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Smart, Christopherfree

(1722–1771)
  • Karina Williamson

Christopher Smart (1722–1771)

by unknown artist, in or after 1765

Pembroke College, Cambridge

Smart, Christopher (1722–1771), poet, was born on 11 April 1722 in Shipbourne, near Maidstone, Kent, the youngest of three children of Peter Smart (1687–1733), steward to Christopher Vane, first Baron Barnard, and of Winifred Griffiths (d. 1765×7). His mother was a Welshwoman from Radnorshire. His father came of a prominent Durham family, with strong church connections, including the puritan cleric Peter Smart, prebendary of Durham under Charles I, and the sixteenth-century evangelist Bernard Gilpin, equally renowned for his resistance to puritan iconoclasm.

1722–1749: Kent, Durham, Cambridge

In 1726 Peter Smart bought Hall Place, an estate in East Barming worth £300 a year. Recollections of a childhood spent among 'the meadows the brooks and the hills' of the Medway valley (Smart, Jubilate, B119) figure in Smart's georgic poem, 'The Hop-Garden', and poignantly in later works, as a period of untroubled happiness and Blake-like infant joy. In Fairlawn, Lord Barnard's estate at Shipbourne, Smart found his Eden:

Let Mary rejoice with the Carp—the ponds of Fairlawn and the garden …For due East is the way to Paradise.

Smart, Jubilate, B168Smart attended Maidstone grammar school until he was eleven. This phase ended abruptly when his father died in 1733, 'in embarrassed circumstances' (Hunter, 1.ix), compelling his mother to sell most of the Hall Place estate at a loss. Christopher, accompanied by his sister Margaret, was sent north to live with an uncle, John Smart of Snotterton in Staindrop, co. Durham. He also came under the protection of Henry Vane, third Baron Barnard, whose seat at Raby Castle replaced Fairlawn as a haven for the Smart children. At eleven Christopher fell in love with Vane's daughter, seven-year-old Anne, to whom his poem 'To Ethelinda', is addressed, according to his daughter Elizabeth. This precocious piece of erotic verse, written when Smart was thirteen, took 'such effect that these young lovers had actually set off on a runaway match together', before being 'timely prevented' (Le Noir to E. H. Barker, fol. 245).

Smart was educated at Durham School under the mastership of a classical scholar, Richard Dongworth, and showed early accomplishment as a writer of Latin verse. In 1739 he left school to enter Pembroke College, Cambridge, as a sizar, with a supplementary allowance of £40 granted by the duchess of Cleveland, Henry Vane's sister-in-law. He was described by a Cambridge contemporary as 'a little, smart, black-eyed man' (L. Whibley, The jubilee at Pembroke Hall in 1743, Blackwood's Magazine, 221, 1927, 106). His abilities as a classical student were quickly recognized. He won a Watts scholarship in 1740, was chosen for three years running to write the Latin verses published with the tripos results, and won the coveted Craven university scholarship in 1742. Smart's Latin rendering of Alexander Pope's 'Ode to St Cecilia' was printed at the university press in 1743; a copy sent to Pope himself was graciously received. After receiving his BA in January 1744, Smart was elected fellow of Pembroke in July 1745, with praelectorships in rhetoric and philosophy. He seemed to be on course for a steady university career.

Smart's progress at Cambridge, however, was anything but steady. Despite his academic success, 'the favourite studies of this Seat of Learning were not congenial with his mind' (Hunter, 1.viii). He found the emphasis on mathematics cramping, as 'On an Eagle Confined in a College-Court' shows in its Dunciad-like conclusion, when classical learning, 'wit and sense', are engulfed in 'mathematic gloom' (Poetical Works, 4.91). Smart was altogether too high-spirited, convivial, and ambitious to settle to the tranquil existence of a college don. Between 1743 and 1747 he divided his time between Cambridge and London, where he frequented the company of actors, artists, and musicians. Some of these, including Charles Burney, became lifelong friends. Smart's 'Idleness', set to music by William Boyce in 1744, was the first of several of his songs performed in London pleasure gardens, and his poems were frequently printed in London magazines in the 1740s. In Cambridge in 1747 he wrote and produced a comedy, The Grateful Fair, or, A Trip to Cambridge, which was performed in college by students and Smart himself. The play does not survive, but it apparently turned on the visit of a Norfolk country squire and his daughter to a nephew at the university, and thus is probably connected with Smart's 'long but unsuccessful passion' in this period for Harriote Pratt of Downham, Norfolk, the sister of a college friend and the subject of several of his early poems (Hunter, 1.xxxiii).

