Smart, Christopher (DNB00)
|←Smart, Benjamin Humphrey||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52
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SMART, CHRISTOPHER (1722–1771), poet, son of Peter Smart (1687–1733), of an old north-country family, said to be descended from Sir John Smart, Garter king of arms under Edward IV, and from Dr. Peter Smart [q. v.], was born at Shipbourne, near Tunbridge in Kent, on 11 April 1722 (Hop Garden), and baptised on 11 May (Shipbourne register of baptisms). The poet's grandfather, Francis Smart, married on 16 May 1676 Margaret Gilpin, who was of the same family as Bernard Gilpin [q. v.], the ‘apostle of the north.’ The poet's father, Peter Smart, a younger son, born in 1687, married Winifrid Griffiths of Radnorshire about 1720, by which time he had migrated from his native county of Durham to become steward of the Fairlawn estates in Kent, belonging to William, viscount Vane, younger son of Lord Barnard (Surtees, Durham, iv. 142–3). The poet's sister, Mary Anne, married, in 1750, Richard Falkiner of Mount Falcon, Tipperary.
Christopher was educated at Maidstone and then under Richard Dongworth at Durham school, where his facility in verse-making attracted notice. One summer he was invited to Raby Castle, where his boyish gifts gained the applause of Henrietta, duchess of Cleveland, and she rewarded his promise by causing the sum of 40l. to be paid to him annually until her death on 14 April 1742. Relying upon the patronage of this great lady, Smart was admitted to Pembroke Hall (now Pembroke College), Cambridge, on 20 Oct. 1739. He graduated B.A. in 1742, and next year translated into elegant Latin elegiacs Pope's ‘Ode to St. Cecilia,’ receiving a very civil letter from Twickenham by way of acknowledgment. He was elected a fellow of Pembroke on 3 July 1745, and, on 10 Oct. following, accumulated the college posts of prælector in philosophy and keeper of the common chest. Dependent though he was upon college favour, he combined with small means some extravagant habits and a predilection for tavern parlours. His contemporary, the poet Gray, who was as much at home at Pembroke as at Peterhouse, wrote in 1747 that Smart ‘must be abîmé in a very short time by his debts.’ At this very time Smart was amusing himself by writing a ‘comedy,’ or rather an extravaganza, which he called ‘A Trip to Cambridge, or the Grateful Fair,’ which was acted during the summer of 1747 in Pembroke Hall, and was said to be the last play acted in Cambridge by undergraduates until comparatively recent times. The piece was never printed, but a few of the songs were afterwards committed to the pages of the ‘Old Woman's Magazine,’ where may also be found the ‘Soliloquy of the Princess Periwinkle Sola, attended by Fourteen Maids of great honour,’ containing the once famous simile of the collier, the barber, and the brickdust man. In 1747 Smart graduated M.A., but he seems to have lost his college posts by November in this year, when Gray speaks of his being confined to his rooms by his creditors. In 1750, however, by winning the Seatonian prize, now first offered for the best poem upon the attributes of the Supreme Being, he seems to have gained sufficient credit temporarily to emerge from his difficulties, and in this year he also had a share in ‘The Student, or the Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany,’ to which Thomas Warton, Colman, Bonnell Thornton, and Somerville were likewise contributors. About the same time he published, under the pseudonym of Ebenezer Pentweazle, ‘The Horatian Canons of Friendship. Being the third satire of the First Book of Horace, imitated,’ London, 1750, 4to. Next year Smart was confined for a short while in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) on what proved the first of two visits to that institution. His malady is said to have taken the form of praying, in accordance with a literal interpretation of the injunction, without ceasing (Piozziana, ap. Gent. Mag. 1849, ii. 24). Before his return to Cambridge, Smart seems to have fallen in with Dr. Burney, and to have been introduced by him to John Newbery [q. v.], the bookseller, who exercised an important influence over his career. Somewhat later, without the knowledge of the college authorities, he married Anna Maria, daughter of William Carnan, a printer of Reading and publisher of the ‘Reading Mercury,’ whose widow had married Newbery. His wife was ‘The lass with the golden locks’ of his ballad of that name. In November 1753, when the college discovered the fact, Smart was threatened with serious consequences; but eventually, on condition of his continuing to write for the Seatonian prize, it was settled that his fellowship should be extended (January 1754). For the first time since its foundation he failed to gain the annual premium in 1754; he gained it once more in 1755, but in the meantime he had definitely left Cambridge for Grub Street. There is a story that while at Pembroke he wore a path upon one of the paved walks by his incessant promenade (cf. Quarterly Rev. xi. 496).
