Thomas Gray, writing to his friend Thomas Wharton in 1747, warned him to keep silence about Smart's delinquencies lest they should come to the ears of Henry Vane (afterwards earl of Darlington), and endanger his allowance. At Cambridge, where he was entered at Pembroke College in 1739, he spent much of his time in taverns, and got badly into debt, but in spite of his irregularities he became fellow of his college, praelector in philosophy and keeper of the common chest in 1745. In November 1747 he was compelled to remain in his rooms for fear of his creditors.
At Cambridge he won the Seaton prize for a poem on "one of the attributes of the Supreme Being" in 1750 (he won the same prize in 1751, 1752, 1753 and 1755); and a farce entitled A Trip to Cambridge, or The Grateful Fair, acted in 1747 by the students of Pembroke, was from his pen. In 1750 he contributed to The Student, or The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany.
During one of his visits to London he had made the acquaintance of John Newbery, the publisher, whose step-daughter, Anna Maria Carman, he married, with the result of forfeiting his fellowship in 1753. About 1752 he permanently left Cambridge for London, though he kept his name on the college books, as he had to do in order to compete for the Seaton prize. He wrote in London under the pseudonym of "Mary Midnight" and "Pentweazle." He had edited The Midwife, or the Old Woman's Magazine (1751-1753), and had a hand in many other "Grub Street" productions. Some criticisms made by "Sir" John Hill (1716?-1775) on his Poems on Several Occasions (1752) provoked his satire of the Hilliad (1753), noteworthy as providing the model for the Rolliad. In 1756 he finished a prose translation of Horace, which was widely used, but brought him little profit. He agreed in the same year to produce a weekly paper entitled The Universal Visitor, for which Samuel Johnson wrote some numbers.
In 1751 Smart had shown symptoms of mental aberration, which developed into religious mania, and between 1756 and 1758 he was in an asylum. Dr Johnson visited him and thought that he ought to have been at large. During his confinement he conceived the idea of the single poem that has made him famous, "A Song to David," though the story that it was indented with a key on the panels of his cell, and shaded in with charcoal, may be received with caution. It shows no trace of morbid origin. After his release Smart produced other religious poems, but none of them shows the same inspiration. His wife and children had gone to live with friends as he was unable to support them, and for some time before his death, which took place on the 21st of May 1771, he lived in the rules of King's Bench, and was supported by small subscriptions raised by Dr Burney and other friends.
Of all that he wrote, "A Song to David" will alone bear the test of time. Unlike in its simple forceful treatment and impressive directness of expression, as has been said, to anything else in 18th century poetry, the poem on analysis is found to depend for its unique effect also upon a certain ingenuity of construction, and the novel way in which David's ideal qualities are enlarged upon. This will be more readily understood on reference to the following verse, the first twelve words of which become in turn the key-notes, so to speak, of the twelve succeeding verses: "Great, valiant, pious, good, and clean, Sublime, contemplative, serene, Strong, constant, pleasant, wise! Bright effluence of exceeding grace; Best man ! - the swiftness, and the race, The peril, and the prize." The last line is characteristic of another peculiarity in "A Song to David," the effective use of alliteration to complete the initial energy of the stanza in many instances. But in the poem throughout is revealed a poetic quality which eludes critical analysis.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. XXV.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 250.
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