Smart was by nature 'liberal to excess' and incapable of economy (Hunter, 1.xxvii–xxviii). His extravagance led to a crisis in 1747. That spring the poet Thomas Gray, observing Smart's spiralling debts and unruly behaviour, predicted that 'all this … must come to a Jayl, or Bedlam' (Correspondence, 1.275). In October he lost his praelectorships, and in November Gray's prophecy was almost fulfilled when Smart was arrested for debt to a London tailor, and forced to go into hiding while the college fellows paid off the tailor and settled with Smart's numerous creditors in Cambridge. Gray blamed Smart's troubles on drunkenness, a judgement confirmed by Burney and other friends, and by Smart's nephew Christopher Hunter. The continuance of his fellowship after this episode was probably made conditional on living in college, 'soberly, & within Bounds', as Gray recommended (ibid., 1.292). By October 1748 he was restored to grace, reappointed to his praelectorships, and made college catechist, with responsibility for giving religious instruction to undergraduates. Since he was chosen in 1747 to be preacher before the mayor of Cambridge, an office reserved for an 'orthodox divine' (Sherbo, 45), he may also have taken minor orders. 1748–9 was Smart's last year in residence. In July 1749 he stayed at Market Downham and visited Ryston, the Pratt family seat, where, he told Burney, he preferred 'hearing my Harriote on her spinnet & organ at her ancient mansion' to the musical celebrations at Cambridge for the installation of the Chancellor (Annotated Letters, 42–3). He did not return to college next term, and effectively left Cambridge for good.

London, 1749–1756

The next seven years were hectic, as Smart tried to juggle practical exigencies and his appetite for popular success against his loftier poetic aspirations. He was introduced by Burney to the bookseller John Newbery, and enlisted into Newbery's stable of hack writers. In June 1750 Newbery published Smart's satire The Horatian Canons of Friendship, printed under the signature Ebenezer Pentweazle, one of numerous pseudonyms Smart adopted for his lighter productions. In the same month he joined Bonnell Thornton as co-editor of The Student, or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750–51), the first of many Newbery enterprises in which Smart was involved. He was editor and principal writer of The Midwife, or, The Old Woman's Magazine (October 1750 – June 1753), and a major contributor to the Lilliputian Magazine, the first English magazine for children (March 1751 – June 1752).

At the same time Smart was bidding for recognition as a serious poet. In March 1750 he won the Seatonian prize, awarded annually to a Cambridge master of arts for a poem on the perfections or attributes of the supreme being, with his ‘poetical essay’ in blank verse On the Eternity of the Supreme Being. Smart competed and won four more times between 1750 and 1755. The rhetoric of eighteenth-century didactic poems on theological and philosophical subjects now appears somewhat jaded, but Smart's boldness of thought and expression raises his contributions to the genre above the usual standard. Meanwhile his Poems on Several Occasions was published by subscription, through Newbery, in 1752. The book was clearly designed as a showcase for Smart's versatile talents. Together with the tripos verses and many previously printed odes, fables, and miscellaneous pieces, it contained some hitherto unpublished writings, including 'The Hop-Garden' and Latin versions of Pope's Essay on Criticism and Milton's L'allegro, but not the first two Seatonian poems. In spite of a glowing pre-publication notice by Smart's friend Richard Rolt and an impressive list of over 800 subscribers, critical reception of the book was lukewarm. The translation of Pope's Essay, Smart's most ambitious work so far, was received 'with much praise from the learned, but without either profit or popularity' (Hunter, 1.xi), and Smart's very versatility told against him. Admirers of the Seatonian poems lamented the inclusion of so much ephemeral verse, while more light-minded readers were put off by his Latin works and the Miltonic style of 'The Hop-Garden'.

1752 was almost certainly the year of Smart's marriage to Newbery's stepdaughter Anna Maria Carnan (1731–1809), then twenty-one, although the exact date and place is unknown. The romantic story told by Le Noir of a runaway wedding at St Bride's, Fleet Street, without Newbery's consent, before the Marriage Act of 1753 outlawed such ceremonies (Le Noir to C. Sharp, fol. 217), is undocumented and improbable. Smart probably first met Anna Maria in 1750; by June 1751, as he proclaimed in a poem in the Midwife, his 'lass with the golden locks' had supplanted his Harriote (Poetical Works, 4.192–3). Afterwards the couple lived in apartments in Canonbury House, a large property of Newbery's, where their two daughters were born: Marianne, on 3 May 1753, and Elizabeth Anne [see Le Noir, Elizabeth Anne], god-daughter of Anne Vane, on 27 October 1754. It was not a good match, however. Although Smart was an affectionate father, family responsibilities did not sober him down or curb his feckless generosity. Anna Maria was a very capable businesswoman, but though 'married to an author (or perhaps from that very circumstance) [she] had a great dislike to everything relating to literature' (Le Noir to C. Sharp, fol. 219). Temperamental incompatibility and Smart's drunkenness and irresponsibility were major reasons for marital discord, but overwork, ill health, and Newbery's interference must also have had a corrosive effect.

