Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Christopher Smart (17221771)
[Christopher Smart was born at Shipbourne in Kent on April 11, 1722. He was educated at Durham School and at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, becoming a Fellow in 1745. In 1753 he married and came to live in London, where his careless habits soon brought him into grave difficulties. He was for some time out of his mind, and it was during his confinement, in an interval of sanity, that the Song to David was written. He closed a life in which he had known all forms of disappointment and unhappiness. His poems were first collected in 1753, and a posthumous edition in two volumes was published in 1791. The Song to David appeared in a separate quarto in 1763, and was republished in 1819 by the Rev. R. Harvey.]
THE POSTHUMOUS Editor of Smarts poems makes an apology for the entire exclusion of the Song to David and some other pieces on the ground that they were written after the authors confinement, and bear for the most part melancholy proofs of the recent estrangement of his mind. Such poems however, he adds, have been selected from his pamphlets and inserted in the present work as were likely to be acceptable to the reader. The volumes so introduced contain a curious assemblage of quite worthless verses; Seatonian prize-poems, epigrams, birthday addresses, imitations of Pope and Gay, and all else that might be expected from a facile and uninspired versifier of that date. Two generations ago Smarts name was familiar to schoolboys from his translation of Horace into prose; a work about as worthy of immortality as were his imitative verses. It is only in our own day that attention has been recalled to the single poem by which he deserves to be not only remembered, but remembered as a poet who for one short moment reached a height to which the prosaic muse of his epoch was wholly unaccustomed. There is nothing like the Song to David in the eighteenth century; there is nothing out of which it might seem to have been developed. It is true that with great appearance of symmetry it is ill-arranged and out of proportion; its hundred stanzas weary the reader with their repetitions and with their epithets piled up on a too obvious system. But in spite of this touch of pedantry, it is the work of a poet; of a man so possessed with the beauty and fervour of the Psalms and with the high romance of the psalmists life that in the days of his madness the character of David has become a fixed idea with him, to be embodied in words and dressed in the magic robe of verse when the dark hour has gone by. There are few episodes in our literary history more interesting than this of the wretched booksellers hack, with his mind thrown off its balance by drink and poverty, rising at the instant of his deepest distress to a pitch of poetic performance unimagined by himself at all other times, unimagined by all but one or two of his contemporaries, and so little appreciated by the public that when an edition of his writings was called for it was sent into the world with this masterpiece omitted.