Authors: Christopher Smart

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Author Works

Poetry:

On the Eternity of the Supreme Being, 1750

On the Immensity of the Supreme Being, 1751

On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being, 1752

Poems on Several Occasions, 1752

The Hilliad, 1753

On the Power of the Supreme Being, 1754

On the Goodness of the Supreme Being, 1755

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

A Song to David, 1763

Poems, 1763

Ode to the Earl of Northumberland, 1764

Hymns for the Amusement of Children, 1772

Jubilate Agno, 1939 (also known as Rejoice in the Lamb, 1954)

Collected Poems, 1950 (2 volumes; Norman Callan, editor)

Drama:

Hannah: An Oratorio, pb. 1764 (libretto)

Abimelech: An Oratorio, pb. 1768 (libretto)

Providence: An Oratorio, pb. 1777 (libretto)

Nonfiction:

Mother Midnight’s Miscellany, 1751 (as Mary Midnight)

The Nonpareil: Or, The Quintessence of Wit and Humor, 1757 (as Midnight)

Translations:

The Works of Horace, Translated Literally into English, 1756

A Poetical Translation of the Fables of Phaedrus, 1765

A Translation of the Psalms of David Attempted in the Spirit of Christianity, and Adapted to the Divine Service, with Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Fasts and Festivals of the Church of England, 1765

The Works of Horace Translated into Verse, 1767

Biography

Christopher Smart’s life is the record of a very considerable talent profoundly affected by personal misfortunes. He was frail as a child, and, according to the rules of eighteenth century medicine, he was treated with “cordials,” which probably began his lifelong alcoholism. From what witnesses such as Samuel Johnson said, it would appear that Smart sometimes suffered from delirium tremens and later from a form of mental illness which manifested itself in religious mania. Smart’s earlier life did not presage so tragic an ending. He began writing as a child, attracted some literary attention as a young man, and was sent to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. At the university both his talents and his troubles seem to have had their maturation. He won a reputation as a poet, but his personal difficulties, including a habit of running into debt that was to become perennial, forced him to leave the university.{$I[AN]9810000460}{$I[A]Smart, Christopher}{$S[A]Midnight, Mary;Smart, Christopher}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Smart, Christopher}{$I[tim]1722;Smart, Christopher}

The next events of Smart’s career took place in London, where he spent his time writing, composing music, and publishing his own and others’ literary work. Smart was married in 1752 and enjoyed a short period of happiness and health. Within a few years, however, his troubles began in earnest. He was unable to face up to the problems of his domestic life, his literary life, and the business affairs into which he had entered. In his middle thirties he became increasingly liable to attacks of madness, many of them violent, and all of them, at least by the treatment of his time, incurable. As one might expect, much of Smart’s poetry seems to reflect a disengagement from reality. It also shows his quest for spiritual and psychological security. If his deep emotions found no cure, they did find impressive expression in the hymns and in A Song to David.

Smart’s mental illness did not necessitate his complete confinement; after some years of treatment (1757-1763) he was able to emerge and take his place in the literary society of London. His talents won important friends such as Samuel Johnson and Thomas Gray, men who recognized his ability and made allowances for his condition. He was aided by Fanny Burney and her father, who did what they could, personally and financially, to ease his life. Smart, although far from the totally insane man he is often incorrectly pictured as being, was also far from being able to lead a life even remotely normal. His financial condition was as precarious as it had been years before at Cambridge, and the last months of his life witnessed his confinement in debtor’s prison. Although he was what may too easily be called a failure, Smart’s very weakness enabled him to reach his own form of success. His religious poetry, written in an age of dominant rationalism, was imbued with a strong and valuable sense of the mystical. He reinvigorated the English tradition of holy poetry, a tradition which had been allowed to wither for many years.

BibliographyDillingham, Thomas F. “‘Blest Light’: Christopher Smart’s Myth of David.” In The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojick. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1980. The biblical David is central to Smart’s highest poetic achievements, says Dillingham, whether used as subject, as in A Song to David, or as a model for imitation, as in the translations and biblical paraphrases. Smart combines the Old Testament figure with the Greek Orpheus and Christian theology in seeking a unified vision for his faith.Havens, Raymond D. “The Structure of Smart’s Song to David.” Review of English Studies 14 (1938): 178-182. This work is old but not outdated, and it is a highly regarded source with which to begin a study of Smart’s major work. The poem’s structure is analyzed from a mathematical and a mystical point of view.Hawes, Clement, ed. Christopher Smart and the Enlightenment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A reappraisal of Smart’s legacy and his remarkable impact on twentieth century poetry. Analyzes the generative impact of Smart on modern poetry and music, demonstrating the reach of his contemporary resonance.Mounsey, Chris. Christopher Smart: Clown of God. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2001. A biography of the poet, detailing his confinement for mental illness. Includes bibliographical references and index.Sherbo, Arthur. Christopher Smart: Scholar of the University. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967. Concentrates on biographical material interpreted through a detailed look at eighteenth century history. The poems are discussed in their contemporary setting without extensive analysis.
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