Newbery had a reputation for benevolence, but he was a businessman first and last, and a relentless taskmaster. Arthur Murphy wrote of Smart in 1753 that, lacking a wealthy patron, 'A bookseller is his only friend, and for that bookseller, however liberal, he must toil and drudge' (Brittain, 33n.). In addition to producing a copious supply of prose and verse for Newbery's magazines, and composing his annual Seatonian prize poems, Smart engaged during these years with Murphy, Henry Fielding, and others in the paper war against the author Dr John Hill. His vivacious satire The Hilliad (1753) was an important contribution to the campaign. A more burdensome task was a prose translation for schools of the entire works of Horace. It was so successful that it remained a standard schoolbook for nearly two centuries, but Smart himself received only £13 out of £100 due to him, the rest being retained by Newbery for Smart's wife. On top of all this, Smart was producer, performer (as ‘Mrs. Midnight’), and main supplier of songs and recitations for a variety show, billed as 'Mrs. Midnight's Oratory' or 'The Old Woman's Oratory'. An offshoot of the Midwife, and vigorously promoted by Newbery, it was first performed at the Castle tavern in Paternoster Row on 27 December 1751, moved then to the Haymarket Theatre, and was repeated frequently during the next few years. Hester Piozzi described it as 'low buffoonery', but added that 'it pretended to nothing better, and was wondrous droll' (Sherbo, 80).

Meanwhile, Smart and Rolt had signed a contract in November 1755 with another publisher, Thomas Gardner, to provide materials for a monthly magazine, the Universal Visiter (January–December 1756). Although contributions by Smart appeared until October 1756, he took no part in its production after the first few numbers, presumably because of ill health. 'Of a very delicate constitution' since childhood (Hunter, 1.vi), Smart suffered periodical attacks of feverish illness from 1750 onwards, culminating in a serious breakdown recounted in a Hymn to the Supreme being on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness, published in June 1756. The Hymn marks a turning point in Smart's career. It describes a transformative experience, a reawakening to religious faith and spiritual values, the impact of which is apparent in almost everything he wrote afterwards.

The madhouse years, 1757–1763

In March 1757 a petition was made for Smart's admission to St Luke's Hospital, and he was admitted to the ‘curable’ ward in May on the recommendation of Newbery and another bookseller. He was discharged uncured in May 1758, but put on the waiting list for readmission. Application for his re-entry was withdrawn in 1760, presumably because by then he was in the private madhouse in Bethnal Green kept by a Mr Potter to which Newbery committed him. Smart's alleged ‘madness’ has always been debatable. The judgement of William Battie, physician at St Luke's, and the family story of 'paroxysms so violent and continued as to render confinement necessary' (Hunter, 1.xx), have to be weighed against the testimony of friends. It is indisputable that Smart held highly unconventional beliefs, was subject to emotional extremes ('For I have a greater compass both of mirth and melancholy than another'; Smart, Jubilate, B132), and had an irrepressible urge to pray loudly in public ('For I blessed God in St James's Park till I routed all the company'; ibid., B89). Whether he was ever clinically insane, however, remains questionable. Samuel Johnson, who visited Smart in the madhouse, said, 'I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society' (Boswell, Life, 1.397), and Hester Piozzi argued that he was only committed to St Luke's because he displayed his eccentricities in public. There is a strong suspicion that Newbery contrived to keep Smart locked up to prevent him from being a nuisance and financial burden to his wife and to Newbery himself. Allegations of wrongful detention of people in madhouses were rife, and a petition to parliament by John Sherratt, a businessman who campaigned for several years for reform of private madhouses, stated that Potter's house was notorious for such abuses.

Smart was not held under close constraint. He was allowed to keep a cat, work in the garden, and have access to books, newspapers, and writing materials; but his sense of humiliation and the anguish of separation from his wife and daughters are movingly expressed in Jubilate agno. Anna Maria Smart moved to Dublin in 1758 as Newbery's agent, remaining there for three years. She became a Roman Catholic and sent the children to a convent school in France in 1761. She never returned to her husband but survived him until 1809. Former friends remained loyal, however; David Garrick gave a benefit performance of Merope for Smart in 1759, prompting the publication of several verse tributes to Smart. Smart's final escape in January 1763 was engineered by John Sherratt, with the aid of other friends. In Smart's nautical metaphor, Sherratt snatched the ship

from the pirate's port,Beneath the cannon of the fort.

An epistle to John Sherratt, Esq, Poetical Works, 4.347Sherratt's trick was to get permission to take Smart out to dinner, whereupon 'he returned to confinement no more' (Le Noir to C. Sharp, fols. 217–18).

During these years Smart wrote what are now recognized as his most brilliant and original works: A Song to David, the Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Fasts and Festivals of the Church of England, and Jubilate agno. The surviving fragments of the last remained unknown until the manuscript was discovered by W. F. Stead and published under the title Rejoice in the Lamb in 1939. A new text, retitled and substantially reorganized in conformity with Smart's apparent intentions by W. H. Bond, was published in 1954. Jubilate agno is unlike anything written in the eighteenth century prior to Blake's prophetic books. Smart must have been aware that its radical attack on philosophical and scientific orthodoxies, its daring innovations in language, verse, and structure, and its visionary and confessional style would be unacceptable to the public for he made no effort to print it. A Song to David however was published at his own expense in 1763. It was praised for its rhapsodic quality and felicities of expression, but the regularity of its formal design was unperceived and it was judged 'a fine piece of ruins' (Critical Review, 15, 1763, 324) reflecting the author's disordered mind. The Hymns, published with Smart's Translation of the Psalms of David in 1765, went entirely unnoticed.

The final phase, 1763–1771

After his release Smart moved into lodgings in Westminster. He was visited in 1764 by John Hawkesworth who found him living 'with very decent people' in rooms overlooking St James's Park, and reported that 'his company as a gentleman, a scholar, and a genius' was sought after as much as before his confinement (Hunter, 1.xxv). Smart charmed the young Fanny Burney, when he visited her father in 1768–9, but she saw 'still great wildness in his manner, looks & voice', and was shocked by his savage references to his wife (Early Journals, 1.36, 91).

Smart's creativity in this period was prodigious. He published three small collections of poetry (1763–4); finished the rendering of the Psalms which he had begun in the madhouse; wrote two oratorio librettos, Hannah (1764) and Abimelech (1768); and produced A Poetical Translation of the Fables of Phaedrus (1765), The Works of Horace, Translated into Verse (4 vols., 1767), and a versified edition of The Parables of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1768). But nothing Smart published after 1756 prospered. None of these productions earned him either critical acclaim or significant financial reward, and he was soon in financial trouble again. Subscriptions for the Psalms were slow to come in, and despite efforts by Burney and others to help him he was, as ever, incapable of living within his means. He claimed he was 'eight times arrested in six years'; the last time, after 'a fortnight at a spunging-house, one week at the Marshalsea in the want of all things' he 'safely arrived at the King's Bench' on 26 April 1770 (Annotated Letters, 132). He was comfortable enough in prison, especially after his brother-in-law Thomas Carnan secured him the ‘Rules’ (freedom to walk in St George's Fields). While there, he wrote Hymns for the Amusement of Children. Dated 1771, it was in fact published by Carnan in December 1770, and reprinted in England, Ireland, and America. Smart however had returned to drinking and he died in the king's bench prison of liver failure on 20 May 1771. He was buried in the church of St Gregory by Paul on 26 May.

In the eighteenth century Smart was admired for the elegance, vivacity, and wit of his minor verse, and above all for his mastery of the religious sublime in the Seatonian poems. Among his lighter poems, the songs and fables were especially popular; Burney rated Smart second only to John Gay as 'the most agreeable metrical Fabulist in our language' (Early Journals, 1.40). Smart's later writings, including A Song to David were largely misunderstood, derided, or ignored: the posthumous edition of The Poems of the Late Christopher Smart (2 vols., 1791), collected by Francis Newbery, omitted almost everything published after 1756 as showing marks of 'the recent estrangement of his mind' (Hunter, 1.xliii). A suggestion made to Newbery by Charles Burney jun. that a third volume containing Smart's translations of Phaedrus and Horace might be added to the 1791 Poems was not taken up. The resurrection of A Song to David in the nineteenth century, however, led to an even more unbalanced view of Smart. While the energy and originality of its language, its lyrical virtuosity, and breadth of imaginative compass were fully acknowledged, the Song was seen as a solitary work of supreme value amid a heap of dross. The myth created by Robert Browning in 'Parleying with Christopher Smart' (1887), of a literary drudge momentarily transformed into a poet of genius, held sway until the early twentieth century, when interest in Smart's other poems began to revive.

