Portrait from Pembroke College

Interesting Literature has an interesting analysis of Christopher Smart’s poem, “My Cat Jeoffry”. Claims for this as the best cat poem in the English language are hard for me to judge, not being a cat fan.

Christopher Smart, a contemporary of Pope and Johnson, is a bit of a shadowy presence in the literary pantheon. For years I would try to track down the out-of-print Penguin Selected Smart, but could never catch up with an undamaged copy of it. My search ended however when I entered into the world of print on demand at Oxford University Press, where they (of course) publish a six-volume scholarly edition of Smart’s Poetical Works, ideal material for a print-on-demand program.

For the avid reader working on print on demand, one of the joys of the system is that once you have received a copy of a POD book from the manufacturer — and we’d always check a sample when we first set up a book for POD — there’s nothing you can do with it other than throw it away or take it home. This is because print on demand books are, as their name implies, not printed until someone demands a copy. When an order is received there’s no mechanism for hesitating and looking around to check whether or not we might have a copy lurking in stock — a print on demand title is by definition not in stock. The computer is programmed to respond to an order for a POD book from anyone anywhere by instructing the manufacturer to print one and send it off direct to that customer. Thus it is that I have copies of the POD versions of first two volumes of the Smart works — which at this stage of my life is frankly enough.

Christopher Smart was born at Shipbourne in Kent in 1722 into a relatively prosperous family. In 1733 when his father died he was sent to grammar school in Durham to enjoy “the advantages of  a good school, change of air to strengthen a weakly frame, and the notice and protection of his Father’s relations”. Six years later he went up to Pembroke College in Cambridge, becoming a Fellow in 1745. In 1747 drink and extravagant living brought him to the brink of disaster, and he had to be rescued from arrest for debt by a subscription among the Fellows of the College. He had to resign his Fellowship in 1753 after his marriage. Already in 1747 he was spending most of his time in London trying to break into the literary world and indulging in a bit more roistering.  From 1757 till 1763 he was confined to a couple of “madhouses” where he wrote “Jubilate Agno”. It seems that the major symptom of his illness was a compulsion to pray in public. Samuel Johnson testifies “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place . . . He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else”. After his release Smart wrote vigorously, was arrested and imprisoned for debt at fairly regular intervals, and eventually died at the age of 49 in 1771.

“My Cat Jeoffry” is actually part of a longer poem, “Jubilate Agno” which occupies the entirety of Volume One of the OUP edition. Jeoffry occupies 74 lines out of a total of 1737. “Jubilate Agno” is the only major part of Smart’s work which survives in manuscript, now being housed at Harvard. It was not published in his lifetime, seeing the light of day first in 1939 in an edition by W. F. Skeat* under the title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam. The Jeoffry section of “Jubilate Agno” falls about half way through the surviving bits of the work and begins:

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 forepaws 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 forepaws 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.

Christopher Smart has been compared to William Blake (“Jubilate Agno” is his prophetic  book), and Interesting Literature sees him as a precursor of Walt Whitman. The incantatory, psalm-like direct delivery, with lines of varying length do indeed point in that direction. The work contains invocatory lines beginning “Let” and response-like lines of comment starting “For”. The only two lines in the whole work which don’t start with either “Let” or “For” are the first two, which begin “Rejoice” and “Nations”. Here’s a sample couplet with a local interest:

Let Arodi rejoice with the Royston Crow, there is a society of them at Trumpington and Cambridge.

For I bless the Lord Jesus from the bottom of Royston Cave to the top of King’s Chapel.

Arodi, the son of Gad, appears in Genesis 46:16 on the list of those who went into Egypt. The Royston Crow, apart no doubt from living at Royston, a town about 15 miles south of Cambridge, is apparently the hooded crow, what we in the Borders would call the hoodie craw. (The cave is in the middle of town beneath the crossroads of two ancient routes, Ermine Street and the Icknield Way.) A large number of lines like this invoking birds of various breeds are followed by more with fishes, then flowers. Insects and other creatures are interspersed from time to time. In truth “Jubilate Agno” is an odd work. Because it is unfinished, we really have no idea how Smart might have seen its final structure, but even if he had reworked it fully I suspect we’d still be puzzling over it. It would seem to me probable though that “My Cat Jeoffry” is not really an intentional poem. It’s more like a found poem, consisting of a list of “For” lines waiting for some “Let” lines to fill it out I suspect.

William Butler Yeats, in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936 (thus pre-“Jubliate Agno”) describes Smart’s “A Song to David” as the first poem of the Romantic period. Donald Davie has suggested that he might be “the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth”. Christopher Smart, in his youth “the pride of Cambridge”, then later “poor Smart the mad poet”, is now being recognized as the poetic innovator that he actually was.

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* Clearly chosen by destiny for this task. Line 206 of Fragment B starts “Let Nicanor rejoice with the Skeat”. (Here skeat does however indicate the fish which we’d designate skate.)