Wednesday 28 November 2018

Some Great Christopher Smart Things...

If anyone were to get their only eighteenth century knowledge solely from this blog (though I doubt that could ever be the case), Christopher Smart is the man who wrote ‘The Midwife’ and ‘Jubilate Agno’. While it’s fair to say that these are my two favourite parts of his work, the first for its brash brio and humour, the second for its heartbreaking attempt to systematise and understand a life that had hit a dead end - he did write many other things that are easy (perhaps easier) to enjoy. Here are some of them.

The Pig
This is a fun little poem in which a man delights a theatre with his impression of a pig. Another man declare he can do a better pig impression and comes the next night and performs his own pig impression. People boo this second impression and the man, with a flourish reveals he in fact has a pig under his coat and that the booed porcine impersonation was actually genuine. 

The purpose of the poem is to shame people in considering how accurate public criticism really is. However, I am more reminded of Boswell’s story of mooing like a cow and being heavily applauded for it. It’s a silly poem, but short and fun.

Hymns for the Amusement of Children
The last book Smart ever wrote whilst living at the King’s Bench prison for debt. A book of hymns may seem a slightly turgid read but these are light, slightly fluffy and dripping in a gentle melancholy. The poetry is simple and clear without Smart’s preferred barnstorming games. There’s the weariness of a life drawing to an end, coupled with the hope and positivity of Smart’s post-madhouse life. It’s probably one of the only hymnbooks I’m ever going to read.

The Monsieur Timbertoe debacle
A one-legged French clog dancer performed at one of the ‘Mother Midnight’ shows but was booed off for being French, and it being the Seven Years War. Smart then published an explanation that he was not a French, clog-dancer but a French-clog dancer… and had actually lost his leg against the French. Calling him Monsieur Timbertoe just seemed sort of funny to Smart, as it does to me. Samuel Foote, the one legged impressionist later jokingly named himself Captain Timbertoe.

On my Wife’s Birthday
I like a lot of his romantic poetry. Smart was not an attractive man; he was short, tended to fat and he described his eyes as ‘amorous’, they love looking at each other. Despite these handicaps, he seems to have been rather lucky with women and his good wit, liberal purse and funny/cute poetry probably had something to do with it.

This is a very sweet poem written for Anna Maria Carnan, his soon-to-be-estranged wife. Most of the poem contains fairly generic classical allusions, comparing his wife to Diana, nymphs, Venus and such but each stanza ends with the repeated phrases of ‘Nancy, who was born for me’ - it’s the simple things that are the most affecting. 

The Author Apologises to a Lady for his Being a Little Man
Another romantic poem, but this one is funnier. The first two lines describe the ‘contumelious fair’ who scorns the ‘mishapen dwarf’ who is Smart. Smart then explains that women of class don’t need tall, strapping men; that masculinity is not measured like apples by the pound and even if it is - a person of taste goes for size of intellect. What’s more, says Smart, a bosom is meant to be pressed, not crushed, and only his little dwarf hands can do that. It’s a good topic fr a silly poem, a sort of ‘revenge of the nerds’ and more fun because his argument comes across as more desperate than anything else.

Hymn to the Supreme Being
Although this sounds like one of his Seatonian prestige poems, it’s actually very personal. Having had his third big fever (and about to fall into the behaviours which have him sent to St Luke’s madhouse) he praises God and reflects on the experience of being ill.

Smart manages to convey the worry of his illness, the panic of his wife and the confused fear of his young children. Most clearly he conveys his own fear of dying. He quickly tells the story of Biblical King Hezekiah, who was God saves from his life-threatening illness because of his history of goodness. Smart sends his own memory back, comparing it to the raven on Noah’s Ark who came back empty-beaked. He finds his own life to be wasted on ‘follies’ but trust in the hope of Jesus and the prayers of his family.

He describes the healing process extremely concretely, the feeling of strength entering back into his limbs, his feet too feeble to carry his weight and his eyes too weak to see daylight. As he gets stronger he dedicates his life to God, letting out a hymn of gratitude and wishing his new piety to be deep rooted.

As well as a moving poem of sickness and gratitude, it gains added poignancy through the fact that his re-dedication to God, particularly his incessant praying were what had him taken away from his family and locked away for seven years. His gratitude ended up putting him through a tougher trial than his folly.

A Song to David

This is the poem he published having emerged from his time in the madhouse. He saw it as his comeback, his most finely-wrought lyric of praise and the glorious result of his years of pain and loneliness. His contemporaries saw it as proof his madness had not ended. Later the poem was regarded as the finest thing he ever wrote, to most Victorian critics it was the only fine thing he ever wrote.

It is pretty marvellous. Starting slower but gaining in momentum and speed until it reaches a crashing crescendo with the words, ‘DETERMINED, DARED and DONE’. A moment of victory for God’s plan for the world but also Smart’s for his poem.

Along the way we have delicate images of light dancing from fishes scales, cool rain falling on limes, nectarines with a strong tint, gems praising God by glowing deep underground and - most oddly - a mermaid suckling her child.

As the poem builds momentum it repeats a word, moving it from the first line in a stanza to the second, to the third and fourth. As it builds up the repetition clusters closer together, appearing in every line but at different points of the sentence until it repeats on the first of every line, striking like a cymbal.

It’s an impressive poem which carries me along as I read it, starting in my head but finding the words have to spill out my mouth - it’s just too fun to not say aloud.

On a Bed of Guernsey Lilies

This is my favourite Smart work that is neither ‘Midwife’ or ‘Jubilate Agno’ and I mentioned its last lines before.

It was written after he had been freed from the madhouse and after he’d probably realised that its taint would overcome his career and reputation. It’s a lonely poem but also one with a message of thankfulness and hope.

It’s written in two, ten-line stanzas. The first celebrates the Guernsey Lilly, which is a late blooming flower. It doesn’t muck around talking about Flora, or comparing them to beauties with coy Latin names but instead compares the joy they bring to visitors on a rainy day. As a sociable man locked away for seven years and then being shunned by many of his friends, it is that simple pleasure of some company that comes to mind when he sees a flower blooming in late November. He also remarks how their colour shines out all the more brightly when no other plants are blooming too.

The second stanza abstracts this. Smart is reminded that as a flower can bloom late in the year, so hope can anchor itself in wintery conditions. It contains one of my favourite lines, ‘we never are deserted, quite.’ Hope and sunshine and good company are almost gone from Smart’s world but not quite and he can seize each moment to bring him through each day thankful for the joys he does have. It’s a lovely poem and a lovely sentiment.

I am reliably informed that Smart’s translations of the psalms are some of his best work and the day I wish to read versified Bible bits, I’ll give my opinion. I am currently reading some analyses of Smart’s poetry from the 60s and will be talking about them in the future.

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