Mr Lion, Mr Cock and Mr Cat

Roger Lonsdale

  • A Form of Sound Words: The Religious Poetry of Christopher Smart by Harriet Guest
    Oxford, 293 pp, £35.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 19 811744 2

Harriet Guest’s starting-point is Donald Davie’s suggestion in 1958 that Christopher Smart might be considered ‘the greatest poet between Pope and Wordsworth’. Her intelligent and carefully argued book does not deliver quite the far-reaching reassessment of Smart’s status Davie must have had in mind. He wanted Smart to be judged over the whole range of his poetic output, both conventional and unconventional, ‘light and ribald as well as devotional, urbane or tender as well as sublime’. Concentration on Smart as an eccentric, perhaps insane, religious poet, encouraged by the unexpected publication of his ‘madhouse’ poem, Jubilate Agno in 1939, was unbalanced. Davie reinforced the point in The Augustan Lyric (1974), drawing attention to the ‘delicacy and refinement’ and ‘variable flexibility’ of Smart’s secular verse.

Guest concentrates exclusively on Smart as a religious poet, in fact, and it may be a sign of our current lack of confidence in literary ‘greatness’ that ‘the ambition and significance’ of his achievement are eventually defined in a context of mid-18th-century religious preoccupations. Making clear the contemporary issues at stake in Smart’s religious verse, Guest is concerned to rescue him from accusations of mere idiosyncrasy and marginality, and in that sense her study can claim to be an important ground-clearing exercise preliminary to further reassessment.

The long opening chapter offers a shrewd analysis of the range of appeals to authority, assumed didactic postures and implied audiences in post-Miltonic religious verse. Some of Guest’s specimens are more predictable than others. Concisely but persuasively, she contrasts the apparently infallible authority of the comprehensive generalities in Pope’s Essay on Man with the shifting perspectives and elusive authority of Thomson’s Seasons and the transmission of religious truths to a dispersed public audience from the emotional intimacy dramatised in Young’s Night Thoughts. (The ‘Mr Fairly’ with whom Fanny Burney had what is for Guest a paradigmatic conversation about Young at Court in the 1780s was Col. Stephen Digby, the Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain.)

It is a tribute to Guest’s powers of perceptive analysis that some less promising 18th-century writers can just as usefully illustrate differing tones of exemplary reverence or exhortation, postures of explanatory authority or humility, and varying tensions between private and public religious experience. These include Abel Evans, Elizabeth Rowe, Aaron Hill and Joseph Trapp, and even Robert Lowth, whose The Genealogy of Christ (1729) was written when he was still a schoolboy at Winchester, and the much-derided Sir Richard Blackmore. Johnson later respected Blackmore’s The Creation (1712), which for Guest illustrates the route to divine wisdom through demystifying natural philosophy. Guest wisely doesn’t dwell too long on these individual cases, but her categories may occasionally seem a touch over-schematic. The philosophical Blackmore did after all end The Creation with a lumbering anticipation of Smart’s insistent summoning of animated nature into vocal praise:

Ye Fish assume a Voice, with Praises fill
The hollow Rock, and loud reactive Hill.
Let Lions with their Roar their Thanks express,
With Acclamations shake the Wilderness ...

Apart from the great hymn-writers, the most engaging religious poets of the early 18th century can often seem to be the numerous but now submerged Pindaric bards who were given to intrepid imaginative flights round the wondrous Newtonian universe, for all the world like Augustan astronauts, sometimes arriving in time for the Last Judgment. Guest seems generally to prefer more sober tones and later imperturbably discusses some of the Seatonian Prize poems on attributes of the Creator. Reviewers in the later century yawned politely over these stolid annual performances from Cambridge, and the present writer must admit that the only post-Smartian Seatonian to have arrested his attention previously was The Ascension (1780) by one James Atkins, which he defiantly published after failing to win the prize – ‘for several Reasons’, as one of the judges had grimly told him, which no doubt included his whimsical theology and misguided decision to write in seven-syllable blank verse.

