Crown My Head with Ample Square-Cap

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart

Thursday

I dedicate today’s post to my seniors, who will graduate on Saturday. My mother alerted me to Christopher Smart’s “On Taking a Bachelor’s Degree,” which is perfect for the occasion.

Smart, who attended Cambridge in the 1740s, writes his poem in imitation of a Horatian ode (Book iii, Ode 30). Horace is beating his own drum in the lyric but is doing so, I think, with his tongue firmly in cheek. Smart writes his imitation in the same manner as he talks about the glories of his own graduation.

An imitation, like a parody, is enhanced if you know the original. Smart’s readers would have known Horace’s ode and appreciated Smart’s witty allusions to it. In the original, Horace’s “monument” is his collection of odes:

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze
and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids,
that which neither devouring rain, nor the unrestrained North Wind
may be able to destroy nor the immeasurable
succession of years and the flight of time.
I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me
will evade Libitina [Goddess of Death]; continually I,
newly arisen, may be strengthened with ensuing praise so long
as the high priest climbs the Capitoline with the silent maiden [a vestal virgin].
It may be said that where the raging Aufidus roars
and where, short of water, Daunus ruled his rustic people,
powerful from a humble birth, I first brought Aeolian verse
to Italian measures.  Assume the arrogance
sought for by those who have a claim to recognition,
and with the Delphian laurel,
Melpomene [Muse of Poetry], willingly crown my head.

Horace hides, through hyperbolic self-praise, the fact that he’s actually serious. In his defense, I think it may well be the case that his magnificent odes will outlast the pyramids.

And now here’s Smart similarly patting himself on the back for having graduated (he feels higher than King’s Chapel). If Horace’s name will outlast the pyramids, so his own name will remain recorded forever in the matriculation lists—or at least will do so if envious mice don’t devour those lists. I don’t know the identity of Smart’s friend Banks, but I like to think that Smart is demanding congratulations for having risen to a Banks challenge:

On Taking a Bachelor’s Degree

By Christopher Smart

In allusion to Horace, Book iii, Ode 30

Exegi monumentum aere perennius, &c.
[I have created a monument more lasting than bronze, etc.]  

‘Tis done: — I tow’r to that degree,
And catch such heav’nly fire,
That HORACE ne’er could rant like me,
Nor is King’s-chapel higher.
My name in sure recording page
Shall time itself o’erpow’r,
If no rude mice with envious rage
The buttery books devour.
A title too, with added grace,
My name shall now attend,
Till to the church with silent pace
A nymph and priest ascend.
Ev’n in the schools I now rejoice,
Where late I shook with fear,
Nor heed the Moderator’s voice
Loud thund’ring in my ear.
Then with Æolian flute I blow
A soft Italian lay,
Or where Cam’s scanty waters flow,
Releas’d from lectures, stray.
Meanwhile, friend Banks, my merits claim
Their just reward from you,
For HORACE bids us challenge fame,
When once that fame’s our due.
Invest me with a graduate’s gown,
Midst shouts of all beholders,
My head with ample square-cap crown,
And deck with hood my shoulders.

I like the image of Smart released from lectures and playing a flute on the banks of the Cam river since my own students spend “senior week” lounging on the banks of the St. Mary’s River. And yes, there will be a lot of shouting Saturday as they process across the stage with their graduate gowns, their hoods, and their square-capped crowns.

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