Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

13
Christopher Smart: Some Neglected Poems

Smart's translations of the Psalms do not constitute one of his main claims to fame or to our attention. And Father Devlin is right when he says of this work that 'its main interest lies in its being an unintentional rehearsal for the Song to David.1 But this in itself is a notable claim on our attentions, and we sharpen it if we say that the Psalm versions make a bridge to the Song to Davidfrom Rejoice in the Lamb. For this is the chronology — Rejoice in the Lamb was begun and pushed forward in the first half of 1759, when Smart, having been discharged as incurable from one madhouse, enjoyed an interval at liberty before being committed to another about August of that year; the further fragments which Bond calls B1 and B2 were written in confinement once again, up to about August 1760; fragment C belongs to March, April, and May 1761; and fragment D, the latest section, runs from July 1762 through to the end of January 1763, the eve of his release.2 But these later sections of Rejoice in the Lamb are not much more than Smart's therapeutic device for keeping himself occupied, and for counting off on the calendar the days remaining before the release which he knew was being negotiated. The grandiose liturgical design which Smart had in mind when he composed the A and B fragments of Rejoice in the Lamb has quite disappeared from the later sections of that manuscript; for its place had been taken by the work on the Psalms, to which Smart refers excitedly in the later parts of the other poem. Moreover, since Smart set about as soon as he was released to solicit subscribers and arrange publication for his Psalms, it appears that not only the bulk of the voluminous Rejoice in the Lamb but also most of the more than 50,000 words of his Psalter derive from the period 1759 to 1763 — that is, to the second and longer stretch of his confinement, in which he was allowed pen and paper (which on his first stretch had been denied him). In other words, the work on the Psalms went on concurrently

____________________
1
Christopher Devlin, Poor Kit Smart ( London, 1961), p. 139.
2
W. H. Bond (ed.), Jubilate Agno ( London, 1954), Introduction.

-164-

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