Wednesday 27 March 2024

Paper War! One: The Hilliad by Christopher Smart


One of the features of Grub Street that I found hardest to understand were the paper wars. These were linguistic free-for-alls where writers from a range of publications threw insults at each other over an initially small initiating spark. I have to say, as time has passed (and I’ve had regular internet access) these paper wars make sense now. They are essentially the same thing as a twitter spat or youtube drama. Two creators start arguing over something small and everyone else piles on.

One of the biggest of these was the drama between Henry Fielding and John Hill - an argument that pulled in a whole host of Grub Street’s finest. The origins are disputed and shrouded in mystery but it seemed that Fielding and Hill agreed to have a fake dispute to generate some excitement and sell more copies. Fielding then initiated this fake fight with an article in The Covent Garden Journal against hack writers. However, Hill wrote a genuine attack on Fielding’s novel Amelia and revealed that it was supposed to be a fake argument - thus the ‘war’ started in earnest.

Christopher Smart was already siding with Fielding and against Hill in his own mouthpiece, The Midwife, under his pen-name of Mary Midnight. Hill responded by attacking Smart’s non-pseudonymous collection, Poems on Several Occasions so Smart went back on the attack, with one of the longest and most personal attacks of the ‘war’, The Hilliad (a name which is probably the best mock-epic ‘iad’ title ever, better than The Dunciad anyway).

Smart puts himself front and centre, not attributing the work to any of the vast stable of alternative names but his own. He also lists his degrees and calls himself a fellow of Pembroke Hall - which he technically wasn’t anymore after marrying Anna-Maria Carnan. It’s also pretty hypocritical as Smart takes the piss of Hill for using his full titles - Hill being a fairly successful botanist (and also possibly wrote a very popular cookery book). 

The Hilliad starts with two ‘letters’, one from Christopher Smart to a friend and one from the friend back. They set up the standard sort of plausible deniability common in a piece of Grub Street attack. Smart claims that he was led to write the piece for a genuine worry that “the republic of letters seems to be lamentably on the decline in the metropolis” because of people like Hill but he doesn’t expect to publish the work. He only wants to provide entertainment for his friend then he’ll have “gained his end because he believes he “shall never carry it further” and publish. Indeed, he finds he has “some involuntary sensations of compassion” for Hill, because he is so pathetic. 

The second letter is from an anonymous Cambridge ‘friend’ who insists that although Smart is too good a writer who “should be better employed then in the dissection of an insect” it’s hismoral duty to stick it to Hill in verse. That Hill is the thin edge of the wedge, and there needs to be “a speedy stop to the inundation of nonsense and immorality with which he has overwhelmed the nation.” It also defends Fielding’s original idea of a fake paper war was and innocent act “to be carried out in amicable pleasantry to contribute to the entertainment of the town” and that Hill has taken it too far.

There are then a number of quotes from Hill’s work, as The Inspector and The Impertinent, some praising Smart’s writing and some attacking it. It’s supposed to be like Pope’s use of reviews in The Dunciad and to show that Hill is all over the place and inconsistent in his opinions. However, it backfires a little, making Hill’s review of Smart’s poetry to be thoughtful and evenly balanced, praising the good and denigrating the bad - it really doesn’t feel that the review deserves this full broadside.

It starts strong, a quick invocation to Momus, the God of comedy and then declaring Hill to be “Pimp! Poet! Puffer ‘pothecary! Play’r!” a fun little bit of alliteration, accusing him, not of being a procurer of women, but a generally bad man. I particularly like the bit of comic mangling to fit ‘apothecary’ into the mix. Claiming that his “baseless fame by vanity is buoy’d/ like the huge earth self centred in the void.” - His ego is literally the size of the planet. 

He then tells of the poor apothecary, seduced by a disgusting Sybil covered in a “diversity of dirt”, another fun bit of alliteration. I also loved the description of her, “twain was her teeth and single was her eye.” She seduces Hill into the scribbling trade where he is worshipped by the goddess Dulness, of Dunciad fame, but also of Wrongness and Cloaca - the Roman goddess of sewers, last seen by me in Gay’s Trivia. She anoints him with a chamber pot (and its contents) and he promises, “to you I’ll consecrate my future lays/ and on the smoothest paper print my soft essays.” It’s the word ‘soft’ that got my laughs.

Hill is transformed into The Inspector, from “a paltry player, that in no parts succeeds” to “a hackney writer, whom no mortal reads.” He is elevated to “the universal butt of all mankind”, a man as successful as Handel, Cervantes and Hogarth, “who is the Garrick of his art” becoming the “Archdunce” who’ll “rein over every dunce supreme”.

Legend has it that Smart wrote the poem at the same time Arthur Murphy wrote the notes as Martinus Macularus. For me, the notes don’t add that much. In The Dunciad, the really spiteful blows were made in the notes, but these just spread (or correct) a few bits of gossip. Apparently, Hill was going around telling people he introduced Smart to Newbery, but this includes a note from Newbery that states it was the other way around. He says that Hill was such a man about town he wrote love letters to Kitty, Kate, Catherine and Katy not knowing they were all the same person. (I wonder if there’s also a bit of a joke here about Smart being known as Kit or Kitty to his friends). We get a picture of Hill “with a jaunty air, waddling along”, suggesting that he was a little rotund. 

The most cutting note is left at the end. It’s a pretend correction to a mistake, that the bits of the review labelled as positive should actually be classed as negative and vice versa as Hill has so little taste that his “abuse is an obligation, and his praise is downright Billingsgate.”

  • and with that the first book of The Hilliad is done, whether there was every going to be another one, it’s unknown. But the first did what it needed, it mocked Hill and gave Smart a boost.

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