All the crumbling edifices must come down: decoding Christopher Smart's Song to David.
The pillars of the Lord are sev'n, Which stand from earth to topmost heav'n; His wisdom drew the plan; His WORD accomplish'd the design, From brightest gem to deepest mine, From CHRIST enthron'd to man. (30:175-80)
The letters are, in order, alpha, gamma, eta, theta, iota, sigma, and omega. Over the years there have been many attempts made to interpret the meaning of these letters, but most interpreters have not succeeded in justifying Smart's choice of whatever symbolic system they were proposing. The purpose of this article is to propose a substantially new interpretation of the symbolism in the pillar verses, and to justify it by illustrating the role that symbolism plays in the overall structure of the poem.
In the 1930s a collection was published which included the Song, the notes to which suggested that the physical shape of the Greek letters in the seven pillar verses was connected to the symbolism of Freemasonry. (2) In principle this analysis agrees with that suggestion, but the working out of most of the specifics will deviate substantially from it. Before venturing a new explanation, however, it might be useful to make a few arguments that increase its plausibility, since the idea of pictographic symbols in the Song, or of a Masonic interpretation in general, has not been unanimously accepted in the past. (3)
There is no public record explicitly connecting Christopher Smart with Freemasonry. There does exist a poem attributed to "Brother C. Smart, A. M.," published in a volume called A Defence of Freemasonry, which Karina Williamson believes to have been written by Smart in the mid-1760s, but it is of course possible that another C. Smart was the author of that work. (4) The most suggestive evidence is therefore a line from the definitively attributed Jubilate Agno, which was written contemporaneously with the Song "For I am the Lord's builder and free and accepted MASON in CHRIST JESUS" (B109). At a minimum, this line establishes that Smart had Freemasonry on his mind. A close analysis of the Song to David reveals that he was familiar with symbols from all three of the craft degrees, and undoubtedly the best source for such detailed knowledge would have been personal experience. But there were certainly other potential sources, for example, the extremely popular expose Masonry Dissected by Samuel Prichard, published in 1730. This pamphlet ran through three editions in eleven days and remained readily available in London for over a century. (5) It was also reputed to have been one of the means by which the still young practice of speculative Freemasonry became standardized in Britain and abroad. (6) In other words, Smart would have read it whether he were a Freemason or not. The most important thing to be said is this: much of the symbolism of Freemasonry derives from the story of the building of Solomon's temple, of which David was the divinely inspired architect. (7) Upon this basis alone one is justified in pursuing the question of Masonic symbolism in the Song to David.
With regard to the idea that the Greek letters of the pillar verses are pictographic symbols, it might be pointed out to begin with that it can be seen as an extreme example of the kind of compression found elsewhere in Smart's work. This technique has been well documented in essays by Marcus Walsh, Betty Rizzo, and others. (8) The specific idea of pictographic symbols is also suggested by the following two lines, again from the Jubilate: "For M is musick and Hebrew [??] is the direct figure of God's harp" (B524), and "For the letter [??] which signifies GOD by himself is on the fibre of some leaf in every Tree" (B477). These lines suggest that Smart was using the physical shape of letters as poetic symbols. (9) The Hebrew mem ([??]) looks like a harp; the Hebrew lamed ([??]) looks like part of a leaf. He would appear to have been experimenting with the idea that pictographic similarities could carry meaning, even in the context of an entirely abstract alphabet. Let us then keep in mind these two postulates: that Smart was thinking in terms of a symbolism associated with the shape of letters, and that for the Song he was seeking shapes related to the symbolism of Freemasonry. Whether these postulates allow anything to be "proven" about the Song may have to be judged on no better basis than the elegance of the solution. As a quote attributed to R. Buckminster Fuller would have it: "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only of how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." (10)
The structure of the Song works on many levels, so we will begin with the general and move to the particular. There are two motifs which give a broad outline to the poem, one of which rises from earth to heaven, while the other descends from heaven to earth. The first is mainly associated with the psalmist David, who builds a kind of bridge of praise linking the human to the divine. The poem gives a physical impetus to this praise propelling it heavenward. Thus he sings with "voice of heav'n-ascending swell" (1:4), and is pictured later when "up to heav'n his thoughts he pil'd" (29:169). The same rising motif is also noticeably apparent at the beginning of the pillar verses:
The pillars of the Lord are sev'n, Which stand from earth to topmost heav'n; His wisdom drew the plan. (30:175-77)
The rising motif finds its expression primarily in individual lines of text, but because this is a poem which not only discusses David's praise at length but also itself constitutes praise to David in his heavenly "blest mansion," it is an important symbol overall. Taken as a whole, the entire poem embodies this motif. The opposing motif, symbolically representing the movement from the heavenly to the earthly, is the primary structural gesture of the Song to David.
The descending gesture occurs three times in the structure of the Song. The first is in verses 18-26, in which are discussed the subjects David made use of in the psalms. These subjects might be expected to create an impulse heavenward, owing to the nature of praise, but the subjects are listed in descending order: God-angels-man-earth-flora-birds-fishes-beasts-gems. The reason for this is that David's "muse, bright angel of his verse," is pictured as bestowing upon him from above the images that he was to include in his poetry. This muse appears in verse 17, the one preceding this first descending gesture. The pattern will recur, so it should be emphasized: the verse preceding the gesture contains a plain statement about who will be doing the intervening, in this case David's muse. This action constitutes the first of the poem's three heavenly interventions, and the descent of the subjects is its structural symbol.
