Wednesday 12 December 2018

Review: 'The Poetry of Christopher Smart' by Moira Dearnley

This is last book about Christopher Smart I shall read in some time because I can’t find any others I haven’t read. ‘The Poetry of Christopher Smart’ by Moira Dearnley came out in 1968, the year after Callan’s collection of his poems and the Sherbo biography and shows a certain amount of confidence as a result. 

Unlike the slimmer, more focussed ‘Christopher Smart as a poet of his time’, this book seeks to look at all of Smart’s poetical works rather than focusing primarily on ‘A Song to David’. It’s a monster and a beast which I didn’t really plan to read so soon after my last Smart outing but I read the first few pages and was hooked.

The reason for this was that I really enjoyed Moira Dearnley’s style (if not always her opinions). Blaydes was elegant, to the point and much easier to read than modern essays on Smart’s poetry I have read but Dearnley was opinionated, funny and more engaged with (her own view) of his personality as well as his poetry.

It’s fair to say that she seemed to find him quite frustrating. I particularly enjoyed the section near the beginning, ‘Smart the poet’ where she dealt with Smart, Foot, Rowe and their group of friends borrowing each other’s pseudonyms. She finds it especially galling that they ‘found it hilarious’ there were two ‘Ebenezer Pentweazles’ or ‘Mary Midnights’ declaring that;
“The psychological motives for sharing a name are beyond me, but could be weird enough I suppose.” I mainly found it funny because I can instantly see the fun in sharing pseudonyms and identities, friends roleplaying as each other and surprising the originator of a character with the new works of that character. Eighteenth century comedy relies a lot on masks and disguises (just look at Fantomina) and it seems a clear bit of fun but irritated her greatly.
She’s very interesting about the notion of gratitude in Smart’s work. Much of what he wrote was taken up with gratitude in some way, whether it was to thank a patron or praise God. She finds the flattery and grovelling of his dedications and eulogies to be excessive, conjectures that Smart built much of his personality around the notions of patron/artist and even brought that to his religion.
“His humility before God is inseparable from his servility before sublimated human beings.” 
Dearnley sees this servility to be core to Smart and his work, but a servility which is in conflict with an egocentricity that, in ‘A Song to David’ paints the picture of a trinity of great poets; “God, King David and Christopher Smart”. No punches are pulled in this assessment and while I am not completely on-board with it, I feel that it’s an interesting angle to take.

Dearnley also has some intriguing ideas about Smart having a sort of self-loathing or self-denial. His love poetry frequently laughs at himself (see ‘The Author Apologises to a Lady for his Being a Little Man’) but sometimes even paints himself in a babyish light. Taken with his love of other identities, his expressions of living a worthless life in ‘A Song to the Supreme being’ and there certainly seems to be an uneasiness in Smart’s conception of himself. This angle makes particular light of the strange and beautiful line in ‘Jubilate Agno’;
“For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.” Smart, not being able to find that beauty in himself has been sent by God to find it in the large, lonely ocean.

As much as Smart irritates Dearnley, a book like this could not be written without love. His faults are as much a cause of the beauties in his work as his merits. What sets Smart apart from other writers of his age, is how he manages to combine the strictures of eighteenth century poetry and thinking with a personality and a voice. Added to this his boldness of word choice, a clarity in building up concrete images into vast catalogues and a vulnerability and joy - and he’s a writer that often delights. The most common epithet given to him before his incarceration was ‘ingenious’, as a contemporary critic said;
“Greatly irregular or irregularly great. His errors are those of a bold and daring spirit, which bravely hazards what a vulgar mind could never suggest.”

Dearnley is also convinced that Smart was indeed ‘mad’ in some way. She suggests the vast highs and lows in his poetry are indicative of some kind of rapid cycling bi-polar disorder, and that his ‘madness’ can be seen in his poetry. She looks at his hymns and psalms, themselves very standard eighteenth century poetry at first glance - and finds raging prejudices and disordered ideas.

When looking at ‘Jubilate Agno’ she starts with the presumption that it is a very mad work indeed. Although many of the ideas an images aren’t mad, the ‘complex, unique word patterns’ act to overcomplicate simple ideas in illogical ways. She particularly looks at the section where Smart characterises languages as animals, using a series of puns. Greek becomes a cat, Latin (with its word ending ‘mus’) becomes a mouse and English becomes a bull (able, dependable, reliable) and a dog (can-is). Her point is that Smart is so overcome with the sounds of the words, the swapping between languages in a ‘mercurial shift’ that he loses connection with the words and the things they mean. As Dearnley sees it, Smart’s madness is expressed in his slippery language, where sound overcomes meaning. At one point she says that, ‘the question of seriousness or levity is unimportant’ maintaining that even if the language juggling is for fun, it becomes in itself a madness.

This is where I disagree with the book. I feel that the levity of the piece is very important indeed. Even if ‘Jubilate Agno’ started off as an honest experiment in Hebrew antiphonal poetry, it became a game, a time filler and a calendar. For a playful, sociable man often left alone (as it was regarded that being left under-stimulated by company would knit his mind together) he had a huge reservoir of play to expend. I think that an author who doesn’t recognise the joy of adopting silly identities and playing as ‘Mary Midnight’ or ‘Ebenezer Petweazle’ will also miss the joy of laying with all the ‘bull’ sounds that can be found in English. Although I think Smart probably did have a form of breakdown, I don’t think a for-the-top-drawer, exercise in mental gymnastics and playful association such as ‘Jubilate Agno’ is really evidence of madness so much as boredom.

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