I had never heard of Christopher Smart, though as an English major I should have. My passion was Renaissance and 20th century poetry, and I kissed off the 18th century with one semester.
At the Poetry Circle at my elder residence, Stonebridge at Montgomery, curated by my new friend Hope, some read selections and some listen. Yesterday the coincidental links were giving me, as a wanna-be English teacher, delight. Perhaps “time present and time past” lurks in lots of poems, but every poem read that day — by Joyce, by Len, by Lois and by me — seemed to connect to that subject. Len’s contribution, a poem that he wrote to go with one of his collages, was even called ‘Connections.’
My contribution was potentially daunting: ‘Burnt Norton,’ the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I had lived into these lines in college and choreographed a dance about them:
….Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction….
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
but since I’d handed out copies and distributed the reading, everyone happily dived in to share Eliot memories and favorite lines. So satisfying.
Then Nancy came up with a long but wryly amusing selection written by 18th century poet Christopher Smart. Drat, I thought, that’s the only poem read today that doesn’t have something to do with time. It doesn’t have a connection to the others.
I like connections. Sometimes I allow myself the belief that they are arranged by a higher power.
This morning I reached for my daily devotional guide, couldn’t find it, and absentmindedly opened a book that I hadn’t allowed myself the time to read, Lawrence Block’s’ The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, given me by button friend Ann Wilson, who promises that ‘buttons’ are featured in the plot. Fast skimming to page 19 and, lo, there is Christopher Smart, explained as a contemporary of Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Says the first person narrator: He was unquestionably talented, but he was also mad as a hatter, and given to fits of religious mania that led him to implore his fellows to join him in public prayer. “I’d as soon pray in the street with Kit Smart as anyone else in London,” Johnson allowed, but others were less tolerant, and Smart spent the better part of his mature years clapped in a cell in Bedlam, where he wrote a line of poetry every day.
I choose to believe that it was not a coincidence that I picked up that book, read to page 19, and found the connection to what Nancy read the previous day.
You may believe what you will. And I won’t ask you to pray in the street.