This section of the poem also contains the first introduction of one of the Masonic symbols that will be used more extensively in the pillar section: Jacob's ladder. In the book of Genesis, Jacob, on his way to Haran to marry, falls asleep on a stone: "Then he dreamed, and beholde, there stode a ladder upon the earth and the top of it reached up to heaven: and lo, the Angels of God went up and down by it (Gen. 28:12). (11) Jacob's ladder by itself can represent both the rising and descending motifs discussed previously, so it is not surprising to find a hint of it in verse 19, naturally the one concerning angels. There is an apt comparison between the formulation "Angels-their ministry and meed, / Which to and fro with blessings speed" (19:109-10) and the passage from Genesis: "and lo, the Angels of God went up and down by it."
Following the passage enumerating the psalm subjects is the second descending structural gesture, contained in the seven pillar verses 31-37. This gesture is both the most pronounced and obscure of the three, so its explanation will proceed slowly, frequently circling back to pick up the added meanings which Smart manages to accumulate along the way. Overall, this gesture symbolizes the descent of God to Mt. Sinai to give the law to Moses, but a complete understanding of the symbols is necessary before that can be explained, so first each symbol will be treated individually. As in the first gesture, this set of symbols represents the descent from heaven by "climbing down" through the series. In this case, the symbols are drawn from the Masonic tradition, and the target of their descent is the inside of Solomon's Temple.
For the first three of the pillar verses the explanation given here will conform in general to that of Odell Shepard and Paul Spencer Wood, who compared the shapes of the Greek alpha, gamma, and eta characters to the compasses, square and Jacob's ladder of the Freemasons. (12) Thus in the first verse we have the Greek letter alpha (A), symbolizing, as do the compasses, God as the Architect of the Universe.
The second verse begins with the letter gamma ([GAMMA]), symbolizing the square. These first two elements, the compasses and the square, are basic symbols of the Masonic fraternity, and have been so since at least Smart's early childhood. (13) The gamma stanza is about "the glorious arch / On which angelic legions march," but in the context of building, the arch is only as stable as the perpendicularity of the supporting pillars to the ground. The connection is made clear in the first line: "Gamma supports the glorious arch." The square is an earthly symbol, but is being used here to represent the vault of heaven. The vault of heaven is analogous in Smart's system of allusion to the covering of a Masonic lodge, which is described as follows by Albert Mackey:
The mere mention of the fact that this covering is figuratively supposed to be "a clouded canopy," or the firmament, on which the host of stars is represented, will be enough to indicate the continued allusion to the symbolism of the world. The lodge, as a representative of the world, is of course supposed to have no other roof than the heavens; and it would scarcely be necessary to enter into any discussion on the subject, were it not that another symbol--the theological ladder is so intimately connected with it, that the one naturally suggests the other. Now, this mystic ladder ... connects the ground floor of the lodge with its roof or covering.... (14)
Mackey was writing a century after Smart, but the covering of the lodge, like the compasses and square, is a symbol dating from the early days of Freemasonry. Likewise the ladder symbol, which was well enough established by the 1760s to be found on most Masonic breast jewels dating from that period. (15)
In Masonry Dissected we find the following catechism, purportedly part of the initiation for the first, or "Entered Apprentice" degree:
Q. What covering have you to a lodge?
A. A clouded canopy of divers Colours. (Or the clouds.) (16)
For most of the eighteenth century the typical meeting place for a Masonic lodge was a tavern, so this catechism was purely symbolic (except to the handful of lodges which did in fact meet outdoors) until physical lodges exclusively devoted to speculative Masonry began to be built later in the century. But the symbol loses nothing thereby in significance. "Thence the fleet clouds are sent adrift" in the gamma verse could thus apply equally well to either the heavens or the covering of the lodge.
According to Mackey, in the imagery of Freemasonry the covering of the lodge is "intimately connected" to the theological ladder (Jacob's ladder). There is also a connection between the ladder and Solomon's temple. In the biblical story of Jacob, after seeing the vision of the ladder, he took a stone and "set it up as a piller" (Gen. 28:18), and not only does this symbolically foreshadow the pillars of the temple, but in one Jewish tradition it took place in the location upon which the temple was eventually built. (17) So it is possible to anchor all of the symbolism thus far in the context of Solomon's temple, the Masonic lodge, or both. By applying the symbolism this way we discover another analogy: David, the architect of the temple, is analogous to God, the Architect of the Universe.
The third verse begins with the letter eta ([H]), symbolizing Jacob's ladder. As has been mentioned previously, this symbol could stand for the entire descent from heaven to earth rather than just an element of it, so it may be significant that Jacob's ladder is most often composed of seven rungs, comparable to the seven pillars and verses of this part of the poem. (18)
After the eta verse previous interpretations of this symbolic progression have generally gone astray, or perhaps the first attempt did and later ones accepted that as evidence that the theory was misguided. Thus the Greek letter theta ([THETA]), which begins the fourth verse, has been interpreted either as the all-seeing eye or the point within a circle, (19) both of which are prominent Masonic symbols. In the system proposed here it still features in Masonic iconography, but it refers more importantly to an architectural feature, the "chapiters" or capitals of the two freestanding pillars which stood in front of the porch of Solomon's temple. Considering the emphasis placed on pillars both in Smart's contents and in verse 30, just before this gesture, it is no surprise to find this symbol in the progression.
