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Christ and the Cambridge Poets 3: Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart at Pembroke College

Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the
city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us
new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting wednesday
may 11th I have been  exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now.

May 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,

May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’

June 1st Tennyson and the insights of doubt,

June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the insights of science

Today we come to Christopher Smart a poet whose best work was writen when he had been confined to a lunatic asylum, but whose life and witness challenged his own and our society’s definition of ‘madness’. It is possible to see in Smart’s writing now, not, as his contemporaries thought, incomprehensible delusion, but clear prophetic utterance and a challenging poetry of faith and ecology which has crucial truths to disclose to the twenty-first century. As usual you can hear the audio by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser, or by clicking on the words ‘christopher smart’.The talk lasts about 55 minutes. Below the audio I have pasted the text  of extracts from Smarts poetry from the handout I used in the lecture

christopher smart

From A Song to David:

He sang of God—the mighty source
Of all things—the stupendous force
On which all strength depends;
From whose right arm, beneath whose eyes,
All period, power, and enterprise
Commences, reigns, and ends.

The world, the clustering spheres, He made;
The glorious light, the soothing shade,
Dale, champaign, grove, and hill;
The multitudinous abyss,
Where Secrecy remains in bliss,
And Wisdom hides her skill.

Trees, plants, and flowers—of virtuous root;  
Gem yielding blossom, yielding fruit,  
  Choice gums and precious balm;  
Bless ye the nosegay in the vale,

        130

And with the sweetness of the gale  
  Enrich the thankful psalm.  
   
Of fowl—even every beak and wing  
Which cheer the winter, hail the spring,  
  That live in peace or prey;

        135

They that make music, or that mock,  
The quail, the brave domestic cock.  
  The raven, swan, and jay.  
   
Of fishes—every size and shape,  
Which nature frames of light escape,

        140

  Devouring man to shun:  
The shells are in the wealthy deep,  
The shoals upon the surface leap,  
  And love the glancing sun.  
   
Of beasts—the beaver plods his task;

        145

While the sleek tigers roll and bask,  
  Nor yet the shades arouse;  
Her cave the mining coney scoops;  
Where o’er the mead the mountain stoops,  
  The kids exult and browse.  

The pillars of the Lord are seven,
Which stand from earth to topmost heaven;
His Wisdom drew the plan;
His Word accomplish’d the design,
From brightest gem to deepest mine;
From Christ enthroned, to Man.

For Adoration all the ranks
Of Angels yield eternal thanks,
And David in the midst;
With God’s good poor, which, last and least
In man’s esteem, Thou to Thy feast,
O blessèd Bridegroom, bidd’st!

Glorious the sun in mid career;  
Glorious the assembled fires appear;

        500

  Glorious the comet’s train:  
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;  
Glorious the Almighty’s stretched-out arm;  
  Glorious the enraptured main:  
   
Glorious the northern lights a-stream;

        505

Glorious the song, when God’s the theme;  
  Glorious the thunder’s roar:  
Glorious Hosannah from the den;  
Glorious the catholic Amen;  
  Glorious the martyr’s gore:

        510

   
Glorious,—more glorious,—is the crown  
Of Him that brought salvation down,  
  By meekness called Thy Son;  
Thou that stupendous truth believed;—  
And now the matchless deed’s achieved,

        515

  Determined, Dared, and Done.  
   

From Jubilate Agno

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.

For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.

For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.

For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.

For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

For fifthly he washes himself.

For sixthly he rolls upon wash.

For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.

For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.

For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.

For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.

For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

For I bless God in the rising generation, which is on my side.

For I have translated in the charity, which makes things better and I shall be translated myself at the last.

For the merciful man is merciful to his beast, and to the trees that give them shelter.

For he hath turned the shadow of death into the morning,the Lord is his name.

For I am come home again, but there is nobody to kill the calf or to pay the musick.

For I pray God to bless improvements in gardening till London be a city of palm-trees.

For I pray to give his grace to the poor of England, that Charity be not offended and that benevolence may increase.

For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.

For I rejoice like a worm in the rain in him that cherishes and from him that tramples

For the names and number of animals are as the name and number of the stars. —

For I pray the Lord Jesus to translate my MAGNIFICAT into verse and represent it.

For I bless the Lord Jesus from the bottom of Royston Cave to the top of King’s

For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God.

For I pray God for the professors of the University of Cambridge to attend and to amend.

The Text from Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, drawn from Smart’s Jubilate Agno

CHORUS

1 Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the

Lamb. Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the

breath of Life. Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his

name together.

2 Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and

consecrate his spear to the Lord.

Let Ishmail dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which

the Lord has let him at large.

Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his

creatures for a reward eternal.

Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might

through faith in Christ Jesus.

Let Ithamar minister with a Chamois, and bless the name of Him, that

cloatheth the naked.

Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance, dance, dance, dance.

Let David bless with the Bear—The beginning of victory to the

Lord—to the Lord the perfection of excellence

3  —Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from

the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly

harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,

Hallelujah.

TREBLE SOLO

4 For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his

way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with

elegant quickness. For he knows that God is his Saviour.

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take

5 For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.

For—this a true case—Cat takes female mouse—male mouse will not

depart, but stands threat’ning and daring.

. . .  If you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as

you are.

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.

For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.

TENOR SOLO

6 For the flowers are great blessings. For the flowers are great blessings.

For the flowers have their angels even the words of God’s Creation.

For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the adversary.

For there is a language of flowers.

For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.

CHORUS

7 For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour—

For they said, he is besides himself.

For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchmen

smites me with his staff.

For Silly fellow! Silly fellow! is against me and belongeth neither to me

nor to my family.

