Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paper War! Two: The Smartiad by Samuel Derrick

 John Dennis Jr, one of Pope’s original dunces, said that he hoped to see “a Smartiad published” because he was sure “this little author” had picked his pocket because “he who would pun would pick a pocket.” Other writers felt similarly and one did indeed to create a Smartiad, that man was…Samuel Derrick.

Derrick was my first introduction to Grub Street. He is one of the key figures in Hallie Rubenhold’s Covent Garden Ladies, one of the first books about the eighteenth century I read. He was an Irish author, who seems to have been better at networking than writing. When Boswell first tried to get a meeting with Samuel Johnson, it was through Derrick that he most expected success. Johnson was fond of Derrick, and used to cause arguments when he “eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer.” Derrick later used his social connections to take over from Beau Nash as the Master of Ceremonies at Bath. Interestingly, one of Derrick’s works was a translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s A Voyage from the Moon. He may also have been the writer behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies - a sort of ‘what prostitute’ guide and the subject of Rubenhold’s book.

I suppose it was the release of The Smartiad that prompted Johnson’s critical response that “there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.” It’s an interesting response. He was known to be fond of Derrick, and he also had a friendship with Christopher Smart, later visiting him in Mr Potter’s private insane asylum and being thanked in Jubilate Agno. I think the key to Johnson’s comment is his choice of insects, both of them blood-suckers. (Incidentally he was asked about the relative merits of Derrick and Smart, meaning Derrick is the crawling louse and Smart the leaping flea). 

Johnson didn’t have much time for paper wars and the like. When Charles Churchill ragged him, he ignored it. When Samuel Foote was reported to be preparing an impression of him, he bought a stout cane and let Foote know he had it. When people asked him if he’d written a piece for Goldsmith in a paper war about kinds of comedy, he said that Goldsmith was clever enough to have been able to write it and stupid enough to publish it. He clearly thought that people taking little bites out of each other via periodicals was stupid, and if two men he was fond of were prepared to do it, they were just biting insects.

What of The Smartiad itself? Is it any good and what does it tell us about Smart?

The copy I read was an online digitised version from the British Library. The original owner of the copy took the liberty of filling in some lines and trying to fix the poem and “fill up the four lame lines.” I do love the fact that some reader tried to make it scan better. It’s certainly less smooth than The Hilliad, sometimes a little herky-jerky for eighteenth century verse. It also doesn’t seem to have any actual jokes in it.

Rather than painting a picture of Smart - and there was a lot to work with, Smart was short, dumpy, dressed in women’s clothing, given up a respectable career in academia for shift work and was a known drunkard… Derrick uses none of this. Nor does Derrick really create a mock epic like Smart had, with deities of grime and muck worshipping him. Instead, Derrick tries to give some advice in verse.

Derrick regrets that Smart lifted his pen unfairly against a decent writer and that he was unduly harsh to Hill. “Poet Beware! - - - Who blasts the Just Man’s Fame/ Is base, - - - the Mark of universal Blame.” He argues that Smart had no reason to lambast Hill, that the review that Hill gave “Styled thee Man of Parts, of Wit and Sense”, that it was a fair review and not provocative of such retaliation. This is a point I actually agree with Derrick on, Hill’s review actually seemed pretty reasonable. 

He then advices Smart to get out the writing game because, “Mean are all poets, and as poor as mean/ Take thou the Pestle then, - - - and lay down the pen” (which doesn’t really rhyme.. but hey). He suggests Smart should try and make a name for himself in botany and become a member of the Royal Scientific Society as Hill has done.

He then says that Smart’s attack was too severe, that it was cruel and unwarranted, that Smart had only written it to bring himself up and that such motivation will never succeed. Finally, he describes how such scrapping and fighting may serve Smart for a while, he be forgotten compared to true heroes, only to die like everyone else and be forgotten.

Smart never responded to The Smartiad, nor did he write a second part of The Hilliad. This isn’t because he was so shamed by Derrick’s poem, but because he was ill. Shortly after this illness, he wrote a prologue for Fielding’s translation of Molière, The Mock Doctor where he renounced writing under pseudonyms anymore. This was a big deal, as silly pseudonyms were one of Smart’s trademark devices. He also then stopped writing his Midwife papers and drifted away from his Mother Midnight review shows, though they carried on without him. The next few years were hard for Smart, largely translation (most notably his prose Horace) and other typical hackwork and piecework. Perhaps Derrick’s words of warning did hit their target.

Personally, I feel that Smart would have today been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. His bursts of creativity and productivity cycling into his mysterious illnesses. If so, The Hilliad was written whilst on the rush of a manic phase, which would have been followed by a depressive phase when he was reported ill and then a stable phase where he put those resolutions he’d made in the depressive phase into action. Certainly the soul searching described in his Hymn to the Supreme Being. 

However, who is the greater poet between Smart and Derrick… Smart, no question.

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