Smart’s Seatonians are a different matter. He won the prize repeatedly in the early 1750s, so gaining a significant supplementary income during his erratic early years in London. Comparison with his successors enables Guest to trace the emergence of Smart’s distinctive dramatisation of the inspired Davidic religious poet. What the comparison also brings home, although it interests Guest much less, is Smart’s capacity even in these prize poems for producing flashes of the verbally unpredictable or extravagant: the description of the cock as ‘the stately night-exploding bird’, or the ‘coarse ruttling’ of the ravens (‘They mean it all for music, thanks and praise’).

Guest’s three substantial chapters on Jubilate Agno argue that this extraordinary and often cryptic fragment, far from being unaccountable, was more often than not responding to widely diffused contemporary discussions of Biblical historiography and the divine origins of language, and, in reaction to the confident physicotheology of such as Blackmore, reflecting a new emphasis on an analogical reinterpretation of nature based on faith. In this account Smart emerges, even in Jubilate Agno, as a relatively level-headed mainstream figure, well-versed in current ideas about theology, linguistics and science. Such a corrective reaction against notions of Smart as hopelessly if engagingly eccentric or ‘authentically’ mentally-disturbed might render this a difficult book for beginners. The facts of Smart’s strange career, from Cambridge to fringe theatrical and journalistic activities in London, to the madhouse and the disabled sanctity of his later years, are simply taken for granted, and perhaps consciously rejected as an irrelevant distraction.

As for Jubilate Agno, it usually astonishes the uninitiated reader by its apparent unpredictability and obscurity, while startling with its flashes of imagination, verbal freshness and autobiographical pathos. Guest, perhaps understandably, is no longer much surprised by it, treating it as one more text in which to study Smart’s dramatisation of the Christian poet. The fine Oxford edition of Smart by Karina Williamson and Marcus Walsh has already made discussion and elucidation of his religious poetry highly sophisticated, and this is also largely taken for granted by Guest, who can further refine interpretation of some particularly cryptic passages of Jubilate Agno and of the ambiguities of its fragmentary structure. If one hesitates over her concern to play down Smart’s idiosyncrasy it is because it must follow from her argument that his contemporaries ought to have found the concerns of his religious poetry more obvious than they can be to us. Guest’s last chapter explains that, far from indulging a deliberately obscure language of type and emblem, the Song to David and the late Hymns reflect a current trend in Biblical interpretation which was intended precisely to rescue the Bible from the scholars and render it accessible to a wider community of unlearned but diligent Christians. The fact remains that Smart’s contemporaries, without having to face up to Jubilate Agno, found his published poetry baffling enough. Even the Christian’s Magazine, a source of revealing analogues with Smart’s ideas, found the Song to David ‘beyond all comprehension’.

Guest’s demanding and well-documented argument is scrupulously lucid and courteous, with regular pauses for summaries and previews. It is also somewhat austere, as if to smile, let alone rejoice, with Smart might seem to verge on mockery. (One very much hopes there is an element of mock-solemnity in the long footnote about literary mice on page 183, which is a classic of the genre.) Jubilate Agno already offers many problems to the scholar and the critic, but’ the next challenge may be to ponder Smart’s sense of humour, a consideration which does not enter Harriet Guest’s analysis of the following:

For I have a providential acquaintance with men
                           who bear the names of animals.
For I bless God to Mr Lion Mr Cock Mr Cat Mr
Talbot Mr Hart Mrs Fysh Mr Grub, and Miss
Lamb.

Smart’s ambition was to be ‘the reviver of adoration in England, as the prophetic psalmist of a sense of national community’. Yet, as Guest concludes, by comparison with his immediate predecessors Smart’s audience was ‘unimaginable’, a congregation ‘both lost in a past accessible to analogy and exhorted out of a prophetic future’. Her intelligent and courageous investigation of the problematics of religious poetry in the 18th century and of what, in that context, is distinctive about Smart may at times suggest that his audience now is in danger of including only those equipped with highly specialised and even esoteric learning. In that sense, his ‘greatness’ may still await confirmation.