For I am in twelve HARDSHIPS, but he that was born of a virgin shall

deliver me out of all, shall deliver me out of all.

RECITATIVE (BASS SOLO) AND CHORUS

8 For H is a spirit and therefore he is God.

For K is king and therefore he is God.

For L is love and therefore he is God.

For M is musick and therefore he is God.

And therefore he is God.

9 For the instruments are by their rhimes.

For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.

For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like

For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.

For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.

For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.

For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.

For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.

For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.

For the Bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.

For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.

For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.

For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound soar more and the like.

For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the

instruments in HEAVEN.

For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous

magnitude and melody.

For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.

For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and

serenity of soul.

CHORUS

10—Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from

the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly

harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

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A lovely photo-montage of the Lewis Foundation Conference

I would like to share a lovely photo-montage made by photographer Lancia Smith of the remarkable conference on CS Lewis; The Weight of glory, organised by the CS Lewis Foundation. Apart from the  abundance ofscholarship, the learning, and the spiritual formation that was going on, there was also an extraordinary sense of Joy, which was great, since Joy was one of  our themes. I think Lancia’s images catch that joy far better than my words could do, so here they are:

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A longed-for day has come at last

It’s been a long time coming. My book Faith Hope and Poetry has been a labour of love over the last decade, written slowly in the midst of the many demands of pastoral, priestly, academic and family life, but it is here at last. I am immensley grateful to the many people who have helped me on this road, not least the sudents whose ideas and questions have always reminded this teacher that he cannot teach unless he is a student too. 

At the heart of my book is a celebration and defense of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential means of grasping reality, not a subjective fantasy compensation for the grimness of things ‘out there’.  Each chapter explores a poet or group of poets who are bearing witness, through imagination, to essential truths that I feel are pertinant to our own age but the whole book is about how the language of poetry initiates us into mysteries we could enter in no other way. By way of a taster I am posting here the dedicatory poem and the concluding paragraphs:

De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,
blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars
bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

removed the daily veil, and let me see,
as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
that words are windows onto mystery.

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
in music, from the tower of ivory,
and from the hidden heart, He calls

in the language of Adam, creating memory
of unfallen speech. He sets creation
free from the carapace of history.

His image in us is Imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
upon the letters of His revelation.

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

you showed me how my halting words might reach
to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,
and so you taught me what it means to teach.

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove
climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

Conclusion

           ” This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears.  In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it.  We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity.  For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God.  Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’.  Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown.  Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.”

This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.

I hope you have enjoyed these extracts and that those of you who have a chance to read it enjoy the book. The publishers page is here

and the English Amazon page is here.

the American Amazon page is here

I’m sorry that, as a modern hardback it is so expensive, I hope, if this edition sells well enough, that they will bring it out in an accessible paperback. Meanwhile you can always encourage your local library to buy it.

M

 

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Muse

I wrote this the other morning looking out at this view from my writing hut, my trysting place with the muse. All the pictures are of from that place.

Muse

I stop and sense a subtle presence here,
An opalescent shimmer in the light,
And catch, just at the corner of my eye,
A shifting shape that no one else can see;
Just on the edge, the very edge of sight
Just where the air is brightening, and where
The sky is coloured underneath a cloud.

And so she comes to keep her tryst with me.
She comes with music, music faintly heard
A trace, a grace-note, floating in clear air,
As over hidden springs the hazels stir.
Time quivers and then she is at my side;
A quickened breath, a feather-touch on skin,
A sudden swift connection, deep within.

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My Smoky Muse

I’m not what they need in the fitness clubs

theres no place for me in the smoke-free pubs

I could measure out my life in cigarillo stubs

Empty ashes in my highway shoes

So light up another for the likes of me

Light out to some place you might be free

Carry me with you or leave me be

With my Smoky Muse

Bridge: She lives at the top of an old stair well

Her house is on fire but it’s hard to tell

If that kind of fire is from heaven or hell

And it’s too late to put out the fuse

She takes me when I’m feeling like an empty shell

She wakes me in the darkness of a strange hotel

She makes me ill and then she makes me well

My Smoky Muse

The wide boys are whining with their thin white duke

Throw me down to the cooler with cool-hand Luke

It’s the plastic in my life that makes me puke

Nothing’s real enough to refuse

I Make my retreat down some shadowy lane

I Take what it takes to defeat the pain

I can still see her waving goodbye in the rain

My Smoky Muse

Celebrities stabled in a big brother house

I can see more life in a lousy little louse

I could take my life, or take religious vows

But I’m stuck with the news of the screws

Everybody wants to be a party to it all

Every body wants to be a fly on my wall

I just want to get out of here and crawl

To my Smoky Muse

Bridge: She lives at the top of an old stair well

Her house is on fire but it’s hard to tell

If that kind of fire is from heaven or hell

And it’s too late to put out the fuse

She takes me when I’m feeling like an empty shell

She wakes me in the darkness of a strange hotel

She makes me ill and then she makes me well

My Smoky Muse

She knows how I love the way she breathes

The way she shrouds me in wraiths and wreathes

And shares her favours with vagrants and thieves

And leaves them so confused

She comes to me veiled in graceful swirls

I trace the fragrance in her fingers and her curls

Her skin shines pale beneath strange black pearls

My Smoky Muse

She left me with nothing, nothing left to say

I’m gone with the others the ones that got away

Stuck in a cell block with jean genet

Singing the jail-house blues

Chain-smoked my way through the chains of night

Went out in the morning looking for a light

If she breathes on me now I know I’ll be allright

With my smoky muse

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