From the moment of his introduction, Smart seems to have eagerly collaborated with Newbery, who, on his side, was delighted by the Cambridge poet's aptitude for nonsense verses, ‘crambo ballads,’ and such literary frivolities, no less than by his quick appreciation of the subtleties of advertising. Newbery reprinted two of Smart's poems on the attributes of the deity, to one of which the author added by way of preface a puff of Dr. James's fever powder. In the meantime, under the auspices of Newbery, and the pseudonym of Mary Midnight (a name probably borrowed from a booth in Bartholomew fair), Smart had been directing a threepenny journal, entitled ‘The Midwife, or the Old Woman's Magazine,’ which ran to three volumes between 1751 and 1753. Amid a great deal of buffoonery, often sufficiently coarse, Smart's hand is constantly revealed by the neatness of the verse, and especially of the Latin epigrams and fables. Many of his compositions appeared under his pseudonym of Pentweazle. Drawn by Newbery into the vortex of Grub Street animosities, Smart further conceived an ‘Old Woman's Dunciad,’ but he was anticipated in this by William Kenrick [q. v.], who used the idea to pay off a grudge against its originator, whereupon Smart abandoned the design (Kenrick, Pasquinade, p. 20 n.) It is doubtful whether he had anything to do with ‘Mother Midnight's Miscellany’ (London, 1751), which looks like an unauthorised imitation, but he probably had a hand in ‘The Index of Mankind,’ a clever collection of proverbial maxims, and perhaps in some later enterprises of Newbery, such as the ‘Lilliputian Magazine’ [see Jones, Griffith, (1722–1786)]. The ascription of the ‘Index’ to Goldsmith is inadmissible, as he was in Ireland during the winter 1751–2. ‘The Nonpareil’ (1757) and ‘Mrs. Midnight's Orations … spoken at the Oratory in the Haymarket’ (1763) are merely selections from the original ‘Miscellany,’ the latter printed for Smart's benefit.
While the ‘Old Woman's Magazine’ was running, Newbery also published for Smart at the ‘Bible and Sun’ his ‘Poems on Several Occasions’ (1752, 8vo), which included in its list of subscribers Voltaire, Richardson, Gray, Collins, Garrick, and Roubiliac. Its chief feature was a georgic, ‘The Hop Garden,’ in which he describes the beauties of his native county of Kent. It was an adverse criticism of this volume in the ‘Monthly Review’ (followed by some anonymous abuse in an ephemeral print called ‘The Impertinent’ on 13 Aug. 1752) from the pen of ‘Sir’ John Hill (1716?–1775) [q. v.] that provoked Smart's pungent satire ‘The Hilliad: an epic poem—to which are prefixed copious prolegomena and Notes Variorum, particularly those of Quinbus Flestrin and Martinus Macularius, M.D.’ London, 1753, 4to. Hill admitted in a ‘Smartiad’ that he had betrayed Smart into the hackney's profession—‘hence the right to abuse me.’ This explanation was formally contradicted by Newbery. The satire is only memorable as having suggested the form of the ‘Rolliad.’
From the resignation of his fellowship, Smart's fortunes steadily declined. In 1756 he completed a prose translation of Horace, which became a mine of wealth to the booksellers, but seems to have brought him little profit, as in this year he engaged himself to the bookseller Gardener, in conjunction with Richard Rolt [q. v.], to produce a weekly paper, ‘The Universal Visiter,’ and nothing else, for one sixth of the profits. According to the somewhat apocryphal story, he leased himself to Gardener on these conditions for a term of ninety-nine years (cf. Drake, Essays, 1810, ii. 344; Forster, Goldsmith, i. 382). Dr. Johnson, whose ‘Rambler’ Smart had been one of the first to praise, wrote a few pages for the ‘Visiter,’ which seems to have collapsed before 1759. On 3 Feb. in this year, Smart being much ‘reduced,’ Garrick gave for his benefit ‘Merope,’ together with his farce ‘The Guardian,’ himself playing Heartly (Genest, iv. 547). For some years the poet appears to have been unable to maintain his wife and children, who had in consequence to take refuge with Mrs. Falkiner in Ireland. In 1763 he was once more immured in a madhouse (probably Bethlehem Hospital), where the story runs that his grand ‘Song to David’ was written, ‘partly with charcoal on the walls, or indented with a key on the panels of his cell’ (respecting the legend, which probably contains a nucleus of truth, cf. Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 433). The ‘Song’ was published in a thin quarto in the autumn of 1763 (it was reprinted in the poet's ‘Metrical Version of the Psalms,’ 1765, and separately, 1819, 12mo, and 1895, 8vo). Dr. Johnson visited Smart in his cell during the summer of 1763, and gave a pithy account of the poet's condition. He concluded that he ought never to have been shut up. ‘His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted upon 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.’
