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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

'A Blush in Staindrop Church': The Story of the Poet, Christopher Smart (1722-1771), and His Youth in Durham

3rd June 2008, 18:00 to 19:00, St Chad's College

Told by Keith Armstrong, with students from the Department of English Studies. Featuring a selection of poetry by Smart and new poems inspired by him.

"For I saw a blush in Staindrop Church, which was of God’s own colouring." Christopher Smart, Fragment B, Jubilate Agno)

Christopher Smart was born in 1722 in Shipbourne, Kent. His father was steward for the Kentish estates of William, Viscount Vane, younger son of Lord Barnard of Raby Castle, Durham. Christopher Smart received his first schooling at Maidstone, and then at the grammar school of Durham. He spent part of his vacations at Raby Castle, and his gifts as a poet gained him the patronage of the Vane family. Henrietta, duchess of Cleveland, allowed him a pension of 40 which was paid until her death in 1742. He was later educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, where he was well known for his Latin verses. The Odes of Horace would remain influential throughout Smart's career; he translated The Works of Horace in 1756. After college, Smart earned a living in London editing and writing copy for periodicals and composing songs for the popular theater. During this time, he became known for his reckless drinking and spending habits; he was arrested for debt in 1747. In 1752 he published his first collection, Poems on Several Occasions, and married Anna Maria Carnan. They had two daughters.
In the 1750s Smart developed a form of religious mania that compelled him to continuous prayer. Samuel Johnson remarked, "My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place." In 1756 he published Hymn to the Supreme Being, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness. However, from that time onward, Smart was confined, with one brief Intermission, until 1763 in St. Luke's Hospital and then in Mr. Potter's Madhouse in Bethnal Green. During his confinement he wrote what many see as his most original and lasting works—A Song to David, and the lengthy manuscript of Jubilate Agno. The last five years of Smart's life were marked by increasing debt and need; he was arrested again for debt in 1770 and died the following year.
Smart is best known for A Song to David (1763), which praises the author of the Psalms as an archetype of the Divine poet. Although in its own time the poem was greeted largely with confusion, later poets such as Browning and Yeats would single out this poem for its affirmation of spirituality in an increasingly materialistic world. In this respect Smart has been considered as a forerunner to poets such as John Clare and William Blake. Smart is also known for his distinctive and often anthologized homage to his cat, Jeoffry. This poem comes from the surviving fragments of Jubilate Agno, which was also written during his confinement but not published in a definitive edition until 1954. The surviving fragments of Jubilate Agno are composed in a series of antiphonal verses beginning either with the word let or for. Smart envisions himself as "the Lord's News-Writer—the scribe-evangelist" spreading the Word. The poem is both a personal and philosophical diary and it presents an encyclopedic gathering of obscure lore, genealogy, and wordplay. Startling alterations of tone and juxtaposition of material as well as a careful attention to the quotidian energize Jubilate Agno. Smart's work has captured the attention of contemporary artists such as Benjamin Britten, Allen Ginsberg, and Theodore Roethke.

Keith Armstrong was born & bred in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian & publisher.
He has been a self-employed writer since 1986 and he has just received a doctorate, for his work on Newcastle writer Jack Common, at the University of
Durham where he received a BA Honours Degree in Sociology in 1995 and a Master's Degree in 1998 for his studies on regional culture in the North East of
England.


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