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Kit Smart and his cat ‘surpassing in beauty’

by
13 November 2020

Institutionalised with his cat, Jeoffry, Christopher Smart wrote Jubilate Agno to entreat creation to praise God, writes Oliver Soden

pembroke college, cambridge

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart

IT WAS a period of enlightenment when it came to the private care of the mentally disturbed, whether at Chelsea or Bethnal Green. The private institution to which Jeoffry had been carried did not fit the standard conception of a Hogarthian 18th-century madhouse, with crowds of passers-by jeering through spyholes at naked lunatics sprawling and yelling amid filth and dysentery.

Jeoffry found himself in a room that did not smell of kindness, but nor did it smell of cruelty. Further scents carried on dusty sunbeams through an open door, promised at least a scrap of the outside world, to be explored by cat and poet alike.

Nevertheless, as he snuffled his way around the grubby skirting boards and sought out the best hiding places, Jeoffry discovered the iron rings at the four corners of the simple bedstead, startlingly cold to the touch, even on this muggy summer’s day, and he scratched tentatively at the pungent leather straps that were threaded through them.

The Madhouse Act of 1774, which set out a legal framework for the regulation of insane asylums, would come too late for Jeoffry and Christopher Smart.

Yet Smart sat for now unchained, and the greatest indication of the kindness of the regime was exhibited, first, in the toleration of the cat (nobody would make a move to take Jeoffry away from Smart over the years of their incarceration), and, second, in the large sheets of paper that lay on the small wooden table by the window next to Smart’s wig stand, two or three jars of ink, a pile of white quill pens, and a small rosewood pounce pot full of a fine powder that he would sprinkle across the page to dry his glistening script, as if seasoning food.

Smart had begun to write his masterpiece earlier that year. Not for some weeks would Jeoffry become confident enough to leap up and on to the table, but soon he would scatter pawfuls of muddy prints across a pile of papers, each covered in Smart’s elegant tiny italics, the handwriting bearing very few signs of anything resembling mental disturbance: there are few corrections or blots or wayward curlicues.
The long tendrils of verse, 80 to a page, lay ordered and level in their serried ranks of devotion. The poem’s title was an instruction, an imperative: Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”).

And the poem itself is obedient to its own title, being a long hymn of praise to Smart’s God, gathering up in its capacious embrace the wonders of the natural world, and extolling them to worship the Lord.

Could Jeoffry have read, he would have made out the opening sentences:
 

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory
to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature,
in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and
magnify his name together.
 

AND SO they do. Jeoffry settled himself on to the cool comfort of the paper and curled up amid many hundreds of lines in which biblical figures are combined with animals of every kind in order to praise the Lord: “Let Abraham present a Ram . . . Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar . . . Let Gideon bless with the Panther . . . Let Job bless with the Worm,” and so on.

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Like most visions, it hovers on the border between the absurd and the sublime; it is hard to tell whether the poem is in a state of ecstasy or banging its head against the wall.

In a second section, Smart continued the pattern — “Let Elizur rejoice with the Partridge . . . Let Helon rejoice with the Woodpecker” — but introduced an answering line, each beginning with the word “For”, in which his own life began to intrude. The two sides of the poem start to sing antiphonally, like two choirs calling and responding to one another across the nave of St Paul’s:
 

Let Elizur rejoice with the Partridge, who is a
prisoner of state and is proud of his keepers.
For I am not without authority in my jeopardy,
which I derive inevitably from the glory of
the name of the Lord. [. . .]

Let Peter rejoice with the moon fish who
keeps up the life in the waters by night.
For I pray the Lord JESUS that cured the
LUNATICK to be merciful to all my brethren and sisters in these houses.

And, leaping noisily out at Jeoffry’s biographer:

Let Shephatiah rejoice with the little Owl,
which is the winged Cat.
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in
beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless
Almighty God.
 

At certain moments, the “Let” sections of the poem give out, leaving only the “For”, and, eventually, in the summer of 1760, Smart would devote many of them to the long and oft-anthologised description of his cat, entranced and entrancing: “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry . . .”

 

ANOTHOLOGISING and excerpting can play strange tricks on the reader, carving lines from a larger whole, and implying importance where none was intended.

Examining the manuscript of Jubilate Agno, of which only fragments survive, it is quite a shock to see Jeoffry’s portrait creep up on the reader, beginning mid-page, with no pause or fanfare, after a sequence of extended wordplay on the word “bull”.

It should be remembered too that the lines about Jeoffry (“For . . . For . . . For . . .”) were presumably linked with an additional sequence (“Let . . . Let . . . Let . . .”), now lost, and that this most famous of all poems may in reality be only one side of an intricate ribcage of verse.
The section about Jeoffry ends with a shrug — “For he can creep” — that appears at the very bottom of a page whose immediate successors are now lost; Smart may have written more about his cat than we know.

Speedily, Jubilate Agno had made clear what Smart thought of cats: “Let Anna bless God with the Cat, who is worthy to be presented before the throne of grace, when he has trampled upon the idol in his prank.”

In the book of Baruch (not, in most Protestant forms of Christianity, considered part of the Bible) the Babylonian idols are held in contempt by “bats, swallows, and birds, and the cats also”. Certainly Jeoffry, as Smart was soon to discover, was not one for either idleness or idolatry.

And so, as the cat and the poet got used to their shared existence in their four-walled world, Smart continued writing his great poem. For him, the act of writing was itself a form of worship, and Jeoffry would watch him occasionally fall to his knees as he began to write.

The verse (of which more than 1700 lines survive) is whimsical in its ecstasy, and ecstatic in its whimsy: a paean of praise, but also a kind of almanac, a journal of Smart’s incarceration, as he added three or so lines each day.

Soon, political leaders of the time, along with members of Smart’s estranged family, or names from the obituary lists, even the local postman, begin to parade through the lines.

Insects crawl around the verbs and birds soar above adjectives. Mythical creatures jostle alongside explications and criticisms of the scientific theories of Mr Newton or Mr Locke.

Gemstones are invoked in praise of the Lord. (Towering above Jeoffry on Smart’s writing desk was a pile of books that kept the poet company over those many years, and whose deliciously musty smell, of grass and vanilla, wriggled in the cat’s nose: a King James Bible on top of a Latin thesaurus; a guide for London pharmacists written in Latin; a history of plants; and a gardener’s dictionary.)

Smart’s poem twists and knots the language into puns and double meanings and new meanings, as if even wordplay were an exemplar of inclusivity: all definitions, as they crowd within a single word, are welcome to praise the Lord. Jubilate Agno is a magnificat, a song of praise by all creation to glorify God; and it would not take long for Jeoffry to become Christopher Smart’s magnifi-cat.

As when in a painting the viewer suddenly glimpses an image of the artist himself reflected in a mirror, Smart suddenly heaves into view, in sad and self-aware glimpses of his solitary journey to the Kingdom of heaven:

“For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.” And his life in the madhouse is sometimes clearly on view: “For they pass by me in their tour, and the good Samaritan is not yet come.”

It was an almost pagan Bacchanalia of words, writhing and whirling in praise of the Christian deity, with Jeoffry himself leading the worshipful dance to the music of insanity, the curiously ordered verse of mental disorder, the sad and the joyful sound of a supposedly unsound mind.

 

This is an edited extract from Jeoffry: The Poet’s Cat by Oliver Soden, published by the History Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30).

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