The impulse which had produced the ‘Song to David’ remained with Smart to the end, but the inspiration was exhausted along with the ‘glorious’ stanzas which conclude that poem. In 1764 he wrote the libretto, ‘Hannah, an Oratorio;’ in 1765 metrical versions of Phædrus and of the Psalms, in many of which, says Orme, ‘Sternhold himself was out-Sternholded,’ and finally, in 1768, of ‘The Parables,’ in which the decline of his powers is manifest. On 11 Sept. 1768 Smart called at his old friend Dr. Burney's in Poland Street, and Fanny Burney, who mentions his ‘sweetly elegant “Harriet's Birthday,”’ inscribed in her diary: ‘This ingenious writer is one of the most unfortunate of men—he has been twice confined in a madhouse, and, but last year, sent a most affecting letter to papa to entreat him to lend him half a guinea. He is extremely grave, and has still great wildness in his manners, looks, and voice.’ It must have been soon after this that he was permanently confined in the king's bench by his creditors. The rules were eventually obtained for him by his brother-in-law, Thomas Carnan, and a small subscription was raised, ‘of which Dr. Burney was the head.’ He died in the rules of the king's bench on 21 May 1771 (Gent. Mag. 1771, p. 239; cf. Cambridge Chronicle, 25 May 1771), and was buried in St. Paul's churchyard. He left two daughters, of whom the elder, Mary Anne (d. 1809), married Thomas Cowslade (d. 1806), proprietor of the ‘Reading Mercury,’ while the younger, Elizabeth Anne, became Mrs. Le Noir [q. v.] His widow died on 16 May 1809 at Reading, aged 77. In one of his odes the poet apologises for being a little man, and the inference is confirmed by the ‘Cambridge Chronicle,’ which states that he was a ‘little, smart, black-eyed man.’ If the portraits may be believed, his eyes were grey. A poor mezzotint in a small oval is prefixed to his collected ‘Poems’ (1791); an anonymous portrait in oils is in the possession of C. Litton Falkiner, esq., of 9 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin, and a fine portrait (five feet by four feet), owned by Frederick Cowslade, esq., of Reading, has been attributed, on somewhat uncertain authority, to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
In manner Smart seems to have been abnormally nervous and retiring, but when this shyness was overcome, he was particularly amiable, and had a frank and engaging air which, with children especially, often overflowed with drollery and high spirits. Latterly, however, owing to bad habits, penurious living, and his constitutional melancholia, he became a mere wreck of his earlier self.
Twenty years after Smart's death was issued in a collective form his ‘Poems,’ containing the ‘Seatonians,’ epigrams, fables, imitations of Pope and Gray, Young, and Akenside—everything, in fact, that might be expected from a facile and uninspired versifier of that age. The ‘Song to David’ was omitted as affording a ‘melancholy proof’ of mental estrangement. It is, however, scarcely correct to say (as has often been said) that it was left to the present age to discover his one ‘inspired lay.’ When the poem was reprinted in 1819 a review in the ‘London Magazine’ for March 1820 concluded by likening the poem to ‘one of our ancient cathedrals—imperfect, unequal, and with strange, anomalous parts of no perceptible use or beauty, yet exquisite in the finishing of other parts, and, in its general effect, appropriately solemn and splendid.’ A juster criticism could scarcely be passed. To describe the ‘Song,’ with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as the ‘only great accomplished poem of the eighteenth century,’ is to exaggerate grossly, if in good company; for (after comparing the poem to an exquisitely wrought chapel in a prosaic mansion) Robert Browning, apostrophising the poet, speaks of his
Song, where flute-breath silvers trumpet clang,
And stations you for once on either hand
With Milton and with Keats
(Parleyings, No. iii.). It is hardly disputable that the ‘Song to David’ supplies a very remarkable link between the age of Dryden and the dawn of a new era with Blake; and it combines to a rare degree the vigour and impressive diction of the one with the spirituality of the other. There are few episodes in our literary history more striking than that of ‘Kit Smart,’ the wretched bookseller's hack, with his mind thrown off its balance by poverty and drink, rising at the moment of his direst distress to the utterance of a strain of purest poetry.
