Biography of Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771)
Christopher Smart (April 11, 1722 – May 21, 1771), English poet, son of Peter Smart, of an old north country family, was born at Shipbourne, Kent. His father was steward for the Kentish estates of William, Viscount Vane, younger son of Lord Barnard of Raby Castle, Durham.
Christopher Smart received his first schooling at Maidstone, and then at the grammar school of Durham. He spent part of his vacations at Raby Castle, and his gifts as a poet gained him the patronage of the Vane family. Henrietta, duchess of Cleveland, allowed him a pension of 40 which was paid until her death in 1742. Thomas Gray, writing to his friend Thomas Wharton in 1747, warned him to keep silence about Smarts delinquencies lest they should come to the ears of Henry Vane (afterwards earl of Darlington), and endanger his allowance. At Cambridge, where he was entered at Pembroke College in 1739, he spent much of his time in taverns, and got badly into debt, but in spite of his irregularities he became fellow of his college, praelector in philosophy and keeper of the common chest in 1745.
In November 1747 he was compelled to remain in his rooms for fear of his creditors. At Cambridge he won the Seaton prize for a poem on one of the attributes of the Supreme Being in 1750 (he won the same prize in 1751, 1752, 1753 and 1755); and a farce entitled A Trip to Cambridge, or The Grateful Fair, acted in. 1747 by the students of Pembroke, was from his pen. In 1750 he contributed to The Student, or The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany. During one of his visits to London he had made the acquaintance of John Newbery, the publisher, whose step-daughter, Anna Maria Carman, he married, with the result of forfeiting his fellowship in 1753.
About 1752 he left Cambridge permanently, for London, though he kept his name on the college books, as he had to do in order to compete for the Seaton. prize. He wrote in London under the pseudonym of Mary Midnight and Pentweazle. He had edited The Midwife, or the Old Womans Magazine (1751-1753), and had a hand in many other Grub Street productions. Some criticisms made by Sir John Hill (1716 ?1775) on his Poems on Several Occasions (1752) provoked his satire of the Hilhiad (1753), noteworthy as providing the model for the Rohliad. In 1756 he finished a prose translation of Horace, which was widely used, but brought him little profit. He agreed in the same year to produce a weekly paper entitled The Universal Visitor, for which Samuel Johnson wrote some numbers.
In 1751 Smart had shown symptoms of mental aberration, which developed into religious mania. Smart was wont to accost passers-by in Hyde Park and demand that they kneel down and pray for him, and between 1756 and 1758 he was in St. Luke’s Hospital, an asylum. Dr Johnson visited him and thought that he ought to have been at large. He once stated, “I’d as like pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.” During his confinement he conceived the idea of the single poem that has made him famous, A Song to David, though the legend that Smart scratched his poems into the wianscoting of his cell with a key, and shaded in with charcoal, must be taken with a grain of salt. It shows no trace of morbid origin. After his release Smart produced other religious poems, but none of them shows the same inspiration. His wife and children had gone to live with friends as he was unable to support them, and for some time before his death, he lived in the rules of Kings Bench, and was supported by small subscriptions raised by Dr Burney and other friends.
Of all that he wrote, A Song to David will alone bear the test of time. Unlike anything else in eighteenth century poetry in its simple forceful treatment and impressive directness of expression, as has been said, the poem on analysis is found to depend for its unique effect also upon a certain ingenuity of construction, and the novel way in which David’s ideal qualities are enlarged upon. This will be more readily understood on reference to the following verse, the first twelve words of which become in turn the key-notes, so to speak, of the twelve succeeding verses: Great, valiant, pious, good, and clean, Sublime, contemplative, serene, Strong, constant, pleasant, wise!
Bright effluence of exceeding grace; Best man the swiftness, and the race, The peril, and the prize.
The last line is characteristic of another peculiarity in A Song to David, the effective use of alliteration to complete the initial energy of the stanza in many instances. But in the poem throughout is revealed a poetic quality which eludes critical analysis.
Among Smart’s lesser known poems penned during his confinement, his idiosyncratic Jubilate Agnoalone remains relatively well-known, though it was not published until 1939. The Jubilate praises the divine architecture of the natural world. Many modern critics posit that Smart meant the poem to serve as an alternative to the conventional Anglican liturgical text. The modern English composer Benjamin Britten borrowed large sections of the poem as a setting for an Anthem, characteristic of both men’s tendency toward eccentricity.
See The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ian Ousby, editor.
From the Poems of the late Christopher Smart (1791) the Song to David: (pr. 1763) was excluded as forming a proof of his mental aberration. It was reprinted in I8I9, and has since received abundant praise. In an abridged form it is included in T. H. Wards English Poets, vol. iii., and was reprinted in 1895, and in 1901 with an introduction by R. A. Streatfeild. Smarts other poems are included in Andersons Britfsh Poets. Christopher Smart is one of Robert Brownings subjects in The Parleyings with Certain Peoplr (1887). See also the contributions to Notes and Queries of March 25th and May 6th, 1905, by the Rev. D. C. Tovey, who has read, and in some places revised, the above article.
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