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LIFE OF CHRISTOPHER SMART,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
CHRISTOPHER SMART was born at Shipbourne in Kent, April 11th, 1722. His father was possessed of about three hundred pounds a year in that neighbourhood, and was originally intended for holy orders. Why he did not enter into holy orders, or what occupation he pursued, we are not told, except that at one time he had acted as steward of the Kentish estates of lord Barnard, afterwards earl of Darlington.
His mother was a Miss Gilpin, of the family of the celebrated reformer Bernard Gilpin; an ancestor by the father's side, Mr. Peter Smart, had been a prebendary of Durham in the reign of Charles the First, and was accounted by the puritan party as the proto-martyr in their cause, having been degraded and deprived of all his ecclesiastical preferments, fined five hundred pounds, and imprisoned eleven years. When restored to liberty by the parliament, he appeared as a witness against archbishop Laud. The particular libel for which he suffered is written in Latin verse, and was published in 1643. This is probably what the author of the life prefixed to Smart's poems, (edit. 1791) calls "an interesting narrative in a pamphlet."
When our poet was at school, his father died, and so much in debt, that his widow was obliged to sell the family estate at a considerable loss. As he had, however, received a liberal education, he is said to have communicated to his son a taste for literature, and probably that turn for pious reflection, which appears in many of his poetical pieces, and was not interrupted with impunity by the irregu larities of his life.
Smart was born earlier than the usual period of gestation, and to this circumstance his biographer ascribes that delicacy of constitution which rendered him unqual to the indulgencies of men of vigour and gaiety. His taste for poetry is said
to have appeared when he was only four years old, in an extempore effusion that indicated a relish for verse and an ear for numbers; but unfortunately for this story the extempore effusion has neither been preserved nor authenticated. He was educated at Maidstone, until he was eleven years old, at which time his father died, and his mother was induced to send him to Durham, where he might enjoy the advantages of a good school, change of air, and what in her circumstances became desirable, the notice and protection of his father's relations. Who they were we are not told, but young Smart was very cordially received at Raby castle, by lord Barnard, and in this family obtained the friendship of the honourable Mrs. Hope, and the more substantial patronage of the late duchess of Cleveland, who allowed him forty pounds a year until her death, in 1742. His gratitude to these noble personages is amply testified by his Ode to lord Barnard, whom he particularly acknowledges as one who encouraged his youthful studies. It was probably owing to the liberality of the same family that, after he had ac, quired very considerable reputation at Durham school, he was sent to Cambridge in his seventeenth year, and admitted of. Pembroke Hall, Oct. 30, 1739.
At college he was much more distinguished for his poetical efforts and classical taste than for an ambition to excel in the usual routine of academical studies,' and soon became a general favourite with such of his contemporaries as were men of gaiety and vivacity. A convivial disposition led him at the same time to associate rather too frequently with men who were of superior fortune, while pride kept him from avowing his inability to support their expences. His only dependance was what he derived from his college, and the allowance made to him by the duchess of Cleveland. This imprudence involved him in difficulties from which he probably might have been soon extricated, if it had not induced an habitual neglect of pecuniary matters which adhered to him throughout life, and a love for convivial enjoyments, which afterwards formed the chief blot in his character. In all other respects, Smart was a man of strict principles, and of blameless conduct.
When at college, we are told he was extremely fond of exercise, and of walking especially, at which times it was his custom to pursue his meditations. There is nothing very singular in this, as most young men at college find walking more convenient than riding; .but it is added, what probably will not be so readily believed, that by constant treading he actually wore out a path on one of the paved walks belonging to Pembroke Hall!
During the early part of his residence at Cambridge, he wrote the Tripos poems in this collection, a species of composition published, or at least written, every year when the bachelors of arts have completed their degrees. It is not often that much notice is taken of these effusions, but the merit of Smart's verses was immediately and generally acknowledged. When afterwards, by the advice of his friends, he offered himself as a candidate for an university scholarship, he is said to have translated Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's day into Latin. But this is doubted by his biographer, on account of the length and labour of the composition. He
It appears by his Ode on the Eagle, &c. that he had little respect for college men,or college studius. -C.
must, however, have executed that translation about this time, as the applause it received induced him to turn his mind to other translations from the same author, and to write to him for his advice or approbation. The following answer was
immediately transmitted by Pope.
Twickenham, Nov. 18.
"I thank you for the favour of yours: I would not give you the trouble of translating the whole essay you mention: the two first epistles are already well done, and if you try, I could wish it were on the last, which is less abstracted, and more easily falls into poetry than common place. A few lines at the beginning and the conclusion, will be sufficient for a trial whether you yourself can like the task or not. I believe the Essay on Criticism will in general be more agreeable, both to a young writer, and to the majority of readers. What made me wish the other well done, was the want of a right understanding of the subject, which appears in the foreign versions, in two Italian, two French, and one German. There is one indeed in Latin verse printed at Wirtemberg, very faithful, but inelegant and another ja French prose: but in these the spirit of poetry is as much lost, as the sense and system itself in the others. I ought to take this oppor tunity of acknowledging the Latin translation of my Ode, which you sent me, and in which I could see little or nothing to alter, it is so exact. Believe me, Sir, equally desirous of doing you any service, and afraid of engaging you in an art so little profitable, though so well deserving, as good poetry. I am, Your most obliged
and sincere humble servant,
This correspondence, which seems to relate principally to the Essay on Mari, was probably very flattering on both sides. Smart, as a young man aiming at poetical honours, was gratified with the letters of Pope; and Pope, who was ever alive to extent of fame, was not sorry to find his works introduced on the continent in á classical form. Smart proceeded accordingly to translate the Essay on Criticism, of all Pope's writings, perhaps the most unfit for the purpose, but it brought him into some reputation with scholars and he did not perceive that it retarded his popularity as an English poet. It was, however, the fashion with the young poets of that time to translate from Pope, although he had not much taste for Latin verse; and they could derive little more advantage from the employment than the praise usually bestowed upon a school-task.
In 1743 he was admitted to the degree of bachelor of arts, and July 3, 1745, was elected a fellow of Pembroke Hall. About this time he wrote a comedy, of which a few songs only remain, and a ludicrous soliloquy of the Princess Periwinkle, preserved in the Old Woman's Magazine. The soliloquy and some account of the play are here extracted from his life published in 1791.
2 He published it in 1746 along with his own Ode for Music on St. Cecilia's day, and in the last page anuounces that a Latin version of Pope's Essay on Criticism, and Milton's L' Allegro and Il Penseroso, were preparing for publication.—C,