Inner Circle Seminar
Sunday 22 January 2017
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This great poet was locked up by mad-doctors for falling to his knees and praying in the street. But James Boswell quoted Dr Samuel Johnson as saying:
‘... although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.’
Allan Ingram writes:
(1722 – 1771)
Confined by the Infinite
Born in Kent and educated at Durham School and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Smart first became a Fellow at Pembroke and looked destined, like another mid-century poet, Thomas Gray, for a cloistered life as a don and occasional writer. However, he was already contributing to magazine publication as well as winning distinguished poetry competitions, and in 1749 he transferred to London, where he hoped to make a living as a professional writer. In particular he was, between 1751 and 1753, the leading contributor to the magazine The Midwife, which involved his adopting various pseudonyms, including ‘Mrs Mary Midnight’, or ‘Mother Midnight’, the midwife herself, and even for a while performing the role on stage in women’s clothing for a popular entertainment devised by himself. During this time, he married, had two daughters, and became increasingly debt-laden. Always an intense writer of religious verse, his mental problems became obvious with what seems to have been a breakdown in 1756: his Hymn to the Supreme Being on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness praises the Lord for saving him from his afflictions. However, a year later he was confined in the new St Luke’s Hospital under the radical physician William Battie, being discharged a year later as incurable, whereupon he was moved to Potter’s private madhouse in Bethnal Green, where he remained until January 1763. Smart lived for only eight years after his final discharge. Within that time he produced more works, some of them of extremely high quality, in his effort to remain solvent while also writing begging letters to friends, many of whom were regularly very generous. Estranged from his wife and family, he died in a debtor’s prison.
Very little is known about Smart’s time in St Luke’s or in Potter’s, but while there he seems to have written the bulk of his most remarkable poetry, in particular Jubilate Agno and, probably, A Song to David. We get almost no sense from these of the realities of his confinement. He clearly had materials for writing, and access to works of reference, which are plentifully drawn on in the first of these poems. It is an extraordinary celebration of universal harmony, stretching across different religions, historical periods, natural history, astronomy, letters and their sounds, and contemporary figures and acquaintances. It is unique, not only as an asylum poem, or as a religious poem, but within the entire century. It genuinely does give the impression that Smart regarded himself, as a religious being, as confined only by the infinite.
The seminar will deal with the background to Smart’s confinement, including types of diagnosis of insanity, and conditions within contemporary madhouses. It will also consider specimens of Smart’s writing, before going on to look at sections from his asylum writings, both in terms of the vision Smart is presenting and of what they might tell us about his state of mind under confinement.
Allan Ingram, Emeritus Professor of English at the
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