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This article is taken from PN Review 76, Volume 17 Number 2, November - December 1990.

Christopher Smart's Hymns Donald Davie

AMONG THE STARTLINGLY few people who have attended to Smart's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1765), none seems to have taken hold of what is, from several points of view, the most striking feature of this collection of thirty-five poems: its metrical variety. This inattention is not altogether surprising. Metre is little favoured nowadays as a way into poetry at all, partly because readers skilled in other aspects of poetry know themselves unskilled - ignorant, in fact - about metre. And rather plainly this is connected with the fact that so much English-language poetry of the present century has been either unmetred or else metred very roughly and licentiously. However, because so many otherwise qualified readers cannot trust themselves to scan correctly, the niceties of scansion that Smart asks for cannot be merely pointed to, they have to be briefly demonstrated.

To begin, then, at the beginning ... Hymn I ('New Year') is written in trochaic tetrameter quatrains:


Word of endless adoration,
  Christ, I to thy call appear;
On my knees in meek prostration
  To begin a better year.


The abab rhyme is made more sumptuous in that the a rhymes are feminine, the b rhymes masculine; which means that the odd lines have eight syllables, the even lines have (more normally for trochaic tetrameter) seven.

Hymn II ('Circumcision') is in a six-line stanza consisting of two iambic trimeters followed by an iambic tetrameter, twice ...


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