Anyone might consider him smart, for that matter. He was well educated in Greek and Latin as a schoolboy, attended Pembroke College, Cambridge, earned many scholarships (most for scholarship), was widely published both as a poet and as an essayist, and undertook, among other tasks, to translate the Psalms. He was brilliant in many ways, and it shows in his poem “Song to David,” not least in the elegant turn of phrase within the tight confines of the stanzaic form he adopted. Because it is not a simple poem, nor easily found in its entirety, I offer you, as a Christmas offering on this day after, the entire text here, and urge you to read it aloud as your gift to yourself:
Sublime—invention ever young,
Of vast conception, tow’ring tongue
To God th’ eternal theme;
Notes from yon exaltations caught,
Unrivall’d royalty of thought
O’er meaner strains supreme.
His muse, bright angel of his verse,
Gives balm for all the thorns that pierce,
For all the pangs that rage;
Blest light still gaining on the gloom,
The more than Michal of his bloom,
Th’ Abishag of his age.
He sang of God—the mighty source
Of all things—the stupendous force
On which all strength depends;
From whose right arm, beneath whose eyes,
All period, power, and enterprise
Commences, reigns, and ends.
Tell them, I am, Jehovah said
To Moses; while earth heard in dread,
And, smitten to the heart,
At once above, beneath, around,
All Nature, without voice or sound,
Replied, O Lord, thou art.
The world, the clustering spheres, He made;
The glorious light, the soothing shade,
Dale, champaign, grove, and hill;
The multitudinous abyss,
Where Secrecy remains in bliss,
And Wisdom hides her skill.
The pillars of the Lord are seven,
Which stand from earth to topmost heaven;
His Wisdom drew the plan;
His Word accomplish’d the design,
From brightest gem to deepest mine;
From Christ enthroned, to Man.
For Adoration all the ranks
Of Angels yield eternal thanks,
And David in the midst;
With God’s good poor, which, last and least
In man’s esteem, Thou to Thy feast,
O blessèd Bridegroom, bidd’st!
For Adoration, David’s Psalms
Lift up the heart to deeds of alms;
And he, who kneels and chants,
Prevails his passions to control,
Finds meat and medicine to the soul,
Which for translation pants.
For Adoration, in the dome
Of Christ, the sparrows find a home,
And on His olives perch:
The swallow also dwells with thee,
O man of God’s humility,
Within his Saviour’s church.
Sweet is the dew that falls betimes,
And drops upon the leafy limes;
Sweet Hermon’s fragrant air:
Sweet is the lily’s silver bell,
And sweet the wakeful tapers’ smell
That watch for early prayer.
Sweet the young nurse, with love intense,
Which smiles o’er sleeping innocence;
Sweet, when the lost arrive:
Sweet the musician’s ardour beats,
While his vague mind’s in quest of sweets,
The choicest flowers to hive.
Strong is the horse upon his speed;
Strong in pursuit the rapid glede,
Which makes at once his game:
Strong the tall ostrich on the ground;
Strong through the turbulent profound
Shoots Xiphias to his aim.
Strong is the lion—like a coal
His eyeball,—like a bastion’s mole
His chest against the foes:
Strong, the gier-eagle on his sail;
Strong against tide th’ enormous whale
Emerges as he goes.
But stronger still, in earth and air,
And in the sea, the man of prayer,
And far beneath the tide:
And in the seat to faith assign’d,
Where ask is have, where seek is find,
Where knock is open wide.
Precious the penitential tear;
And precious is the sigh sincere,
Acceptable to God:
And precious are the winning flowers,
In gladsome Israel’s feast of bowers
Bound on the hallow’d sod.
Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious th’ assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet’s train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious the Almighty’s stretched-out arm;
Glorious th’ enraptured main:
Glorious the northern lights astream;
Glorious the song, when God ‘s the theme;
Glorious the thunder’s roar:
Glorious Hosanna from the den;
Glorious the catholic Amen;
Glorious the martyr’s gore:
Glorious—more glorious—is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down,
By meekness call’d thy Son:
Thou that stupendous truth believed;—
And now the matchless deed ‘s achieved,
Determined, dared, and done![i]
You may find that some of the lines, like the last one, sound familiar. Theodore Roethke took the line “Where knock is open wide” (at the end of the 14th stanza) as a title for one of the poems in his collection Praise to the end!, poems about his childhood published in 1951. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that, nor that many of the titles in that collection come from the literature of Smart’s period of Augustan England — including nursery rhymes. But I must also admit that I studied Theodore Roethke a hell of a lot more that Christopher Smart while I was at the University of Washington.
