Jubilant Christopher Smart
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him (Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno). Image: Cat in Wells, Howard Maunders, Beautiful Britain
You either walk away from Christopher Smart or, like me, are drawn deep into his life.
In the eyes of his father-in-law and wife, who committed him to an insane asylum, Christopher Smart was embarrassing. He had no head for business, he was extravagant and he was far too enthusiastic about God. In the eyes of his friends, including Dr Johnson, Smart was a scholar and genius, a friend and writer, witty, extravagantly generous, childlike in joy and fragile in health with a golden-haired wife who detested literature and despised him.
'The way to Paradise'
Born in 1722, Christopher Smart wandered the meadows, brooks and hills of his father's small estate until, when he was eleven, his father died 'in embarrassed circumstances'. Lack of embarrassment over bankruptcy seems to be a modern attitude, but when he grew up, Christopher Smart may have shared it.
The house was sold, and Smart went to live with an uncle. There he found another natural Paradise, fell in love at age thirteen and wrote his first verse -
Happy verses! that were pressed
In fair Ethelinda's breast!
Happy Muse, that didst embrace
The sweet the heav'nly-fragrant place!
Tell me, is the omen true,
Shall the bard arrive there too? . . .
'An Eagle Confined in a College-Court'
In fact the young bard arrived at Cambridge. He won scholarships and prizes and "seemed to be on course for a steady university career" (Oxford DNB). Unfortunately he felt like 'an Eagle Confined in a College-Court’.
He began spending time in London, in the company of actors, artists, and musicians. His poems were set to music for London pleasure gardens - William Boyce composed the music for 'Idleness'. He began to drink and spend money. In 1747 when he was 25, he had to go into hiding to avoid arrest for debts. He was briefly reinstalled at university when his college fellows paid tradesmen the money he owed, but soon after Smart left Cambridge for good.
A stroke of insight
The next ten years saw him marry and become the affectionate father of two daughters. He wrote poetry, prize-winning theological essays, the complete translation of Horace's works (a standard schoolbook for two centuries), pieces for magazines, songs and skits for variety shows and rafts of hack work for his father-in-law, a publisher. But Smart could not make ends meet. His wife attacked him for irresponsibility while his health began to break from overwork.
Around the age of thirty-three, he became ill almost to death -
. . .death stood o'er me with his threa'ning lance. . .reason left me in the time of need. . .sense was lost in terror or in trance, my sinking soul was with my blood inflam'd. . .
His near-death experience was followed by a vision of Christ - 'glow, glow, my soul, with pure seraphic fire'. In his regret for past follies he reawakened to faith and spiritual values, and was united with his childhood's love of nature.
He appears to have had what neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor called 'a stroke of insight'. After she experienced the stroke that almost killed her, she woke to the oneness, love and beauty of creation.
Smart took from his experience a simple instruction - 'To love, to praise, to bless, to wonder and adore'. Incensed by his public loving, praising and blessing, his wife and father-in-law had him committed to an asylum.
In Bedlam with his cat
Surrounded by the insane, who constantly mocked him, stared at by gawkers and with almost no privacy, Smart at first had only his cat Jeoffry for comfort and company. Eventually he was allowed to work in the garden, read books and newspapers, write and receive visits from friends, including Dr Johnson and David Garrick.
I should add that he had his faith, which was comfort and consolation and inspiration to him, as it has been to many thousands who have been and who are in prison. With the insight of faith he saw all Earth in the light of the Creator God.
In the asylum Smart wrote Jubilate Agno. It is a strange, original and brilliant work which disappeared for almost two hundred years until it was discovered in a private library in 1939. It has found many modern appreciators, including Benjamin Britten, who set it to music. Smart filled Jubilate with detail about animals in praise of the Creator God and asked for mercy 'for all my brethren and sisters in these houses'.
He also inserted an ode to his cat, now its most famous and popular section -
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually - Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
'The hope of his pilgrimage'
His wife had moved to Dublin and had sent their children to school in France. His friends sprang Smart from the asylum by the simple expedient of taking him out to dinner and not returning him. Once released, his output was "prodigious" (DNB). He wrote librettos, A Song to David and the Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Fasts and Festivals of the Church of England. But nothing he did made money, and he was committed to prison for debt. He was not unhappy. He remained jubilant.
Friends gave him money for food and for the 'Rules' (freedom to walk in St George's Fields). While in prison he wrote Hymns for the Amusement of Children, including one which begged for their kindness to animals. He died in 1771, either of liver failure or pneumonia, at the age of forty-nine.
For a man cannot have publick spirit, who is void of private benevolence.
. . . God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.