Tuesday 19 March 2013

A few points on Kit Smart

Soon I shall write about Christopher Smart’s wonderful poem ‘Jubilate Agno’ but first I want to clear up some misconceptions as voiced in a goodreads review.

If you do not know who Kit Smart is, I will offer these teasers: 1. He was a good friend of Dr. Johnson, 2. He preached half naked on the streets of London, 3. He wrote much of his greatest poem on the walls of Bedlam.

Point 1: Smart and Johnson were not friends, more acquaintances, yes one of Johnson’s famous quotes is in defence of Smart (“He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.") But they were not friends and Johnson was not an admirer, saying that comparing Christopher Smart and Samuel Derrick were like comparing a louse and flea.

Point 2: There is some evidence in the poem Jubilate Agno that he may have taken his clothes off, but the exact reason for his incarceration in a madhouse are unknown. It was known, however that he started to act erratically and started to accost people to pray with them. There is also the suggestion in Jubilate Agno of him using violence to get people to pray.

Point 3: He didn’t. He wrote the poem in a cramped scribble on paper while incarcerated in Potter's private asylum in Bethnal Green.

Christopher Smart interested me before I read Jubilate Agno, a hack writer stabled to Jack Newberry (pioneer of children’s fiction) and married into the Newberry family, he wrote a great deal. He won prizes for religious poetry at college but earned his money in London as a wit, his most popular character being Mary Midnight, a Midwife who edited a magazine for women - he even took to the stage in drag as this character (I have a book collection of The Midwife and they are very funny, rather like Tom Brown’s Amusements). Something happened and he was incarcerated for madness, when he was released he found it hard to get work and later died in a debtor’s jail. Seems like the sad story of a man with talents who burned himself out, but there is something luminous in Jubilate Agno - and a lot of his other stuff is entertaining also.

Once on a time I fair Dorinda kiss'd, 
Whose nose was too distinguish'd to be miss'd; 
My dear, says I, I fain would kiss you closer, 
But tho' your lips say aye—your nose says, no, Sir.— 
The maid was equally to fun inclin'd, 
And plac'd her lovely lily-hand behind; 
Here, swain, she cry'd, may'st thou securely kiss, 
Where there's no nose to interrupt thy bliss.

'Tis Nancy's birth-day—raise your strains, 
Ye nymphs of the Parnassian plains, 
And sing with more than usual glee 
To Nancy, who was born for me. 

Tell the blythe Graces as they bound, 
Luxuriant in the buxom round; 
They're not more elegantly free, 
Than Nancy, who was born for me. 

Tell royal Venus, tho' she rove, 
The queen of the immortal grove, 
That she must share her golden fee 
With Nancy, who was born for me. 

Tell Pallas, tho' th'Athenian school, 
And ev'ry trite pedantic fool, 
On her to place the palm agree, 
'Tis Nancy's, who was born for me. 

Tell spotless Dian, tho' she range, 
The regent of the up-land grange, 
In chastity she yields to thee, 
O Nancy, who was born for me. 

Tell Cupid, Hymen, and tell Jove, 
With all the pow'rs of life and love, 
That I'd disdain to breathe or be, 
If Nancy was not born for me.

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