.

By the time Hymns, for the Amusement of Children reached the printers, Smart was in prison. He was arrested for debt in April 1770 and committed to the King’s Bench Prison, where he remained until his death a year later. Even in jail, Smart’s affectionate disposition earned him friends among his fellow prisoners. Smart died on May 20, 1771, after a short illness.

By the time of his death, Smart’s reputation as a poet had suffered a drastic eclipse. From being the pride of Cambridge he sank in estimation into ‘‘poor Smart the mad poet,’’ as Thomas Percy described him in an October 17, 1786, letter. But a turning point came with the discovery in 1939 of Jubilate Agno, the work which, even more than A Song to David, has captured the interest of poets including Allen Ginsberg, Alec Hope, Jeremy Reed, and Wendy Cope—many of whom have paid him the tribute of imitation and parody.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Smart's famous contemporaries include:

Alexander Pope (1688-1744): British satirist famous for his translations of Homer and his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754): English author most famous for his novel Tom Jones.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): Witty English critic and dictionary writer.

William Blake (1757-1827): Mystical poet and pre-Romantic writer.

 

Works in Literary Context

Praise and Prophecy. Jubilate Agno, even in its fragmentary form, is Smart’s ‘‘prophetic book’’: an evangelical and philosophical manifesto, personal diary, and commonplace book all in one, as well as a remarkable experiment in poetic form. The sections were probably intended to be related in the same fashion as the Anglican liturgy. The Let verses—so named because they each begin with the word ‘‘let’’—are invocatory and mostly impersonal, calling on the universal choir of creation to glorify the Lord; the For verses (each beginning with the word ‘‘for’’) add comments, reflections, topical references, and details of Smart’s private life and feelings. At the same time, each series of verses is sequentially ordered or linked, thus yielding a complex pattern (not consistently maintained) of vertical and horizontal connections.

The poem is primarily intended as a work of praise and thanksgiving, in accord with Smart’s beliefin the primacy of gratitude: ‘‘For there is no invention but the gift of God, and no grace but the grace of gratitude,’’ he declares. He envisages himself, the poet, as ‘‘the Lord’s News-Writer—the scribe-evangelist,’’ spreading the Word and adventuring in the name of the Lord to combat the evil influence of atheistic philosophy and scientific materialism by renewing the spirit of Christian worship in England.

... And Cats. In Smart’s belief, as Marcus Walsh observes in Christopher Smart: Selected Poems (1979), ‘‘every creature worships God simply by being itself, through its peculiar actions and properties.... The well- known lines on Smart’s cat Jeoffry, far from exemplifying a childlike naivety of vision, are an elaborate demonstration of how each closely observed act may be taken as part of the cat’s divine ritual of praise.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Smart's poetry mainly focused on the word of God according to the Bible. Here are some other works, like A Song to David and Jubilate Agno, that have a pronounced ideological agenda:

Secrets of the Self (1915), poetry by Allama Iqbal. This collection, written by one of Pakistan's most famous poets, explores the relationship of Muhammad and the individual Indian Muslim.

Dulce Et Decorum Est (1920), a poem by Wilfred Owen. This poem, written by a soldier who later died in action, questions the nobility of war and suggests that fighting is not so honorable after all.

Reds (1981), a film by Warren Beatty. This movie, based on real events, sympathetically centers around John Reed, a Communist and chronicler of the Russian Revolution.

The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel by Salman Rushdie. This novel, which includes a nontraditional view of the life of Muhammad, is so controversial that Rushdie still receives death threats for its publication.

 

Works in Critical Context

Overall Reception. In 1936 William Butler Yeats singled out A Song to David in the introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse as the inaugural poem of the romantic period, in which man, ‘‘passive before a mechanized nature,’’ began to beat against the door of his prison. Even without knowledge of Jubilate Agno, Yeats recognized that A Song to David was more than a religious poem of unusual scale and splendor; as Browning also recognized, it was a reaffirmation of spiritual realities in an age of scientific materialism, of the conjunction of nature and super-nature in an age of natural theology.

A Song to David. In its own time, A Song to David was received with more perplexity than either admiration or hostility: ‘‘a very curious composition, being a strange mixture of dun obscure and glowing genius at times,’’ wrote James Boswell on July 30, 1763 to a friend, Sir David Dalrymple. The Critical Review (April 1763) hinted at the impropriety of ‘‘a Protestant’s offering up either hymns or prayers to the dead,’’ conceding, however, that ‘‘great rapture and devotion is discernable in this extatic song’’ and concluding that it was ‘‘a fine piece of ruins.’’ Contemporary readers regarded as regrettable what modern critics have seen as daring originality.

Jubilate Agno. When Jubilate Agno was first published in William Force Stead’s edition under the title Rejoice in the Lamb, it was understandably regarded mainly as a fascinating curiosity, at best the incoherent outpourings of a mad genius, although showing remarkable gifts of observation and expression and flashes of spiritual insight. Elizabeth Scott-Montagu, who reviewed Stead’s edition in Nineteenth Century (June 1939), was exceptional among early critics in her recognition of a powerful and consistent vision behind the seemingly insane disorder of the work. Donald Greene, however, was the first to recognize the far-reaching and subversive implications of Smart’s philosophical and scientific ideas, claiming him as ‘‘the earliest of the outright rebels against Newtonian and Lockean ’rationalism’’’ and arguing that his criticism of Newtonian- ism was as radical as William Blake’s and conducted with ‘‘rather more philosophic precision.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Compare some of William Blake’s poems to Smart’s. Why do you think Blake is usually regarded as the better poet?

2. Smart wrote at a time when the Protestant Church of England was falling out of favor. Do you think his poems may have restored people’s faith?

3. Some say that Smart’s religious zeal is a result of a brain anomaly. Can you find any evidence of this in Hymn to a Supreme Being? Does it matter?

4. Think about something you believe strongly in, and write a dramatic, enthusiastic poem about your topic. Do you feel a sense of relief afterward?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Ainsworth, Edward G. and Charles E. Noyes. Christopher Smart, a Biographical and Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1943.

Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Together with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Dairy of a Journey into North Wales, 6 volumes, Ed. George Birkbeck Hill, Rev. L. F. Powell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-1964.

Claridge, Gordon, Ruth Pryor, and Gwen Watkins. ‘‘The Powers of Night: Christopher Smart,’’ in their Sounds from the Bell Jar: Ten Psychotic Authors. London: Macmillan, 1990, pp. 71-87.

Devlin, Christopher. Poor Kit Smart. London: HartDavis, 1961.

Toynbee, Paget, and Leonard Whibley, eds. Correspondence of Thomas Gray, revised by H. W. Starr, 3 volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Periodicals

Adams, Francis D. ‘‘Jubilate Agno and the ’Theme of Gratitude.’’’ Papers on Language and Literature 3 (Summer 1967): 195-209.

Gedalof, Allan J. ‘‘The Rise and Fall of Smart’s David.’’ Philological Quarterly 60 (Summer 1981): 369-86.

Saltz, Robert D. ‘‘Reason and Madness: Christopher

Smart’s Poetic Development.’’ Southern Humanities Review 4 (Winter 1970): 57-68.

Williamson, Karina. “Christopher Smart’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs,’’ Philological Quarterly 38 (October 1959): 413-24.