This is Christopher Smart’s Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1771). It was written at the end of Smart’s life, while he was in prison. Hymns for the Amusement of Children was printed in England, Ireland and America, with four editions in five years.
About the poems
Smart spent six years loosely confined in an asylum, possibly with the connivance of his father-in-law, during which time he wrote visionary poems that expressed his humiliation and despair at separation from his family, as well as a childlike experience of the world around him. These poems were written some years later but still indicate a deeply-felt personal faith. With titles such as ‘Mercy’, ‘Taste’ and ‘Prayer’, they consider the virtues in their relation to Christian themes using simple but lyrical language.
Hymns for the Amusement of Children captures something of the simplicity of childhood without the patronising tone of most moralising verse. While there is a moralising tone in these poems, it is delivered as if by children to children. There is no punishing presence in these verses, no sense of judgement. The general tone of the collection is to bring children to Christian spirituality, with an unwavering optimism, set within a cosmological viewpoint, as seen in the hymn ‘Truth’.
The visual aspect of the book
The illustrations in the book are generally recognised as making the hymns more accessible to children. Most children’s books at this time were chapbooks: very small booklets of nursery rhymes or folktales, with crude but energetic woodcut-printed pictures. This book is about 8 cm tall, making the images about 2 x 3cm.
What is their similarity to William Blake’s work?
Both the Hymns and William Blake's Songs of Innocence convey a hope for avoidance of the brutality of life by seeing the world through the eyes of children. Both poets bring the portrayal of sensual delight into poems which are essentially spiritual.
In ‘Good-nature to Animals’ Smart talks about children not abusing animals. Rousseau claimed children would not knowingly abuse animals, and Sarah Trimmer made a point of urging children not to destroy bird's nests. The abused bird image is seen in Blake’s ‘The School Boy’:
How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in cage and sing?
The pictures in the book are typical of 18th-century chapbooks, but occasional images, such as that for the poem ‘Truth’, look forward to William Blake’s pictorial style. In ‘Truth’ Smart expresses a cosmological view, a way of structured imagining which Blake developed in his prophetic books from the early 1790s.