Christopher Smart and Satire
‘Mary Midnight’ and the Midwife
Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 231 pp. £55.00
Reviewed by Sophie Soccard
Université du Maine (Le Mans)
While previous studies have depicted Christopher Smart’s poetic dimension, Min Wild explores his prose satire in the Midwife, a magazine structured as an essay-miscellany, which included satirical pieces of writing over social injustices and cultural idiocies, literary criticism and political commentaries, often in the guise of letters from fictional readers. Smart wrote “both of the letters, the first as himself – poet, scholar and gentleman, and the second under the assumed character” of an imaginary woman who edited and wrote most of the Midwife . The moderately priced monthly publication ran consecutively for thirteen numbers without a break from Oct. 1750 to Oct. 1751.
Among mid-eighteenth-century periodicals, the Midwife stands out in a number of ways, most notably the use of the persona, which has here a particular value. Christopher Smart (1722-1771) was primarily recognised as a religious poet (A Song to David, Jubilate Agno) and he had translated Alexander Pope’s Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day. The talented young poet had therefore to guard his scholarly reputation from allowing part of his work to appear in “low” magazines. He therefore chose the rhetorical device of speaking in the person of another, “Mary Midnight”, an old woman who still practised as a midwife and whose vivacious personality combined a highly militant social conscience with a gift for satire often phrased in a gossipy way. Min Wild’s analysis provides insights into the concept of authorship, debating the nature and status of gender and of political engagement. Her central thesis is that Smart’s invention of “Mary Midnight”, while being part of a tradition of learned wit, reveals the creative disruption of the prize-winning Cambridge poet, who also proved to be an imaginative and subversive journalist.
Backing her analysis on the traditional device of the persona in magazines, Wild’s first chapter concentrates on the centrality of the binary model of opposition in Smart’s satirical approach. After an expert overview of other classical rhetorical modes of representation in eighteenth-century publications, Min Wild delivers a fresh insight, identifying Smart’s kinship with Jonathan Swift, and also his distance from Richard Steele. She examines closely Mary Midnight’s fictitious identity, suggesting that John Locke’s thinking on personal identity contributed to Smart’s conceptual premise. The continual presence of theatricality that Min Wild investigates in the Midwife also grants further understanding of Mary Midnight as part of an established convention of the eighteenth century. As the final section of this first chapter shows, Wild produces evidence that the genesis of “self-division” is linked with the new financial markets and the fostering of credit which had shaken the “stability of the ego”.
Chapter II focuses on the Midwife itself, identifying the nature and contents of the magazine, but also tracing the network of political and social ideas which the periodical was part of. Having summarised previous critical appraisals of the Midwife, Min Wild provides factual information related to the history of the publication without questioning Smart’s authorship, though Appendix 1 offers a closer study of other possible contributors [197-198]. Satirical and rhetorical techniques back up the groundwork of Wild’s study, for Smart is shown to be working in the tradition of “acerbic humorous dissent which runs up from Aristophanes to Lucian to Rabelais to Swift” . Pinpointing the crucial tension between the constraints of literary endeavour and crowd-pleasing demands, Min Wild suggests that the repeated but also inventive resort to prosopopeia in the Midwife allows an ironic reversal achieving the possibilities for scholarly credibility, while stigmatising political and social corruption.
As the next two chapters show, the literary process by which Smart chose to write in the persona of a woman enabled him to say what he felt he could not as a Cambridge scholar. Wild first goes into considerable detail regarding Mary Midnight’s character and concerns, calling into question Smart’s need for such a dubious person to assist him. Mary embodies patterns of class, gender and age diametrically opposed to Smart’s own character and circumstances. Indeed, choosing such an unlikely persona offered Christopher Smart various immediate opportunities, such as keeping his reputation as a scholar free from association with popular buffoonery, but also providing an effective political and social satire to those who understood the rhetorical use of persona, and, what is more, avoiding the potential threat of censorship thanks to a character quickly recognisable as an impossible creature.
Min Wild furthermore suggests that “Mary Midnight” enabled Smart to challenge the patterns of gender. Protesting in the name of a gossipy old woman, Smart crosses gender lines and the choice of the archetypal name of Mary, the one who repairs Eve’s sin, directly refers to a woman who encompasses all women. Wild is nevertheless reluctant to consider “Mary Midnight” as a mark of proto-feminism on the part of her creator; Smart may have also chosen the name of “Mary Midnight” as connoting the nocturnal hour of transition, showing with subtle reciprocity that the cultural discrimination against female scholars had begun to lose some of its strength.
Chapter 5 is a particularly perceptive account of the rhetorical skills Smart resorted to, producing a “risky and radical attack on the monarchy” behind the mask of Mary Midnight . Acknowledging her indebtedness to other historians who have paved the way for the political content of her analysis, Min Wild makes a salient point in seeing Mrs Midnight as “a Tory opponent of Whig corruption” . Deploying the ironies needed to attack “the present happy Establishment of Church and State” (The Midwife, 2: 236), Wild explores the nature of the political engagement within the Midwife, ascribing an essentially patriotic stance to the magazine. Her discussion broadens to include the ethos of an entire society whose judging abilities have been destroyed by self-interest, corruption and lack of personal integrity in public life.
The beginning of her last chapter is slightly disappointing as Min Wild revisits questions already handled in the previous chapter. Her approach nevertheless leads to a wider analysis which aims at circumscribing the nature of the satirical magazine. She focuses on the way Christopher Smart engaged in debates during the British Enlightenment, exploring the magazine’s humanist rhetoric. Moving through Mary Midnight’s attacks on the British legal system, Chapter Six explores persuasion as a rhetorical mode, presenting dialogical alternatives more efficient than direct polemic.
In a thorough discussion of Smart’s attitude to Enlightenment projects, Wild puts forward that materialism might well be the ultimate target of the anti-mechanistic writings in the Midwife. Her last chapter emphasises that the magazine was critical of both the British and French Enlightenments. Though she does not fully advance her own delineation of the term “Enlightenment”, she convincingly shows that the cultural anxieties of eighteenth-century writers led them to satirise a society in which materialism and ignorance were seen as major threats to the tradition of scholarship as well as the human capacity of judgement.
Min Wild’s approach can be rewarding. In every chapter, Wild quotes poems or excerpts from the magazine, printing extracts in the body of her text. Her selection offers the opportunity of a long rethinking of Smart’s creation of a carnivalesque character, showing evidence of the constitutive role of irony in the periodical. While unmasking strategies of fraternal complicity which prove to be misogynous, the entire mode of discourse and of subjectivity helps Smart to produce his own response to his multiply determined voice as a Cambridge poet who had turned to a tavern performer.
Min Wild’s book is an ambitious project that sets forth a valuable resource for future studies not only for Smart scholars, but also for historians and those interested in the influence of popular literature in the eighteenth century. Since her doctoral dissertation concerning Smart’s popular magazine, she has been lecturing at a number of different institutions including the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth. Her findings encourage us to modify traditional views on Christopher Smart, adding a major new dimension to a scholar who exiled himself from university. Although he was suspicious of the Enlightenment, Smart proved to be hostile to ignorance and a defender of human values.
Cercles © 2011