Some Penguin Classics remind you of old melancholy – they can’t help it, since the history of literature is perforce so heavily littered with the stories of some very melancholy men and women. One such story is that of Christopher Smart, who was born in 1722 in the beautiful countryside of Kent, the son of Lord Henry Vane’s estate manager and a favored son of that privileged household. So the story doesn’t start out sad: young Kit had the best of everything, and that continued even after his father’s untimely death, when he was sent to Durham School and spent his vacations at Lord Barnard’s Raby Castle with the children of earls as his playmates.
But in this glorious beginning lay the seeds of future tragedy, because those titled children and those castle playgrounds (and the academic praise and prizes he started winning in his own right from a very early age) made Smart forget one vitally important thing, something we hardly ever talk about in America these days: he forgot his station. He spent all his happiest times around people who were in possession of an effectively limitless supply of money, and it impressed on him a taste for living far in excess of what was possible for the son of a bailiff.
Smart went on to Cambridge and got a degree in 1744 – and a reputation for wild, extravagant living. He decided to go up to London and try to make a literary career for himself, but he was already trailing massive debts, and had at least once been arrested for debt. London was not designed to improve such tendencies, and it didn’t: despite being gainfully employed and moderately popular almost from his first minute in town, Smart was never out from under crushing debt and never seemed to realize that he himself, his own habits and lifestyle, were to blame.
He married a smart, lovely girl and they had two daughters, but the stress of never having two farthings to rub together wormed its way into his mind, which was flighty and highly impressionable anyway. His father-in-law, the savage, opportunistic genius John Newbery, put Smart to work editing the various periodicals Newbery published, and even when Smart’s personal financial life was falling apart, he took to that work with an inimitable gusto – he edited everything, oversaw everything, wrote an enormous amount of funny, provocative, intelligent commentary, and then wrote a whole bunch more under various pseudonyms. In his work he was joined by some of the best literary minds of the day, all of whom had a blast being caught up in such fun times (although Samuel Johnson would have grumbled to admit how much fun he was having).
In 1755 Smart signed a 99-year contract with Tom Gardner to write for the Universal Visiter, and the following year (shortly after his largely delightful translation of Horace was finished) he fell down in a crowded street raving in prayer. The following year – after many, many weird incidents that a merciful history would cover in silence – he was locked up in Saint Luke’s Hospital for the Insane, where he continued to write, was beloved by the staff, but didn’t always recognize the friends and family who at first flocked to see him (strangers could pay a small sum to go and look at him too … Saint Luke’s, like every other madhouse, made most of its operating budget by such revenue). He was also, perhaps pointedly, free from prosecution for debt while he was there.
And that was the remainder of Christopher Smart’s life, which is a pretty melancholy prospect. He continued to write poetry – and some of it is monumentally, almost monstrously strange – but his marriage disintegrated, and finances were as abysmal as always (friends – including the renowned actor David Garrick – often put on benefits for his aid, but the lessons of Raby Castle ran too deep, and Smart never shook them off). In 1770 he was arrested for debt one last time and died in debtor’s prison the following year, with most of his work lost and even the extant stuff – plays, essays, prefaces, and some of the strangest, most luminous religious poetry ever written in English – scattered to the four winds.
Probably his recalcitrant, mysterious masterpiece was the Jubilate Agno, which runs on for verse after verse like this:
Let Merari praise the wisdom and power of God, with the
Coney, who scoopeth the rock, and archeth the sand.
Let Kohath serve with the Sable, and bless God in the
Ornaments of the temple.
Let Jehoida bless God with an Hare, whose mazes are
Determined for the health of the body and to parry the adversary.
Let Ahitub humble himself with an Ape before the Almighty
God, who is the maker of variety and pleasantry.
And as it unwinds, the rhythm – insistent, learned but nevertheless impenetrable – slowly mesmerizes you, like listening to foreign incantations at prayer time. The Jubilate Agno is the work of a visibly disordered mind – but a poet’s mind nonetheless, a poet playing and trifling with a gift he refused to refine.
The more you know about Smart’s life, the more melancholy and heartbreak entwine his verses (even the happy Horace translations take on a shadow, since Smart’s life-destroying insistence on extravagance was the precise opposite of Horace’s self-proclaimed moderation). For me, the almost unbearable little master-stroke of such sad knowledge comes in Hymn 32, which is titled “Against Despair”:
A Raven once an Acorn took
From Bashan’s tallest stoutest tree;
He hid it by a limpid brook,
And liv’d another oak to see.
Thus Melancholy buries Hope,
Which Providence keeps still alive,
And bids us with afflictions cope,
And all anxiety survive.