Gosse's Gossip - SMART'S POEMS


POEMS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS. By Christopher Smart, A.M., Fellow of Pembroke-Hall, Cambridge. London: Printed for the Author, by W. Strahan; And sold by J. Newbery, at the Bible and Sun, in St. Paul's Churchyard. MDCCLII.

            The third section of Robert Browning's Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day drew attention to a Cambridge poet of whom little had hitherto been known, Christopher Smart, once fellow of Pembroke College. It may be interesting, therefore, to supply some sketch of the events of his life, and of the particular poem which Browning has aptly compared to a gorgeous chapel lying perdue in a dull old commonplace mansion. No one can afford to be entirely indifferent to the author of verses which one of the greatest of modern writers has declared to be unequalled of their kind between Milton and Keats.

            What has hitherto been known of the facts of Smart's life has been founded on the anonymous biography prefixed to the two-volume Reading edition of his works, published in 1791. The copy of this edition in Trinity Library belonged to Dr. Farmer, and contains these words in his handwriting: "From the Editor, Francis Newbery, Esq.; the Life by Mr. Hunter." As this Newbery was the son of Smart's half-brother-in-law and literary employer, it may be taken for granted that the information given in these volumes is authoritative. We may therefore believe it to be correct that Smart was born (as he himself tells us, in The Hop Garden) at Shipbourne, in Kent, on the 11th of April 1722, that his father was steward to the nobleman who afterwards became Earl of Darlington, and that he was "discerned and patronised" by the Duchess of Cleveland. This great lady, we are left in doubt for what reason, carried her complaisance so far as to allow the future poet £40 a year until her death. In a painfully fulsome ode to another member of the Raby Castle family, Smart records the generosity of the dead in order to stimulate that of the living, and oddly remarks that


dignity itself restrains
By condescension's silken reins,
While you the lowly Muse upraise.

            Smart passed, already "an infant bard," from what he calls "the splendour in retreat" of Raby Castle, to Durham School, and in his eighteenth year was admitted of Pembroke Hall, October 30, 1739. His biographer expressly states that his allowance from home was scanty, and that his chief dependence, until he derived an income from his college, was on the bounty of the Duchess of Cleveland.

            From this point I am able to supply a certain amount of information with regard to the poet's college life which is entirely new, and which is not, I think, without interest. My friend Mr. R.A. Neil has been so kind as to admit me to the Treasury at Pembroke, and in his company I have had the advantage of searching the contemporary records of the college. What we were lucky enough to discover may here be briefly summarised. The earliest mention of Smart is dated 1740, and refers to the rooms assigned to him as an undergraduate. In January 1743, we find him taking his B.A., and in July of the same year he is elected scholar. As is correctly stated in his Life, he became a fellow of Pembroke on the 3rd of July 1745. That he showed no indication as yet of that disturbance of brain and instability of character which so painfully distinguished him a little later on, is proved by the fact that on the 10th of October 1745, Smart was chosen to be Praelector in Philosophy, and Keeper of the Common Chest. In 1746 he was re-elected to those offices, and also made Praelector in Rhetoric. In 1747 he was not chosen to hold any such college situations, no doubt from the growing extravagance of his conduct.

            In November 1747, Smart was in parlous case. Gray complains of his "lies, impertinence and ingratitude," and describes him as confined to his room, lest his creditors should snap him up. He gives a melancholy impression of Smart's moral and physical state, but hastens to add "not that I, nor any other mortal, pity him." The records of the Treasury at Pembroke supply evidence that the members of the college now made a great effort to restore one of whose talents it is certain they were proud. In 1748 we find Smart proposed for catechist, a proof that he had, at all events for the moment, turned over a new leaf. Probably, but for fresh relapses, he would now have taken orders. His allusions to college life are singularly ungracious. He calls Pembroke


this servile cell,
Where discipline and dulness dwell,

and commiserates a captive eagle as being doomed in the college courts to watch


scholastic pride
Take his precise, pedantic stride;

words which painfully remind us of Gray's reported manner of enjoying a constitutional. It is certain that there was considerable friction between these two men of genius, and Gray roundly prophesied that Smart would find his way to gaol or to Bedlam. Both alternatives of this prediction were fulfilled, and in October, 1751, Gray curtly remarks: "Smart sets out for Bedlam." Of this event we find curious evidence in the Treasury. "October 12, 1751–Ordered that Mr. Smart, being obliged to be absent, there will be allowed him in lieu of commons for the year ended Michaelmas, 1751, the sum of £10." There can be little question that Smart's conduct and condition became more and more unsatisfactory. This particular visit to a madhouse was probably brief, but it was possibly not the first and was soon repeated; for in 1749 and 1752 there are similar entries recording the fact that "Mr. Smart, being obliged to be absent," certain allowances were paid by the college "in consideration of his circumstances." The most curious discovery, however, which we have been able to make is recorded in the following entry:

            "Nov. 27, 1753.–Ordered that the dividend assigned to Mr. Smart be deposited in the Treasury till the Society be satisfied that he has a right to the same; it being credibly reported that he has been married for some time, and that notice be sent to Mr. Smart of his dividend being detained."

            As a matter of fact, Smart was by this time married to a relative of Newbery, the publisher, for whom he was doing hack work in London. He had, however, formed the habit of writing the Seatonian prize poem, which he had already gained four times, in 1750, 1751, 1752, and 1753. He seems to have clutched at the distinction which he brought on his college by these poems as the last straw by which to keep his fellowship, and, singular to say, he must have succeeded; for on the 16th of January 1754, this order was recorded:

            "That Mr. Smart have leave to keep his name in the college books without any expense, so long as he continues to write for the premium left by Mr. Seaton."

            How long this inexpensive indulgence lasted does not seem to be known. Smart gained the Seatonian prize in 1755, having apparently failed in 1754, and then appears no more in Pembroke records.

            The circumstance of his having made Cambridge too hot to hold him seems to have pulled Smart's loose faculties together. The next five years were probably the sanest and the busiest in his life. He had collected his scattered odes and ballads, and published them, with his ambitious georgic, The Hop Garden, in the handsome quarto before us. Among the seven hundred subscribers to this venture we find "Mr. Voltaire, historiographer of France," and M. Roubilliac, the great statuary, besides such English celebrities as Gray, Collins, Richardson, Savage, Charles Avison, Garrick, and Mason. The kind reception of this work awakened in the poet an inordinate vanity, which found expression, in 1753, in that extraordinary effusion, The Hilliad, an attempt to preserve Dr. John Hill in such amber as Pope held at the command of his satiric passion. But these efforts, and an annual Seatonian, were ill adapted to support a poet who had recently appended a wife and family to a phenomenal appetite for strong waters, and who, moreover, had just been deprived of his stipend as a fellow. Smart descended into Grub Street, and bound himself over, hand and foot, to be the serf of such men as the publisher Newbery, who was none the milder master for being his relative. It was not long after, doubtless, that Smart fell lower still, and let himself out on a lease for ninety-nine years, to toil for a set pittance in the garrets of Gardner's shop; and it was about this time, 1754, that the Rev. T. Tyers was introduced to Smart by a friend who had more sympathy with his frailties than Gray had, namely, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

            After a world of vicissitudes, which are very uncomfortable reading, about 1761 Smart became violently insane once more and was shut up again in Bedlam. Dr. Johnson, commenting on this period of the poet's life, told Dr. Burney that Smart grew fat when he was in the madhouse, where he dug in the garden, and Johnson added: "I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as with any one else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it." When Boswell paid Johnson his memorable first visit in 1763, Smart had recently been released from Bedlam, and Johnson naturally spoke of him. He said: "My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place." Gray about the same time reports that money is being collected to help "poor Smart," not for the first time, since in January 1759, Gray had written: "Poor Smart is not dead, as was said, and Merope is acted for his benefit this week," with the Guardian, a farce which Garrick had kindly composed for that occasion.

            It was in 1763, immediately after Smart's release, that the now famous Song to David was published. A long and interesting letter in the correspondence of Hawkesworth, dated October 1764, gives a pleasant idea of Smart restored to cheerfulness and placed "with very decent people in a house, most delightfully situated, with a terrace that overlooks St. James's Park." But this relief was only temporary; Smart fell back presently into drunkenness and debt, and was happily relieved by death in 1770, in his forty-eighth year, at the close of a career as melancholy as any recorded in the chronicles of literature.

