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October 18, 2017

Kit Smart, Johnson & Ginsberg

On this day in 1763 Christopher Smart's most famous poem, "Song to David," was published. Though a minor poet, Smart was friendly to those in Samuel Johnson's circle, and notorious to many for his enthusiastic public displays of "religious mania," such as falling to his knees in the streets to pray and enthusiastically inviting others to join him. Smart spent years in mental institutions for such habits, and other years in debtors' prison when he could not make his hack-writing career work. Recent biographers doubt that Smart's madness was severe, or that the "clown of God" -- the subtitle of Chris Mounsey's recent biography -- deserved the treatment he received. Johnson concluded that, "although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question." Other comments reported by Boswell may indicate an even deeper empathy: "...I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. 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."

"Song to David" was written while Smart was confined in Mr. Potter's Madhouse; when both poet and poem were released in 1763 more than one agreed with William Mason's comment in a letter to Thomas Gray: "I have seen his Song of David & from thence conclude him as mad as ever." Robert Browning would later disagree, placing Smart with Milton and Keats as ones who "pierced the screen / "Twixt thing and word, lit language straight from soul." Whatever their rank, stanzas such as the following do not indicate that Smart planned to change his ways when released:
    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.
Smart is also known for his "Jubilate Agno," only fragments of which remain. Allen Ginsberg said that he got his "Howl" inspiration from "the long line" of "Jubilate Agno," and he clearly placed himself alongside Smart in the poet as madman-seer blest tradition. The most often-quoted section of Smart's poem concerns not a howl but the purr of his cat, Jeoffry, in whom "the Lord's News-Writer" found signs of the divine:
    For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
    For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
    For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
    For he is tenacious of his point.
    For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
    For he knows that God is his Saviour.
    For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
    For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
    For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry!
    Poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat. . . .

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