Nowadays, Christopher Smart is best known for his “Jubilate Agno”—“Rejoice in the Lamb.” That poem smacks of the modern, even the Modernist. But the greater challenge for readers of Smart’s work is a poem, equally and differently great, that first piqued the interest and then, by the late nineteenth century, seized the attention of readers: “A Song to David.”
The poem is gracefully monumental: a manageable edifice of etchings and bas-reliefs. But it is forbidding despite its size: it serves a purpose but presents no obvious way in. We know that it is a temple of worship, praise, and, one of the poem’s key-words, adoration, but to say all of that is to leave unquestioned what drove Smart to worship in this place, and to build it as he did.
The chief puzzle of the poem is a puzzle of construction: why do the poem’s parts–its details, its stanzas, its sections–hold together as they do? Do they really hold together at all?
It is a poem that is determined to include a great deal of the world, purportedly because David included so much in his songs and mastery over the world–here is the source of praise and Smart will praise by emulating; recognizing David’s praise means continuing the tradition he founded.
Trees, plants, and flowr’s–of virtuous root;
Gem yielding blossom, yielding fruit,
Choice gums and precious balm;
Bless ye the nosegay in the vale
And with the sweetners of the gale
Enrich the thankful psalm.
Many stanzas are devoted to a more detailed reckoning of “Trees, plants, and flowr’s,” as well as beasts, fowls, and fish, with the eye of a “scholar of the Lord” (as Smart calls David), equipped with the scholarly apparatus of the eighteenth-century scientist. The teeming particularity of the poem is awkwardly accommodated aside a bounteous heap of virtues…David’s shining qualities are set forth (he is: Great, valiant, pious, good, clean, sublime, contemplative, serene, strong, constant, pleasant, and wise), each receiving a stanza of praise:
Clean–if perpetual prayer be pure,
And love, which could itself innure
To fasting and to fear–
Clean in his gestures, hands, and feet,
To smite the lyre, the dance compleat,
To play the sword and spear.
In one of the poem’s strangest turns, Smart describes seven pillars of the Lord, each identified by a Greek letter, and each heavily symbolic, but without obvious referent:
Iota’s tun’d to choral hymns
Of those that fly, while he that swims
In thankful safety lurks;
And foot, and chapitre, and niche,
The various histories enrich
Of God’s recorded works.
Often, the poem feels like a mess; the details beg questions of where their value lies, and this not because there are details, but because the details are uncertainly subordinated to larger abstractions, virtues, and characteristics–are they symbolic, or exemplary? Why are they nested together if they do not have a special representative force? But whence does their representative force derive? It is not evident on most occasions. I had first thought that this was a poem determined to include everything. But the problem is that it is not; it includes instances of many sorts of things, but the instances are so specific, and sometimes there are several instances of one thing, several of another, that we are left wondering why these instances. Are these instances of any special significance of the species they represent (fish, fowl, beasts, for instance)–and if not, then why does Smart lavish such attention on these specimens? Are they emblems of the virtues or qualities he praises? They never seem typified or abstracted as we would expect emblems to be. It is the old problem of the particular and the universal; but I know of no other poem where the two lean against another with such direct and immediate proximity, without any attempt being made to clarify the relation between the two, or even to acknowledge that there is anything to be explained.
To see more clearly the peculiarity of “The Song to David,” read some lines from “Jubilate Agno,” in which the clash between registers, specific and general, concrete and abstract, seems intended to perturb; where there is no implicit assumption, as there seems to be in “Song to David,” that the construction is a unified, organic whole. That assumption is what makes the “Song to David” so difficult a poem, as compared to the self-conscious (even if Smart, writing the lines was not self-conscious) maneuvers of:
For I stood up betimes in behalf of Liberty, Property, and NO Excise.
For they began with grubbing up my trees & now they have excluded the planter.
For I bless God in all gums and balsams & every thing that ministers relief to the sick.
For the sun’s at work to make me a garment & the Moon is at work for my wife.
The transitions here seem calculated to shock; in “Song to David,” the poem merrily spins ahead along the grooves of its wonderful stanza form, blithely pleased with itself as if there were no cause to pause more than it does–and this not only within but between stanzas, and even sections. Empson’s remark on the poem is brilliant: “it is like dancing in heavy skirts; he juggles with the whole cumbrous complexity of the world.” But the brilliance of the remark depends on our having seen that the poem does not do away with, but takes up in its skirts, that cumbrous complexity, dancing with it all the while, like a mad old crone swinging gaily her patchwork vestments, draped in bells and a hodgepodge of adornments—there is a Dionysian abandon (perhaps Smart perceived a pagan in the Jewish king) in the sense that anything could be picked up to join the dance as it progressed:
Beauteous the moon full on the lawn;
And beauteous, when the veil’s withdrawn,
The virgin to her spouse:
Beauteous the temple deck’d and fill’d,
When to the heav’n of heav’ns they build
Their heart-directed vows.