            Save for one single lyric, that glows with all the flush and bloom of Eden, Smart would take but a poor place on the English Parnassus. His odes and ballads, his psalms and satires, his masques and his georgics, are not bad, but they are mediocre. Here and there the very careful reader may come across lines and phrases that display the concealed author of the Song to David, such as the following, from an excessively tiresome ode to Dr. Webster:


When Israel's host, with all their stores,
Passed through the ruby-tinctured crystal shores,
The wilderness of waters and of land.

            But these are rare. His odes are founded upon those of Gray, and the best that can be said of them is that if they do not quite rise to the frozen elegance of Akenside, they seldom sink to the flaccidity of Mason. Never, for one consecutive stanza or stroke, do they approach Collins or Gray in delicacy or power. But the Song to David–the lyric in 516 lines which Smart is so absurdly fabled to have scratched with a key on the white-washed walls of his cell–this was a portent of beauty and originality. Strange to say, it was utterly neglected when it appeared, and the editor of the 1791 edition of Smart's works expressly omitted to print it on the ground that it bore too many "melancholy proofs of the estrangement of Smart's mind" to be fit for republication. It became rare to the very verge of extinction, and is now scarcely to be found in its entirety save in a pretty reprint of 1819, itself now rare, due to the piety of a Rev. R. Harvey.

            It is obvious that Smart's contemporaries and immediate successors looked upon the Song to David as the work of a hopelessly deranged person. In 1763 poetry had to be very sane indeed to be attended to. The year preceding had welcomed the Shipwreck of Falconer, the year to follow would welcome Goldsmith's Traveller and Grainger's Sugar Cane, works of various merit, but all eminently sane. In 1763 Shenstone was dying and Rogers was being born. The tidy, spruce, and discreet poetry of the eighteenth century was passing into its final and most pronounced stage. The Song to David, with its bold mention of unfamiliar things, its warm and highly-coloured phraseology, its daring adjectives and unexampled adverbs, was an outrage upon taste, and one which was best accounted for by the tap of the forefinger on the forehead. No doubt the poem presented and still may present legitimate difficulties. Here, for instance, is a stanza which it is not for those who run to read:


Increasing days their reign exalt,
Nor in the pink and mottled vault
  The opposing spirits tilt;
And, by the coasting reader spy'd,
The silverlings and crusions glide
  For Adoration gilt.

            This is charming; but if it were in one of the tongues of the heathen we should get Dr. Verrall to explain it away. Poor Mr. Harvey, the editor of 1819, being hopelessly puzzled by "silverlings," the only dictionary meaning of which is "shekels," explained "crusions" to be some other kind of money, from [Greek: krousis]. But "crusions" are golden carp, and when I was a child the Devonshire fishermen used to call the long white fish with argent stripes (whose proper name, I think, is the launce) a silverling. The "coasting reader" is the courteous reader when walking along the coast, and what he sees are silver fish and gold fish, adoring the Lord by the beauty of their scales. The Song to David is cryptic to a very high degree, but I think there are no lines in it which patient reflection will not solve. On every page are stanzas the verbal splendour of which no lover of poetry will question, and lines which will always, to me at least, retain an echo of that gusto with which I have heard Mr. Browning's strong voice recite them:


The wealthy crops of whitening rice
'Mongst thyine woods and groves of spice,
  For Adoration grow;
And, marshall'd in the fencèd land,
The peaches and pomegranates stand,
  Where wild carnations blow.


The laurels with the winter strive;
The crocus burnishes alive
  Upon the snow-clad earth;


 *       *       *       *       *


For Adoration ripening canes
And cocoa's purest milk detains
  The westering pilgrim's staff;
Where rain in, clasping boughs inclos'd,
And vines with oranges dispos'd,
  Embower the social laugh.


For Adoration, beyond match,
The scholar bulfinch aims to catch
  The soft flute's ivory touch;
And, careless on the hazle spray,
The daring redbreast keeps at bay
  The damsel's greedy clutch.

            To quote at further length from so fascinating, so divine a poem, would be "purpling too much my mere grey argument." Browning's praise ought to send every one to the original. But here is one more stanza that I cannot resist copying, because it seems so pathetically applicable to Smart himself as a man, and to the one exquisite poem which was "the more than Abishag of his age":


His muse, bright angel of his verse,
Gives balm for all the thorns that pierce,
  For all the pangs that rage;
Blest light, still gaining on the gloom,
The more than Michal of his bloom,
  The Abishag of his age.


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