The following is a list of Smart's works: 1. ‘Carmen Alex. Pope in S. Cæciliam Latine redditum,’ 1743, fol.; 1746. 2. ‘The Eternity of the Supreme Being,’ 1750, 4to. 3. ‘The Immensity of the Supreme Being,’ 1750, 4to. 4. ‘Solemn Dirge to the Memory of the Prince of Wales,’ 1751, 4to. 5. ‘Occasional Prologue and Epilogue to Othello’ , fol. 6. ‘The Omniscience of the Supreme Being,’ 1752, 4to. 7. ‘Poems,’ 1752, 8vo. 8. ‘The Power of the Supreme Being,’ 1753, 4to. 9. ‘The Hilliad: an Epic Poem,’ 1753, 4to. 10. ‘The Goodness of the Supreme Being,’ 1755, 4to. 11. ‘Hymn to the Supreme Being,’ 1756, 4to. 12. ‘The Works of Horace, translated literally into English Prose,’ 2 vols. 12mo, 1756 (many editions; Bohn, 1848, 8vo). 13. ‘A Song to David,’ 1763, 4to. 14. ‘Poems on Several Occasions: viz. Munificence and Modesty; Female Dignity; Verses from Catullus; after dining with Mr. Murray; Epitaphs’, &c., 1763, 4to. 15. ‘Poems: Reason and Imagination, a fable,’ &c. , 4to. 16. ‘An Ode to the Earl of Northumberland on his being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland,’ 1764, 4to. 17. ‘A poetical translation of the Poems of Phædrus, with the appendix of Gudius,’ 1765, 12mo. 18. ‘Translation of the Psalms of David,’ 1765, 4to. 19. ‘The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, done into verse,’ 1768, 8vo. 20. ‘Abimelech: an Oratorio’ , 4to. Posthumously was issued: 21. ‘Poems of the late Christopher Smart,’ 2 vols., Reading, 1791, 16mo.
Liberal selections of Smart's poems are given in Anderson's ‘Poets of Great Britain’ (vol. xi.), Sanford's ‘British Poets’ (xxx.), Park's ‘British Poets’ (suppl. v.), Pratt's ‘Cabinet of British Poetry’ (v.), and Gilfillan's ‘Specimens of the less known British Poets’ (3 vols. 1860). Chalmers in 1810, in vol. xvi. of his ‘English Poets,’ gave a life of Smart and a selection from his works; but omitted the ‘Song to David,’ which he regretted his inability to recover, though from a sample obtained from the pages of the ‘Monthly Magazine’ he attributes to it much grandeur. Smart's successful prize poems are included in ‘Musæ Seatonianæ’ (Cambridge, 1772).[The existing memoirs of Smart are extremely meagre and inaccurate, by far the most adequate being the brief sketch in the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edit.). Following the imperfect memoir prefixed to the collective edition of 1791 (written by Smart's kinsman, Christopher Hunter [q. v.]), nearly all the lives give the year of his death as 1770, instead of 1771. Some important supplementary information is deduced from the Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 1832, pp. 205, 280; Burney's Early Diary, i. 24, 127 sq.; Gray's Works, ed. Gosse, ii. 161 sq.; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, i. 306, ii. 454; F. B. Falkiner's Pedigree of the Falkiner Family, p. 36; Gosse's Gossip in a Library (collecting some new facts from Cambridge); and information from C. E. Searle, esq., of Pembroke College. See also Smart's Works and British Museum Catalogue, s.v. Midnight, Mary; Lord Woodhouselee's Essay on Translation, 1813, p. 99; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. v. 809, 819; Nicoll and Wise's Lit. Anecd. of the Nineteenth Century, i. 521; Baker's Biogr. Dram. 1812, i. 673; Nathan Drake's Essays, 1810, vol. ii. passim; Brydges's Censura Lit. vii. 430; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. xi. 32; Welsh's Bookseller of the Last Century; Disraeli's Miscellanies of Literature, p. 226; Georgian Era, iii. 346–7; Forster's Goldsmith, passim; Hutchinson's Men of Kent, p. 126; Napier's Johnsoniana (1884), pp. 185–6; Taylor's Records (1832), ii. 408; Ward's English Poets, iii. 351; Quarterly Review, xi. 496; Guardian, 2 Aug. 1879; Pall Mall Gazette, 18 and 20 Jan. 1887; Chambers's Cyclopædia of English Literature; Palgrave's Treasury of Sacred Song; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Pseud. Lit.; Watt's Biblioth. Brit.; Shipbourne parish register, by the courtesy of the Rev. A. G. K. Simpson; notes kindly supplied by Frederick Cowslade, esq., of Reading, great-great-grandson of the poet.]