Beauteous, yea more beauteous than these,
The shepherd king upon his knees,
For his momentous trust;
With wish of infinite conceit,
For man, beast, mute, the small and great,
And prostrate dust to dust.
Precious the bounteous widow’s mite;
And precious, for extreme delight,
The largess from the churl:
Precious the ruby’s blushing blaze,
And alba’s blest imperial rays,
And pure cerulean pearl.
Precious the penitential tear;
And precious is the sigh sincere,
Acceptable to God:
And precious are the winnowing flow’rs
In gladsome Israel’s feast of bow’rs,
Bound on the hallow’d sod.
To address the oddity of construction, let us step back and set Smart within the landscape of English poetry.
Although Smart’s poem is devotional, it is an unusual form of devotional poetry; it exceeds the category of “religious poetry” of which T.S. Eliot writes: “There is a kind of poetry, such as most of the work of the authors I have mentioned, which is the product of a special religious awareness, which may exist without the general awareness which we expect of the major poet.” The difficulty of understanding the poem’s parts in relation to one another is a difficulty of understanding the nature of this general awareness. We can assume, I think, that Smart’s religious awareness is constantly being met with an awareness of the world on terms that, if spiritual or metaphysical, are not doctrinal or even narrowly Christian. The expansion and fitting of the religious awareness, the praise of David, and, through him, praise of the Lord, into this other awareness, or vice-versa, is in part what makes for the poem’s strange structure.
The touchstones for understanding Smart’s poem, and how it extends the religious experience, are various—we might think of Whitman, pleading on behalf of the persistent vitality of the world’s abundant particularity, in and despite its ephemeral form; we might think of Pound, enumerating and juxtaposing the stuff of history’s lost civilizations and finding in the world’s possibilities of aesthetic fruition a hope for a renewal of civilization once more; we might think of Empson, who wrote on Smart, containing all within himself as a stay against the isolation of the mad inspiration that permits the poet to occupy so lofty a vantage point in the first place. These too were poets determined to include a great deal (though not, it should be stressed, everything), each for reasons distinct to his attitudes, anxieties and cosmology–none of which are the attitudes, anxieties or cosmology of Smart.
We might also think of Robert Browning; and it was Browning who, in the late nineteenth century, sang the praises of Smart most powerfully, in his Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day.
Like lots of others, I’ve been inclined always to dismiss the late Browning: too verbose, not enough to say. But I know of critics, including Eleanor Cook, who implore readers to take seriously the achievements to be found here and there in the final volume, Asolando (1889); and I would say now that the collection prior, Parleyings (1887), probably should be read more carefully, based on what I found in “With Christopher Smart.” The poem is thrilling proof of just how searching a reader of verse Browning must have been; something perhaps overshadowed by the consensus view that Browning was a voracious reader of history.
Or perhaps it is because Browning perceives in Smart a kindred spirit; his defense of Smart the nearest he came to a defense of his own art—not that he takes Smart as a surrogate self, but because his enunciation of Smart’s strengths as well as limitations brings into focus his own.
But it is as a reader of Smart, on Smart’s own terms, that I want to look at Browning’s poem. It can help bring into focus not only what Smart’s poem is about—but also what Smart was about in putting his poem together as he did.
As would be expected of a late Browning poem, this one is long (too long, probably), but I will quote below some of its key moments. While reading, keep in mind that Browning’s aim in the poem was not to laud Smart, but was instead to understand how Smart could have written only one great poem after a youth of mediocre verses, only to collapse again into mediocrity. Browning did not know “Jubilate Agno” and the edition available to him set the poems in a misleading order. The only explanation Browning could devise was that Smart was inspired to insanity (he was known to have suffered from insanity—Samuel Johnson’s pity for Smart is moving and well-known), only to lose his powers with the resumption of his normal mental faculties. First, a few short excerpts from early in the poem:
from floor to roof one evidence
Of how far earth my rival heaven.
rare shapes never wed
To actual flesh and blood, which, brain-born once,
Became the sculptor’s dowry, Art’s response
To earth’s despair.
making thus, from South to North,
Rafael touch Leighton, Michelagnolo
From the poem’s seventh and eighth sections:
Was it that when, by rarest chance, there fell
Disguise from Nature, so that Truth remained
Naked, and whoso saw for once could tell
Us others of her majesty and might
In large, her lovelinesses infinite
In little–straight as you used the power wherewith
Sense, as though penetrating through rind to pith
Each object, thoroughly revealed might view
And comprehend the old things thus made new,
So that while eye saw, soul to tongue could trust
Thing which struck world out, and once more adjust
Real vision to right language
Then—back was furled
The robe thus thrown aside, and straight the world
Darkened into the old oft-catalogued
Repository of things that sky, wave, land
Or show or hide, clear late, accretion-clogged
Now, just as long ago, by tellings and
Re-tellings to satiety, which strike
Muffled upon the ear’s drum.
