Christopher Smart (1722—1771) distinguished himself through his poetry while attending Cambridge University. Later, however — when he worked in London, writing for periodicals and popular theatre — he led a reckless life: drinking excessively, spending money he didn’t have, and inviting friends home for dinner when there wasn’t enough for the family to eat.
In 1756 he was seized by a “religious mania”. Samuel Johnson described it by saying, “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.” He refers to this himself in his poem “Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness”. He continued, however, to grow unstable. For the next seven years, he was shut away from his wife and children, in St. Luke’s Hospital, and in a private madhouse. During this time “he began to write a bold new sort of poetry: vivid, concise, abrupt, syntactically daring.” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature.) Even after release, he was incapable of handling his finances.
Today, Christopher Smart is best known for the poetry he began while in confinement. The first, A Song To David (1763), considered his masterpiece, was unappreciated in its day, although later praised by both Browning and Yeats for its spiritual vision. Another extensive work Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb) wasn’t even published until 1939. One quirky segment, that has drawn recent interest, begins:
-----For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
-----For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving
Smart’s support of the belief that all creation honours God by following its nature is pushed, here, beyond logical application.
The Nativity Of Our Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ
Where is this stupendous stranger,
Swains of Solyma, advise?
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
O Most Mighty! O MOST HOLY!
Far beyond the seraph’s thought,
Art thou then so mean and lowly
As unheeded prophets taught?
O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!
If so young and thus eternal,
Michael tune the shepherd’s reed,
Where the scenes are ever vernal,
And the loves be Love indeed!
See the God blasphem’d and doubted
In the schools of Greece and Rome;
See the pow’rs of darkness routed,
Taken at their utmost gloom.
Nature’s decorations glisten
Far above their usual trim;
Birds on box and laurels listen,
As so near the cherubs hymn.
Boreas now no longer winters
On the desolated coast;
Oaks no more are riv’n in splinters
By the whirlwind and his host.
Spinks and ouzels sing sublimely,
“We too have a Saviour born”;
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn.
God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world He made.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca