Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. If you want to listen to Douglas read this week’s work, Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” click below.
Last week, I mentioned God and madness in relation to William Blake, and I suppose it is best now to leap straight into this bigger question about madness and poetry in general.
Throughout the history of poetry, there have been people who have teetered or even tumbled right over the edge of insanity. Did the poetry push them there? Was it thinking about the deepest questions? Or does the form attract a certain type of mind? It is an interesting question because the same reputation does not—in the main—pursue, for instance, sculptors or architects. Poets beat even painters in the reputation-for-lunacy runoff.
There is one poet I am very fond of—Christopher Smart—who certainly wandered over into what was then called madness, or what we might now call bipolar disorder. If he lived today, his condition would almost certainly be treatable, or at least manageable. That thought is enough to pain you until you consider the fact that if he hadn’t had the madness, we might not have the poetry. A selfish equation, to be sure.
Even in the world of poetry, Christopher Smart is a peculiarity. In his early life, he was described as “the ingenious Mr. Smart.” His poetry was formalistic, dedicated to the correct subjects—including Christianity.
At Cambridge, he won all the prizes and had a wealth of admirers. A fellow at Pembroke College until 1749, he then went to London and won a fame rivaled by few poets except Alexander Pope. He fell in with the right people. He frequented the famous coffeehouses. He dressed smartly. He was reported, on occasion, to be sharper in wit than even his friend Samuel Johnson, whom The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”
Then, at some point, his mind started to become lost to him. Dr. Johnson described his “poor friend” Kit Smart as showing “the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.” Johnson noted with characteristic clarity and charity that there was no reason why those who fall to their knees and pray in the street should be regarded as displaying any “greater madness” than those who do “not pray at all.” But the rules then, as now, were unclear and Smart found himself on the wrong side of them. Devout Christian piety was expected. But not that much.
So, in a deeply religious society, poor Kit Smart still ended up in the madhouse. And it was there that he created the work for which he is now best known.