But Smart is not much known today for “Song to David.”[ii] You may have heard of him, or read him, only on account of his poem beginning “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.” That poem is a selection from a much longer fragment of a much longer manuscript, Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”). According to Ray Davis, who has made the entire text of the known fragments of Jubilate Agno available online, the first complete text of those fragments was not published until 1954, by W. H. Bond.[iii] This is how Jubilate Agno begins, and you should immediately note how different it is to “Song to David”:
Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
Let Noah and his company approach the throne of Grace, and do homage to the Ark of their Salvation.
Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Isaac, the Bridegroom, kneel with his Camels, and bless the hope of his pilgrimage.
Let Jacob, and his speckled Drove adore the good Shepherd of Israel.
Let Esau offer a scape Goat for his seed, and rejoice in the blessing of God his father.
Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and consecrate his spear to the Lord.
Let Ishmael dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty, in which the Lord has let him at large.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.[iv]
Smart was looking for a long line in pursuing his poems, a line more free that the one he used in “Song to David.” One of the things you may know about the man is that he wrote Jubilate Agno while living in an insane asylum. I knew that. But what I didn’t know is that he wrote “Song to David” at the same time, or at least was working on both poems during his time as an inmate.[v] This interests me for many reasons, not least among them being such lines as “For to worship naked in the Rain is the bravest thing for the refreshing and purifying the body,” (from Fragment B3). Smart was working within the tight confines of his stanza for “Song to David,” translating the Psalms (probably from the Latin), and seeking a new form for the liturgy of the Church of England in Jubilate Agno. Consider the following:
For a CHARACTER is the votes of the Worldlings, but the seal is of Almighty GOD alone.
For there is no musick in flats and sharps which are not in God’s natural key.
For where Accusation takes the place of encouragement a man of Genius is driven to act the vices of a fool.
For the Devil can set a house on fire, when the inhabitants find combustibles.
For the old account of time is the true — Decr 28th 1759-60 — – –
For Faith as a grain of mustard seed is to believe, as I do, that an Eternity is such in respect to the power and magnitude of Almighty God.
For a DREAM is a good thing from GOD.
For there is a dream from the adversary which is terror.
For the phenomenon of dreaming is not of one solution, but many.
For Eternity is like a grain of mustard as a growing body and improving spirit.
For the malignancy of fire is oweing to the Devil’s hiding of light, till it became visible darkness.
For the Circle may be SQUARED by swelling and flattening.
For the Life of God is in the body of man and his spirit in the Soul.
For there was no rain in Paradise because of the delicate construction of the spiritual herbs and flowers.[vi]
It strikes me that, before Blake, Smart was feeling the same urge to write anew the legends of the fall, and looking for a form more appropriate than the classical couplet (he had translated Pope’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day into Latin, for example, as a student, so he had thoroughly explored the options then in fashion). In this he pre-figured an entire generation, the generation of the Romantics, who turned back to ancient Greece rather than ancient Israel for their models.
But hold on, I hear you say: is that just another of your wild assertions?
[i] Copied, with a little reformatting in Word, from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19640, the website of the Academy of American poets, accessed 13 December 2013 — and yes, I lied about it’s not being available. Just took a long time for me to track it down.
[ii] “A song to David” was the only poem of Smart’s printed in the main sequence of Eighteenth Century Poetry & Prose, my textbook at BYU, edited by Louis I. Bredvold, Alan D. McKillop and Lois Whitney and published in its second edition in New York by Ronald Press in 1956, where it appears in double columns on pages 753-759. Since they cite the just-then published text of Jubilate Agno edited by W. H. Bond, I briefly wondered if those double-column pages weren’t what stopped them from printing at least “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.” But they did print, in an addendum on pages 1159-1163, three excerpts from Jubilate Agno, including “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” so I no longer wonder as I wander.
[iii] In his introduction to the poem at http://www.pseudopodium.org/repress/jubilate/index.html, accessed 26 December 2013. Again, an online source proves the only readily available source for Smart’s texts.
[iv] Ibid., where these lines appear as the opening lines of Fragment A.
[v] More of the details than I can successfully bore you with are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Smart.
[vi] From Fragment B3.