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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 17. Smart’s A Song to David

If Shenstone and Akenside present an interesting parallel contrast in one way, that presented to both of them by Christopher Smart is even more interesting; while, in another way, he approximates to Collins. Akenside, with all his learning, acuteness and vigour, never found the true spirit of poetry and, perhaps, did not even look for it, or know where it was to be found. Shenstone, conscious of its existence, and always in a half-hearted way seeking it, sometimes came near it or, at least, saw it afar off. Smart found it once for all, and once only; but that once was when he was mad. Since A Song to David at last gained its true place (and sometimes, perhaps, a place rather higher than that), it has been the fashion rather to undervalue the positive worth of those other poems from which, by certainly one of the oddest tricks in literary history, fortune separated the Song in the original edition of Smart’s work, leaving it for Chalmers to find in a review fragment only, and for the nineteenth century at last to recover completely. Smart’s Latin poems, original and translated, are now quite out of fashion; and they are not, as a rule, strikingly good. He had not, when sane, the power of serious poetry; but his lighter verse in a Hudibrastic or Swiftian vein is, sometimes, really capital; and neither in those great originals, nor in Barham, nor even in Thackeray, can be found a better piece of burla rhyme than

  • Tell me, thou son of great Cadwallader,
  • Hast thou that hare? or hast thou swallowed her?
  • But, in A Song to David, as it has been said, furor vere poeticus has seized and inspired his victim. It has been so much praised in the last half-century as to be, perhaps, to some extent, in the danger of Aristides; and it is anything rather than faultless. The ideas, and, indeed, much of the language, are taken at second-hand from the Bible; there is, as, in the circumstances, there almost must have been, divagation, repetition, verbiage, inequality, with other things not good in themselves. But, the tide of poetry carries the poem right through, and the reader with it; the old romance-six or rime couée—a favourite measure with the eighteenth century, but often too suggestive of Sir Thopas—once more acquires soar and rush, and the blood and breath of life, so that the whole crowd of emotional thought and picturesque image sweeps through the page with irresistible force.