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In the language of the heart

23 September 2022

Sister Teresa describes the contemporary resonances that she finds in the poetry of Christopher Smart

The History Collection/Alamy

“Pembroke” portrait of Christopher Smart (1722-71)

“Pembroke” portrait of Christopher Smart (1722-71)

For the flowers are great blessings. . .
For there is a language of flowers.
For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.

from “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart


CHRISTOPHER SMART’s words “The flowers are great blessings” seem to find an echo in many hearts.

In recent days, ever since we heard the news of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II, thousands of bouquets have been laid outside royal resi­d­ences all over the country. This is evidence of the human im­­pulse to bring flowers when some­one we love has died; for there is indeed “a language of flowers”. Beautiful, yet fragile, ephemeral, their wordless poetry speaks of the grief of parting, of gentle remem­brance, of love and gratitude.

This year marks the 300th anni­versary of the birth of Smart in Shipbourne, Kent. I knew nothing about him until, many years ago, my sister Gabrielle sent me a recording of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Rejoice in the Lamb. I loved it: the élan of the music seemed perfectly to match the spirit of the poem. Fascinated by the excerpts from “Jubilate Agno” which Britten had chosen, I looked up the poet and discovered that he was a complex character.

When he was a young man — a brilliant Classics student at Pem­broke College, Cambridge — Smart’s published works included poems in English and Latin, essays, articles, and short stories. We don’t know whether there were, even then, signs of the “madness” that would soon cast a shadow over his literary repu­tation, but, in time, his eccentric behaviour meant that his work was widely dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic, and he was forced to spend eight years of his life in mental asylums in London. From then on, he concentrated on religious poetry.

Sadly, his recurrent drunken bouts and extravagant lifestyle eventually led to the breakdown of his family, and Smart ended up in the Marshalsea, the notorious Lon­don debtors’ prison, where he died in 1771, aged 49.

AN EXCEPTIONALLY fervent Chris­tian (it is thought that he con­sid­ered ordination), Smart had a strong desire to follow St Paul’s ad­­vice “Pray without ceasing.”

A contem­porary, Samuel Johnson, put it this way: “He [Smart] showed the dis­­turb­ance of his mind by fall­ing upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.” But Johnson did not con­demn him for this; after all, he said, “his infirmities were not nox­i­ous to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

Other poets, of Smart’s own time and later, admired his work, seeing it as original and visionary; some, in­­cluding Robert Browning, even con­sidered his mental condition to be the source of his genius, and saw him as anticipating William Blake and John Clare.

SMART’s openness to the trans­cendent is evident in his long poem “Jubilate Agno”, at least part of which was written while he was “in jeopardy” at St Luke’s Mental Hos­pital. He saw God as the great Poet — “the artist inimitable” — who used language to create the universe; and he believed that the part played by the human poet was to affirm the reality of God’s spirit in creation. Hence, for him, poetry was revel­atory and creative; and “Jubilate Agno” is a vibrant example of his desire to develop a poetic language that gives utterance to what is silently and eternally present at the heart of things.

The natural world, Smart be­­lieved, is constantly praising God, but nature needs a poet to give voice to this praise. So, in the manner of the Benedicite (the “Song of the Three Young Men” in the book of Daniel), he invites “every creature, in which is the breath of life” to give glory to God and the Lamb, using their different “tongues”. Humans, animals, and all living things are summoned to praise God: “Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.”

As God’s scribe, the poet puts into words the divine poem, which is true and eternal, and he makes God’s melody audible, a melody that “is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul”.

IN THE light of the ecological chal­lenges that face us today, the proph­etic message of “Jubilate Agno” has a distinctly contemporary rele­vance.

The poet takes it for granted that we relate to God, who is at the heart of things, not only personally, in dir­ect dialogue and prayer, but also through the medium of the natural world. All beings are caught up in the web of life; for the root and core of existence is relationship. When we look deeply into created things — when we really “see” them — we become aware of the radiance of God shining in them.

Smart seems to echo St Bonaventure, who says: “Open your eyes, there­fore; alert the ears of your spirit, unlock your lips, and apply your heart, that you may see, hear, praise, love and adore, magnify and honour your God in every creature…” (Itinerarium, 1,15).

The poet sees flowers, trees, plants, non-human animals, as God’s cherished handiwork; as valuable in themselves, not simply as accessories to the human story. God’s living Spirit dwells in the works of creation, and in them and through them God blesses us. Christopher Smart’s psalmic verses remind us that creation is God’s love made manifest: in all its magnifi­cence and mystery, the universe is a gift that comes to us from “the heart of God”.

Our instinct to lay flowers in remembrance is a reflection of that. As another poet, William Words­worth, puts it:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Sister Teresa White is a member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.

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