There is a detailed description of these chapiters in the first book of Kings. Cast in bronze by head builder Hiram Abif (traditionally, with Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre, one of the three original Grand Masters of Freemasonry), (20) they were described as follows:
And he made two chapiters of molten brasse to set on the toppes of the pillers: the height of one of the chapiters was five cubites, and the height of the other chapiter was five cubites. He made grates like networke, & writhe worke like chaines for the chapiters that were on the toppe of the pillers, even seven for the one chapiter, & seven for the other chapiter. So he made the pillers and two rowes of pomegranates rounde about in the one grate to cover the chapiters that were upon the toppe. And thus did he for the other chapiter. And the chapiters that were on the toppe of the pillers were after lilye worke in the porche, foure cubites. And the chapiters upon the two pillers had also above, over against the bellie within the networke pomegranates: for two hundreth pomegranates were in the two rankes about upon ether of the chapiters. And he set up the pillers in the porch of the Temple. And when he had set up the right piller, he called the name thereof Iachin: and when he had set up the left piller, he called the name thereof Boaz. (1 Kings 7:16-21) There was considerable interest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Solomon's temple and its construction, not just in the realm of Freemasonry. John Bunyan's Solomon's Temple Spiritualiz'd (1688) was devoted to a detailed allegorical description of every aspect of the temple, including of course the pillars, from a Christian perspective. Isaac Newton became interested in the temple in his later years, devoting a large chapter of his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (posthumously published in 1728) to a detailed description, drawn mainly from the book of Ezekiel but attempting to reconcile all of the Old Testament accounts of the design of the temple.
There is little doubt that Smart would have had access to and been interested in both of these books, but neither of them would have provided him with a usable description of the pillars which was less ambiguous than the one in 1 Kings. But another resource would have been easily available to him which contained an illustration detailing the design of the pillars, and that was the Geneva Bible of 1560, from which the biblical quotations in the present article are all drawn. This edition of the Bible was also, probably not coincidentally, of great interest to the early Freemasons. (21) Their interest can be easily understood after a casual glance through the dedicatory epistle to Queen Elizabeth at the front. It extols the virtues of temple building, and then depicts the Queen as "our Zerubbabel for the erecting of this moste excellent Temple," that is the spiritual church of the Protestants in England. Zerubbabel was the builder of the second temple after the Babylonian captivity, and as such was an important figure to the higher degrees of Freemasonry. (22)
The illustration of the pillar in the Geneva Bible (1 Kings 7) depicts the chapiter as a sphere, covered by latticework, with what are apparently roses carved in the lattices. There is a band around the center, above and below which are rows of pomegranates. In this connection it is also interesting that there is a margin note associated with the line "over against the bellie" which reads "Or, rounde about the middes." The sphere in this illustration resembles the Greek letter theta. In many cases these chapiters have been represented differently in Masonic iconography. The pillars are usually freestanding and surmounted by spheres, but they are often representative of the terraqueous globe (earth) and the celestial (stars). (23) Even more frequently they depict the sun and the moon. (24) Both of these further possibilities seem implicit in the rest of this verse:
Next Them stands to the Supreme-Who form'd, in number, sign, and scheme, Th' illustrious lights that are; And one address'd his saffron robe, And one, clad in a silver globe, Held rule with ev'ry star. (34:199-204)
The sun and the moon appear at the end, clad respectively in a "saffron robe" and "silver globe," but "Number, sign, and scheme" refers to the constellations, that is, the sphere of the cosmos. The movement from the earth which is at the base of Jacob's ladder to the chapiter on top of the pillar can also be seen as a kind of visual pun, based on the eighteenth century variations on the design of these chapiters. A symbolic earth, the globe of the chapiter, is substituted for the actual earth, so that the progression of symbols can continue.
Following this interpretation of the theta symbol, the symbolic content of the iota (I) of the next verse is not difficult to ascertain: it is the pillar itself, upon which the chapiter rests. This is made explicit in the second half of the verse:
And foot, and chapitre, and niche, The various histories enrich Of God's recorded works. (35:208-10)
The progression of symbols brings us down into the temple. The order has been architect--vault of heaven--theological ladder--earth/ chapiter--pillar. Whatever symbol comes next, we have conclusively reached the floor.
The letter sigma ([SIGMA]), which begins the fifth verse, is a symbol which is not visually complete, so it may be useful to restate the line from the Jubilate which shows that it need not be: "For the letter [??] which signifies GOD by himself is on the fibre of some leaf in every Tree" (B477). Lamed represents part of a leaf; similarly, sigma represents part of a symbol. The completed symbol is a hexagram, known in Masonic iconography as the blazing star or hexalpha, the symbol which is located in the center of the lodge floor. (25) This is another symbol dating from the earliest days of Freemasonry, as can be ascertained from another of the catechisms in Masonry Dissected:
Q. Have you any furniture in your lodge?
Q. What is it?
A. Mosaick Pavement, Blazing Star and Indented Tarsel.
Q. What are they?
A. Mosaick Pavement the Ground Floor of the Lodge, Blazing Star the Centre, and Indented Tarsel the Border round about it. (26)
The blazing star is sometimes a pentagram, or five-pointed star, and others a hexagram, but in either case it has the letter G in the center, which in the eighteenth century probably stood exclusively for "Geometry," though the meaning has evolved over the years. This fact will become relevant shortly, but for now the significant feature of the blazing star is that Smart is using it, in its six-pointed form, to represent the floor of the lodge. In the context of Solomon's temple, as will be discussed below, the symbol represents Solomon himself. This symbol, perhaps more than any of the others, is enormously rich in meaning. As may be judged from the discussion below, little of this richness escaped Smart's attention when he chose to use it, so it will require a bit more time than the other symbols to fully explore. The hexagram has had a long history in Jewish mysticism, and an even longer one in other mystical systems. Although since the nineteenth century it has been popularly known as the Star of David, for the five or so centuries before that it was primarily known as the Shield of David, and prior to that as the Seal of Solomon. (27) The general meaning given to this symbol in Jewish mysticism is that it represents the "relation between fire and water and between heaven and earth," symbolized by the interlocking triangles, one pointing up, the other down. For Smart the symbol has the capacity, then, to represent the floor of the lodge, Solomon, David, or the heavenly interventions which it has been stated are the symbolic content of the structural gestures under discussion. In the context of the descending progression of symbols, the hexagram represents the lodge floor, or Solomon.
There are two other interesting meanings associated with the six-pointed star. First of all, since at least early Medieval times it has represented the works of creation, so it contains as well one of the overall meanings of the pillar verses, which, as mentioned at the outset, show that "the pillars of knowledge are the monuments of God's works in the first week." Secondly, again in the context of Jewish mysticism, the hexagram has often been used as a magic sign to protect the owner from demons. Its significance is summarized as follows by Gerbern Oegema:
The sign may have represented the good angels, which were thought to be celestial beings. It was sent down from heaven to the mystic on earth, where it provided the owner with protective power over the demons, who endangered his other-worldly journey through the heavenly spheres on his way to the Highest Being. The sign was accompanied with incantations, eulogies, psalms as well as the mystical names of God and the angels. (28)
There are several things about the Song that this description immediately calls to mind. The first is a line in the contents that refers to three verses depicting David playing his harp (verses 27-29). These verses are located between those detailing the psalm subjects, discussed as the first structural gesture, and the pillar verses under discussion. The description reads: "He obtains power over infernal spirits, and the malignity of his enemies." Smart obviously has in mind the story of David playing his harp to make an evil spirit depart from Saul (1 Sam 16:16-21), but there is another sense in which he is thinking of the hexagram.
The name "Shield of David" was current from about the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, but because it has so many apparent meanings one must be cautious in choosing between them. There is a form of the hexagram, however, that is only associated with David, and that is the form containing a harp in its center. (29) So in verse 27, which is the only one of the three to mention infernal spirits, Smart is associating the protective power of the hexagram with the power of music: "When satan with his hand he quell'd, / And in serene suspence he held / The frantic throes of Saul" (27:160-62). As was the case when Smart substituted the globe of the chapiter for the real earth, here he substitutes the harp for the letter G of the Masonic blazing star so that he can direct his sequence to a slightly different place, in this case to the psalms of David.
The passage from Gerbern Oegema's history of the hexagram also provides an image of the good angels sending the symbol down from heaven. This is suggestive of the first structural gesture, in which David's muse provides him with the subjects of his psalms, and which immediately precedes the three verses depicting David obtaining "power over infernal spirits" discussed above. Even more striking is that the "sign was accompanied with incantations, eulogies, psalms as well as the mystical names of God and the angels." It is as though Smart is using the psalms and the hexagram interchangeably; the psalms are discussed, and immediately thereafter David is seen as having obtained power over infernal spirits.
The hexagram was pictured above as "containing" one of the overall meanings of the pillar verses, that of the works of creation. Its in terlocking triangles also "contain" one meaning of the Jacob's ladder symbol, the relationship between heaven and earth. Both symbols in turn "contain" a kind of Christ symbolism, pointed out in a margin note in the Geneva Bible to the Jacob's ladder story. It reads: "Christ is the ladder whereby God and man are ioyned [joined] together, and by whome the Angels ministre unto us: all graces by him are given unto us, & we by him ascende into heaven." (And in light of this "Angels minstre" let us remind ourselves once again of the "Angels--their ministry and meed" from verse 19 of the Song.)
It is interesting to note as well that the blazing star symbol physically contains the first two of the series: it surrounds the letter G as equivalent to the Greek gamma, and is composed of six alphas, hence the Masonic designation "hexalpha." Many previous analyses have noted that this series overall is encapsulated by the alpha and the omega, but here within the series is a resounding example of the same thing which has escaped attention, and in both cases we can clearly see God as the author of this structural gesture. There are still other significant meanings to explore for the hexagram, but for now let us proceed.
One pillar remains, in the verse beginning with omega (). The omega symbolizes what it most resembles, a lyre, the symbol of David the psalmist. As the previous description suggests, this last symbol also works as an addition to the hexagram. If the hexagram is thought of as depicting Solomon, the addition of the lyre clearly makes it a representation of David. It is true that David's instrument was the harp, not the lyre, but the distinction between the two does not figure in the Song to David, in which they are used interchangeably, for example "With harp of high majestic tone" in the first stanza and "To smite the lyre" in the ninth. This interpretation of the omega symbol is given rather explicit voice in the verse which immediately follows it: "O DAVID, scholar of the Lord ... God's harp thy symbol" (38:223-27).
We may now at last return to the idea that this second descending structural gesture symbolizes the descent of God to Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the law. Smart identifies the heavenly Architect as the author of this gesture before it begins, like he did David's muse earlier. Verse 30 proclaims it three times: "The pillars of the Lord are sev'n," "His wisdom drew the plan," and "His WORD accomplish'd the design." But to see that the descent to Mt. Sinai is the specific act of God intended here, it is necessary to leave the lodge behind for a moment and concentrate exclusively on Solomon's temple.
The section of the poem following the pillar verses is Smart's "exercise upon the decalogue," or the Ten Commandments. The tables on which these commandments were inscribed were kept in the ark, which resided in the rear chamber of the temple, known as the Holy of Holies. The complete set of symbols for this gesture therefore can be seen as exceeding the limits of the seven pillar verses. It begins with God and ends at the ark.
But there are three verses which intervene before the Decalogue commences. The first is the omega verse, followed by the verse beginning "O DAVID, scholar of the Lord!" and then one introducing, for the first time, the incarnation of Christ. These three verses constitute a modulation of sorts. They move in one respect into the Holy of Holies where the tables of the law are kept, but because Christ is introduced before the Decalogue, the commandments themselves are altered by his incarnation.
The alteration of the Decalogue constitutes another analogical sleight of hand by Smart, of the type which has by now become familiar. "An exercise upon the decalogue" is Smart's own designation in the contents, but in fact he substitutes Christ's version of the commandments, particularly as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. (30) This can not help but remind us of Smart's psalm translations in which, in his own words, "All things that seem contrary to Christ are omitted, and evangelical matter put in their room." (31) So the purpose of this three verse modulation is to move from Solomon, symbolizing the law, to Christ, embodying the redemption.
This movement is predicted, in a way, by three of the previous symbols, the square and compasses and the hexagram. A French Mason by the name of Berage wrote a treatise in 1766 entitled Les plus secrets Mysteres des Hauts Grades, in which he interprets the square and compasses as symbolizing the union of the Old and New Testament. (32) Such a union is exactly what Smart aims for in his psalm translations, and it is one of the guiding principles of the Song as well, the overall movement of which is illustrated in miniature in these three verses: from God's law to Christ's new covenant.
The hexagram also has additional significance in light of the direction the poem has now taken. Mackey gives two Masonic interpretations. The first is that it represents the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, and as such is symbolic of God. So on the one hand it predicts the upcoming Decalogue. Secondly, though this symbolism was phased out in the middle of the nineteenth century, it used to represent the star of Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. (33) The combination of these two meanings clearly predicts the direction of this transition.
The poem moves from Solomon to Christ by way of David. He is in fact analogous to Christ, the justification for which is given by Smart even before the poem begins, at the end of the contents: "An amplification in five degrees, which is wrought up to this conclusion, That the best poet which ever lived was thought worthy of the highest honour which possibly can be conceived, as the Saviour of the world was ascribed to his house, and called his son in the body." (34) This is of course partially an argument for the validity of poetry in general, and hints that Smart thought of his incarceration, during which he wrote both the Jubilate and the Song, as being partially a result of the undervaluing of his vocation. But more importantly, it is his primary argument for David's character, his response to the debate which at the time was raging over whether David should be seen as a good or bad example. (35) He deflects the question by pointing out that Christ was born into David's house, into the tribe of Judah. That is the essence of God's judgment on David, so mortal arguments are at best beside the point.
Verse 38 mentions David by name. The omega verse preceding it, therefore, according to the detailed design postulated here, should be the transition between Solomon, symbolized by the sigma/hexagram, and David. The vehicle of the transition is David's praise. It is not the earthly David who is invoked, but the David of the first three lines of the Song. "O THOU, that sit'st upon a throne, / With harp of high majestic tone, / To praise the King of kings" (1:1-3). These lines are also the ones, not coincidentally, which refer to Psalm 132. This psalm pictures David on a heavenly throne and makes explicit God's promise to him taken to refer to Christ: "Of the frute of thy bodie wil I set upon thy throne" (Ps. 132:11). This David, enthroned in heaven, is the subject of the omega verse, or rather the praise which occupies him is the subject. It is David who is the "Best man" of verse 4, and who "above the six / The sabbath-day he blest" in verse 11, both of which qualities return here ("OMEGA! GREATEST and the BEST, / Stands sacred to the day of rest").
The movement of this three verse modulation is thus from David's praise, to David himself as Christ's earthly antecedent, to Christ, called the Son of David. The effect of Christ's incarnation on the Decalogue has already been discussed, but it is after the Decalogue, in the final descending structural gesture of the Song, that Christ's redemptive act is actually symbolized. This is the third and most perfect instance of heavenly intervention in the world, and the completion of God's plan. The gesture occurs over the course of twelve verses this time, numbered 52-63.
The way the descent is expressed in these verses is visual. Smart calls this section "an exercise upon the seasons, and the right use of them," and the twelve verses depict the twelve months of the year. The word ADORATION begins in the first line and moves down a line in each successive stanza, ticking off the months as the text depicts the seasons passing.
According to the pattern established by the two earlier gestures, this third one should identify Christ as the protagonist in the immediately preceding verse, as is in fact the case: "With God's good poor, which, last and least / In man's esteem, thou to thy feast, / O blessed bride-groom, bidst" (51:304-6). Because this third gesture is also the first to introduce the passage of time, it is the only one of the three that has the capacity to express Christ entering history.
Before seeking to further establish Christ as the protagonist of the last gesture, it will be useful to momentarily look back at the eta verse in the seven pillar section. One of the slightly disorienting characteristics of this verse is the way the imagery is calcified. Admittedly the predominant image of the section is the pillar, but of the seven this is the one that most emphasizes elements of nature as though they were less than alive:
Eta with living sculpture breathes, With verdant carvings, flow'ry wreathes Of never-wasting bloom; In strong relief his goodly base All instruments of labour grace, The trowel, spade, and loom. (33:193-98)
There are words here to suggest the presence of an incipient life, like "living" and "breathes," but phrases like "never-wasting bloom" make it clear that this is not life represented in its fullness. There is an indirect explanation of this apparent inertia in the new study of Smart by Neil Curry. On the subject of the pillar verses he has this to say: "What these stanzas do not do is bring creation to life for us, but, with the rest of the Song being so abundant in vitality, it might be that Smart was aiming for something different here." In a subsequent chapter on Smart's Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Curry answers his own implied question in an analysis of the hymn on "The Presentation of Christ in the Temple." His comments are worth quoting at length because they bear directly on the Song to David:
Not untypically he avoids the central issue of the festival almost entirely in this hymn and it would seem to have been the idea of the temple itself that first appealed to the Freemason in him. He begins with the building of it from David's plan. It was a magnificent structure capable of accommodating a vast congregation, yet it was not big enough, Smart tells us, to accommodate God himself. That could be achieved only when the Old Covenant of the Law, represented here by Solomon's temple, had been replaced by the New Covenant: the temple of Christ's body and thus the establishment of the Christian Church. As St John had put it, 'he spake of the temple of his body' (2:21). And this is the miracle of the Incarnation: that, while Solomon's temple was not vast enough to contain the immensity of the Godhead, he came to us himself in the body of a child.
This replacement of the Old Covenant by the New is a belief that shaped much of Smart's thinking. It was behind his translation of the Psalms, where 'All things that seem contrary to Christ are omitted, and evangelical matter put in their room.' His whole concept of gratitude is based on his insistence that there are two things for which we should be eternally grateful: the Creation and the Incarnation. (36)
In light of this discussion, the inert quality of the imagery in the seven pillar verses can be clearly seen as an implied description of a hitherto unredeemed creation. God's project has not reached its fulfillment until Christ's incarnation, and as was mentioned above, Christ does not appear in the flesh until verse 39, immediately following the pillars.
For further evidence that the last of the three gestures represents Christ, then, we should look for contrasts to the inertia of the pillar verses. Nor is it necessary to look far; virtually everything in the verses comprising the third descending structural gesture is alive and exuberantly expressing its vitality. Smart believed, unlike some of his predecessors, (37) that it is not only man who is capable of praising God; the entire creation gives glory to God simply by its existence, and the adoration verses may well represent the pinnacle of the expression of that belief. It may be the exclusive province of mankind to sin, but in these verses it is clear that the entire creation comes to life in the fulfillment of the redemption.
There is a sort of reprise in these verses of the symbols of the pillars, but the pillars have figuratively exploded, leaving fragments of the symbols scattered throughout the rest of the poem. This is appropriate, not only because Solomon's temple was destroyed, but because as the hymn on "The Presentation of Christ in the Temple" points out, it was not big enough to contain God in any case. That feat was only to be achieved by the incarnation of Christ. Apropos of this is a summary of the Freemason's symbolic journey by Mackey:
In the masonic system there are two temples; the first temple, in which the degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry are concerned, and the second temple, with which the higher degrees, and especially the Royal Arch, are related. The first temple is symbolic of the present life; the second temple is symbolic of the life to come. The first temple, the present life, must be destroyed; on its foundations the second temple, the life eternal, must be built. (38)
One last significance of the hexagram is also relevant here, if only to emphasize the inexhaustible nature of this symbol for Smart's purposes. It concerns the tradition of the bridegroom breaking a glass at the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Oegema describes it as follows: "The breaking of the glass is probably a very old custom and, apart from its function of deterring the demons ... and of bringing good luck, it is also meant to recall the destruction of the Temple. The happiness of a Jewish couple is not complete, as long as the Temple is destroyed." (39) In Smart's lifetime this custom employed what was known as a "Huppah stone," against which the glass was broken. Engraved on the stone was a hexagram--the Shield of David. So there is a potential meaning (which I promise will be the last for this discussion) in which the Shield of David is explicitly related to the rebuilding of the temple, which for Smart implies the coming of Christ himself.
The symbols are not just in pieces in these verses, but have been transformed, made analogous to elements of the natural world, which Smart uses to symbolize the redemption. What remains is more beautiful than Solomon's temple, and it is presumably organized according to divine, not mortal, principles.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate this natural recapitulation of the pillar symbols. The gamma / vault of heaven symbol, for example, is transformed in verse 57 by clearing the clouds away: "Nor in the pink and mottled vault / Th' opposing spirits tilt" (57:338-39). In verse 60 there is a strong echo of the theta/chapitre symbol: "And, marshall'd in the fenced land, / The peaches and pomegranates stand" (60:358-59). The "fenced land" seems slightly anachronistic in the midst of the natural beauty depicted here, but not when considered as an echo of the lattice work of the chapitre. The return of the omega/harp symbol is the best justification of the metaphor of the explosion of the pillars. The harp has, so to speak, been thrown clear and landed in a tree: "For ADORATION on the strings / The western breezes work their wings, / The captive ear to sooth" (67:397-99). Smart's footnote to this verse specifies the Aeolian harp, which was a popular novelty in his day. It was hung in a tree, and the sound was produced by the wind blowing over the strings.
Now let us re-center ourselves on the proposition: there are three descending structural gestures in the Song. They are three, no doubt, because Smart wanted to associate David's character with the threefold nature of the divine, following his belief that this threefold nature was the image of God in which man was made. (40) But these three gestures do not encompass the entire poem; the thirteen verses at the beginning describing David's character, for example, do not seem to be explained by this structure. It must be apparent by now that Smart was unaccustomed to leaving loose ends, so these verses certainly deserve a closer look.
We have seen that the pillar verses amount to an architectural sketch of the largest chamber of Solomon's temple, as seen through the filter of Masonic symbolism. The Decalogue following is at least a reference to the rear chamber, the Holy of Holies. Assuming that no part of this poem escaped the meticulous organization of the sections which have already been discussed, it is reasonable to assume that the first part of the poem might find its analogue in front of the temple. Preceding the main chamber of the temple was a considerably smaller porch, and in front of the porch a large courtyard. It is this area which is related to the first part of the Song.
There are two large groups of verses preceding the pillar verses. The first group consists of verses 4-16, one verse outlining twelve attributes of David's character, followed by twelve verses expanding upon each of them individually. The second group is the section which has been discussed as the first descending structural gesture, verses 18-26, detailing the subjects David made use of in the psalms. These two sections are analogous to the two large features in front of the porch, the giant basin of water in which the priests purified themselves (the "molten sea"), and the sacrificial altar, respectively.
For the relationship between the molten sea and the attributes of David, we turn again to the Jubilate: "For there be twelve cardinal virtues the gifts of the twelve sons of Jacob" (B601). After this line are twelve others detailing the attributes of each of Jacob's twelve sons, which correspond either exactly or closely to those listed as belonging to David in the Song. And slightly earlier in the poem these same virtues are listed as follows:
For there be twelve cardinal virtues--three to the East--Greatness, Valour, Piety.
For there be three to the West--Goodness, Purity and Sublimity.
For there be three to the North--Meditation, Happiness, Strength.
For there be three to the South--Constancy, Pleasantry and Wisdom. (B355-58)
To connect these to the molten sea we must superimpose the biblical description, which reads as follows:
And he made a molten sea ten cubites wide from brim to brim, round in compasse, and five cubites hie, and a line of thirtie cubites did compasse it about. And under the brim of it were knoppes like wilde cucumers compassing it rounde about, ten in one cubite, compassing the sea rounde about: and the two rowes of knoppes were cast, when it was molten. It stode on twelve bulles, thre loking towarde the North, and thre towarde the West, and thre towarde the South, & three towarde the East: and the sea stode above upon them, & all their hinder partes were inwarde. (1 Kings 7:23-25)
It can be conjectured, therefore, that the twelve "bulles" symbolize Smart's twelve cardinal virtues, the purification of the priests literally and figuratively resting upon them. It is also worth noting that the molten sea resting on its twelve bulls is another of the numerous illustrations in 1 Kings 7 in the Geneva Bible.
This positioning of tribes at the four points of the compass also calls to mind a passage from the book of Numbers, as pointed out by K. M. Rogers. (41) Numbers 2 positions the twelve tribes of Israel, three at each cardinal point, around the tabernacle in the wilderness. The evocation of the tabernacle by these twelve oxen (which of course was the Old Testament's doing, not Smart's) provides an interesting extra overlay of significance to Smart's scheme. If we extrapolate backward, taking the third part of the poem as a symbol of Mackey's "second temple, the life eternal," and the middle part as a clear symbol of Solomon's temple, we can see how the forecourt of the temple in this design also functions as the predecessor of the temple, the tabernacle of Moses. And as might almost go without saying by now, the tabernacle is also the subject of extensive illustrations in the Geneva Bible.
Smart describes the second large group of verses before the pillar section as follows: "He consecrates his genius for consolation and edification." Consecration suggests an altar, and in fact such an image makes perfect sense in the context of these verses. What David offers to God is his praise, a very Christian offering. The Book of Common Prayer makes it clear: "O Lord and heavenly Father, we, thy humble servants, entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." (42) The verses detailing the subjects David made use of in the psalms can therefore be seen as symbolic of the sacrificial altar in front of the temple. Furthermore, it is probably no accident that there are ten verses in this section, because flanking the sacrificial altar were ten lavers "to wash in them & to clense in them that which apperteined to the burnt offrings" (2 Chron. 4:6).
It is now possible to perceive the broader elements of the plan of the Song as conceived by Smart. He was addressing a question about David's character, and the way he did that with the text is more or less clear. But because there are long sections of the poem in which David is not mentioned at all, the structural symbolism actually gives it a continuity not obviously demonstrated by the text. In general, the structure with its three gestures identifies David with the threefold nature of the divine. But more specifically, it associates him with God's plan for the world by overlaying an outline of that plan onto the surface of this poem praising him. In the symbolic structure we see the plan of the temple which could not contain God, followed by the advent of the temple of Christ's body, which could. In the process, the temple built by man is destroyed.
