Christopher Smart

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The following is from Pynchon List:

Christopher Smart
To Brian McCary's message:
p.116.7 Christopher Smart: I don't know the reference (see questions) but Maskelyne's discomfort appears to be due to the fact that Mr. Smart went mad, a fate Neville might fear. Dixon may not know this unhappy fact, or he may be trying to kid Maskelyne.

Adam Rounce replied:

Christopher Smart's specific form of madness is relevant here:
"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...I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else."
(Samuel Johnson, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Tues 24 May 1763)
Smart at Cambridge was notoriously prolifigate and dissipated, a university "wit." (Hence Maskelyne's reference to his "soiled Napery and gnaw'd bones," p.116.) After leaving for London in 1749, he went through a series of financial and physical worries, that resulted in his being "born again," but with a catch--his previous worldliness had been replaced by a religious fervour that made him insist that he (and everyone around him) had to rejoice in the Lord. His disorder thus took the form of compulsive public prayer, (c.f. Dixon's referring to him in childhood: "Mr Kit's [errands] being usually to or from the chapel." p.117) whereupon he was locked away.
The new "mad" Smart was also now an extraordinarily powerful poet, whereas he had previously been a mediocre one: his whole creative mission was to magnify the power & glory of the Lord. To this end, he attacked contemporary rational and scientific ideas, especially those of Newton.
When, therefore, Dixon follows his query upon Smart with "Newton is my Deity" (p.116), Maskelyne's shock is partly due to the embarrassment of Smart as both ex-prolifigate and contemporary madman; it also, however, shows his exasperation at Dixon's entanglement of ideas, which is where the "Seaton Prize" comes in.
The Seatonian Prize was set up in 1750, being awarded to any Cambridge graduate for the best poem on "the perfections or attributes of the supreme being." Smart submitted to it for the first five years, and won every time. His poems are unremarkable, but they show his mind working in opposition to science: in 'On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being' he contrasts the 'natural' navigation skills of migrating birds with man's straining after the mysteries of longitude. The bird:
She heav'n-taught voyager, that sails in air,
Courts nor coy West nor East, but instant knows
What Newton, or not sought, or sought in vain.
(ll. 89-91)
Newton was a particular butt of Smart's evangelising mission. In his extraordinary madhouse poem, "Jubilate Agno" (not published until 1939), Smart claims: "For Newton nevertheless is more of error than of truth, but I am the WORD of GOD. (B, l.196)."
Maskelyne is therefore astonished (I think) at Dixon's uncritical mention of Smart combined with his deification of Newton. (The mention of the Seatonian Prize is meant to warn Dixon of what he is saying.) Their conversation is another example of the conflict in Dixon between worldly values (his happy memory of Smart) and the more rational views of science. Maskelyne is also revealed as being economical with the truth; Cambridge did start the destruction of Smart's faculties, despite Maskelyne's claiming the opposite (on p.117). As Johnson said, "before his confinement, [Smart] used for exercise to walk to the ale-house; but he was carried back again."
Sorry to go on at length, but TRP's use of Smart's legend & work in the passage is very subtle. It might even get "poor Kit" some new readers. I thoroughly recommend "Jubilate Agno" to anyone who thinks 18c literature is predictable.

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