Wednesday 14 February 2024

Christopher Smart, Asthmatic


This week’s entry is an acknowledgment of failure. I had an interesting idea, I managed to gather some pieces that tended towards it but I couldn’t quite find enough to put all the pieces together.

It’s to do with one of my old favourites, Christopher Smart. As anyone who spends a little time on this blog will know, he was committed to St Luke’s Hospital for a year on a suspicion of madness exacerbated by alcoholism and released after a year as incurable. He was then sequestered in Mr Potter’s private madhouse for seven years (or possibly two madhouses).

The whole thing is a little strange and sketchy. Although his admission papers to St Luke’s were mostly about his drinking, the stories about him were mainly about his bizarre religious notions, particularly his take on St Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’. It was said that he’d stop suddenly in the street and start praying. Lines in Jubilate Agno suggest that he held up traffic in St James’s Park before being forcefully moved on. My thought, sparked by something I read in one of the works on Smart (and I can neither remember nor find the part now) - that Smart’s prayerfulness might be linked to his asthma.

Like much about Christopher Smart, it’s not certain that he did suffer from asthma. However, one of the earlier biographies said he had an addiction to hartshorn, a medicine that was essentially ammonia. A later biography suggested that, as hartshorn was used to treat asthma - I suppose ammonia does clear the tubes a little - that he was asthmatic. 

This leads to a very interesting supposition about the suddenness of his prayers. One of the symptoms of an oncoming asthma attack is ‘a sense of doom’ and, in an age before inhalers, it would have been especially important to not succumb to this and regulate the breathing. What could be better for soothing himself and entering into regular breathing then a prayer? He was to later write, in Jubilate Agno, that, “loud prayer is good for weak lungs and for a vitiated throat.”

These are all the pieces I wanted to put together. 

Unfortunately, despite skimming all my Kit Smart books, I couldn’t find the description of an addiction to hartshorn, nor the supposition that this meant he has asthma. Nor could I even find any evidence of hartshorn being used as a asthma treatment. I looked at many articles about the history of asthma, but they did the thing nearly all general histories do. They started with the ancients, with Galen and descriptions of asthma in Ancient Egypt and China, then they mentioned the Tudors and the injunction of people with bad lungs to smoke tobacco and improve their lungs, then is jumps to the 1830s and the first modern description of the disease. As usual, the eighteenth century was jumped over. 

So I was not left with much except an intriguing idea and a sense of frustration, both of which I know pass on to the reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment