All the Crumbling Edifices Must Come Down: Decoding Christopher Smart's Song to David

Article excerpt

At the heart of Christopher Smart's Song to David lies a mystery. Seven verses in the middle of the poem each begin, for no obvious reason, with the name of a Greek letter, spelled out in English. Smart's description of these verses is not much help, claiming that they show that "the pillars of knowledge are the monuments of God's works in the first week." (1) The pillar motif is prominent, though, and also emphasized in the verse which precedes these seven:

   The pillars of the Lord are sev'n,
   Which stand from earth to topmost heav'n;
      His wisdom drew the plan;
   His WORD accomplish'd the design,
   From brightest gem to deepest mine,
      From CHRIST enthron'd to man.
   (30:175-80)

The letters are, in order, alpha, gamma, eta, theta, iota, sigma, and omega. Over the years there have been many attempts made to interpret the meaning of these letters, but most interpreters have not succeeded in justifying Smart's choice of whatever symbolic system they were proposing. The purpose of this article is to propose a substantially new interpretation of the symbolism in the pillar verses, and to justify it by illustrating the role that symbolism plays in the overall structure of the poem.

In the 1930s a collection was published which included the Song, the notes to which suggested that the physical shape of the Greek letters in the seven pillar verses was connected to the symbolism of Freemasonry. (2) In principle this analysis agrees with that suggestion, but the working out of most of the specifics will deviate substantially from it. Before venturing a new explanation, however, it might be useful to make a few arguments that increase its plausibility, since the idea of pictographic symbols in the Song, or of a Masonic interpretation in general, has not been unanimously accepted in the past. (3)

There is no public record explicitly connecting Christopher Smart with Freemasonry. There does exist a poem attributed to "Brother C. Smart, A. M.," published in a volume called A Defence of Freemasonry, which Karina Williamson believes to have been written by Smart in the mid-1760s, but it is of course possible that another C. Smart was the author of that work. (4) The most suggestive evidence is therefore a line from the definitively attributed Jubilate Agno, which was written contemporaneously with the Song "For I am the Lord's builder and free and accepted MASON in CHRIST JESUS" (B109). At a minimum, this line establishes that Smart had Freemasonry on his mind. A close analysis of the Song to David reveals that he was familiar with symbols from all three of the craft degrees, and undoubtedly the best source for such detailed knowledge would have been personal experience. But there were certainly other potential sources, for example, the extremely popular expose Masonry Dissected by Samuel Prichard, published in 1730. This pamphlet ran through three editions in eleven days and remained readily available in London for over a century. (5) It was also reputed to have been one of the means by which the still young practice of speculative Freemasonry became standardized in Britain and abroad. (6) In other words, Smart would have read it whether he were a Freemason or not. The most important thing to be said is this: much of the symbolism of Freemasonry derives from the story of the building of Solomon's temple, of which David was the divinely inspired architect. (7) Upon this basis alone one is justified in pursuing the question of Masonic symbolism in the Song to David.

With regard to the idea that the Greek letters of the pillar verses are pictographic symbols, it might be pointed out to begin with that it can be seen as an extreme example of the kind of compression found elsewhere in Smart's work. This technique has been well documented in essays by Marcus Walsh, Betty Rizzo, and others. (8) The specific idea of pictographic symbols is also suggested by the following two lines, again from the Jubilate: "For M is musick and Hebrew [? …