And from the ninth and final section:
Was it because you judged (I know full well
You never had the fancy) —judged—as some—
That who makes poetry must reproduce
Thus ever and thus only, as they come,
Each strength, each beauty, everywhere diffuse
Throughout creation, so that eye and ear,
Seeing and hearing, straight shall recognize
At touch of just a trait, the strength appear,—
Suggested by a line’s lapse see arise
All evident the beauty,—fresh surprise
Startling at fresh achievement?
Strengths, beauties, by one word’s flash thus laid bare
—That was effectual service. Man but hears the text,
Awaits your teaching. Nature? What comes next?
Why all the strength and beauty?
Browning’s Parleyings are successful because in them he argues—as he often does not, in his own voice—and not even consistently in the dramatic monologues with their implied listeners—against himself; unlike in the dramatic monologues, in the parleyings he asks questions of speakers who could not answer, even if they were given the chance; he must compensate for their inevitable silences by imagining in his own voice their voices, thoughts and reasons.
As I’ve said, Browning here is trying to work out what went wrong with the Smart that he knew (inaccurately, because of a seriously flawed record); but he is also trying to work out what Smart is doing in his “Song to David,” the glory of his madness, as Browning believed, and in this capacity Browning is helpful to us.
Browning suggests that Smart does want to include everything—and we can take “Song to David” as being a gesture in that direction; or else a first step; the work might have been extended indefinitely; it is a mere sampling of the method. The challenge for Smart, says Browning, is to revitalize the stuff of the world—to prevent it from being an old catalogue of things. In the language of the twentieth century, we would say that Browning sees Smart’s poem as an attempt at re-enchanting the world. One way to do this is to charge the words of description with a power of accuracy and beauty; but another way to do this is by juxtaposition and abrupt transition between biblical allusion, scientific record, hebraic praise, pagan sensuality, and abstract virtues. They are all leveled, shown to be co-existent; the only harmony that is required between them is that of the stanza form. Smart does not need to justify transitions or explain relationships, or elevate particulars to the level of types, or to deny that they are types, because the world is already at one with itself and with heaven. Hence his praise. By his word’s flash, the harmony of all existence is “laid bare.” And the effect is startling, “startle” being an apt word to which Browning returns.
But there is another way of reading Browning’s response to Smart, and another way of appreciating Smart as a consequence: Smart not as re-enchanting nature but as asking us to glory in the fact of existence: the presence of beings in the world, whatever they are, is to be gloried in. It does not matter which he chooses, so long as he accomplishes his first task of fitting word to thing, of making their existence stand forth. And to ennoble the fact of their existence, Smart must transitions, without pause, between the glory of heaven and the particularity of the earth: “Art’s response to earth’s despair” is to recall that the earth is, in itself, sacred. Not only is there no need to move with caution or elaborate explanation between the heavenly virtues/ the pillars of heaven and the particulate accumulations of the world, but in order to startle us into recognizing the wonder and strength and beauty of their existence at all, the movement needs to be abrupt; that they exist proves heaven’s glory, just as heaven proves the glory of their existence. That equation needs to be closed tight.
On such an understanding, none of the objects are supposed to be representative of anything but existence; yet he needs to select such a diversity of objects, from all of the realms of the world, to establish that all of existence, and not only certain preferred aspects, is being honored.
None of it is sound Anglican doctrine. But Browning does not seem too bothered, and besides Smart was not writing for the church; he was writing from it.
He was writing, moreover, as Browning recognized, from a tradition of European learning; bringing Michaelangelo to bear on Leighton and Watts, the distinctly English figures. Smart, in Browning’s cosmopolitan mind, becomes cosmopolitan in his own learned reach.
We are to feel, then, that the edifice needs no order beyond the stanza form that Smart has mastered; these are the blocks, and he can engrave and sculpt on them as he likes, with whatever is found, provided only that he engrave and sculpt things of the earth in close, startling, proximity to things of heaven; but even this need not be too well-ordered or predictable.
Unlike Browning’s poems, which record the attention actively in motion, as the poem’s proceed, Smart’s “Song to David” is a record of a life’s reading and faith, a work that denies that there need be any regular, consistent design governing the relation of one section or stanza to the next, or one detail to any other; such a design can be dispensed because the mystery of the creation is that the design is already present in the world’s apparent haphazard chaos; to impose a further poetic design would be to disrupt what is already there, even if we cannot trace it.
Pure speculations, of course; but speculations on the mystery of things are what the poem demands, forcefully setting the mystery before us.