Friday, April 11, 2008

Christopher Smart

Poor Christopher Smart. Probably the most widely-known fact about him is that he spent a good part of his adult life locked up in an asylum. Nowadays his doctor would have found the right dosage of mood-altering pharmaceu-ticals and he'd be just fine.

Smart, born on this day in 1722, wrote two epic poems which have kept his literary reputation alive to this day. Jubilate Agno, not published in full until 1939, was used as the basis for Benjamin Britten's cantata Rejoice in the Lamb. His most significant work,
A Song to David (eighty-five verses long) is described by one source as having "a poetic quality which eludes critical analysis." Some of the verses were adapted into a hymn which first appeared in the English hymnal Songs of Praise in 1925.

We sing of God, the mighty source
Of all things; the stupendous force
On which all strength depends;
From whose right arm, beneath whose eyes,
All period, power and enterprise
Commences, reigns and ends.

The world, the clust'ring spheres were made;
The glorious light, the soothing shade,
Dale, meadow, grove, and hill;
The multitudinous abyss,
Where secrecy remains in bliss,
And wisdom hides her skill.

Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious the assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet's train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious th' almighty stretched-out arm;
Glorious the enraptured main:

Glorious, most glorious, is the crown
Of Christ, that brought salvation down
As told, the Promised One;
Seers that stupendous truth believed,
And now the matchless deeds achieved,
Determined, dared and done.

Christopher Smart, 1763; alt.
William Hayes, 1774

One additional verse appears in some hymnals and online sources:

Tell them I AM, the Lord God said
To Moses, while earth heard in dread,
And, smitten to the heart,
At once, above, beneath, around,
All nature without voice or sound
Replied, O God, thou art.

I like this one, especially the second half, but I don't think it completely fits with the theme of creation in the other four verses.

Now, some might fantasize about a hymn of eighty-five verses, but some of them simply wouldn't work as congregational song. A few chosen at random:

Control thine eye, salute success,
Honor the wiser, happier bless,
And for thy neighbor feel;
Grutch not of Mammon and his leav'n,
Work emulation up to heav'n
By knowledge and by zeal.


With vinous syrup cedars spout;
From rocks pure honey gushing out,
For adoration springs;
All scenes of painting crowd the map
Of nature; to the mermaid's pap
The scaled infant clings.

(um, no)

For adoration, incense comes
From bezoar, and Arabian gums;
And from the civet's fur:
But as for prayer, or e'er it faints,
Far better is the breath of saints
Than galbanum and myrrh.

(You can't have to look up three or more words in a single verse. And could anyone possibly sing about the breath of saints?)

A Song to David was not included in a 1791 edition of Smart's collected poems because it was thought to provide evidence of his insanity. Twentieth century composer
William Albright wrote an oratorio based on the work. (I have a recording of it somewhere, but don't remember much about it.)

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