“I do not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen, and I have no passion for it.” — Dr. Johnson
Christopher Smart, born on this day in 1722, spent over 10 years of his life locked up in mental institutions (a kind term for what such establishments were back then). He seemed to suffer from some sort of religious ecstasy (although “suffering” is not the right word at all). He was overcome by the love of God. It made him tremble with happiness. To quote my Dad, “I see no problem.”
Smart was born in Kent, and after his father’s death when he was 11, he was taken under the wing of the Vane family (his father had been a steward at their home). The Vanes made sure he went to college, Pembroke. He became friends with Alexander Pope, and also somehow became acquainted with Dr. Johnson. He had problems right off the bat with drinking and money, irresponsible with both. He was arrested in 1747 for not paying his debts. He needed to make a living. He moved to London. He worked as an editor. He got married. In 1756 he was sent to an insane asylum and he stayed locked up until 1763. His wife left him during his incarceration, but in general he had not alienated his friends, and most stood by him, trying to help him out, financially or otherwise (he had two children by that point).
While he was in the asylum, he wrote A Song to David. It was published the year of his release. You can see in it Smart’s essential qualities, one of which is a love of lists – lists/outlines seemed to organize his high-flying rapturous thought processes. He can’t BEAR how much he has to say about David, and so he tries to break it down, break David down into the essences, which takes the form of a list. Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on. Smart’s language is startling, right off the bat. There is energy in the language. He is not lost in quiet contemplation. He is right up against it: he needs URGENTLY to speak.
Robert Graves wrote:
Christopher Smart wrote A Song to David in a lunatic asylum, and when his collected poems were published in 1791, it was omitted as ‘not acceptable to the reader’. This poem is formally addressed to David – Smart knew that he was no madder than King David had been, and a tradition survives that he scrabbled the verses with a key on the wall of his cell.
Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:
However [Song to David] was written, they remain a wonder and a mystery, begotten of the Bible, of broad and deep learning, and of some catalyst that made a confusion that poet resolved, against chaos as it were, to put in some sort of order.
For the word of God is a sword on my side – no matter what other weapon a stick or a straw.
For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath marked me for his own.
For I bless God the Postmaster general & all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen & Shelvock.
For my grounds in New Canaan shall infinitely compensate for the flats & maynes of Staindrop Moore.
For the praise of God can give to a mute faith the notes of a nightingale.
Is it nonsense? Yes. Is it nonsense? No.
Northrop Frye wrote:
“[Alexander] Pope’s ‘Messiah’ is not musical, but Smart’s ‘Song to David’, with its pounding thematic words and the fortissimo explosion of its coda, is a musical tour de force.”
He died in 1771. His life was chaotic, to some degree, but his confinement was almost a blessing in that it allowed him the space to write without the pressure of having to make a living by it (a struggle for most writers). I am hesitant of making a blessing out of madness – even when some good art comes out of it. Anyone who has experienced madness to any degree will know that nobody would ever choose it. But madness does have its compensations. You’re not supposed to say that, but it’s the truth. As Dr. Johnson’s quote that opens this post suggests: Smart’s madness was benign. It didn’t cause him agony. He wanted to praise God. He would fall to his knees in the middle of public squares, lost in the rapture of God’s love. Well, I’ve seen such people all over New York. Perhaps a bit annoying if you are trying to walk down that sidewalk, but other than that, what’s the harm?
Michael Schmidt wrote in Lives of the Poets about how Smart’s desire to praise God helped form his poetry:
Smart’s originality is the product not of a candid, puzzled, anxious personality like William Cowper’s, nor the lucid, nostalgic and humane sensibility of a Goldsmith. It’s the product of a distinctly poetic imagination, using that term in a classical sense. Smart seldom composes verse: he is a poet rare in any age, most rare in the eighteenth century, a spiritual enthusiast and a consummate verbal artist. He might resemble Blake, only he has greater formal tact, a better ear, a better (that is, a less didactic) nature. His poems exist to celebrate God, not to cajole, instruct and persuade us.
In his most famous poem, the one most often quoted today, Christopher Smart sat and watched his cat Jeoffry stretching and playing in the sun, and became overwhelmed by God’s nearness and presence, obvious to him in every ripple of muscle in the cat’s body. The poem that resulted from his awe-struck observations is one of my favorites of all time: “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]”.
Christopher Smart’s influence was quite local during his own time, but he has easily crossed the centuries following his death, and new generations of readers continue to discover his wonderful work. Allen Ginsberg spoke of him as a huge influence. In Smart’s poem about his cat Jeoffry, you can almost feel Christopher Smart “rapping” about the cat, riffing … a la the Beats of the 40s and 50s, with complete confidence in what Ginsberg, centuries later, would call “first thought best thought”. I don’t believe that first thought is always best thought. Sometimes “first thought” needs to go through an editing process. But Smart’s sound – a voice murmuring over and over, turning around and around the same topic – can be heard in poets centuries later.
Smart’s lines don’t look like other poet’s lines (at least not in the 18th century). His lines look like the lines from poets in the mid-20th century. He often begins all lines with the same word, giving the verse an incantatory feel. His lines are long and conversational, they look like the lines of “Howl”.
Donald Davie writes:
It is not impossible that when Smart is judged over the whole range of his various productions – conventional in form as well as unconventional, light and even ribald as well as devotional, urbane or tender as well as sublime – he will be thought of as the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth.
Schmidt addresses the whole madness issue in his section on Smart:
We readily assume that he wrote in madness, that what he wrote, in its forms and themes, partakes of his derangement. Or we divide the work into sane and “insane” and judge the parts by distinct criteria. But his madness can be seen not so much as a disorder as alternative order, his religious vision not as eccentric but as direct, comprehensive. To say an artist is “mad” is to say very little. What matters is what he makes of language. Smart makes passionate poetry…
He is not an imitator even in his translations, which hold the original in a form and language that make no concessions. He feels and conveys the force of the poetry he admires. His intution is attuned to a broad tradition, not caught in the rut of convention. Marcus Walsh calls Smart’s mature style “mannered, religiose and self-conscious” – and each becomes a positive critical term, for together they produce a “homogenous” style that “unifies” – the crucial word – “a number of divergent influences”. It is the paradoxical combination of influences, biblical and classical, and the disruptions his imagination registers, that make him outstanding and eccentric. Learning and accidents of biography delver him from the bondage of Augustan convention into the sometimes anarchic, vertiginous freedom of Jubliate Agno and the originality of the Song to David. He has few heirs.
And about his “cat poem”:
First of all, check out this gorgeous post.
Second of all: Living as I do with a furry purry beast, Christopher Smart’s lines often come to mind when I watch her behavior. Certain things she will do will remind me of this or that line of his long poem, and it makes me laugh. I think of that 18th-century kitty cat named Jeoffry, and I love that the world may change, technology may change, but cats never change.
Illustrations of some of the lines of Smart’s poem, starring my cat Hope.
For she can creep
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For she is tenacious of her point.
For every house is incomplete without her and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For she purrs in thankfulness, when God tells her she’s a good Cat
For she is the tribe of the Tiger
For she can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For she counteracts the powers of darkness by her electrical skin and glaring eyes.
And here is the long-awaited Cat Poem. It still has the power to move me. It is a prayer of thankfulness that cats exist, that Jeoffry is there with him in the asylum, to be contemplated, to be treasured.
For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry
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.
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 a 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 incomplete 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 forepaws of any quadruped.
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 complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
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 afraid 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 stroking 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, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.