It was the discovery of Jubilate agno in 1939, however, and the impact on a wider public of Benjamin Britten's setting of Smart's words in his cantata Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), that triggered a thorough reappraisal of his standing. Smart was seen at last as a poet of substantial achievement as well as revolutionary vision. Jubilate agno itself now rivals A Song to David as a work of intrinsic and historical importance which anticipated by half a century the oracular poetry of the Romantics, and directly influenced many twentieth-century poets in England and North America. A new subgenre of celebratory verse has emerged, based on the 'Cat Jeoffry' section of Jubilate agno. The recovery of Smart's hymns and psalms further consolidated his reputation. Recognition for the first time of the superb lyrical technique and sacramental quality of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs has earned him a significant place in the long tradition of Anglican devotional poetry. Similarly, Hymns for the Amusement of Children have been appreciated for their joyful spirit, their command of a diction ranging from child-like simplicity to a powerfully compressed, allusive syntax, and for the power, conspicuous in Smart's later poetry, to unite the sensuous and the spiritual 'as though the transition was not hard' (Blunden, xi). Study and evaluation of Smart's other neglected writings, notably his fine verse translations of Phaedrus and Horace (the latter unreprinted for two centuries until 1996), has only just begun, but his status as a major poet now seems assured.

Sources

  • C. Hunter, ‘The life of Christopher Smart’, The poems of the late Christopher Smart (1791), vol. 1
  • A. Sherbo, Christopher Smart, scholar of the university (1967)
  • C. Mounsey, Christopher Smart: clown of God (2001)
  • C. Smart, Poems, ed. R. Brittain (1950), 5–56
  • E. Le Noir, letter to E. H. Barker, 1825, Bodl. Oxf., MS 1006, fols. 245–6
  • E. Le Noir, letters to Sir C. Sharp, 1831, Durham Cath. CL, MS Sharp 28, fols. 217–45
  • Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. P. Toynbee and L. Whibley, 3 vols. (1935)
  • Boswell, Life, vols. 1–2
  • H. L. Piozzi, ‘Madness’, British Synonymy 1794 [facsimile reprints 113], 2 (1968)
  • The early journals and letters of Fanny Burney, ed. L. E. Troide, 1: 1768–1773 (1988)
  • C. Burney, Monthly Review, new ser., 7 (1792), 36–43
  • R. Lonsdale, Dr Charles Burney: a literary biography (1965), 25–8, 66–70, 363, 485–70
  • C. Smart, Jubilate agno (1980), vol. 1 of The poetical works of Christopher Smart, ed. K. Williamson
  • Miscellaneous poems, English and Latin, ed. K. Williamson (1987), vol. 4 of The poetical works of Christopher Smart
  • The annotated letters of Christopher Smart, ed. B. Rizzo and R. Mahoney (1991)
  • B. Rizzo, ‘John Sherratt, negociator’, Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 86 (1983–5), 373–429
  • R. Mahony and B. Rizzo, eds., Christopher Smart: an annotated bibliography, 1743–1983 (1984)
  • E. Le Noir, Miscellaneous poems, 2 vols. (1825–6)
  • R. Browning, ‘With Christopher Smart’, Parleyings with certain people of importance in their day (1887)
  • Hymns for the amusement of children by Christopher Smart, ed. E. Blunden (1947)

Archives

  • NRA, letters and poem

Likenesses

  • oils, 1745, NPG
  • oils, 1765, Pembroke Cam. [see illus.]
  • H. Meyer, stipple, BM; repro. in The poems of the late Christopher Smart, 2 vols. (1791)
  • photograph (after unknown artist), repro. in C. Smart, Rejoice in the lamb, ed. W. F. Stead (1939)
  • portrait, repro. in Smart, Poems, ed. Brittain

Wealth at Death

nil: Brittain, ed., Poems; Sherbo, Christopher Smart

Durham Cathedral, chapter library
J. Boswell , ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (1934–50); 2nd edn (1964); repr. (1971)
Bodleian Library, Oxford