Saturday, October 31, 2015

`His Infirmities Are Not Noxious to Society'

Dr. Johnson’s devotion to his mad friend Christopher Smart (1722-1771), the most idiosyncratic poet of his day, is well-known. Boswell reports him saying in 1765:

“‘Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual mode of the world. My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.”

Smart had been confined to various asylums from 1757 to 1763. When they bothered with a diagnosis, contemporaries described the poet as suffering from “religious mania.” Boswell continues:

“Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a mad-house, he had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr [Charles] Burney: – Burney. `'How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?’ Johnson. `It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.’ Burney. `Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.’ Johnson. `No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house; but he was carried back again.’”

Johnson instinctively defends Smart’s “normalcy,” including his heavy drinking. Deviance from conventional behavior never bothered Johnson. He judged eccentricity by the harm it did. His tolerance was expansive and his house was a sanctuary into which he welcomed such outcasts as Francis Barber, Dr. Robert Levet and Anna Williams. Smart seems never to have harmed a soul. Johnson says:

“`I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities are not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.’”

I’ve just found something I hadn’t known before, a reference to an essay, “Some Thoughts on the English Language,” written by Smart and published in the monthly periodical Universal Visitor and Memorialist in January 1756. Nine months earlier, Johnson had published A Dictionary of the English Language. Smart likens the dictionary to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (completed in 1708, one year before Johnson’s birth) and the lexicographer to the architect, noting that both the book and Christopher Wren’s building should endure for all time. The author of “Jubilate Agno,” including the much-loved “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” says the Dictionary is “a monument of English philology” and “a work I look upon with equal pleasure and amazement, as I do upon St. Paul’s Cathedral; each the work of one man, each the work of an Englishman.”


Subbuteo said...

Apparently someone called Nicholas Carr in 'The Shallows' said "Where subjective judgement is replaced by data the mental cathedral is replaced by a mental bazaar....this represents a shift from search as contemplation to to search as a way for capitalism to extract value.....'

Suspirius said...

The conversation about Smart actually took place not in 1765 but on Boswell’s second meeting with Johnson on May 24th 1763 in Johnson’s ‘sufficiently uncouth’ lodgings at 1, Inner Temple Lane. Not that it matters much except that given the subject matter it’s odd to think that living about a hundred yards away that year, at number 3, was one William Cowper, commissioner to bankrupts, who was very soon to suffer bankruptcy of a sort himself followed by removal to Dr Cotton’s Asylum in St Albans.

Suspirius said...

Johnson had a another near-neighbour in 1763 whose life was blighted by madness. A hundred yards further down Inner Temple Lane towards the Thames and to the left at 2 Crown Court Row lived John Lamb, whose wife Elizabeth gave birth in 1764 to the daughter who would stab her to death. Mary could remember Goldsmith in the Temple precincts but not Johnson., who’d moved to Johnson’s Court before she was two.