In addition to this Smart fills the poem with symbols, which provide for us a laundry list of the elements he wanted to emphasize. These include, for example, David's praise, the symbolic building of temples, and the giving way of the Old Testament law to the new covenant. But in the end the variety of symbols all point to the same thing: the relationship between heaven and earth, culminating in the incarnation of Christ. The compasses and square outline the dichotomy. The ladder bridges the gap. One chapiter represents the earth, the other the heavens. The pillar is a symbol of God's creation. The hexagram, of course, symbolizes virtually everything, but most importantly the interlocking triangles represent the union of the heavenly, pointing down, and the earthly, pointing up, also a capsule definition of the dual nature of Christ. The addition of the lyre brings us to the title character; God protects and honors David, and David praises God. And Smart praises David: and now, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is it Smart indeed and smart enough to put this amazing and intricate puzzle together.
Astoria, New York
(1) The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, ed. Marcus Walsh and Karina Williamson, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-1996), 2:128. This edition of Smart is cited hereafter by fragment, verse, and line number.
(2) Odell Shepard and Paul Spencer Wood, eds., English Prose and Poetry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), 1020 n. 578, line 175.
(3) See, for example, Christopher Devlin, Poor Kit Smart (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961), 140-49.
(4) Poetical Works, 4: 478.
(5) Bernard E. Jones, Freemason's Guide and Compendium, rev. ed. (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2006), 244.
(7) Albert G. Mackey, An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences: Comprising the Whole Range of Arts, Sciences and Literature As Connected with the Institution, ed. Charles T. McClenachan (Philadelphia, 1887), 804. Mackey states: "Of all the objects which constitute the Masonic science of symbolism, the most important, the most cherished by Masons, and by far the most significant, is the Temple of Jerusalem."
(8) See, for example, Marcus Walsh, "'Community of Mind': Christopher Smart and the Poetics of Allusion," and Betty Rizzo, "Christopher Smart's Poetics," in Christopher Smart and the Enlightenment, ed. Clement Hawes (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), 29-46, 121-34.
(9) This idea has been previously mentioned, in the case of the first quotation, by Christopher M. Dennis, "A Structural Conceit in Smart's Song to David," RES, New Series 29, no. 115 (1978): 263.
(10) Quoted by Mario Livio in The Golden Ratio (New York: Broadway Books, 2002), 10.
(11) All biblical quotations are taken from the Geneva Bible of 1560: The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament (Geneva, 1560). Chapter and verse are given in the text.
(12) Shepard and Wood, English Prose and Poetry, 1020 n. 578, line 175.
(13) Samuel Pilchard, Masonry Dissected: Being a Universal and Genuine Description of All Its Branches from the Original to this Present Time, 2d ed. (London, 1730), 13.
(14) Albert G. Mackey, The Symbolism of Freemasonry (New York, 1869), 117-18.
(15) Jones, Freemason's Guide, 469.
(16) Prichard, Masonry Dissected, 13.
(17) Mackey, Encyclopaedia, 374.
(18) Jones, Freemason's Guide, 405.
(19) See, for example, Marie Roberts, British Poets and Secret Societies (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 37.
(20) Mackey, Encyclopaedia, 798.
(21) Jones, Freemason's Guide, 199, 297, 357.
(22) Ibid, 513.
(23) See, for example, the illustration of the Craft apron in Angel Millar, Freemasonry: A History (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2005), 20.
(24) Batty Langley, The Builder's Jewel: or, The Youth's Instructor, and Workman's Remembrancer (London, 1754), frontispiece.
(25) Jones, Freemason's Guide, 519; William Hutchinson, The Spirit of Masonry, ed. George Oliver (London, 1843), 121-22.
(26) Prichard, Masonry Dissected, 13.
(27) Gerbern S. Oegema, The History of the Shield of David: The Birth of a Symbol in Realms of Judaism, vol. 62, ed. Johann Maier (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996), 13 nl.
(28) Ibid., 22, 128, 64.
(29) Ibid., 176, plate 20, 185, plate 29. Both illustrations come from the seventeenth-century Jewish community in Amsterdam.
(30) Poetical Works, 2:104.
(31) Ibid., 3:4.
(32) Mackey, Encyclopaedia, 736. Mackey claims to have never seen this interpretation anywhere else, but given that Berage was Smart's contemporary and that the idea is a perfect fit for Smart's system, it is offered provisionally.
(33) Mackey, Encyclopaedia, 116.
(34) Poetical Works, 2:128.
(35) Moira Dearnley, The Poetry of Christopher Smart (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), 169-76.
(36) Neil Curry, Christopher Smart (London: Northcote, 2005), 63, 84.
(37) Chris Mounsey, Christopher Smart: Clown of God (Lewisburg: Bucknell U. Press, 2001), 211-12.
(38) Mackey, Symbolism of Freemasonry, 298.
(39) Oegema, Shield of David, 93.
(40) For an explanation of this belief and its sources, see Poetical Works, 2:93-97.
(41) K.M. Rogers, "The Pillars of the Lord: Some Sources of 'A Song to David'," PQ 40 (1961): 532.
(42) The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, According to the Use of the Church of England (London, 1760), Tlr.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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